The rematch between the two teams is finally upon us. Everyone knows the story of the Broncos' humiliating loss in January, so I'll save the pretext. Just know one thing: this game matters.
Don't let people who say the regular season is pointless take away the meaning from this game. Sure, teams do their talking in the postseason. That doesn't change the importance of this game.
For the Broncos, the Ravens rematch is all about revenge. Any player who says this is a normal game is lying. Being the first game of the year only adds to the tension surrounding these two clubs. On Thursday, the Broncos and Ravens will battle it out like a playoff game.
Here are five key areas for the Broncos in week one.
1. The pace of the offense
In the first quarter of the third preseason game against the St. Louis Rams, the Broncos ran an incredible 30 plays. That pace, which will be dictated by new offensive coordinator Adam Gase, has to be just as fast against the Ravens.
With so many new pieces on the Ravens defense, Peyton Manning and the Broncos have a chance to push the tempo. The tempo, according to Gase, is about execution and calling the right plays.
"How quick (the play) has to come out, especially with how fast Peyton does play," Gase told ESPN. "He's ready for the next call, and trying to stay one step ahead. The hardest thing is probably to have two or three situations in your mind, and just be ready for when those pop up being ready to go to the call."
Manning will have plenty of options to throw to. Among them are new targets Wes Welker and Julius Thomas. Thomas, who has been with the team since 2011, is finally healthy enough to make an impact.
If Welker and Thomas both get going, there's a greater chance that Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas will be open on critical plays. All four players can be viable threats to the Ravens defense.
2. The run by committee approach
In the midst of Denver's up-tempo offense, establishing the running game will be vital to keeping drives alive and adding versatility to the Broncos' game plan.
To the dislike of fantasy football players, the Broncos plan to run the ball by a committee of running backs this season. Ronnie Hillman, who is listed as the starter, and Montee Ball will see most of the reps with Knowshown Moreno sprinkled in.
There's still a question to how effective this approach can be. Based on brief preseason showings, it could take a while for the running game to get off the ground. Hillman struggled with fumbles and Ball still has to adjust to the pace of an NFL game.
Can either Hillman or Ball make a dent in the Ravens' run defense?
3. Protecting Manning
Protecting Manning seems like a no-brainer week in and week out, but the Ravens in particular have had success with adding pressure. The Ravens defense sacked Manning five times last year, twice in a regular season game and three times in the playoffs. The Broncos lost every game that Manning was sacked three times last season.
The Ravens could be even more improved this year with the addition of former Bronco Elvis Dumervil. As I've said previously, letting Dumervil go was the biggest mistake the Broncos made in the offseason. The eighth-year player is making his return to Denver, and he and Terrell Suggs pose a huge challenge for Denver's offensive line.
Is the line healthy enough to fully handle the Ravens' pass rush? The Broncos are down to their third center in Manny Ramirez. Left tackle Ryan Clady, right tackle Orlando Franklin, and guards Chris Kuper and Louis Vasquez have all spent time during training camp trying to heal from injuries.
4. Where's the pass-rush?
Losing Dumervil and having Von Miller suspended for the first six games drastically alters how the Broncos get after the quarterback. The duo accounted for 29.5 of the Broncos' 52 sacks last season, which was first in the NFL.
The Broncos already had a tough time getting after Joe Flacco with Dumervil and Miller. The team had only one sack in the playoff game, a credited half-sack from each Dumervil and Miller.
If there is a silver lining, Derek Wolfe and Robert Ayers were each able to sack Flacco in Week 14 of the previous season. Wolfe had a promising rookie season with six sacks and should take another leap this year.
The Broncos also signed Shaun Phillips to provide another pass-rusher to replace Dumervil (and now Miller). Phillips, 34, earned nine sacks last year with the Chargers. Him and second-year player Malik Jackson will help get to Flacco.
One this is for sure, not any player on the Broncos has the impact Von Miller has when blitzing.
5. The backfield vs. the Ravens receiving corps
Perhaps most important to this game is Rahim Moore getting his shot at redemption. For months, Moore has had to live with the guilt that Jacoby Jones blew by him for a touchdown to send the game into overtime. How Moore recovers from that and plays in this game will be interesting to monitor.
The other safety for the Broncos, Duke Ihenacho, is worth watching as well. Ihenacho spent the majority of last year on the practice squad, but worked his way up to become the starting strong safety in training camp. Ihenacho had his share of highlights in the preseason. Now the Broncos have to see if his skills carry over to the regular season.
As for the cornerbacks, containing Torrey Smith is the number one priority. It's looking unlikely that Champ Bailey will get his shot at redemption due to a foot injury. Either Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie or Chris Harris will have to step up to the plate and keep Smith in line.
Smith had three receptions for 98 yards and two touchdowns in his last visit to Sports Authority Field. With the loss of Anquan Boldin and injury to Dennis Pitta, Smith is Flacco's only reliable target. Veterans Dallas Clark and Brandon Stokley had solid years last year, but they don't pose the threat that Smith does nor do they have developed chemistry with Flacco.
Matthew Paras is a Journalism Major at DePaul University. He writes for multiple outlets, including Maxboxing.com, Operationsports.com, and DePaul's student newspaper, The DePaulia. He can be reached by email at Mparas1432@gmail.com or on twitter @Matthew_Paras. He currently resides in Chicago, but lived in Littleton, Colo. for seven years.
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