While the Baltimore Ravens offense has quite the task on its hands on Saturday, having to keep the Denver Broncos' front seven at bay in its attempts to put up both yards and points, the team's defense will be equally as challenged when it comes to stopping Denver's offense.
With Peyton Manning under center, the Broncos have averaged 283.4 passing yards per game, putting them in the Top 10 in the NFL, and 397.9 yards of total offense per game, ranking them fourth. They average the second-most points per game, they score touchdowns 60 percent of the time they reach the red zone (in comparison, the Ravens do so 57.41 percent of the time) and they are sixth in the league in time of possession.
The longer the Broncos offense is on the field, the more dangerous it becomes.
So how do the Ravens stop them? Last time the two teams met, in Week 15 of the 2012 regular season, Baltimore fell, 34-17, and gave up 17 points by halftime and 31 by the fourth quarter.
Granted, they were without some of their most important defensive players—Ray Lewis, Dannell Ellerbe and Bernard Pollard among them—and their own offense's inability to put up points until late in the game didn't do the defense any favors, either.
But if the Ravens want a different outcome this time around, they likely cannot allow Manning's Broncos to put up 34 points. Here are two ways they can prevent that from happening.
In one sense, Manning has been pretty solid under pressure this year, with a 50.5 completion percentage on his 99 throws made while facing the pass rush. However, he hasn't been perfect—nor has he seen pressure all that often.
In fact, compared to the other quarterbacks who saw starting snaps this season, Manning's been pressured the least—just 19.9 percent of the time.
Further, though his completion percentage under pressure puts him in the top half of the league's quarterbacks, those throws have also resulted in just one touchdown to four interceptions. He's also taken 21 sacks.
Because the Broncos have so many weapons in the passing game—receivers Eric Decker, Demaryius Thomas and Brandon Stokley, tight ends Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen among them—pressure cannot be an opposing defense's full-time job. Depending on the situation, that could leave Thomas in single coverage or—gulp—leave one of the tight ends wide open.
However, Manning's stats under pressure present opportunities for the Ravens. They should bring pressure to him more often than he's seen on average this year—they just need to make sure that it gets there, if not in time to record a sack, then quickly enough to make him throw before he's ready.
The other way that pressure can successfully contain Manning is via the coverage sack. Granted, receivers like Decker and Thomas aren't easy to take out of the picture, but well-executed man coverage can work against even the best receivers to ever play the game.
It's about having the right man matched up on the right receiver, pairing up defensive backs when necessary and a lot of discipline.
Only Tom Brady gets the ball out of his hands faster than Manning, with Manning generally taking around 2.5 seconds to throw. Just four of his sacks have come when he's held onto the ball for 2.5 seconds or less. That number swells to 22 when holding onto the ball for more than 2.6.
Clearly, coverage sacks have something to do with this, though it is worth noting that his time-to-sack is 2.77 seconds—one of the quickest in the league—which seems to indicate that it's less about good coverage than it is about his offensive line being unable to hold up as long as others around the league.
Still, taking receiving outlets out of the picture will increase the Ravens front seven's chances of getting to him.
Playing Jacob Tamme
Chris Brown of Smart Football wrote an excellent piece for Grantland this week discussing both the simplicity of the Manning-Denver offense and how it resembles the one he ran with the Indianapolis Colts. In the piece, Brown quotes Manning from a Denver Post article dating to December that provides some excellent tips for Baltimore's defense:
So much for us, in what we do, is how do they play [tight end Jacob] Tamme. Some teams treat him like a receiver and some teams treat him like a tight end, so you kind of find that out, see how they handle him in the formation. He kind of makes them, the way he plays and how he plays, have that discussion and we see where that takes us.
This valuable piece of intelligence is a major help for the Ravens defense this Saturday. It just has to use it correctly.
Clearly, not all teams handle Tamme just one way, every snap, every down. The key for the Ravens defense is to find ways to disguise what it's showing regarding Tamme, and to change it often. Keeping the defense moving could also help hide how it's playing him.
If Manning truly is keying in first on how defenses react to the tight end before making any changes or decisions, then there ends up being a potentially effective way to actually confuse Manning—the quarterback who has seen it all.
Having a pre-snap advantage over Manning isn't something many defenses have managed this season, but this important clue about Tamme provides Baltimore with considerable help.