The defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens kick off defense of their title and the 2013 NFL regular season by renewing acquaintances with the Denver Broncos at 8:30 p.m. ET tonight on NBC. A scheduling conflict with the Orioles forced the Ravens to open their season on the road, but it’s only fitting that their first game takes place at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
After all, Baltimore’s improbable 38-35 double overtime victory over Denver in the AFC Divisional Round was the game that simultaneously sparked the Ravens’ magical playoff run and shockingly ended the Broncos’ promising season. Baltimore may be the current holder of the Lombardi Trophy, but this Ravens team looks a lot different than the one that won Super Bowl XLVII in February. Denver has made some personnel changes as well, but it’s the Bronco who won’t be on the field tonight that could have the biggest impact on the outcome.
Five Things to Watch
Baltimore debuts “new” defense
Ray Lewis. Ed Reed. Bernard Pollard. Cary Williams. Dannell Ellerbe. Ma’ake Kemoeatu. They are the answers to the question – “How many defensive starters from the Ravens’ Super Bowl win are no longer with the team?” Baltimore will field six new starters on defense and while the likes of linebacker and former Bronco Elvis Dumervil, free safety Michael Huff and defensive end Chris Canty aren’t exactly no-names, the fact remains this unit lost a lot of talent and, perhaps more importantly, experience. Drawing Peyton Manning and company for an opening assignment certainly doesn’t help the transition either.
The Von Miller effect
Denver’s defense will have to make do without the services of Miller, the Broncos’ All-Pro linebacker who was second in Defensive Player of the Year voting to J.J. Watt last season. Miller is suspended for the first six games and his presence on the field will be sorely missed. This is especially the case for Denver’s pass rush, as Miller finished third in the NFL with 18.5 sacks last season. The Broncos upgraded their defensive line and secondary through free agency and the draft, and these two units will both need to step up right out of the gate to help offset Miller’s absence.
The Broncos’ Three Horsemen
At first glance this might refer to Peyton Manning’s new three-headed monster at wide receiver — Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and new Bronco Wes Welker. But in this case, the reference is for the Broncos’ trio at running back. First-round pick Montee Ball has generated most of the headlines and attention during training camp, but veterans Ronnie Hillman and Knowshon Moreno certainly can’t be ignored. Whether one of these guys takes the lead or new offensive coordinator Adam Gase goes with the committee approach, the Broncos need to establish some sort of running game. Denver averaged a meager three yards per carry on 41 attempts in the playoff loss to Baltimore, which makes it harder for Manning to utilize the play-action game. This also was one of the reasons why the Broncos were just 7-for-16 in third-down conversions in that heart-breaking defeat.
Ravens take flight?
Besides the changes on defense, Joe Flacco will be without two familiar targets to throw to in 2013. Wide receiver Anquan Boldin was traded to San Francisco in March and tight end Dennis Pitta dislocated his hip during training camp and most likely won’t play this season. These two combined for 126 receptions for 1,590 yards and 11 touchdowns last season or 38 percent of the Ravens’ receptions, 40 percent of their passing yards and half of Flacco’s touchdown passes in 2012. Not only do wide receiver Jacoby Jones and tight end Ed Dickson have some big shoes to fill, but fellow wideout Torrey Smith also needs to step up and establish himself as more than just a deep threat. Smith averaged an impressive 17.4 yards per reception last season, but he was fourth on the team with only 49 catches.
Championship hangover vs. revenge factor
It’s a shame that some sort of compromise couldn’t be worked out between the Orioles and Ravens so the defending Super Bowl champions could open their season at home. Now Baltimore not only has to hit the road, it has to break in all of its new pieces in one of the NFL’s loudest home environments. Then there are the Broncos, who would like nothing more than to hang an L on the champs, especially given what took place in January.
Baltimore Key Player: Elvis Dumervil, LB
If there’s any Raven who has been chomping at the bit for this game it is Dumervil. The former Bronco was released by the team in March following a bizarre set of occurrences and ended up signing with the Ravens as a free agent. The plan is for Dumervil to team with Terrell Suggs to provide consistent pressure from both edges. One way to slow down Peyton Manning and the Broncos’ passing attack is to make him uncomfortable in the pocket. You know Dumervil would love to get Manning down on the turf a time or two.
Denver Key Player: Manny Ramirez, C
An offensive lineman may not be considered a critical piece by many, but it is when it’s the guy tasked with getting the ball into the hands of Peyton Manning. Ramirez isn’t a rookie as he has already played in 35 games in five seasons including 11 starts at right guard for Denver last season. However, he will be making his NFL debut at center tonight because the Broncos have already lost two centers to injuries. Projected starter Dan Koppen tore his ACL and is out for the season and backup J.D. Walton was placed on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list after undergoing multiple ankle surgeries in the offseason. The Broncos have turned the job over to Ramirez and it will be up to him to get the offense off on the right foot by not only making sure Manning gets the football in his hands, but when No. 18 wants it too.
Give the NFL credit for this much: it sure knows how to kick off a season. The rematch between Baltimore and Denver is a fitting season opener as the defending world champs return to the scene of last season’s signature playoff victory. Much has changed for both teams since that Jan. 12 AFC Divisional Round matchup, however, as the Ravens have rebuilt their defense and the Broncos gave Peyton Manning more offensive weapons.
The Ravens are still good enough to compete with pretty much any other team, but the Broncos have too much firepower for John Harbaugh’s new-look defense to contain. While Denver’s defense will miss Von Miller’s pass-rushing presence, the unit makes enough stops to allow Manning and company to take care of the rest. Don’t worry Rahim Moore, this game won’t come down to a last-minute, “Hail Mary” pass.
Denver 31, Baltimore 20