ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Four months of chatter since the schedule was released is about to cease. Now it's about the Broncos, the Ravens, the start of a season and a rematch of a game destined to be long remembered in NFL annals.
It's rich with storylines, but from a football perspective, five stand above others. After the game, I'll revisit these and discuss how each turned out.
1. DICTATE THE PACE.
Whether that means snapping the football with 20 or more seconds left on the play clock or slowing it down if the Broncos are in front by multiple scores so they can hammer away with Montee Ball running behind two-tight end formations, the Broncos want to always keep the game at their pace. The Ravens would like to do something similar, but their best bet will probably not involve extensive no-huddle work -- although it is an arrow in their quiver that they have polished and worked on throughout the summer.
For the Broncos, a quick offensive tempo has two purposes: to tire out the defense and limit its substitutions, so they can perhaps catch the Ravens in a personnel grouping that they can exploit. Baltimore rotated Courtney Upshaw and Elvis Dumervil in the preseason -- Upshaw played 58 snaps, Dumervil 38 -- and Peyton Manning could respond to whichever linebacker is on the field by tailoring his line-of-scrimmage calls to account for the strengths and weaknesses of each.
But the exhaustion factor will likely be the most important. Denver's practice in up-tempo play at high altitude will also help its defense when Joe Flacco pushes the accelerator; they're accustomed to this, while the Ravens, on both sides of the line of scrimmage, are not.
2. CONTAIN RAY RICE.
Quite a bit goes into this: interior pressure to clog running lanes and force Rice outside, and solid tackling from the linebackers and defensive backs who come forward to respond to Rice's penchant for bouncing outside when a hole up the middle doesn't exist. The improved play of Kevin Vickerson and Terrance Knighton working together in the third preseason game offers hope that the two massive tackles can occupy space and build a wall up the middle, but the work at containing Rice when he bounces outside will pass to plenty of players without much experience: namely safety Duke Ihenacho and outside linebackers Nate Irving (strong side) and Danny Trevathan (weak side), whose career regular-season starts collectively total zero. Their readiness for newly expanded roles will help determine whether the Broncos can keep Rice in check.
3. DON'T LET TORREY SMITH GET A QUICK JUMP OFF THE SNAP.
The Ravens wide receiver has such a burst that if he can get a free release off the snap, he'll be upfield and beyond man-to-man coverage. Smith's acceleration led to a pair of touchdowns in January's playoff loss. Giving him a wide cushion isn't the answer; Atlanta did that in the preseason and got torched for a 77-yard touchdown, because a safety was slow to react and stumbled after Smith caught a slant.
With Champ Bailey out, how the Broncos deal with Smith will be worth watching. Will they assign either Chris Harris or Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to him, or will they keep their cornerbacks in their depth-chart assigned spots on the right and left side, respectively? If the latter proves to be the case, then Tony Carter, arguably the fastest cornerback on the Broncos' roster, will also bear some responsibility when he lines up in nickel packages. Carter has the straight-line speed to catch up to Smith, but whether he can contain the Ravens receiver will likely depend on his ability to turn and react off the snap.
4. USE THE ELEMENT OF SURPRISE.
The Broncos kept their defensive plans fairly straightforward in the preseason. This has two functions -- it allows for a clearer evaluation of personnel, and it offers a minimum of tactics that the Ravens can analyze in their film study. They can guess, but they don't know what to expect from a defense that will be without Bailey, Miller and Dumervil. This is only the fourth game the Broncos have played since 2006 without both Bailey and Dumervil; they went 1-2 in the previous three games, all of which were played in a four-game stretch between January and September 2011.
This gives the Broncos plenty of options. Surprise blitzes, each one more surprising than the last? Unusual alignments? Disguised coverages? Why not? It will likely take some creativity for Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio to mount the pressure he wants, and that will take a few gambles he might not have otherwise needed to make. But it will be crucial for him to not use all the tricks in his bag this week … after all, there's five more games before Miller comes back.
5. DON'T LET OPPORTUNITY SLIP AWAY.
Much of the blame for the divisional-round loss last January landed at the feet of safety Rahim Moore for his misplay on the late touchdown pass from Flacco to Jacoby Jones, but you can point to myriad other mistakes and letdowns, from a failure to generate a push on clock-chewing run plays in the fourth quarter to a missed field-goal attempt when Matt Prater's foot caught a clump of the field to a pair of near-interceptions by Mike Adams and Chris Harris in overtime that could have set up a game-winning kick. Moore wasn't the only player who retreated to the locker room after that loss and muttered, "If only I had …" -- indeed, the missed chances piled up, any one of which could have reversed the outcome.
Credit is due to the Ravens for capitalizing on the Broncos, but the succession of misplays and lost chances is a reminder of how much had to go in the Ravens' favor for them to win. It's important for the Broncos to realize this and not press; if they play within themselves, they should be able to hang step for step with the defending world champions.