What's Changed for Broncos, Ravens Since 2013 Playoff Matchup?
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There were return touchdowns, long passing touchdowns, well-orchestrated drives, huge defensive plays, overtime, a game-winning field goal and a compelling storyline centered around two of the sport’s greatest players.
Oh, and a ridiculous 70-yard touchdown that shocked the Denver crowd, sent the game into overtime and has a catchy name that the game will hereafter be known as: "Mile High Miracle."
But that was last season.
Both teams have moved past the game voted the best NFL game of the 2012.
The Broncos want to forget that it ever happened, a feeling that Baltimore can sympathize with after their similarly gut-wrenching loss in the 2011 AFC Championship Game.
Likewise, head coach John Harbaugh and his Ravens want to avoid any kind of "Super Bowl hangover." There has been no talk of repeating—no bravado about how the road to the Super Bowl goes through Baltimore. All eyes are looking forward.
The game that will kick off the 2013 season is a rematch of that epic game only in terms of the franchises that are playing. Both teams have undergone changes, some more drastic than others.
Here is a recap of those changes, for both teams, to get you ready for the big game.
Denver Broncos: Peyton Manning To...Wes Welker?
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The biggest offseason addition for the Denver Broncos was the free-agent signing of Wes Welker. General manager John Elway managed to find Peyton Manning a new toy to play with while weakening one of the Broncos’ biggest threats in the AFC, the New England Patriots, in one fell swoop.
It will be strange to see Welker catching passes from Manning, but it should be an easy transition for the receiver. Just your everyday move from Hall of Fame quarterback to Hall of Fame quarterback (it doesn't always work out like that. Just ask Greg Jennings how he's doing).
Welker has caught over 100 passes in five of the past six years and has led the league in yards after the catch in three of those seasons. He has been the best slot receiver and chain-mover in the league over that span.
When the teams faced each other in the playoffs, that role fell to Brandon Stokley (who is ironically now a Raven). Stokley even scored a tough touchdown in that game, but Welker is a dangerous weapon who will make the Broncos passing game that much better—something that is hard to believe.
His addition gives the Broncos the best wide receiver trio in the NFL and makes a passing game led by No. 18 lightning in a bottle.
Baltimore Ravens: The Return of Lardarius Webb
Lardarius Webb was unavailable for both of the Broncos games last year. As the team’s best cornerback, he is a huge addition to the defense and will be playing a large role in containing the Denver offense.
He was playing at an elite level before his 2012 season was ended by a torn ACL, and ProFootballFocus calculated that quarterbacks had a passer rating of 42.2 against his coverage (subscription required). Only Casey Hayward forced a lower rating.
Webb is a shutdown corner, and the Ravens aren’t afraid to leave him on an island with great receivers. His presence will allow defensive coordinator Dean Pees to be more aggressive with his blitzes (some of which may include Webb).
While he isn’t a household name, Webb is one of the better cornerbacks in the NFL, and he’s now the leader of the secondary.
Denver Broncos: Adam Gase, Their New Offensive Coordinator
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When former play-caller Mike McCoy accepted the head coaching job for the San Diego Chargers, he left a vacancy that many offensive coordinators salivated over.
The Broncos met with Ken Whisenhunt and Pat Shurmur, per Mike Klis of The Denver Post.
Instead, head coach John Fox promoted from within. Adam Gase was the quarterbacks coach for the Broncos' last year, and despite his youth (he’s 34, ergo younger than his starting quarterback), he has an impressive resume.
He has worked with Nick Saban, Mike Martz, Josh McDaniels and Joe Vitt. He was hired out of high school by the Baltimore Ravens’ current defensive coordinator, Dean Pees.
Gase won’t have to change much in an offense that finished last season ranked second in points per game, fourth in total yards and third in both first downs and third-down efficiency.
One aspect that the new assistant coach has been vocal about is playing at a higher tempo, and if the preseason is any indication, he has already reached his objective. The Broncos ran 40 plays in the first half against the Seattle Seahawks and improved that number to 49 against the St. Louis Rams.
Such a rapid pace combined with a legendary quarterback who loves to play fast is ominous for opposing defenses.
