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Ravens at Broncos: 11 things to watch for

Can the Denver Broncos stay perfect? Here are 11 things to watch for in their game against the Baltimore Ravens.

Welcome to the first gut check of the 2021 season, where we start to get a real picture of this Denver Broncos team. Earlier this week Von Miller called the Baltimore Ravens game a playoff matchup, and so I’m eager to see if Fangio and the roster rise to the occasion.

Here’s what I’m looking for.

Special Teams

1. Can McMahon stay out of the way?

Lost amid the celebrations of the Broncos shutout victory over the Jets is the fact New York got their mitts on a punt.

Perhaps it isn’t at all surprising that McMahon’s special teams are struggling for the fourth straight year, but it should definitely be concerning when you consider the previous three opponents.

In Baltimore, Broncos Country will see another side of the coin. The Ravens have long had one of the best special teams in the league. Since 2010, they’ve finished outside the top 10 in Football Outsiders DVOA metric once. They currently rank first in the league and it isn’t only Justin Tucker, the Ravens are also one of the best return units in the NFL. Given the struggles Denver has had in their coverage units, it may be a small miracle if Devin Duvernay doesn’t have a splash play today.

Defense

2. How does Fangio plan for Jackson’s legs?

3. Patrick Ricard

4. The personnel battle

5. What does Denver do to make Lamar uncomfortable?

6. Who wins the matchups in the passing game?

Offensively, the Ravens are unlike any other team in the NFL. Lamar Jackson’s elite and reactive athleticism combined with Greg Roman’s commitment to a complex and multifaceted rushing attack makes Baltimore an outlier. Put simply, they’re an option offense in a league that rarely exposes quarterbacks to hits on purpose. This willingness to zag against the rest of the league also makes them a chore to prepare for, so it’s worth noting that the last time Denver faced the Ravens, Joe Flacco was leading them. Fangio has yet to try to defend Lamar Jackson, which adds an element of uncertainty to the matchup.

The threat of Jackson in the read game is the foundational core to the Ravens’ running game. Beyond the simple zone read are concepts such as bash sweep, counter bash, and inverted veer. This combined with all the ways Baltimore uses motion and lead blockers makes their rushing attack the scariest in the league. It also opens up the play action passing attack.

On the play above the Ravens are looking to score a touchdown to go up on the Chiefs in the fourth quarter of their week three win, so they dial up Inverted Veer. Baltimore comes out in 11 personnel with Jackson and Devonta Freeman in the gun. On the snap the left tackle Alejandro Villanueva (78) blocks down to pin the Chiefs linebacker while Mark Andrews (89) steps out to serve as a blocker in space, which leaves Kansas City’s best defensive lineman Chris Jones unblocked.

The Ravens inverted veer is a way to hold an edge player and get Jackson running downhill.

Instead of blocking Jones, the Ravens elected to use the threat of Freeman on a sweep to force him to make a choice. Had Jones crashed the mesh point, Jackson would have handed the ball off to Freeman in an effort to get the ball outside where Andrews is present to lead block. If he decides to pursue the back as above, Jackson pulls the handoff and takes the ball off tackle.

As Jackson pulls the ball, he has a lead blocker to kick out the defensive back and Freeman to hold Jones, which creates a crease off Villanueva.

If you can’t block them, read them.

Keep an eye out for No. 42, as Patrick Ricard is quietly a huge part of the Ravens offense. The 311 lb. fullback lines up all over, whether it be in the backfield, in a wing, along the line of scrimmage, or even in the slot. He’ll also go in motion as the Ravens try to overwhelm the point of attack. Baltimore typically plays out of heavy personnel groups that feature Ricard and another back. Through three weeks, the Ravens have only used three receiver sets (11 personnel) on 36% of their plays.

The Broncos will probably utilize Fangio’s penny personnel as a way to go big vs. big, which means we won’t see a lot of Bryce Callahan barring injury. Mike Purcell, Shamar Stephen, and DeShawn Williams rarely receive a lot of praise, but they’re critical parts to this week’s game plan, and if ever there was a week to activate six defensive tackles, this is it.

There’s an undercurrent of inconsistency to the Baltimore passing attack, something I believe Fangio will try to capitalize on. Jackson is a far better passer than his most vocal critics give him credit for, but there’s notable instances where he gets impatient with his progression and bails on a concept to take what he can with his legs. This issue can be exacerbated when his faith in the protection is shaken because it prevents him from settling down in the pocket. To take advantage, the Broncos pass rush will need to make Jackson uncomfortable early and often.

