On the road for the first time this season, the Broncos will depend on two rookies in their first NFL road game to carry the load against what is traditionally one of the league’s best run defenses.
Early returns indicate Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman will be ready.
In two games this year, the Broncos have rushed for 314 yards — second in the league — at a rate of 5.2 yards per carry — good for fourth in the league. It’s a far cry from 2017, when Denver finished 18th in yards per attempt and scored just eight touchdowns on the ground, tied for 25th in the league.
The running game has come through in a variety of situations. In the opening game, Denver ran the ball effectively late to drain the clock down and minimize any comeback hopes from Russell Wilson and the Seahawks offense. Last weekend, the Broncos' ground game awoke from a poor first half to gain 89 yards in the second half.
Finding continued success on the ground against Baltimore may be an important factor against a stout front seven.
Nine times over past 10 seasons, the Ravens' defense has ranked inside the top 10 in yards per carry.
"Baltimore has played great defense," Head Coach Vance Joseph said Thursday. "That’s been their culture for the last 10 to 12 years with [Pro Football Hall of Fame LB] Ray [Lewis] and those guys, and [former S] Ed Reed and those guys. It hasn’t stopped. They take great pride in playing defense. ... It’s going to be a challenge. It’s a big, powerful AFC North defense."
This season, the Ravens allowed just 3.8 yards per carry in a 47-3 romp over the Bills to open the season. Last week, the Bengals ran for 108 yards in a win but averaged only 3.9 yards per carry.
The Ravens, who played Cincinnati on Thursday last week, lost C.J. Mosley early in the game and trailed 28-7 at halftime. As rookie backup Kenny Young settled into the game, though, the Ravens stemmed the tide and outscored the Bengals 16-6 in the second half before ultimately coming up short.
Mosley has been a limited participant in practice this week, but even if he is unable to play, Young proved he can be a quality backup.
"C.J. is the quarterback of their defense and obviously he’s a Pro Bowl guy, All-Pro linebacker," Offensive Coordinator Bill Musgrave said. "We’re expecting to see him on Sunday, that he would bounce back from his injury."
Regardless of who lines up at that middle linebacker position for the hosts Sunday, Terrell Suggs will be next to him. The seven-time Pro Bowler is still effective as he nears his 36th birthday.
"He’s a force," Bill Musgrave said. "We’ve got to account for him and really do a good job of knowing where he is. Guys like him, they’re just rare. They obviously have a good thing going on defense and have for years and years, ever since even when [Cincinnati head coach and former Ravens defensive coordinator] Marvin Lewis started the whole thing, back during their original Super Bowl run."
Getting Lindsay and Freeman into a good rhythm early could pay huge dividends. The two rookies have averaged 6.1 and 4.3 yards per carry, respectively. Lindsay is the league's third leading rusher with 178 yards. It's been a rapid ascension for the undrafted rookie free agent.
"I don’t know if it’s even fazed him," Musgrave said. "I think he’s still that same Phil. I think he’s really focused. In the meetings, he’s outstanding, bright-eyed, ready to take notes and retain the game plans we’re installing. I think he’s keeping on, keeping on."
Running the ball effectively early on the road can quiet what will certainly be a boisterous Ravens crowd at Baltimore's home opener. Last season, the Ravens allowed 4.4 yards per carry in the first half, and the team finished 16th in yards per carry allowed.
"I think the run game is important," Musgrave said. "We want to just be balanced and do our best to take the crowd out of it. That just comes from successful plays. ... So, it’ll be a challenge. Of course, we were in Washington and Arizona in the preseason, but it’s definitely not the same."
Establishing the run early and often doesn't just fall on the running backs, though. The Denver offensive line has done a solid job opening up lanes for Lindsay and Freeman, and the rookies have taken advantage.
"We’re happy about [the success], but it’s only Week 2," left tackle Garett Bolles said. "We’ve got  more weeks to go. We’ve just got to continue to stay on the grind and continue to do things that we need to do to be successful. I feel like we’re right on track and the train is going to continue to move as long as we’re doing the things we need to do."