Steve Smith Sr. against Aqib Talib is grabbing all the headlines, but the best matchup in the Ravens' game Sunday against Denver is Gary Kubiak against Dean Pees.
The Ravens have tried to downplay going against their former offensive coordinator-turned-head coach, but Pees hasn't. It isn't about revenge or a grudge match, it's about respect.
Players from both teams will say the game will be decided on tackling, hustle and big plays, but it also comes down to putting players in the right position at the right time to make those plays.
Few do it better than both Kubiak and Pees.
"Oh, there are certain guys that you love going against, certain guys that you want to compete against," said Pees, the Ravens defensive coordinator since 2012. "Gary is one of those guys."
Coaches thrive on games like these because it's a chess match, a game within the game. When Cam Cameron became the Ravens offensive coordinator in 2008, one of the most excited coaches at The Castle was then-Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan.
It was a new and tough challenge that Ryan took personally heading into training camp. With Pees and Kubiak, you have two of the best in the league at drawing up the X's and O's. Pees has already met with Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco to discuss Kubiak, who became the Broncos head coach in January.
"We've already talked," said Flacco on Wednesday of his meeting with Pees. "We talked about stuff [Kubiak] would call in certain situations, like what he liked on third down inside the red zones. 'Does he like go routes? On the 25 and it's third down, what does he like to do?'
"He asked me what gives us problems because it might give them the same problems. 'What gaps do we struggle as far as pass protection?' He wanted to know about issues and tendencies. Dean already has watched film and he knows them, but everyone wants more of an edge."
Kubiak's specialty is offense, which means he'll have heavy influence in the play calling. A year ago, Kubiak produced a Pro Bowl running back in Justin Forsett (1,266 yards on 235 carries) and Flacco had career highs in passing yards (3,986) and touchdown passes (27).
But what impressed Pees the most about Kubiak wasn't his version of the West Coast offense, but his style. Kubiak came in with his own coaches and had total autonomy over the offense.
"He is very thorough and has a great scheme, a guy who has been a coordinator for a long, long time," Pees said. "I always respected him, knew a lot about him when he was in Houston, but after he got here, we became really good friends. I respected the way he conducted himself, the confidence he had in what he was doing and how it was going to get done. There was no wavering."
"I knew then he was going to be a head coach again, I just didn't think it was going to be against us the first day of the season," said Pees, laughing.
Unlike other coaches, Pees admits he kept a few mental notes on Kubiak lodged in the back of his head because he knew they would be competing against each other again on Sunday afternoons.
Some things about his offense won't change in Denver. His version of the West Coast offense relies on a strong running game and features a lot of outside zone and cut blocking. The Broncos throw a lot of short passes, and quarterback Peyton Manning is hard to get to because he also has one of the quickest releases in the game.
That's only part of the challenge. The other is that Kubiak has an obvious advantage because he has first-hand knowledge of the Ravens' personnel.
"You could say he has the advantage against us because he was here with us last year," Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith said. "We know what he runs. [It] still comes down to the players on Sunday — who's going to compete the hardest and who's going to come out with the victory."
That's true in a sense, but there will be some differences. Kubiak has better-skilled players in Denver than in Baltimore. Besides Manning, Denver has two top-notch receivers in Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. Tight end Owen Daniels, who started for the Ravens last year, now starts for the Broncos.
"He'll have some of the same tendencies, but with coordinators in this league, it's about window dressing," Ravens cornerback Kyle Arrington said. "They'll give you different looks, but it's the same play. It's a different team and a different year, so things will be different in a sense. The key for us is how well and how fast we can adapt."
Said Ravens linebacker Darryl Smith: "As far as Denver, you've got to stop the run and for that to happen, you have to tackle well. But it's not just against the run, but against the pass, too. They are going to throw a lot of short passes but you have to bring them down immediately after the catch."
That's the physical part. The mental part involves Pees. He gets to match wits against an old friend.
"It's hard to be vanilla, you can't play the same thing all game long," said Pees. "You've just got to keep it coming, keep mixing it up because that's what they do on offense. He [Kubiak] is really good at what he does, and that's a challenge."
One that Pees looks forward to against an old friend.