One of my favorite things about sports is watching head-to-head competition between great players. You can identify matchups in any game that will have a huge impact on the outcome.
When the Baltimore Ravens faced the Denver Broncos in the playoffs last year, the focus was on the two superstars: Ray Lewis and Peyton Manning. They were the cerebral leaders of their teams, and the winner of that individual battle would go a long way to determining who won that game.
That was an indirect contest where they were pitted against one another in terms of play-calling and pre-snap adjustments. There are also the more direct one-on-one rivalries, like cornerbacks trying to shut down wide receivers.
Here are four one-on-one matchups that you should keep an eye on when the Ravens open their season in Denver. They will be crucial to each team’s game plan and could be the deciding factors in an important game between two AFC heavyweights.
Torrey Smith vs. Champ Bailey
Champ Bailey is one of the best cornerbacks of the 2000s and a future Hall of Famer. He’s a 12-time Pro Bowler and a seven-time All-Pro member.
It’s not like he’s living off of past accomplishments either. He finished the 2012 regular season as ProFootballFocus’ 10th-best cornerback in the league (subscription required).
Despite his brilliance, he did not have a good day against Torrey Smith in the AFC divisional round. Smith burned him for two long touchdowns of 59 and 32 yards, respectively.
They will be matched up again in Week 1, and Smith’s performance in the divisional round makes the Bailey-Smith matchup a juicy one. There is some uncertainty about Bailey’s availability since he’s nursing a foot injury. If he doesn’t play, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie will take his place.
The Denver Broncos play a lot of single-high safety coverage, which can leave their cornerbacks on an island. This is exactly what happened on Smith’s first touchdown of the divisional round.
Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta both ran underneath crossing routes (drawn in blue), which attracted the attention of the high safety (Tony Carter, circled in red). Carter chose to follow Pitta, which left Smith and Bailey all alone in the bottom half of the picture (the yellow in the diagram).
Smith’s speed was too much for Bailey on this play, and Joe Flacco threw a perfect bomb that hit Smith in stride for the touchdown.
There will likely be similar opportunities for Smith in the Week 1 matchup. The offensive line will need to give Flacco enough time for the play to develop, but it ultimately comes down to two men and the ball. More big plays from Smith could mean that the Ravens leave Denver with a win.
Lardarius Webb vs. Wes Welker
The biggest offseason move for the Broncos was the signing of Wes Welker. Welker is the lucky man who gets to go from Tom Brady to Peyton Manning, making him the Brad Pitt of the NFL.
Welker made his name by catching short passes in space and turning them into longer gains. He led the league in yards after the catch for the past two years, and with two great receivers flanking him on the outside (Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker), he should once again have ample room in the middle of the field.
Whenever the New England Patriots played the Ravens, it was Lardarius Webb who took the responsibility of matching up with Welker most of the time. Webb is an excellent slot corner with great closing speed, and he has done a good job of guarding Welker in the past.
The two will be matched up again in Week 1, and it will be interesting to see how well Welker fares in his Broncos debut against his old foe.
Daryl Smith vs. Peyton Manning
Peyton Manning is the king of the audible. He dissects the defense before the snap, sees matchups he likes and changes the play if necessary based on what he reads.
As a result, it’s important that the defensive communication is up to par and that audibles are called to keep up with Manning.
In the past, it has been Ray Lewis who has played the chess match against No. 18. As the new inside linebacker and quarterback of the defense, that job will now fall to Daryl Smith.
Smith has some experience playing against Manning from their days in the AFC South, so it shouldn’t be a new look for him. Nevertheless, he will have to be on top of all the language and schemes that the Ravens defense uses.
If Smith struggles to make the right calls, Manning and the Broncos offense could roll over a Ravens defense that is learning how to play together.
Terrell Suggs vs. Ryan Clady
Elvis Dumervil gets to debut against his former team, and everybody will be anxiously waiting to see how the vaunted pairing of Dumervil and Terrell Suggs performs. The man tasked with protecting Peyton Manning’s blind side from them is Ryan Clady.
Clady is one of the best left tackles in the league, but Suggs got the better of him twice in the divisional round with Clady battling a torn rotator cuff.
Both Suggs and Clady are fully healthy now, which should make their one-on-one battle intriguing to watch.