Beginning their eighth season with head coach John Harbaugh and quarterback Joe Flacco leading the way, the Ravens once again have high expectations as they travel to Denver on Sunday.
Playing the Broncos in Week 1 for the second time in three years, Baltimore hopes to wipe out the memory of the 2013 opener in which Peyton Manning threw an NFL record-tying seven touchdown passes in a 49-27 loss. Of course, much has changed for both teams since then with players coming and going and former Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak taking over as head coach of the Broncos this season.
It’s time to go on record as the Ravens play Denver for the 11th time in the all-time regular-season series and each team owns five wins. Baltimore carries a 1-4 regular-season record in Denver, but Harbaugh’s team did win its only playoff game against the Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The Ravens are 2-0 against Denver in their playoff history.
Here’s what to expect as the Ravens open their 20th season and try to improve to 6-2 in season openers under Harbaugh …
1. Steve Smith catches a long touchdown pass to exploit former teammate Darian Stewart in coverage. Knowing how underwhelming the ex-Ravens safety was playing the deep ball in 2014, Baltimore would love to have rookie Breshad Perriman’s speed to stretch the field against the weak link in the Broncos secondary, but the first-round pick hasn’t even practiced since spraining his knee on July 30. The Ravens will try to go vertical using the 36-year-old Smith, who is still capable of using a double move to blow past his man and catch a long bomb from Flacco against the right coverage. He’ll do exactly that against Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib and Stewart will be late with over-the-top coverage.
2. Lardarius Webb will not be able to keep up with Emmanuel Sanders while Jimmy Smith does his best to lock down No. 1 wideout Demaryius Thomas on the opposite side. It’s fair enough to wonder what we’ll see from Smith coming off last October’s season-ending foot injury, but at least the 27-year-old was able to play in the preseason. Webb has practiced for the last couple weeks and Harbaugh said he looks like the “old” Webb after dealing with a hamstring injury in August, but you can only hope the coach meant a better version than what we witnessed a year ago. Webb has a lot to prove and Sanders was a 2014 Pro Bowl selection. He’ll be good for a touchdown catch and 85 receiving yards.
3. Terrell Suggs will collect two sacks and get the best of Denver rookie Ty Sambrailo off the edge, but pressure up the middle will be scarce. The 13th-year rush linebacker should be licking his chops going against the second-round pick, but the key to disrupting Manning is pressure up the middle, making the expected absence of Timmy Jernigan problematic. Last year, the Ravens used a combination of Pernell McPhee, Haloti Ngata, and Jernigan for their inside rush, but none of them will be on the field for Sunday’s game, putting a lot on rookie Za’Darius Smith and run-stopping nose tackle Brandon Williams. Broncos center Matt Paradis is inexperienced, but the Ravens won’t have enough to exploit him in passing situations, leaving space for Manning to get the ball away quickly.
4. Kamar Aiken and Marlon Brown will struggle to gain separation as the Broncos bring heat off the edges to disrupt Flacco’s timing. While Stewart might be a liability, the Broncos have a stout trio of cornerbacks in Talib, Harris, and the young Bradley Roby. Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips can use either Harris or Roby inside, which gives their defense the ability to show different looks in coverage. The Ravens have expressed confidence in Aiken as a starter, but I’m not convinced that he’s ready to be more than a No. 3 option, especially without a deep threat on the field. He and Brown will only combine for 50 receiving yards as the Broncos play tight man coverage and relentlessly try to bring outside linebackers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware off the edges.
5. The Denver defense will be the biggest factor as the Ravens offense struggles to move the ball consistently in a 26-16 loss to the Broncos. As much as Manning has dominated the pre-game conversation, Denver’s real strength is its defense with few weaknesses at any level. Baltimore will do a decent job establishing the run, but Flacco will be too dependent on Smith to make plays through the air, which will stall a couple promising drives. Ultimately, I see the Broncos taking a step back this season, but they’ll be too much to handle with a top 5-caliber defense and a healthy Manning early in the season. If this one were to be played later in the year, I’d like the Ravens’ chances a lot more, but Denver will score late to put a close one out of reach.