When the Ravens do go to the air, Jackson is going to give plenty of consideration to Mark Andrews. The fourth year tight end is Baltimore’s most dependable pass catcher and will log snaps in the slot along with his work in line. At 6’5 and 256 lbs., Andrews has the size to mash in the running game as well as the fluid athleticism, body control, and reliable mitts to gash a defense on a deep over. He’s going to test the Broncos’ linebacker corps. minus Josey Jewell.

Hollywood Brown’s two dropped touchdowns highlight a bigger issue with the aerial attack. Both of Jackson’s primary wide receivers had a trouble securing catches in September. While their athleticism makes them potential mismatches for Kyle Fuller and Patrick Surtain II, they can be beaten at the catch point.

This is going to be a game where Fangio’s reputation for stinginess around the goal line should come under the microscope. The Ravens have been the most efficient redzone rushing team in the league in this young season, but iffy when they pass.

Offense

7. Who is the Broncos’ WR3?

8. How many tight ends is too many tight ends?

9. Will Shurmur lean on empty?

10. Who stands out in the passing game?

11. Establish easy completions

The biggest question hanging over the Broncos’ offense is how they fill the void left behind by injuries to Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler. In lieu of Hamler’s injury in the Jets game, Diontae Spencer saw an uptick in snaps and the return specialist is the closest skillset to the absent slot receiver’s. He’s also 5’9 and 163 lbs. with a limited catch radius and marginal ability to turn his very good athleticism into separation quickness. The move this week to sign David Moore off of the Raiders’ practice squad is a sign that George Paton and the Broncos recognized Spencer’s limitations. It remains to be seen how much Moore helps this week, as he’s surely drinking from a firehose as he tries to learn a new offensive system while he builds something resembling rapport with Teddy Bridgewater and the rest of his teammates.

One way I expect Pat Shurmur to minimize the issues with his wide receiver depth is to play out of heavier personnel groupings more often. After all, the Broncos have arguably the deepest tight end room in the league. Both Noah Fant and Albert Okwuegbunam are too agile for most linebackers and too big for most defensive backs. They’re capable receivers who should be able to help the Broncos capitalize on Baltimore’s issues defending the middle of the field, where they currently rank last in DVOA. Eric Saubert isn’t quite the same threat as an athlete, but he’s a good blocker and a capable receiver who is able to play in line or off, as well as in the backfield.

Beyond the actual personnel, what the Broncos do with their formations could have an understated role in how much trouble Teddy Bridgewater and the pass protection has with Wink Martindale’s defense today. The Ravens are a pressure team that doesn’t hesitate to bring an extra rusher from anywhere on the field, and they do a good job hiding their intentions. By utilizing tight or bunched personnel groupings, it can make it easier for Baltimore to disguise the play, so it would be a good week to feature more spread and empty looks.

Of course if the Broncos go with empty sets, it will put the onus on Bridgewater and the offensive line to hold up in pass protection. Don’t be shocked if we see Teddy taking a ton of short completions today as he looks to his hot routes against various blitz looks, which could lead to a cat and mouse game as Wink tries to simulate pressure to force a rushed pass into a bailing defender.

The other area of the passing game that I’m eager to see is the play action game. It’s a huge part of the changing narrative about “Teddy checkdown” because Bridgewater hasn’t hesitated to take shots when Shurmur dials them up. One of the most effective ways Denver has done that so far is off run fakes. Given the way Baltimore will frequently bring their safeties down and run cover 0, it could turn into a devastating part of the Broncos passing attack today. The Ravens’ best corner Marlon Humphrey has the goods to match up with either Courtland Sutton or Tim Patrick, but the rest of the cornerback room is either a step slow or a bit small to win consistently.

If Bridgewater and the passing game hold up to the Ravens pass rush, I expect the Broncos to score points. To win the game they’ll still need to find a way to eat the clock and put stress on Jackson to score quickly. There’s no question the running attack has been underwhelming to start the season, and Denver’s interior offensive line is probably going to be outmanned today, so it’d behoove Shurmur to manufacture easy completions as a sort of extension to the running game.

Final Thoughts

It’s worth noting that Denver came into today with almost an 80% chance at the postseason by some estimates. Given the 3-0 start and some faceplants by other teams around the AFC, the Broncos’ playoff hopes don’t necessarily rest on this particular matchup. However, that doesn’t mean the game loses importance. Seeding could be monumental when we reach the end of the season and start to think about a run at the Lombardi trophy. This Ravens team beat the Chiefs, and so finding a way to secure a victory could give the Broncos an important tie-breaker over Kansas City.

It would also leave them a perfect 4-0. Let’s hope they get it done.