MHR Chalk Talk - Denver Broncos at Baltimore Ravens 2009

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How good are the Ravens?  Don't be fooled by the 3-3 record.  They've beat the teams they should have (KC and CLE), and won against a tough SD team.  Their losses came to teams that are pretty good (NE, CIN, and MIN).  Don't sell this team short.

On the other hand, many folks are more likely to sell Denver short.  Vegas has them down by 3 points at the time of this writing, despite a 6-0 record.  Denver beat two teams that beat BAL (NE and CIN), as well as CLE, SD, OAK, and DAL.  How good is Denver?

Special Teams - Sep and Oct players of the month (Kicker Matt Prater and Returner Eddie Royal).

Offense - Kyle Orton, who played the first four games with a protective glove has thrown only one INT (a bomb throw to end a half with no time left) and holds a 100+ QB rating.

Defense - Keeping opponents to an average 11 points a game.

But how do the teams match up?  Both teams come off of a bye week, and have had ample time to draw up superior game plans.  Who wins in each aspect of the game, and how should they plan the game?  Let's look at some possibilities....

Ravens Offense vs Broncos Defense

(Advantage in bold and italics)

                                      Ravens Offense                                       Broncos Defense                                            

Points                          28.2 (5th)                                                   11 (1st)  

Yards                           393.2 (5th)                                                 262.5 (2nd)

Pass                            268.3 (8th)                                                 182.8 (8th) 

Run                              124.8 (10th)                                               79.7 (3rd)

Two things come to mind when thinking of Denver's pass defense.  First, the Denver secondary is legendary.  Brian Dawkins at FS and Champ Bailey at CB is unbelievable.  But Denver's pass rush is amazing, too.  Elvis Dumervil (ROLB/RDE) is a pass-rushing machine and leads the NFL with 10 sacks.  Elvis gets moved around the line to create confusion and mismatches, and his exceptionalism allows other players to make plays as well.  How does the Baltimore Offense counter?

Well, that's a tricky question.  In their last three games, Baltimore has given up seven sacks.  Jared Gaither (LT) will play this week, but fans of both teams will hold their breath because Jared suffered a scary neck injury earlier on, and this makes things dicey.

Beyond that, Joe Flacco (QB) is playing very well with a 93.8 QB rating (and is coming off of a hurt ankle).  His WRs may be a little suspect, though.  Derrick Mason is a good WR, and needs to be accounted for.  Todd Heap is also a fine TE.  But according to Bruce (our good friend from Baltimore Beatdown) the receiving corps is having issues with passes over the middle, and is depending on sideline curls (too much).  Frankly, I don't think this hurts Baltimore against Denver.

Against a great secondary, there are two things to avoid.  One is the deep pass, and the other is an "out route".  Both are the leading ways to get an interception, and a well-placed pass on a curl route is a safe (if boring) way to move the ball.  In fact, Denver isn't averse to short hitches and curls to the edges on offense, and they move the ball just fine without interceptions in that mode.  This is also a good, quick way to get rid of the ball against a good pass rush.  

Baltimore's offense would be wise to stick with those curls.  They have a decent running game behind backs Ray Rice with 6 yds per carry (who is also effective out of screens), and Willis McGahee (4.5 ypc).  In fact, a lot of the Baltimore offense reminds me of Denver's.

Baltimore has a good running game, and they do well with short, high-percentage throws.  They also make threats with screens.

This is an efficient team that doesn't bowl you over with yards, but they make their yards count and put up a lot of points.  Denver is also learning the value of this kind of football.  Having jettisoned a QB that put up excellent yards but a lot of INTs, Denver has moved in the direction of "game management", careful passing football and racked up wins as a result. 

How does one attack such a team?  Baltimore has an offensive issue that Denver's offense doesn't share - pass blocking.  I'm starting to sound like a broken record, but Denver is winning the defense battles with an amazing pass rush, and they should do that here, too.

A good pass rush from the front 5 (Denver runs a 5-2 look) allows the two ILBs to account for the run, and plugs enough gaps (Denver runs a 1-gap attack) to prevent runs.  But in the pass game, that same effective rush harries QBs and can break up plays in the backfield before they get started.  If Baltimore can hold the Denver rush (a tall order) they can get the screens out, and make the quick, short passes to move the ball down field steadily.  And while nobody is running the Broncos over in the running game (Denver holds teams to under 80 yards rushing), Baltimore needs to try to be the first.  A good running game brushes back effective rushes and blitzes, and this would take away Denver's best defensive asset.  Still, that's a tough order.

