For the second time this season, the Baltimore Ravens will take on the Denver Broncos. However, there is quite a bit more at stake this time around than in their Week 15 meeting, considering the winner of Saturday's contest heads to the AFC Championship Game and, potentially, then Super Bowl.
When the Broncos and Ravens first met, it was in Baltimore, where the Ravens have had a significant home-field advantage for years. However, the Broncos managed to overpower the Ravens, winning 34-17, thanks to a flat Ravens offensive performance that included a pick-six thrown by quarterback Joe Flacco and a poor effort by Baltimore's defense in containing Denver's run game.
That game, however, was marred by the absence of a number of injured Ravens defenders: Jameel McClain, Ray Lewis, Dannell Ellerbe and Bernard Pollard. On offense, Baltimore running back Bernard Pierce and wide receiver Torrey Smith both left the contest after suffering concussions.
This week's meeting will have a far healthier contingent of Ravens starters on the field, and with more on the line than in the first game, Baltimore should pose a greater challenge to the Broncos than in their first matchup.
It's all about creating mismatches on both offense and defense that benefit the Ravens' strengths and neutralize Denver's weaknesses. With that in mind, here are three matchups to watch in Saturday's game.
The Offensive Line vs. Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco's pocket awareness has long been called into question, but it also doesn't help matters much when his offensive line doesn't keep him adequately protected. In last week's win over the Indianapolis Colts, Flacco wasn't constantly pressured, but when pressure did occur, he simply wasn't able to connect on his throws.
Of his 24 dropbacks, eight saw him under pressure and nine facing a blitz. When pressured, he completed only two of his eight passes for 29 yards and a touchdown. He was also sacked once.
When up against the blitz, he again completed just two of eight pass attempts for 30 yards and was sacked once. Pressure clearly hurts Flacco's accuracy, so the key to him connecting with his intended receivers on Saturday will be to keep linebacker Von Miller, defensive end Elvis Dumervil and the rest of Denver's defensive out of his face as much as possible.
With 52 regular season sacks, Denver's defense is the best pass-rushing unit in the league. They're led by Miller, who recorded 18.5 sacks, and Dumervil (11). Though there are other dangerous members of the Broncos defense, the foremost concerns for Flacco and his offensive line will be to contain and evade these two players.
Baltimore's offensive guards Marshal Yanda and Kelechi Osemele (who has also played tackle) have by and large not been major liabilities in pass protection this year, but the starting tackles from last week's Colts win, Bryant McKinnie and Michael Oher, leave a lot to be desired.
In the Ravens' first meeting with the Broncos, Osemele took over right tackle duties with Oher on the left, while Bobbie Williams and Jah Reid were the starting guards. Oher gave up a sack and two hurries, Osemele a hit and six hurries.
Whether the Ravens opt to use this offensive line formation or the one they fielded against the Colts depends on scheme, situation and of course, health. Still, the main goal needs to be giving Flacco enough time and space to throw accurately. Denver's defense has proven to be mighty stingy against the run, so passing the ball may be Baltimore's only hope to move the chains.
Dennis Pitta vs. Rahim Moore and Mike Adams
For all the success that Denver's defense has had this year when it comes to pressuring quarterbacks and stopping the run, they've been almost equally as deficient in their coverage of tight ends. The safety play of Rahim Moore and Mike Adams has been the Achilles' heel for Denver's defense this year, and if the Ravens can exploit these the middle of the field, they'll be able to extend drives.
The Broncos defense ranks third overall in yards allowed. At the same time, however, it has also given up a ton of yards to tight ends this year, allowing 78 receptions for 949 yards. Denver is tied for allowing the most touchdowns allowed to opposing tight ends (11).
One only has to look back to the Broncos' Week 15 meeting with the Ravens for evidence of this trend. Not only was tight end Dennis Pitta Flacco's leading target on the day (10 targets), he was also their leading receiver, hauling in seven catches for 125 yards and two touchdowns.
The reason for this is Denver's weak safety play.
When in coverage this year, Moore has allowed catches on 19 of the 27 passes for 218 yards (including 72 yards after the catch) and one touchdown. Adams has been the weaker of the two, giving up 40 catches on 80 targets, for 468 yards (188 yards after the catch) and a whopping six touchdowns. Between them, Moore (1) and Adams (0) accounted for just one interception the entire season.
If Baltimore's offensive line gives him time to throw, Flacco needs to again make Pitta his major target. Even if the Broncos are anticipating the tight end getting a lot of attention, there's likely little they can do to stop Pitta, if their regular season stats are any indication.
Dean Pees vs. Peyton Manning
When it comes to dealing with Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, a defensive coordinator needs to plan accordingly.
Manning's experience in the league coupled with his uncanny ability to read and diagnose defenses and change plays at a moment's notice makes him one of the more dangerous to ever play the position. If Baltimore's defense is going to have any success rattling him and keeping him off his game, defensive coordinator Dean Pees will need to be creative while also not getting too cute.
The trouble with Manning is multifaceted. There's "Pocket Passer" Manning, who can make snap decisions and keep himself from succumbing to straightforward pressure—like if linebacker Paul Kruger is sent in to rush him—and can read blitzes well before there's any chance of them being successful, which is why he's been sacked a mere 21 times this season.
Then there's "Play Action" Manning, so skilled at taking advantage of the Broncos' solid running attack. With 27.3 percent of his passes coming out of play-action, he uses the tool more than all but five other quarterbacks in the league. He also has the fifth-most play-action dropbacks, is tied for the most play-action attempts and has the most completions, the second-most yards when throwing out of it. He's also thrown nine touchdowns off of play-action.
So how to outsmart Manning? Clearly, just sending in Kruger, the Ravens' sack leader, over and over on blitzes won't work. But not rushing Kruger isn't an option either. There's safety blitzing, of course, and linebacker blitzing (and corner blitzing). There's Terrell Suggs, but he's still not entirely recovered from his offseason Achilles injury.
There's also the option of blanketing Manning's two deadliest receivers, Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas, but that will likely take both safeties out of the equation, in addition to both corners (or one safety and three corners, or a linebacker—you get the idea), making it more difficult to send pressure at the same time.
While football games are often likened to chess matches, that's never more the case when a defensive coordinator has to try to find a way to stop the elder Manning. Variety and experimentation will be key, along with using tried-and-true methods the Ravens have employed with varying success this year.
However Pees does it, keeping Manning under control is the best way to beat the Broncos. So as close as he can get to outsmarting the quarterback, the better.