Baltimore Sun reporter Jeff Zrebiec breaks down the offense, defense, special teams and intangibles heading into the Ravens' game against the Broncos in Denver.
RAVENS: The Ravens ran a vanilla offense in the preseason, so Marc Trestman's impact was hard to define. However, expect Joe Flacco to get Steve Smith involved in the game early, use Justin Forsett out of the backfield and establish tight ends Crockett Gillmore and Maxx Williams as pass-catching threats. With Breshad Perriman out, the Ravens lack a deep threat to stretch the field. Offensive tackles Eugene Monroe and Rick Wagner will have their hands full blocking Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware.
BRONCOS: All eyes will be on quarterback Peyton Manning as he starts his 18th NFL season and adapts to Gary Kubiak's offense. Manning has thrown 94 touchdown passes over the past two seasons, the most in NFL history over a two-year span. While the Broncos offense under Kubiak will have a different look, Manning has his top two receivers back in Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. Rookie Ty Sambrailo will start at left tackle with Ryan Clady out. He'll see plenty of Terrell Suggs. (EDGE: BRONCOS)
RAVENS: For the first time in team history, the Ravens return the entire starting offensive line, which bodes well for Forsett to build off his breakout 2014 season, during which he rushed for 1,266 yards and eight touchdowns. Trestman has been criticized in the past for getting pass-happy, but that shouldn't be a concern early as the Ravens will try to establish their running game. With Lorenzo Taliaferro sidelined, Buck Allen likely will be Forsett's primary backup. Allen averaged just 2.5 yards per carry in the preseason.
BRONCOS: C.J. Anderson was a revelation last season with 849 rushing yards and eight touchdowns, numbers that earned him a Pro Bowl berth. Seven of those touchdowns came in December. Anderson, Ronnie Hillman and Juwan Thompson could all get opportunities under Kubiak, who has presided over success on the ground everywhere he's been. Louis Vasquez and Evan Mathis give the Broncos one of the best guard duos in the league. (EDGE: RAVENS)
RAVENS: Longtime defensive line stalwart Haloti Ngata is gone and his replacement, Timmy Jernigan, is dealing with a knee injury, but the Ravens feel they have enough depth to maintain a dominant run defense. The Ravens haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher in 26 straight games, the NFL's longest active streak. Nose tackle Brandon Williams, who will anchor the run defense, needs to win his matchup against young Broncos center Matt Paradis. Rookie Carl Davis would start if Jernigan cannot play.
BRONCOS: The Broncos had one of the top run defenses in the league last year, holding opponents to 79.8 yards per game on the ground. That was the second-lowest total in the NFL. Defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, one of the key cogs in that unit, left in free agency but the Broncos still have Sylvester Williams and Malik Jackson inside, and two active inside linebackers in Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan. Marshall had a team-leading 110 tackles last season. (EDGE: EVEN)
RAVENS: The Ravens have their fingers crossed that top cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb stay healthy and new safety Kendrick Lewis improves the communication on the back end. The play of the secondary was uneven in the preseason, but defensive coordinator Dean Pees now has more options at his disposal. Fre-agent acquisition Kyle Arrington will be tested in the slot by Emmanuel Sanders. Outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil have to make Peyton Manning uncomfortable.
BRONCOS: New coordinator Wade Phillips inherits a defense that ranked third in the NFL last year and returns a ton of talent. Both Denver cornerbacks — Aqib Talib and Chris Harris — made the Pro Bowl last year, as did outside linebackers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, one of the best pass-rushing duos in the league. Pro Bowl safety T.J. Ward will serve a one-game suspension Sunday. David Bruton Jr. will replace him, lining up alongside former Ravens safety Darian Stewart (EDGE: BRONCOS)
RAVENS: The Ravens' three-man kicking battery of kicker Justin Tucker, punter Sam Koch and long snapper Morgan Cox is back, as are the team's core special teamers, such as Albert McClellan, Zachary Orr and Anthony Levine. Special teams should again be a strength if the team can find a reliable return man. Michael Campanaro (River Hill) is expected to get the majority of return chances, but there might be few in the opener because Broncos kicker Brandon McManus was fourth in the NFL in touchback percentage last year.
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BRONCOS: Seeking to get the ball into one of his top playmaker's hands more often, Kubiak has installed Sanders as his punt returner. Omar Bolden is the primary kick returner. Denver's coverage teams struggled at times last season, allowing 25.9 yards per kickoff return and 11.2 per punt return. Brandon McManus beat Connor Barth for the kicking job. He was 9-for-13 on field-goal attempts last season. (EDGE: RAVENS)
RAVENS: Coach John Harbaugh remarked last week that as tough as it is to play in Denver, his team feels comfortable anywhere. Having won playoff games in some of the league's toughest venues, including Denver, the Ravens should feel that way. Under Harbaugh, they are 17-7 in September games, the NFL's best record during that month. However, a poor preseason and some injuries could make it tough for the Ravens to get off to a fast start.
BRONCOS: The Broncos have one of the best home-field advantages in the league. They went 8-0 at Sports Authority Field at Mile High last season, and they have the best home record in the league since 1975. They've won 14 of their past 15 home openers, a record that includes a 49-27 beat-down of the Ravens to begin the 2013 season. One of Kubiak's charges will be to instill more discipline. The Broncos were among the league leaders in penalties last year. (EDGE: BRONCOS)
PREDICTION: A good argument can be made that this is the Ravens' toughest challenge of the regular season. They are facing a really talented team in a place where the Broncos rarely lose. Manning is healthy and fresh, and has had weeks to prepare. The Broncos badly want to get the Kubiak era started on the right note. When the Ravens get healthier and get a few of their offensive weapons back, they'll be in much better position to win a game like this. But right now, after a sluggish and injury-filled preseason, this task looks too great even for a team that thrives on challenges like this. Broncos, 27-17