When the Baltimore Ravens willfully let a number of their defensive veterans, along with wide receiver Anquan Boldin, go after the Super Bowl, it seemed like a monumental task to replace them.
Then the Ravens lost tight end Dennis Pitta for the season with a hip injury, another major setback for Baltimore and quarterback Joe Flacco who was suddenly down two of his most reliable targets from last year.
Still, the Ravens seemed to do a good job this offseason of reloading. They brought on board a mix of veteran free agents and new draft picks to fill the holes left by departed players such as Ed Reed, Bernard Pollard, Ray Lewis, Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe.
However, all the potential concerns raised by the Ravens' offseason revamp seemed to rear their ugly heads in the team's 49-27 defeat at the hands of the Denver Broncos Thursday night.
It started well enough, with the Ravens forcing the Broncos to punt on every first-quarter possession.
However, when Ravens rookie safety Brynden Trawick slammed into teammate Jacoby Jones on a punt return, resulting in a sprained knee for Jones that ended his night, the wheels started to fall off on both sides of the ball.
On the ensuing Ravens possession, Flacco was picked off by Broncos cornerback Chris Harris. That turnover led to a Peyton Manning touchdown pass to tight end Julius Thomas—the first of an eventual record-tying seven TD passes for Manning on the night. The scales tipped briefly in Baltimore's favor, thanks to Denver's Wes Welker fumbling a fair catch on a punt; running back Ray Rice scored the easy two-yard touchdown, giving them another lead.
However, right tackle Michael Oher suffered an ankle injury that forced rookie Ricky Wagner into the starting lineup.
Aside from a few strong individual performances, there were a minimum of bright spots from then on for Baltimore. Julius Thomas scored another Denver touchdown in the second quarter, and though the Ravens went into halftime with a 17-14 lead, it was a tenuous advantage considering what had been seen from Manning in the first 30 minutes.
In the second half came a cascade of Baltimore mistakes, and Denver masterfully capitalized on them. Welker was given a catch that was revealed on replay to be an incompletion, but the Ravens did not challenge the call. The next play, Manning connected with Demaryius Thomas, and on the play after, he threw a 28-yard touchdown pass to Andre Caldwell to put the Ravens up 21-17.
Baltimore added 10 more points to their total—a touchdown throw to undrafted rookie Marlon Brown, who was taking over for Jones, and a 30-yard Justin Tucker field goal. However, the Broncos put up 28 more points during that same stretch, with Demaryius Thomas and Welker each scoring a pair of touchdowns.
The only second-half play that went in the Ravens favor actually came on a Flacco mistake. Denver's Danny Trevathan's interception of Flacco was ruled a touchback after the linebacker dropped the ball before crossing the goal line, mercifully sparing the Ravens a pick-six.
Thinness at receiver and tight end has been a concern since Pitta's injury. Jones' knee sprain left Baltimore with just three receivers dressed—Brown, Brandon Stokley and Torrey Smith. Tight ends Ed Dickson, who missed most of training camp and all of the preseason with a partially-torn hamstring, and Dallas Clark both dropped a number of passes against the Broncos.
Baltimore's offensive line also struggled at times. Wagner, taking over for Oher, was manhandled by linebacker Shaun Phillips, who was in place of the suspended Von Miller.
And the huge deficit made one of the Ravens' biggest weapons—the running game—useless. Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce rushed a combined 21 times for a mere 58 yards. Flacco threw the ball 62 times, but his tight ends dropping passes didn't make throwing a lot an effective strategy.
But the real issue was the defense. Free safety Michael Huff, the replacement for longtime starter Ed Reed, missed tackles and was repeated beaten in coverage. Such poor play resulted in the Ravens benching him in favor of rookie Matt Elam.
Matt Elam is now in the game with Michael Huff on the bench after a rough night— Aaron Wilson (@RavensInsider) September 6, 2013
A standout cornerback last year, Corey Graham was outmatched by Welker and Demaryius Thomas, who posted 161 yards on five receptions. Julius Thomas also had a big night with five catches for 110 yards. Of the 510 yards the defense allowed, 445 were gained through the air. The 49 points Denver amassed is the most ever scored on the Ravens since the franchise moved to Baltimore, and they've never had a quarterback throw more than five touchdowns passes against them before Thursday.
#Ravens have never allowed a QB to throw more than 5 TDs in a game. Roethlisberger and Hasselbeck both have thrown for 5 TDs vs. Ravens.— Jamison Hensley (@jamisonhensley) September 6, 2013
The Ravens defense is younger and faster, but it clearly still has to build chemistry and work together better on the field. Veterans Haloti Ngata, Lardarius Webb and Terrell Suggs, along with free-agent signing Chris Canty, looked very much the part of the classic Ravens defenders. The younger and newer Raven defenders, however, were simply outmatched by Manning and his battery of dangerous receivers.
Now, these aren't unfixable problems for Baltiomore. While they reared their heads in Week 1, that doesn't mean that these issues will plague the team the remainder of the season.
On offense, aside from the drops, the main problem were the injuries to Oher and Jones. Wagner is clearly a liability, but Brown stepped up when Jones was forced to the sideline and chemistry between Dickson and Flacco should steadily build now that Dickson can practice full time.
The defense, especially those responsible for pass coverage, need to build trust and chemistry. Confusion and blown assignments resulted in huge gains for Denver and such big plays will hopefully decrease as the weeks roll on.
However, this loss did throw a spotlight on the very issues that many observers thought would hamper the Ravens this season. Obviously, there are tweaks that need to be made in the long week before Baltimore hosts the Cleveland Browns next Sunday.
But should these problems continue so dramatically in the coming weeks, then it'll be time to worry about the defending Super Bowl champions.