(Note: Each Saturday we bring you a tasty late-night Broncos snack. The Kool-Aid is optional, but we’re drinking enough for everyone.)
Man shall not live by the spread alone.
If you’ve paid any attention to the media this week, you’ve probably seen tomorrow’s game billed as the league’s best passing offense versus the league’s best passing defense. While this is technically true when viewed through the prism of total yards per game, it doesn’t mean that you’re going to see Kyle Orton chucking the ball at 20-yard clips or Brandon Lloyd battling along the sideline for deep balls.
You’ve probably also heard that the Broncos absolutely must establish some sort of running game in order to have a chance in the game. This is equally untrue. Statistically speaking, passing the football has always (unless we go back 6 decades) had a significantly higher correlation coefficient to winning than running the football. Moreover, today’s passing game, if done properly, has the ability to replace the run a lot of the time.
In today’s NFL, running the football is truly secondary to the pass. Still, the run has some importance, if, for nothing else, to keep a defense from simply guessing pass on every play.
But if the Broncos aren’t going to challenge the Ravens deep and they aren’t going to establish the run, how are they going to beat the Ravens?
Before we tell you how the Ravens are going to eat their own crow feathers, first, it’s helpful to briefly review what they do on defense.
After spending time watching the Ravens’ first 4 games on film this year, and revisiting the Broncos/Ravens game from last year, one thing immediately jumps off the screen. It’s a misnomer to call the Ravens a 3-4 defense. That’s because they play a hybrid 3-4/4-3, and often morph into a 5-2 on likely rushing downs. When you watch the Broncos come out on their first few drives, briefly glance at how the Ravens are lined up up front even if you’re the type of fan that only watches the ball. You’ll see that the Ravens will often shift their three down defensive linemen to the strong side of the formation, while bringing both the weakside and strongside outside linebackers to the line of scrimmage.
This creates a similar look to what Mike Nolan employed with Denver last year, a pure 5-2, but with even more of a tendency to funnel all running plays to the inside. They will also typically cheat their strong safety to the line of scrimmage so they effectively have eight men in the box. Obviously, a formation like this is immediately strong against the run. But as the Browns showed several weeks ago, if you beat the front 5, it can create huge problems for the Ravens. On many occasions in that game, Ray Lewis found himself on the wrong side of a Peyton Hillis carry.
In the secondary, the Ravens just don’t give up big plays because they combine this front formation with a deep cover-3, with the cornerbacks playing off the receiver. In short, they just keep everything in front of them. To score against the Ravens, you’d better be prepared to methodically work the ball down the field in 5- and 6-yard bites.
On 3rd-downs (and other obvious passing situations like 2nd and 10), you can expect to see the Ravens zone blitz—a tradition from the Rex Ryan days. If you remember last year’s game against the Broncos, the Ravens killed them with zone blitzes from the very first play.
Depressed already? Don’t be. Remember, it’s the night before the game. The Broncos are winning, until further notice. Despite this gruesome backdrop (and with recent history against them), here are 7 reasons the Broncos will beat the Ravens tomorrow:
1) Orton’s pre-snap reads are better. This is Orton’s second year in this offense. He’s both more patient and more observant. Like Peyton Manning, if he takes his time and uses most of the play clock, he can determine which zone the Ravens are likely blitzing from. The Ravens do a great job of disguising their underneath zone coverages and will do everything they can to create ultimate confusion at the line of scrimmage, but human nature sometimes betrays them. Defenders still try and cheat a step or two in order to get to their leverage points. Orton will recognize this.
2) The wheel route. How will a specific route beat the Ravens? Simply put, it puts pressure on the flat, which will be a weak point in the defense’s coverage if the Ravens come out with their outside linebackers at the line of scrimmage. If the backers blitz, it will force either the safety or the inside linebacker to close the distance to the flat in open space. This should give Corell Buckhalter and Laurence Maroney an advantage.
3) The no-huddle. There’s a chance you’ll see the Broncos come out in a no-huddle tomorrow. This will prevent the Ravens from substituting, will tire out a defense that already uses a ton of energy pre-snap, and will force the Ravens into more simplified coverages. The only thing that would stop them is the fear of crowd noise and the fear of control of time of possession.
4) Maroney’s pass protection. Laurence Maroney has been getting killed for his lack of production in the running game. The good news is that in Josh McDaniels’ system, pass protection is equally important. Maroney is going to show the Broncos fans a primary reason he was acquired. Expect the Broncos to show a lot of 212 packages and 113 packages tomorrow. This will leave 1 or 2 running backs who can be used in pass protection and in the aforementioned wheel routes.
5) The screen pass. Expect to see the Broncos run 3-5 screen passes tomorrow. This will help negate the aggressive run and pass blitzes you are sure to see from the Ravens. Daniel Graham, Buckhalter, Maroney, and Demaryius Thomas (courtesy of the tunnel screen) could all have big plays.
6) Eddie Royal—again. Given the preference of the Ravens for the cover-3, expect to see the Broncos clear the the middle zone with deep routes in order to open up Royal underneath. If Royal can work the middle unimpeded with crossing routes, expect him to have another big day. The Ravens will try and counter with deep drops from their middle linebackers, but they will fail.
7) The short (route) tree. Expect to see shorter routes from the Broncos tomorrow, again due to the strategy of the Ravens to keep everything in front of them. You will see a lot of slants, quick outs, and curls for gains of 5 to 8 yards. Orton will string several of these gains together, only this time, he’ll also do it in the end zone.
So there you have it. At least until 11AM, the Broncos are winning this game!
Feel free to give your reasons for a win (or a loss if you’d like) below. And sweet Broncos dreams.