Ravens/Broncos: What to Watch For

Today marks the first regular season game of the 2013 NFL season, and it’s a good one: the rematch of last year’s AFC divisional round thriller between Peyton Manning and the Broncos and Joe Flacco’s Ravens.

Although tonight’s game is effectively the Broncos’ first step to redemption after the double-overtime loss that cost their playoff run, both teams have been involved in roster movements that have drastically altered the names players that will be on the field. Among these moves are the Elvis Dumervil fax-gate incident, Von Miller’s suspension, and the departure of veterans Anquan Boldin, Bernard Pollard, and, above all, Ray Lewis in the offseason. As such, let’s take a look at some of the key players to watch in tonight’s game.

Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie/Tony Carter

By now, it’s clear that Champ Bailey will not take the field for the Broncos in week 1. The absence of Bailey is not something to be scoffed at, even if memories of poor play persist in the mind following last year’s heart-breaking defeat. Bailey is a team leader and still one of the most talented corners in the NFL, and it’s up to offseason acquisition Rodgers-Cromartie to step up in his absence. Look for DRC and Chris Harris to start in base sets, with up-and-coming Tony Carter taking over for Harris outside while Harris bumps inside for nickel and dime packages. Carter saw plenty of time with Denver last season in sub-packages, and is a quality corner, if inconsistent at times. If Rodgers-Cromartie and Carter can hold their own against the depleted Ravens receiving corps, then Denver has a chance to shut down Flacco’s passing attack.

Torrey Smith/Jacoby Jones/Ed Dickson

The Ravens are expecting big things out of the receiver duo of Smith and Jones following last year’s playoff performances, and signaled as much with the Anquan Boldin trade that left Baltimore with a glaring lack of depth at receiver. When the loss of Dennis Pitta is added in to the equation, it’s quite clear that Smith and Jones will have to perform if Joe Flacco is going to make an impact on the field. While it was expected that Flacco would rely heavily on the emerging Pitta as a safety net in the passing game, it’s up to fourth-year tight end Ed Dickson to fill that role for the majority of the season as Pitta recovers from right hip surgery. Expect the speedy Smith to be matched up with Broncos speedster Dominque Rodgers-Cromartie throughout the game, while Chris Harris and Tony Carter handle Jones.

Wesley Woodyard/Nate Irving/Shaun Phillips/Derek Wolfe

The six-game suspension of Von Miller to start the season is a decidedly big hit to the Broncos’ defense early in the season. Miller was arguably one of the league’s best defensive players and had the biggest impact last year of any Broncos defensive player not named Champ Bailey. Replacing Miller’s production is simply something the remainder of the Broncos’ linebacker corps cannot do, and as such it’s up to Woodyard not only to make an impact, but also act as a leader on the field with Bailey on the bench. Veteran Shaun Phillips will look to disrupt Joe Flacco in the pocket as primarily a pass rusher, while Nate Irving (17 career tackles) will be seeing the first significant playing time of his career at the Mike position this season. Linebacker has quickly gone from a strength for the Broncos to a weakness with the loss of Miller. Additionally, Denver’s coaching staff will be relying heavily on second-year lineman Derek Wolfe to create a pass-rush from both the end and tackle positions to make up for the loss of Elvis Dumervil in the offseason.

Michael Huff/James Ihedigbo

The Ravens are looking at an almost entirely new defensive backfield from last year’s Super Bowl winning squad. The departures of Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard have led to James Ihedigbo’s promotion to starter and the acquisition of versatile Michael Huff to man the other safety position. While the Ravens’ coaching staff would have liked 32nd-overall pick Matt Elam to make an impact in his rookie season, it’s likely he’ll only play sparingly barring injury to either Huff or Ihedigbo. Peyton Manning has an abundance of offensive weapons at his disposal to throw the Ravens’ way, including prolific slot receiver Wes Welker and a talented duo of Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker to boot. Huff and Ihedigbo will be responsible for handling Welker in base packages and relatively unknown tight end Julius Thomas, who is expected to draw the start due to Joel Dreessen’s absence. Thomas’ athleticism could make for a tough match up out of base packages for Baltimore’s safeties and linebackers alike.

Manny Ramirez/Ronnie Hillman/Montee Ball

It’s a well-known fact that the path to success in a Peyton Manning offense is to keep no. 18 on his feet. While rushing has complemented Manning’s passing attack throughout his career, it’s important to protect the star quarterback and to keep up with Peyton’s play calling and quick thinking audibles prior to the snap. Manny Ramirez, who saw time starting at guard in Peyton’s first year with Denver due to Chris Kuper’s continuing injury problems, is now the starting center following injuries to both J.D. Walton and Dan Koppen. With a new upbeat no-huddle offense intermixed with Peyton’s standard air-it-out offensive style, Ramirez’s impact at center will be important in keeping up with Peyton’s line audibles. Ronnie Hillman will have a tough task in protecting Manning and holding onto the football, as poor ball protection almost led to Hillman’s demotion from starter in the preseason and pass protection problems in the past have led to a reliance on Montee Ball for clear passing downs to increase protection for Manning. Expect Haloti Ngata to push the pocket against Ramirez on the interior line, while the duo of Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil challenge whichever running back remains in the backfield to protect Manning, whether it’s Hillman or Ball.

Daryl Smith/Josh Bynes/Arthur Brown

The loss of a future Hall of Fame player in Ray Lewis is something that may haunt the Ravens for seasons as the team attempts to find an heir at the middle linebacker position. It was thought prior to the offseason that Danelle Ellerbe would take a step forward in Lewis’ absence, but it’s quite clear that the only impact Ellerbe will make this year concerning the Ravens will be in a Dolphins uniform when Baltimore heads to Miami in week 5. The next man in line was Jameel McClain, who was placed on the reserve/physically unable to perform list last week — meaning he’ll miss the beginning of the season. Instead, free-agent acquisition Daryl Smith, a nine-year veteran with 114 games as starter under his belt as a 4-3 outside ‘backer with the Jaguars, will start at middle linebacker with the Ravens for the early part of the 2013 season. Opposite him will be third-year reserve ‘backer Josh Bynes (34 tackles in 2012). Second-round pick Arthur Brown and Albert McClellan (49 tackles) will also be in the mix for snaps as the Ravens’ coaching staff scrambles to fill the hole at middle linebacker. If Denver’s offensive line can handle the Ravens’ stout defensive line, the Broncos running backs could be looking at an ideal match up in the middle of the Ravens’ linebacking corps.