Thursday night’s NFL season opener between the Denver Broncos and Baltimore Ravens has plenty of intriguing matchups. A lot of new faces on both sidelines makes for a football game that will have a little bit of a different feel than the last time we saw them take the field.
Of course, Joe Flacco is still Joe Flacco. Who can forget his game-tying 70-yard bomb to Jacoby Jones last season that sent their AFC Divisional Round matchup against Denver into overtime?
You know who hasn’t forgotten it? Denver’s secondary.
But that group is going to look a little bit different on opening day in 2013. The Broncos acquired Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie during the offseason to help tighten things up in their defensive backfield. Plus, Champ Bailey has been ruled out for the contest, per Mike Klis of the Denver Post:
We’ll start by examining how that group will fare against Flacco and the Ravens’ passing game and then dig into a couple other key matchups for this contest.
Joe Flacco vs. Broncos’ Secondary
Last winter, we watched Flacco emerge as a bona fide superstar. His 11-touchdown and zero-interception postseason performance carried his team to a title. Without him, it very well could have been Peyton Manning and company hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.
The Ravens will look a little bit different offensively, though. Anquan Boldin—a key receiver for Flacco in the playoffs last year—was traded to San Francisco. Tight end Dennis Pitta is also out for the season after undergoing hip surgery.
Luckily, the Ravens are facing a seemingly weaker Broncos defense. With Bailey out, Denver will struggle to contain Flacco. They already lost significant pieces in their pass rush during the offseason, too. Elvis Dumervil switched sides, joining the Ravens as a free agent, and Von Miller was suspended for the first six games of the year.
Despite losing Boldin and Pitta, Flacco has the opportunity to have another big game at Sports Authority Field. He still has Ray Rice at his disposal, and if he can find Torrey Smith or Jones deep against a secondary he took advantage of in the playoffs, Thursday night’s matchup could turn into a shootout.
Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs vs. Broncos OTs
Baltimore took advantage of a fax-machine snafu to sign Dumervil during the offseason. Now the pass-rusher has a chance to make a big impact against his former team.
He’ll likely be lined up against former teammate and three-time Pro Bowler Ryan Clady. Clady is very familiar with Dumervil after having played and practiced with him multiple seasons while he was in Denver. He knows all of the tricks and moves that the former Bronco will deploy against him, making for an interesting battle to say the least.
On the other side, Terrell Suggs will match up against Orlando Franklin. Suggs had a down year in 2012, recording only two sacks while playing in just eight games. And while Franklin might not be a recognized Pro Bowl talent like Clady, he can hold his own against the best in the league.
Well into the 2012 season, Pro Football Focus ranked Clady second and Franklin sixth in pass-blocking efficiency.
Baltimore's Secondary against Wes Welker
The Ravens are going to have their hands full with the Broncos’ talented receiver group. With either Demaryius Thomas or Eric Decker keeping Lardarius Webb busy, Corey Graham or Jimmy Smith will have the unsavory task of matching up with Wes Welker in the slot.
Welker has proven time and time again to be a pass-catching machine, especially against the Ravens. Last year, Tom Brady connected with the receiver eight times for 142 yards in their September matchup. In the playoffs, Welker caught eight more balls for 117 yards and one score.
Thomas and Decker command respect in their own right, which will only open up the field for Manning to exploit Welker whenever he gets the chance. Both Thomas and Decker recorded over 1,000 yards last season, while Brandon Stokley caught 45 passes for 544 yards as the team’s third receiver.
Baltimore’s corners have a tough task against Manning’s elite trio of targets. Welker is in the perfect position to start out 2013 with a big game against the Ravens in Week 1.