The NFL seasons kicks off in 24 hours, and Richard Moore is on hand with his full preview.
Mile High magic or Raven’s repeat? That will be the question on every fans lips as last season’s defending Champions travel to mile high to take on a team they so famously disposed of in dramatic fashion, on their way to claiming the Lombardi Trophy for a second time.
With memories of Joe Flacco’s 70-yard touchdown pass sailing over the flailing arms of Safety Raheem Moore and landing into the grateful clutches of Jacoby Jones, still fresh in the minds of many a Bronco fan eight months on, Denver will be boiling for revenge and a chance to lay down a marker for the rest of the AFC in the process.
A reality not lost on Raven’s coach John Harbaugh who said via the Ravens official website "I've got a pretty good feeling that the Broncos fans are going to make us remember (and) think about everything that they want to. We know the environment we're going into. It will be the same environment, or even tougher, than the one that we faced in January. And we're excited about that."
As for Denver, the man seen by many as the catalyst that ultimately sparked Baltimore’s march to the promise land - the aforementioned Mr Moore, was understandably keen to downplay the significance of events last January, instead electing to focus attention on the possibilities afforded by the new season:
"It's not about me. It's about the team,'' Moore said. "We all suffered. But the good thing about it is it's a whole new year. Nobody remembers what you did last year.''
Win on Thursday night, and it will go some way to erasing the past, but as to how much stake it holds in the future, only time will tell…
One thing’s for certain, the uniforms may appear the same, but the personnel will look very different to the ones that took to the field at Mile High on that bitterly cold evening eight months ago, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a team that’s undergone as bigger transition post Super Bowl run as John Harbaugh’s crew. Nine of the twenty-two starters from that glorious night in New Orleans, are either unsigned or no longer in the building.
Gone are the redoubtable Ray Lewis (41.5 sacks and 30 interceptions) and Ed Reed (retired, and departed via free agency respectively), Dannell Ellerbe defected to Miami via free agency, as did pass rusher Paul Kruger (Cleveland), and Flacco lost his safety valve Anquan Boldin to the team Baltimore beat to the Lombardi trophy - San Francisco (Figure that one out if you will?); placing an even greater burden on the shoulders of Torrey Smith and the running game.
That being said, before anyone sends the grim reaper into M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore did snag one of the best pass rushers in the business from tomorrow night’s opponents in Denver’s Elvis Dumervil (54 tackles, 6 forced fumbles, and 11 sacks), before restoring the nucleus of the unit via the draft by acquiring Notre Dame’s defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore, Missouri South defensive tackle Brandon Williams, and Ohio State's John Simon. Whether or not this newly reconfigured unit can provide the cohesiveness in the 3-4 scheme to help the Ravens mount a sustained challenge will be open to question.
However, one rookie in particular, linebacker Author Brown (drafted from Kansas State), has stated that despite the inevitable challenges provided by shifting from a 4-3 at collegic level to a 3-4 in the NFL, shouldn’t pose too much of a problem ‘I’m not as familiar with the 3-4 as I am the 4-3 because that is what we played at Kansas State,” Brown said. ‘I’m confident in the preparation. (The 3-4 scheme) is new and different, but I’m able to do it’. An assertion ably supported by the multiple defensive functions offered up by the Ravens atypical use of the 3-4 system.
In a standard 3-4 scheme, Brown would be asked to take on more big-bodied guards, which could be a challenge for his 6-foot-0, 242-pound frame. They would have more of a free release towards Brown. But since the Ravens often roll more defenders to the line of scrimmage - an option afforded by the versatility of outside linebacker Terrell Suggs - those larger bodied guards will have to go negate the considerable presence of Haloti Ngata and another defensive tackle such as Terrence Cody or Brandon Williams (mentioned previously), to get to Brown.
That should allow Brown, who is suited more for the ‘WILL’ inside linebacker spot, to show his range and athleticism and flow to the ball. Even if Brown does have to take on more blockers inside, his speed should be a difference-maker. Brown has Dannell Ellerbe like athleticism that should allow him to escape bigger blockers and hit gaps.
One thing’s for sure, regardless of the many challenges created and faced by transition, Baltimore will be well drilled on both sides of the ball to be a legitimate threat, but as to how much of a threat they will be, the coming weeks and months will tell us much.
If the changes in Baltimore could be described as seismic, Denver’s would barely even register on the Richter scale, as things appear rather serene by comparison.
With the addition of Wes Welker (New England’s most targeted receiver with 170 receptions through 2012-13), and Wisconsin’s Montee Ball via the draft, (one of the most coveted backs in April's Draft), Peyton Manning not only has the slot receiver that’s he’s been crying out for, but Denver have created what looks like an effective one-two punch via the ground game, courtesy of Ball’s partnership with Knowshon Moreno.
Throw the ever improving Eric Decker (13 touchdowns, one more than both Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith combined) and Demaryius Thomas (10 touchdowns, 2 less than Boldin and Smith combined) into the mix, and Denver give themselves every chance of significantly improving upon last year’s exit at the divisional round of the play-offs.
However, with Von Millers six-game suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance enhancing drugs, and Elvis Dumervil’s defection to tomorrow night’s opponents, questions may be asked of Denver’s capacity to mount a sustained challenge themselves. But with two of Denver's six games during Miller's suspension taking the form of home clashes against Jacksonville and Oakland, and four of the six games being at Mile High, the Broncos may have enough in the locker to effectively offset the loss of a player that chalked up 18.5 sacks, the third most in the league last season. Although, you have to wonder how much 35-year-old Champ Bailey has left in those aging limbs…
In summary, despite the respective comings and goings, both teams appear quite evenly matched, at least from a statistical standpoint. For instance, both Denver and Baltimore were averaging over three hundred yards-per-game (Denver posting 397.9 to Baltimore’s 352.5), both posted over one hundred yards rushing (this time Baltimore had the edge, just. Compiling 118.8-yards-per-game to Denver’s 114.5), although there was a sizable differential in third down conversion, with the Broncos outperforming the Raven’s 45.1% to 36.9%, thus creating a difference of 8.2%.
On the other side of the ball, things were again, reasonably close. Denver may have allowed considerably less in terms of total yards per game (290.8 compared to 350.9), and rush yards per game (91.1 compared to 122.8), but the two teams weren’t exactly poles apart as far as points-per-game were concerned, with Denver shipping 18.1 to Baltimore’s 21.5 (a difference of 3.4, thus further illustrating the closeness in comparison).
Regardless, the game isn’t played on a stats sheet and with Baltimore very much in the embryonic stage of what may (or may not) be a sizable transitional phase; especially on the defensive side of the ball, Denver may have the edge owing much to a significantly stronger running game, and an even greater arsenal through which Manning can spread the field. However, it will be intriguing to see how the previously mentioned absence of Von Miller and the departed Dumervil will affect proceedings, not only tomorrow night, but in the ensuing weeks.
The Ravens may have guaranteed continuity by tying Flacco to a long-term contract, but without the security afforded by Boldin, Ray Rice and Bernard Piece may be stretched as never before, what with the added attention given to Smith in the absence of the departed Boldin. Dallas Clark and Brandon Stokley - last year on the Broncos - may bring plenty of experience with them, but with their rapidly advancing age (34 and 37 respectively) you have to wonder if they’re aging bodies would stand up to the demands of a long and gruelling season; especially in the event of repeated use.
With taking all the aforementioned into consideration, I feel that Denver may have too much for the visitors, and though it will be a typically hard fought encounter, the Broncos greater offensive firepower will be the difference in this one.
Predicted score: Broncos 27 - 23 Ravens.
image: © Iswiecicki