The Ravens are considered a quality opponent and the Broncos have largely been unable to beat quality opponents this season. The game will also have an impact on the way the two teams are seeded in the playoffs.
Baltimore’s defense seemed to get old overnight, and the offense was sputtering so severely that offensive coordinator Cam Cameron was fired this week and replaced with Jim Caldwell. The Broncos are facing the Ravens at the right time, but they are still playing in Baltimore, which has been a notoriously tough place to play over the last few years.
The Ravens (9-4) have lost games this season to the Houston Texans, Pittsburgh Steelers, Washington Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles, and only one loss has been at home—and that was a three-point setback to the Pittsburgh Steelers on a last-second field goal.
The Ravens might be a flawed team, but they are tough to beat at home.
When the Broncos Have the Ball
Peyton Manning versus the Ravens secondary seems like a mismatch. The Ravens have allowed 246.3 yards per game passing and interceptions haven’t been plentiful. The Ravens have an average pass rush and have held opposing quarterbacks to an average completion percentage.
Just about everything about Baltimore’s pass defense is average except their ability to limit touchdowns. The Ravens have allowed a league-low number of touchdown passes. Manning should be able to get yardage through the air, but he could have some trouble getting the ball into the end zone.
The reason for this comes down to the zone coverage that the Ravens deploy. Take this play last week on which the Redskins completed a pass against Baltimore’s Cover 2 defense.
Santana Moss ran across the field, cutting through the middle of Baltimore’s defense. The play-action sucked up the linebackers and gave Moss plenty of room. Cornerback Cary Williams abandons his zone to trail his receiver into the deep zone, and it’s his zone that Moss runs into to make the catch.
Williams is the only player in position to stop Moss once he catches the pass, but he ran himself way out of the play. When things are more condensed in the red zone, the Ravens are able to do a better job because opposing offenses can’t clear out zones with deep routes and the seams between them are smaller.
Similarly, when the Ravens used Cover 3 the Redskins were able to find a seam between the dropping linebacker and the cornerback.
The linebacker Jameel McClain was looking right at Leonard Hankerson coming into that deep zone, but he continued to drop into coverage instead of moving toward the wide receiver. McClain is late to get his head around and Griffin drops the pass in between McClain and Reed playing the deep middle.
Once these zones condense in the red zone, the Ravens are much more difficult defense to beat. The Broncos should exploit these zones and then rely on Demaryius Thomas to uses his abilities after the catch to get the ball into the end zone.
If the Broncos find themselves in the red zone needing to score, they Manning will have to trust his big receivers to catch fades over Baltimore’s defenders. The Broncos will also be able to turn and hand the ball to Knowshon Moreno because the Ravens have allowed 12 rushing touchdowns this season.
When the Ravens Have the Ball
The Ravens are going to try and get the ball to Ray Rice more in this game. There’s no secret to stopping the run, but when the Broncos are in their base defense the pressure will be on Keith Brooking to shed blocks and make solid tackles.
Even if Rice gets mort involved, the key to winning could still be stopping Joe Flacco. Pressure has impacted Flacco significantly this season, as he has completed just 45.4 percent of his passes when under pressure versus 65.2 percent when he is not pressured, according to ProFootballFocus.
Von Miller will be licking his chops at a target as stationary as Flacco, and the Ravens are likely going to throw everything they have at slowing him down. The Broncos will desperately need another player to apply the pressure with all the attention focused on Miller.
Elvis Dumervil is a guy the Broncos really need to start producing with more consistency, and he’ll have to beat left tackle Michael Oher more often than not. Oher has allowed seven sacks this season including five over the past four weeks, according to ProFootballFocus. Dumervil needs to put the pressure on Flacco, and forcing a fumble would also help.
In coverage, the Broncos have to contend deep threat Torrey Smith and a top possession receiver in Anquan Boldin—both physical players who will challenge Chris Harris and Champ Bailey.
But the real threat is tight end Dennis Pitta.
At times, the Broncos have had trouble covering tight ends. Wesley Woodyard is questionable and should play on Sunday, which is good news because he is Denver’s best cover linebacker. If Woodyard can handle Pitta with minimal safety help then the Broncos should be able to keep two safeties deep to help Bailey and Harris on the outside.
If the Broncos have to devote safety help to cover Pitta, that could open up things for a big play should Boldin or Smith win a one-on-one situation (as they are likely to do a few times per game). Rice coming out of the backfield presents another challenge, and the more the safeties have to come up and help on tight ends and running backs, the more things will open up on the outside for Boldin and Smith.
With fullback Vonta Leach questionable to play, the Ravens might have Pitta stay into block. That would free Woodyard to pick up Rice out of the backfield and would limit Flacco’s receiving options. Baltimore’s offense presents more challenges to the Broncos than does the Ravens defense, and in these types of games it usually comes down to which team makes more big plays.