The Ravens do not have the luxury of padding their win total as they did last year when they faced the very weak AFC South and NFC South. This year the Ravens face two of the tougher divisions in football in the AFC West and the NFC West. In addition, the team opens up the 2015 season with five road games within the first seven games, with two sets of back-to-back games on the West Coast—weeks one and two against the Broncos and Oakland Raiders, and weeks six and seven against the San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals. These four games bracket the other three games where the Ravens face all three AFC North divisional foes.
The first seven weeks of the season loom large for the Ravens. A 4-3 record would be an acceptable outcome, setting up the team for another playoff trip. A 5-2 record would go a long way in the team accomplishing their goal of securing one, if not two, home playoff games. The question is if the Ravens can steal one of these three games—at Denver, at Pittsburgh, or at Arizona. Even at that rate, the Ravens would need to beat the always difficult Bengals at home—something that eluded the Ravens last year—and beat the 49ers in San Francisco; neither of which are givens.
Aside from the schedule, the Ravens face other challenges. Training camp and the preseason offered no answers to the Ravens most pressing questions entering the 2015 season. Is the secondary fixed? Who will provide the complimentary skill set to wide receiver Steve Smith? How will the rush defense hold up with defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan replacing the departed Haloti Ngata? Who will emerge from returner extraordinaire (at least from 2012 through 2013) Jacoby Jones’ shadow?
As it stands today against the Broncos, the secondary remains a question mark due to injuries (again), rookie wide receiver Breshad Perriman is still injured, Jernigan will likely miss today’s game, and no one knows for certain who will return kicks (the guess here is that undrafted free agent running back Terrence Magee returns kickoffs and wide receiver Michael Campanaro returns punts). Who are the 2015 Ravens?
With these plotlines surely to be the focal point of many, I am intrigued by some other storylines that are going to play a big part in today’s game.
It was a crushing blow when last year’s offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak accepted his dream position as the head coach of the Denver Broncos. There are no hard feelings in his departure. There is just a sentiment of “What could have been?” with regard to the future of the Ravens’ offense. What could this offense have evolved into with another year together between Kubiak and quarterback Joe Flacco?
All things considered under Kubiak, Flacco had one of his better years statically speaking—most yards, most touchdowns, highest QBR, third highest completion percentage, and lowest amount of sacks taken.
If last year’s playoff run was any indication, the Ravens would have kept their running game intact (also a major upgrade from 2013) but would have been more aggressive in attacking downfield. According to Pro Football Focus, Flacco’s percentage of deep passing attempts (passing attempts targeted 20 or more yards downfield) increased from the regular season to the postseason, 10.1 percent to 16.2 percent.
While Kubiak’s hiring was a perfect hire at the perfect time, the jury is still out on the hiring of new offensive coordinator Marc Trestman. I am more optimistic than I was at the onset, but there is still some trepidation that he will stick to the running even if it seems as though it is struggling. Keeping the run-pass ratio at last year’s 45-55 is key to the success of this team.
Moreover, because of the familiarity between Flacco and Kubiak, I will not be surprised to see more Cover-2 looks from the Bronco defense coupled with high pressure blitzing (more on that in a moment). Per PFF, Flacco was one of the lowest rated quarterbacks in terms of accuracy when dealing with defensive pressure.
But Kubiak’s lack of presence for the Ravens isn’t the only story in today’s game. How Kubiak merges his style of offense with future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning’s style of play will be fascinating. Some people are dismissing this as a cause for concern because both Kubiak and Manning are the consummate professionals. Indeed, these two will put aside egos and do what is best for the team.
Kubiak was quoted in an article from the Denver Broncos website in March saying, "What we've done is study what Peyton has done for many, many years and taken some things that I feel good about and kind of crossed two systems together. The bottom line is we're going to do what he does best -- what our players do best. I've got a pretty good vision of what I want it to look like and now we've got to get to work on it."
However, there will be growing pains. They may not occur today against the Ravens, but there will be a transitional period. Over the last two seasons, Manning was in the shotgun or pistol 71.3 percent of the time. Conversely, in Kubiak’s offense Flacco was in the shotgun for just 22 percent of all snaps.
The counterpoint to this argument is that Manning has a higher quarterback rating from under center than he does from the shotgun, 113.4 to 106.8, respectively. However, the volume of snaps from behind center could alter Manning’s effectiveness.
From the same article, Kubiak acknowledges, "When I've watched [Manning] play under center, the steps and all those things, he's been doing it for years. I don't think that's a big adjustment. Now, how much you do it probably depends on how comfortable he is and how successful we are with it [emphasis added].”
Looking back at Kubiak and Flacco from week one last year against the Cincinnati Bengals, Flacco struggled to the tune of 164 yards passing through the first three quarters. Granted, Manning is a tad more accomplished than Flacco.
Wade Phillips and His Pressure
I am not sure why Broncos’ defensive coordinator is not getting more attention this offseason. He was a phenomenal addition to Kubiak’s staff, and they reunite after two highly successful seasons in Houston. Before the disastrous 2013 season, the Phillips-led Texans’ defense averaged 19.1 points per game over the 2011 and 2012 seasons.
From Bucky Brooks’ article on top defensive coordinators on NFL.com:
The veteran defensive architect might be underrated on this list, given his impeccable career résumé. Phillips has built stellar defenses at nearly every stop, including his most recent in Houston. He is a creative 3-4 schemer adept at tailoring his system to his talent, allowing his premier playmakers to disrupt the game at every turn. While unleashing explosive rushers off the edge and moving around destructive interior defenders, Phillips will utilize stunts, loops and blitzes to terrorize opponents at the point of attack. His tactics are certainly impressive to watch, but the fact that he scales down the communication (verbiage) to allow his players to play fast and free is one of the big reasons why he consistently gets exceptional production from his top dogs. And given the impact that stars have on the game, Phillips' adaptability is what makes him one of the top defensive minds working today.
