ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – There are the Ravens you saw last season – once throttled by the Broncos at M&T Bank Stadium, the other time their conquerors in an upset at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
And then there are the Ravens who arrive for Thursday night's season opener. The two clubs aren't radically different, but they're definitely not the same, either: Elvis Dumervil and Brandon Stokley in black and purple, Wes Welker in orange and blue, the absence of Anquan Boldin, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed from the Ravens and Dumervil, Stokley and the suspended Von Miller from the Broncos ensure that.
"A lot of their key players -- the guys that kind of were impact players -- have changed," said Broncos Offensive Coordinator Adam Gase. "So we're going to have to feel this out and see how this personnel group handles what we're going to do."
Stokley's late-summer arrival in Baltimore tweaks the dynamic, but it will be Dumervil who draws the focus, given the questions regarding whether the Broncos can mount a consistent pass rush without him and Miller. The relative lack of hurried throws in the preseason -- by my count, just 13 forced by players who are on the current 53-man Broncos roster -- offers evidence for concern, but the return of Derek Wolfe and Robert Ayers to full health should provide a remedy for these concerns.
Still, Dumervil will bear close attention, given that his first step and anticipation of the snap remain as quick and crisp as ever during his seven years with the Broncos.
THE DUMERVIL FACTOR
The Broncos know him. But he knows them, too, so this might be a wash.
If you were expecting something radically different from Dumervil in his move from defensive end to being listed as the Ravens' strongside linebacker in their 3-4 base alignment, you were disappointed. What stood out was how often the Ravens did not use him as a stand-up outside linebacker, and instead put his hand on the ground; to use their preseason game against Atlanta on Aug. 15 as an example, they put his hand on the ground seven times and used him as a stand-up linebacker on eight occasions. On three of those eight snaps standing up, he dropped into coverage.
But what has changed is the frequency of his use, which is reflected on the Ravens' depth chart issued to media and posted on their website. That shows the starting strongside linebacker as Elvis Dumervil "or" Courtney Upshaw. Upshaw started the first preseason game at Tampa Bay and third one against Carolina; Dumervil started the game in between, against Atlanta. Upshaw played 20 more snaps than Dumervil (58 to 38) in the preseason, but in a testament to their use and their effectiveness as pass rushers, Dumervil forced three hurried throws to Upshaw's one, and with two hurries against the Falcons was responsible for forcing the driving Falcons to settle for a first-quarter field goal.
Baltimore's use of Dumervil shows that they see him as a situational pass rusher; thus, they have opted to replace one man (Paul Kruger, now with the Browns) with two. This works fine as long as the Ravens can manage their substitutions quickly and effectively; if they're caught with Upshaw rushing the passer or Dumervil against the run, teams may try and expose a perceived mismatch.
Much of what the Broncos accomplish on Thursday will depend on how well Peyton Manning reads the Ravens' personnel groupings and reacts at the line of scrimmage -- and whether the Broncos can accelerate the tempo as effectively as they did against St. Louis in the third preseason game and make fatigue a factor. If they can do that, then the Ravens' personnel at outside linebacker might not matter, not if they eventually tire from lining up and trying to beat the offensive tackles wide on every play.
- The Ravens will miss Dennis Pitta. None of the options they used at tight end during the preseason were nearly as effective down the seam as the incumbent tight end, who injured his hip early in training camp. The Ravens might be wise to use more three-wide receiver sets with Brandon Stokley working in the slot when they need an extra target, as opposed to the two-tight end, one-back set they've often preferred when faced with second- or third-and-long.
- It's all about the first five yards for wide receiver Torrey Smith. On both touchdown catches in January's divisional-round game, he got an uninterrupted release off the line of scrimmage that was too much for Champ Bailey, who got no safety help, to overcome. Either he has to be disrupted within five yards or the line of scrimmage or a safety must assist in order to avoid the big plays that plagued the Broncos last January. The absence of Boldin and Pitta might make this easier, but at the same time, the Broncos must also account for Stokley and running back Ray Rice underneath, so this will require a delicate balance. When Smith made his biggest play of the preseason, a 77-yard catch from quarterback Joe Flacco, he had a six-yard cushion at the line of scrimmage from Atlanta cornerback Asante Samuel and gained 67 of them after the catch on a slant. Falcons safety William Moore was slow to react, slightly stumbled and had no chance to make up for the room Smith was given.
- Defending Rice will be a challenge. The teams that fare best in containing the six-year veteran are the ones that use his ability to bounce outside against him, steering him into outside linebackers and cornerbacks who are proficient tacklers. This plays into the Broncos' hands when Chris Harris and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie are on the edges, but Denver's success or failure might depend on how well outside linebackers Nate Irving (strong side) and Danny Trevathan (weak side) avoid mistakes in what will be the first regular-season starts for both.