Soon after the Ravens 24-9 victory over the Indianapolis Colts last Sunday, the team’s focus shifted to Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos.
Traveling to the “Mile High” city will be no easy task for the Ravens who are facing Denver for the 2nd time in five weeks. The Broncos come into play riding high as the AFC’s #1 seed, winning the AFC West crown, winners of eleven straight games and a 10-2 conference record against AFC opponents this season.
The addition of Peyton Manning has given the Broncos a quarterback that hasn’t been seen in that town since John Elway, and he’s dramatically improved an offense that ranked 5th in the NFL this season in passing (283.4 yards) and a running game that’s 16th in the NFL rushing at a solid 114 yards per game clip.
But if you look further past Manning’s influence on the offense, what’s more interesting is that Denver’s defense is just as solid. A defense that hasn’t allowed over 20 points since the beginning of December, they rank third in both opponents passing yards allowed (199.6 yards) and rushing yards allowed (91.1) in the NFL.
And a check on the weather in the Denver metro area for Saturday’s game gives us a preview of the type of football game we could expect. The temperature will be a balmy 19 degrees, a perfect opportunity for the Ravens to showcase their running game for a national audience.
The Ravens are as healthy as they’ve been all season long and they received strong efforts from all three phases of the game against Indianapolis. Here are three keys to a Ravens victory Saturday afternoon in Denver.
Run The Football, And Run It Some More – The Ravens ranked 11th in the NFL this season, averaging about 118 yards per game. Mixing the quickness and power of Ray Rice and rookie running back Bernard Pierce gives the Ravens a formidable duo in being able to grind down a defense, pick up first downs and limit the time Peyton Manning is on the field.
Should the Ravens be effective in running the football against a defense ranked third in allowing yards, that will set up Joe Flacco with room to operate and use play action passes and designed roll-outs we’re now accustomed to seeing in this offense to get the football down field.
In terms of play calling, stretch plays really seem to fit the style of runner Bernard Pierce is. He’s explosive and uses quick decisions to hit the holes fast. He has breakaway speed that could be a catalyst in this game.
Running the football will also limit what Denver’s pass rush specialists in linebacker Von Miller and defensive ends Elvis Dumervil and Derek Wolfe will be able to do to Joe Flacco.
With the right offensive line now in place, the Ravens will be able to use short screens and dump-offs to Rice and Pierce so that they can be effective in the passing game as well. If the running game gets going, Joe Flacco will be able to get in a rhythm and the offense as a whole will be off and running.
Limit What Peyton Manning Does – In the first half of the game on Dec. 16th, the Ravens confused Peyton Manning at times with certain looks and blitzes. His throws weren’t as crisp and he looked uncomfortable in the pocket. If not for a Joe Flacco pick 6 interception at the two-yard line, it would have been 10-7 at the half.
Because of that, he wasn’t able to get into a good rhythm in the 1st half but the great quarterback he is, adjusted and started to pick the defense apart. In this match-up, the Ravens defense will have to figure out how to take what they did in the 1st half and make it work in the 2nd half as well.
Getting pressure on Peyton is key because he’s not going to run out of the pocket and get a first down with his legs. His offense is built on timely routes and getting rid of the football quick, so corner back play will be huge for the Ravens.
The Broncos have big, physical receivers in Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker and an effective running game with the emergence of Knowshon Moreno. Decker torched the Ravens secondary for 133 yards and a touchdown but didn’t allow much to Thomas, just four catches for 13 yards. Corners Cary Williams and Corey Graham will have to play physical at the line and jam these guys trying to disrupt the timing routes from Manning. Chykie Brown is another factor for the Ravens and has played well as of late.
The key for the Broncos in the 2nd half was an effective run game which opened things up for Manning. Moreno gashed the Ravens for 118 yards in the first meeting, gaining huge chunk plays, something the Ravens can’t afford this time around. The return of Ray Lewis who looked fresh last Sunday and a healthy Dannell Ellerbe will hope to slow Denver’s offense down. These guys are healthy at the right time, that’s a big factor in the latest match-up with Manning.
Limiting big yardage plays from Manning is critical to victory. Manning’s seven plays of 40+ yards is in the lower third of quarterbacks in the NFL, but third in the NFL with 64 plays of 20+ yards or more.
Winning The Turnover Battle/ Dominate Special Teams – The third key is the same as last week. Because of the cold weather Saturday, protecting the football and the chess game that is field position are keys for both teams. The Ravens were lucky Ray Rice’s two fumbles didn’t cost them playing a lesser opponent, however those mistakes could put the Ravens in an early hole because of the caliber team the Broncos are.
The Ravens lost in time of possession to the Colts (37:32-to-22:28) while the Broncos were 8th in the NFL this year in time of possession at 31:16. With the potential for a grind-it-out type game, special teams plays a huge factor in this one.
After an off game in the final week of the regular season, Sam Koch bounced back against the Colts to have a nice game. Overall during the season, Koch was his usual solid self, averaging 47.1 yards per punt, the highest average of his career. If he’s able to pin Denver deep in their own territory, the Ravens will feel a lot better about that than giving Peyton Manning the football at midfield or in Ravens territory.
Jacoby Jones has the ability to break a long run from any point on the field on kick/punt returns, so getting him good lanes to run will position the Ravens in short field opportunities.
Of course, with all that’s been talked about, this game could come down to a field goal chance late in the game. The question is when will Justin Tucker be tested?
Fearless Prediction: Ravens 21 Broncos 20
Matt Lund is a contributor for BaltimoreSportsReport.com and co-host of the BSR Podcast. You can follow him on Twitter @MattCLund.