Because of the aggressive nature of Phillips’ defense, and the fact that Flacco struggles when facing pressure, it is imperative that the Ravens establish the run. By doing this, they can utilize misdirection plays, play action, and screens to off-set the incredible team speed possessed by the Bronocs in Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, and rookie Shane Ray.
Who Will Be an Offensive Playmaker?
This is a legitimate question until it gets answered. Until Breshad Perriman and his speed returns to the Ravens’ offense, the team will need to manufacture speed on the offense. In the meantime, outside of veteran receiver Steve Smith, who will prove that that they can be trusted in key situations?
The team and Flacco have faith in wide receiver Kamar Aiken. There is a huge upside in tight end Crockett Gilmore. Marlon Brown has shown he can be a decent support player, but he lacks consistency. Rookie tight end Maxx Williams was a playmaker in college. Rookie receiver Darren Waller is an intriguing prospect. But who is going to emerge? The preseason provided very little clues.
There are choices, but too much uncertainty swirls around the offense. Trestman must scheme properly to give his unproven players the best possible matchups and put them in the best place to succeed.
Because of the expected pass rush pressure, press coverage from Bronco cornerbacks Chris Harris and Aqib Talib, and possible Cover-2 looks, I anticipate the Ravens will try to attack the middle of the field with the tight ends, use running backs Justin Forsett and Kyle Juszczyk out of the backfield, and manufacture open receivers with the use of rubs and picks.
It will be interesting to see the inactives for this game. We may finally get a glimpse of what the coaching staff is truly thinking about its younger offensive players.
Big Test for Ravens’ Defensive Line
This game would have been a great litmus test for the Ravens’ defensive line. It would have been the first game featuring nose tackle Brandon Williams and defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan but without stalwart Haloti Ngata. Seeing Williams line up at the nose tackle over an inexperienced center, like 2014 sixth-round pick Matt Paradis, and defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan playing the five technique would have been fantastic. This combination would have impacted the Broncos’ run game and pass game. One way to get to Manning is by pushing back the center of the pocket forcing him to move laterally (see 2012 playoffs).
With Kubiak’s version of the zone stretch blocking scheme and his assumed commitment to the run with C.J. Anderson, we would have gotten a glimpse if the Ravens were correct in jettisoning Ngata and relying on the youth of Williams and Jernigan.
Nevertheless, with Jernigan’s injury, we will have to wait to see this defensive line at full strength. The Ravens are importing another youthful player on the line in rookie defensive tackle Carl Davis. Davis, an expected contributor as a role player, gets thrust into the starting lineup. I expect Davis to play the nose and Williams to swing out to defensive tackle.
The Ravens need to be better against the rush than they were in the preseason. The Ravens were gashed for a league high 144 rushing yards per game. If the Broncos can establish the run today, it will be a very long day for the Ravens’ defense. That being said, today’s performance by the Ravens rush defense is not necessarily indicative of how they will perform the rest of season. They are not at full strength today. This isn’t an excuse, it is just a reality.
New Secondary Will be Tested
No matter, Manning will still attack this secondary. Until it proves that it has improved from last year, the secondary will be challenged by every quarterback and team it faces each and every week. Even though the Ravens are playing short without key contributor cornerback Rashaan Melvin, the Ravens will be near full strength with Jimmy Smith, Lardarius Webb, Kyle Arrington, and safeties Will Hill and Kendrick Lewis. However, one injury to injury prone starters Smith and Webb and we will see the raw rookie Tray Walker. That could spell trouble for the Ravens.
Because of a young Broncos offensive line, look for Manning to have a quick release today. Because of this, I would like to see the Ravens play press coverage at the line of scrimmage. They may be a little more willing to do this because the safety position is much more settled this year with Lewis and Hill than it was last year with Darian Stewart (now a Bronco) and Matt Elam. This could allow more freedom for defensive coordinator Dean Pees.
While facing Manning and his receiving threats is daunting for any secondary, I will be watching to see how this group communicates with one another and how it avoids broken coverages. Very rarely will a team ever shutdown a Manning-led passing attack. However, you hope to keep him in check and not allow his receivers to run free like they did in 2013—445 yards passing and seven touchdowns through the air.
A secondary is only good as its pass rush. The Ravens outside linebackers Terrell Suggs, Courtney Upshaw, Elvis Dumervil, and rookie Za’Darius Smith need to take advantage of the inexperienced line—especially second-round draft pick and rookie left tackle Ty Sambrailo (college teammate of Ravens’ tight end Gilmore). Even with Manning’s quick release, the pass rush needs to make him feel uncomfortable.
Unsung Player to Watch, aka the “Corey Graham 2012 Postseason Award”
In lieu of a prediction of the score of the game, I will pick a Raven player each week that I think will have an impact on the game. I won’t pick an obvious player (like Joe Flacco, Steve Smith, Terrell Suggs, etc.), but a player that flies a bit under the radar. Think of this as the “Corey Graham 2012 Postseason Award.” Who would have predicted that Graham would have been a postseason-player-of-the-game in Denver in 2012?
I think we begin to see another security blanket emerge for Joe Flacco. I am buying the hype of tight end Crockett Gilmore. I expect the Broncos to throw some Cover-2 towards Flacco and he will need Gilmore to attack the seam of the defense. Plus, Gilmore is a big target once the Ravens get to the red zone.