Broncos  Offense vs Ravens Defense

                                        Broncos Offense                                Ravens Defense

Points                            22.2 (17th)                                           21.7 (19th)

Yards                             368.7 (9th)                                           332.7 (19th)

Pass                              236 (12th)                                            241.5 (23rd)

Run                                132.7 (7th)                                           91.2 (7th)

Remember the days when the Ravens were killers on defense, but not so hot on offense?  Things have changed quickly.  Denver may not light up the scoreboard, but the Ravens aren't exactly shutting down offenses, either.  How do offenses beat the Ravens?  In the air. 

The Ravens have a strong run defense.  The DL features former Broncos favorite Trevor Pryce at LDE, but the real power is at LB with LILB Ray Lewis and ROLB Terrell Suggs.  Behind them is one of my favorite free safeties in the game, Ed Reed.  Ed is one of those "do it all" guys that can cover the pass and slam into a RB like a freight train.  But Lewis, Suggs, and Reed are having a rough time this year, and the problem is at corner.

Samari Rolle is a very good corner, but is on the PUP list (injury).  He may likely not return this season.  This leaves Fabian Washington (who?) at #1 corner and former Bronco nickleback Domonique Foxworth at #2.  Neither player has an INT this year.

The Baltimore pass rush faces a difficult prospect, too.  Denver's tackles (Ryan Clady and Ryan Harris) are both young, Pro Bowl-caliber players.  Pressure will need to come up the middle, if at all.  As Orton is a pocket passer, this is where rushes need to come from, anyway.

So the Ravens' best card is their run defense, which ties Denver's run offense.  Not a dominating way to face the Broncos.

Denver's path to winning is classic.  First, see who has the edge in the running game.  If Denver establishes the run, the game is over.  I don't see the Ravens stopping the pass in any event.  If Denver can run, they can mix up the run and pass, and go from there.  The best option may not be the runs up the gut (Denver is awful on short-yardage, 3rd-down scenarios).  Denver should test the edges.

Whether the run works or not, expect Denver to play 3 WR (or more) sets.  This forces Baltimore to take LBs off the field (their strength) and to replace them with corners (their weakness).  Denver has excellence at WR in depth:

  • Brandon Marshall, who zigzags and plows overs defenders with ease,
  • Eddie Royal, who ran a kick return and punt return for TDs against the Chargers in the last game,
  • Jabar Gaffney, who runs routes perfectly in the Denver system (the same routes he ran in NE),
  • Brandon Stokley, who switches up at slot with Jabar, and has experience, toughness, and great hands.

Between Orton's intelligent ball-handling, Denver's receivers, and the weakness at Baltimore's CBs, this is the matchup Denver fans should look forward to the most - the Denver passing game.  If I'm running Baltimore's defense, I put the CBs in zone and play bend-don't-break.

Keys to the Game

Denver

  1. Stop the run.  I don't think Baltimore can win as a one-dimensional offense.
  2. Get the early lead.  Denver has been starting slow, but an early lead takes away the Baltimore running game.
  3. Avoid turnovers.  Baltimore can win this game if they win on field position.  They can do this with a key fumble recovery or two.  They shouldn't get many chances for INTs against Orton.

Baltimore

  1. Win the time of possession battle.  Keep the ball away from Denver's offense.
  2. Win the special teams battle.  Don't let Royal get going on punts or kicks.  Denver has a new punter this week - make the most of it.  Field position!
  3. Baltimore has been able to put up a lot of points this year.  Denver is NOT a shootout team.

Conclusion

Both teams are coming off of a bye.  The game is in Baltimore, and Baltimore doesn't want to be 3-4 after this week.  The weather (at the time of this writing) is expected to be rain.  This favors defense and running.  For this matchup, this would favor Baltimore.

On the other hand, Denver beats Baltimore in 6 of 8 comparisons I've listed above, and ties in two (based in relative League rankings).  In terms of player matchups, I give Denver the advantage in depth.  In fact, I give Denver the edge or tie at every player position comparison, including STs (Den) and Coaching (Den).

In my mind, Baltimore is very underrated.  While their AFC North rivals PITT and CIN look good this year, BAL is a team that could turn on a dime and improve quickly.  The only area that I believe they are stuck without improvement in is cornerbacks.

I don't expect to pick Denver every game this year.  The only game I didn't pick Denver was against NE, and I called that one "too close to call".  Sure enough, that game went into overtime, so I'll call that a "correct".  Tough games still loom on the horizon (Indy and NYGs), but for now, Denver has proven they are for real and I'll stick with them.

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