The Denver Broncos' season opener against the Baltimore Ravens will give them a chance to get the bad taste out of their mouth. The last time the Broncos played a game that mattered, they were bounced from the playoffs by the Ravens in a double-overtime classic.
This game on Thursday night isn't revenge for the Broncos but rather the first game in the long journey to a Super Bowl title. The Broncos have a "Super Bowl or bust" mindset in 2013, and every player knows the expectations are at the highest level this season.
The Broncos have many new parts in 2013, and it will be interesting to see how they all come together. The ground game needs to be sorted out to see if a lead back can emerge. The team's new uptempo offense will have to prove there are enough passes to go around for the top three wide receivers. The pass rush is going to be thin to begin the season with Von Miller suspended the first six games.
We won't get every answer we seek after the season opener, but we will get clues about where this team is at under its current construct. Let's take a look at ways the Broncos will attack the Baltimore Ravens on both sides of the ball.
When the Broncos Run the Ball
The Ravens lost eight starters from the team that won the Super Bowl last season. Impact defensive players like Paul Kruger, Ray Lewis, Dannell Ellerbe and Ed Reed are no longer on the team. Baltimore did a good job of adding talent this offseason, and players like veteran Daryl Smith and rookie Arthur Brown are quality additions.
The Broncos need to get a hat on a hat and make sure they hold their blocks for as long as possible. Baltimore is a very active defense and plays more physicality than other teams in the league. One missed block for the Broncos can lead to a negative play.
In the picture below, we see the Broncos line up in the pistol formation against the St. Louis Rams in Week 3 of the preseason. The Rams are giving them a soft look defensively, and this is a look the Broncos will consistently run against.
We see middle linebacker James Laurinaitis crash the play, and left guard Zane Beadles can't get to the run stuffer in time. The result of the play is no gain for running back Ronnie Hillman.
In this next picture, we see the Broncos once again in the pistol formation. This time, tight end Julius Thomas moves in motion to the play side. Once the ball is snapped Thomas does a good job sealing the edge, and the Broncos use zone blocking on the offensive line to move the Rams laterally.
This time, Beadles is able to get to Laurinaitis. The result of the play is an eight-yard gain for Hillman. That play was made possible because Beadles was able to get his hat on the linebacker and slow him getting to the play.
In order for the Broncos to have that kind of success against the Ravens, they can't get manhandled at the line. They'll use finesse to get by the Ravens' powerful front line and attacking linebackers. If every player can consistently get to his man, then the Broncos could have more success on the ground than some think.
When the Broncos Pass the Ball
It all comes down to protecting Manning. The Ravens have a fierce pass rush featuring both Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs. The Broncos will have their hands full on the edge with these two.
Left tackle Ryan Clady will be able to hold his own, but right tackle Orlando Franklin may struggle with the edge rush. This means Denver's running backs must have their heads on a swivel looking for pressure from all angles.
In the picture below, we see the Broncos going for it on a fourth-down play in the red zone. The Rams actually have eight men in the box since the Broncos only have two yards to move the chains.
Once the ball is snapped we see the Broncos slide to the right as Peyton Manning rolls out. This is a brilliant move because it gets Manning away from the rush and gives him more time to throw. The key block is made by Hillman, and Manning is clearly looking for his main target as Demaryius Thomas heads for the back pylon.
In this picture, we get a better idea of how the lateral movement of the line helps clog the Rams' pass-rushers and builds a wall for Manning on his blind side. We also see that Hillman is squaring up to block Laurinaitis.
Thomas is able to easily pluck the ball out of the air for six points.
Denver needs to be creative in the way it pass protects for Manning. Against the Ravens active front the Broncos are best served by moving the pocket at times, max protecting at other times and using short passes to keep the defense on its toes.
When the Ravens Run the Ball
This is where the Ravens may try to abuse the Broncos the most. When facing Manning, sometimes the best defense is a good offense that grinds down the clock. So long as this game is close, the Ravens will test the Broncos between the tackles and try to wear them down.
We should see plenty of both Ray Rice and his primary backup Bernard Pierce. Both backs are capable of running with authority and wearing a defense down. The Broncos will have to stand strong and force the Ravens into more passing situations.
When the Ravens Pass the Ball
The Ravens' passing game has a new look this year. Wide receiver Anquan Boldin is gone, and tight end Dennis Pitta has been put on the injured reserve designated to return List. We'll see Torrey Smith as the primary target for the Ravens when they take to the air.
Last year in the playoffs, Smith torched Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey for two touchdowns. Bailey is out this time around because of a foot injury. That means free-agent addition Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie should draw Smith in coverage.
The Broncos have historically struggled to cover tight ends consistently, so that means Ed Dickson could have a bigger day than some think. We'll see if strong-side linebacker Nate Irving can keep up in coverage.
Former Broncos receiver Brandon Stokley has signed with the Ravens and will be lined up in the slot. This could be a hot read target for Flacco if the Broncos are able to pressure him.
The Broncos' pass rush may look anemic compared to last year. They lost Elvis Dumervil to the Ravens in free agency, and Von Miller is suspended for the first six games of the year due to violating the league's substance abuse policy.
Last season, the Broncos allowed 4.5 yards per play with Miller on the field. However, they allowed 5.1 yards per play with him off the field.
Over the past two years, the Broncos recorded a sack on 8 percent of opponents' dropbacks with Miller and Dumervil on the field at the same time. With only one on the field, they recorded a sack on 6.9 percent of dropbacks. With neither on the field, the Broncos recorded a sack on only 3.4 percent of opponents' dropbacks.
Every quarterback is mortal under pressure. The Broncos will have a much better time with the Ravens if someone can step up and fill the shoes vacated by Miller and Dumervil.
The Broncos want to start the season on the right foot. Even if they can't stop the Ravens, their offense can always keep them in a contest. It's doubtful this game goes into overtime, but I see the Broncos coming out on top 35-27 on Thursday night.