Ravens (2-1) at Broncos (3-0)
When: 2:25 p.m., Sunday.
Where: Empower Field at Mile High.
Radio/TV: 850 AM, 94.1 FM/KCNC-4.
Weather: Mix of sunshine and clouds, with high of 68 degrees and 23% chance of rain.
Broncos-Ravens series: Broncos are 6-6 in 12 games; Ravens won 27-14 in last meeting, on Sept. 23, 2018, in Baltimore.
ILB Justin Strnad versus TE Mark Andrews
In his second NFL start in place of the injured Josey Jewell, Justin Strnad has a tall task in containing All-Pro tight end Mark Andrews.
While the Broncos will surely play lots of zone coverage to help keep dual-threat quarterback Lamar Jackson in check, when in man, the athletic and lanky 6-foot-3 Strnad will be tasked with covering Andrews.
Andrews has 13 catches for 186 yards this year for a 14.3-yard average, but no touchdowns yet. Over his four-year career, Andrews has racked up 2,291 yards receiving and 20 touchdowns.
“He’s a really good receiver as tight ends go,” Broncos coach Vic Fangio said. “He can really run for a guy his size (at 6-5, 256) and he’s got good hands and a good catch radius. I think Jackson’s got good (chemistry) with him, too. He likes throwing to him. He’s a big part of their offense and they told you that with the contract (extension) they gave him recently.”
Fangio believes Strnad will be up to the task, noting he’s “just going to get better and better” despite there being obvious room for improvement following Denver’s Week 3 thrashing of the Jets.
“Every rep a young player gets is like a deposit in the bank, and he continued to draw on it,” Fangio said. “He’s basically a rookie because he didn’t do anything last year for us (due to a wrist injury)… He’s missed some tackles that we have to clean up and not miss those — those are near and dear to our heart. I’m confident he’ll keep improving.”
Andrews will present Strnad with a litmus test to see where the young linebacker is at in his game. But Broncos tight end Noah Fant, who attended the “Tight End U” positional summit with Andrews this summer, is confident Strand and the rest of the Broncos defense will be up to the task.
“I’m excited to see what he does against our defense,” Fant said. “I’ve said this multiple times — I think our defense is one of the best in the league, so it’s going to be cool to see what he does and see how our defense guards him, reacts to him.”
Who has the edge?
Teddy Bridgewater has been consistent with completion rate of 76.8% and 77.8 QBR. Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson, the 2019 NFL MVP, is among the league’s most dynamic playmakers. He’s dealing with a back flare-up, but containing him will still be tough. Edge: Even
Melvin Gordon “isn’t satisfied” with the way he, Javonte Williams and the Broncos run game have performed. Denver may be without its two starting guards. And with Jackson and tailback Ty’Son Williams leading the way, the Ravens boast the NFL’s top run game. Edge: Ravens
The Broncos are down two starting WRs in Jerry Jeudy (high ankle sprain) and KJ Hamler (torn ACL, out for the year). Courtland Sutton and Tim Patrick must carry the load. The Ravens feature Marquise Brown, Sammy Watkins and tight end Mark Andrews. Edge: Even
With right guard Graham Glasgow (knee) and left guard Dalton Risner (foot) banged up, Netani Muti and Quinn Meinerz may both have to step up. Baltimore is anchored by tackle Alejandro Villanueva, who hasn’t missed a game in his entire seven-year career. Edge: Ravens
Baltimore’s defensive line is anchored by Denver South graduate (and future Pro Football Hall of Famer?) Calais Campbell. Ex-Bronco Derek Wolfe has yet to play in 2021 due to injury. And the Broncos’ front, featuring run-stuffing nose Mike Purcell, is stout. Edge: Even
Justin Strnad has been impactful in Josey Jewell’s place at ILB. And even without Bradley Chubb (ankle), Von Miller (four sacks) has been the Vonster of old. The Ravens get veteran Justin Houston back after missing last week on the COVID/reserve list. Edge: Even
The Broncos’ secondary has looked been unflappable so far, and has two picks in each of the past two games. Rookie Pat Surtain II is coming into his own. Meanwhile, cornerback Marlon Humphrey and the Baltimore secondary has been getting torched. Edge: Broncos
Brandon McManus has been money, but Sam Martin ranks 25th at 42.2 yards/punt. And the Broncos kickoff coverage has been bad (41.4 yards/return, ranks last). Justin Tucker, coming off a record 66-yarder to win last week, is by far the league’s best kicker. Edge: Ravens
By the numbers
+50 — The point differential in Denver’s 3-0 start, the fifth-highest total in team history through the first three games of a season.
23rd — Von Miller’s ranking on the NFL’s all-time sack list after starting with four sacks this year. Miller leads all active players with 110 career sacks.
14.5 — Tim Patrick’s average yards per catch on a dozen receptions so far, leading the Broncos and ranking 23rd in the league.
9-for-9 — Brandon McManus has yet to miss a field goal this season, and that pushed him back into first place as the Broncos’ all-time most accurate kicker. McManus’ career rate of 83.2% is a hair better than Matt Prater (82.9%).
0 — The number of interceptions Teddy Bridgewater has thrown, a marked improvement over the same period in 2020 when Denver quarterbacks had three picks.
Line: Broncos -1
This is a coin-flip game in the eyes of the bookies, and rightfully so. The Ravens have a swell of momentum coming in thanks to dramatic wins over the Chiefs and Lions, while the Broncos finally have a September to feel good about for the first time in several years. Sunday’s outcome will likely come down to the final couple of possessions, and if the Broncos take care of the football on offense and limit Lamar Jackson on defense, they should be in position to cover the tight spread in front of the raucous home crowd to improve to 4-0.
Prop bet: 44 total points (minus-110)
Bet the under. In a packed, noisy stadium featuring two above-grade defenses — even despite the deficiencies of the Ravens’ secondary — this isn’t going to be a shootout. There will be touchdowns scored, and there will be momentum swings, but the end of the game will cinch up and turnovers will likely play a role in keeping the game under 44 total points.
Fantasy play: Broncos quarterback Teddy Bridgewater
The Broncos’ first three opponents all stacked the box against the Denver running game, hence just one 100-yard rushing performance from the combination of Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams (via Gordon in Week 1 against the Giants). Expect Baltimore to do the same, especially considering the injuries to the Broncos’ O-line. That’s going to again open the passing game up for Bridgewater against a weak Baltimore secondary, and Bridgewater has mismatches at wideout and tight end (Noah Fant, Albert Okwuegbunam).
Mark Kiszla, columnist: Broncos 24, Ravens 23
I’d like to tell you I have a clue which team will win this game. But the quarter I tossed landed “tails,” so Denver is my pick. Can the Broncos make Lamar Jackson one dimensional? Eliminate his chunk plays? I dunno. Neither do the Broncos.
Will the real Denver Broncos please stand up? After cruising through their first three cupcakes, that’s what the Broncos do Sunday with a statement win over Baltimore. Justin Simmons’ late INT seals it.
Ryan O’Halloran, beat writer: Broncos 20, Ravens 14
Trailing with five minutes remaining, Teddy Bridgewater leads a 65-yard drive capped by his 4-yard touchdown pass to Courtland Sutton, leading the Broncos to a 4-0 start for the first time since 2016.
Sean Keeler, columnist: Broncos 23, Ravens 21
Vic Fangio hasn’t faced Lamar Jackson, head-to-head, but the man was 2-0 lifetime as an NFL defensive coordinator against Michael Vick. Thanks to Mile High Magic and a Brandon McManus field goal (or two), the Broncos pass 2021′s first real test.