Baltimore Ravens: A Full Year of Jim Caldwell
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Jim Caldwell had no time to make any substantive changes to the offense when he took over in Week 15 last year. He only tweaked the play-calling, but the results were devastating for the opposition.
While the sample size is small, they averaged 31 points per playoff game and were a markedly better unit than under Cam Cameron. They were running the ball more, riding their one-two punch of Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce. Caldwell’s conviction to emphasize the running game also opened up the big plays for Joe Flacco.
Caldwell showed more faith in Flacco, allowing him to run more of the no-huddle offense, and Flacco responded with an MVP playoff run.
With a full offseason to work with the team, Caldwell had the chance to make some changes, and the offense might look a little different when it takes the field in Denver. Like Gase, Caldwell has focused on playing at a higher tempo and running more no-huddle offense, putting more responsibility on Flacco to read the defense and make the right plays.
Denver Broncos: A Healthy Ryan Clady
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Ryan Clady is coming off a Pro Bowl year, and he just signed a five-year, $57.5 million contract to stay in Denver for the foreseeable future. He is also healthy, which wasn’t the case when these two teams met in the playoffs—and it showed.
Clady allowed only one sack over the entire regular season, but he got beaten by Terrell Suggs twice in that divisional round game.
Now that he has recovered from offseason shoulder surgery, he will have his hands full in his return to the gridiron. Clady gets to go up against Suggs again, but in addition, he’ll be facing his former teammate, Elvis Dumervil.
Clady is one of the best left tackles in the game, and he’ll be matched up against the most accomplished pass-rushing duo in the NFL right now. It should make for an entertaining battle.
Baltimore Ravens: Questions in the Receiving Corps
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The changes in Baltimore aren’t just restricted to the defense. Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta (first and second, respectively on the team last year in receptions) aren’t playing for Baltimore for differing reasons.
As a result, there are changes all across the Ravens’ receiving depth chart.
Torrey Smith is now the unquestioned No. 1 receiver, and he’ll have to handle the added defensive attention. Jacoby Jones will be the secondary receiver, a role where he has had some difficulties in the past.
Brandon Stokley and Dallas Clark will be playing their first full game with Joe Flacco, and Ed Dickson was promoted to the No. 1 tight end position. Additionally, Marlon Brown and Aaron Mellette will get some offensive snaps at receiver after impressing in the preseason.
The combination of receivers that offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell will use is unknown at this point, but it will be a big change for the high-powered offense that outdueled Peyton Manning in Denver.
Denver Broncos: A Severely Weakened Pass Rush
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The circumstances surrounding Elvis Dumervil’s departure from the Denver Broncos are well-known. On the contrary, Chris Mortensen of ESPN reports that, according to sources, there is some mystery surrounding Von Miller’s suspension.
Miller was initially suspended four games for violating the league’s substance abuse policy, although it wasn’t for a positive test—it was for a diluted sample. After Miller tried to appeal the suspension, it was extended to a six-game ban, and that’s the way it currently stands.
Dumervil and Miller accounted for 89 quarterback hurries and almost 60 percent of the team’s sacks. While there are still talented players in the front seven, it is asking too much of Wesley Woodyard, Derek Wolfe and Shaun Phillips to make up for that kind of pressure.
Hurrying Joe Flacco will be crucial in trying to disrupt the big-play potential of the Ravens’ passing game, but whether they can achieve that goal remains to be seen.
Baltimore Ravens: A Revamped Defense
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Peyton Manning doesn’t want to talk about the "Mile High Miracle." He doesn’t want to revisit that game (understandably so), and he won’t have to.
When Manning steps onto the field for the first time, it will be an almost entirely different defense looking back at him compared to the unit that left Denver victorious in January.
Depending on the package the Ravens run, there could be as many as eight new starters. They will be wearing the same jerseys, but for all intents and purposes, this is a completely different defense than the one Manning faced twice last year.
This means there are two things to watch for in the first game of the year. Firstly, how well do the Ravens defenders play together, and are there any communication problems? Secondly, how does Manning adjust to a defense that he hasn’t seen before?
The defense should be able to get consistent pressure, while remaining stout against the run. The real test is for the secondary that has to face a Hall of Fame quarterback and three wide receivers who each had over 1,000 receiving yards last year.