AFC North: Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie

The Denver Broncos are going to have more to worry about than the larger-than-life Joe Flacco banner at their stadium. Their bigger concern in tonight's season opener against the Baltimore Ravens should be Flacco's big arm.

Flacco
It was Flacco's ability to go over the top of the Broncos' usually stingy defense that propelled the Ravens to the upset victory in the AFC divisional game. Flacco was 4-of-7 with three touchdowns on throws more than 20 yards downfield in that Jan. 12 contest, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Flacco's biggest throw was the high-arcing 70-yard touchdown to wide receiver Jacoby Jones, who beat safety Rahim Moore and tied the game in the final seconds of regulation. But that wasn't the only time Flacco hurt Denver. He had touchdown passes of 59 and 32 yards to wide receiver Torrey Smith.

The three touchdowns on those throws were Flacco's most in a game in his career, and tied the most for any quarterback in a game since the start of 2008. The Broncos had allowed three such touchdowns all season. Flacco's average target depth was 13.4 yards downfield in the divisional playoffs, his highest rate in a game all season.

Should the Broncos expect a similar game plan Thursday? Going deep will be the Ravens' best chance of scoring through the air. Flacco is without his top two red-zone targets, wide receiver Anquan Boldin (traded to San Francisco) and tight end Dennis Pitta (injured reserve-designated for return list). What Flacco has Thursday night is his best deep threats in Smith and Jones.

The Denver secondary, though, will look a little different, although Moore is still the starting safety. Champ Bailey won't play because of a left-foot injury. Not sure if this is a positive for the Ravens, since Smith beat the 12-time Pro Bowl cornerback twice for touchdowns in the last meeting. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie will replace Bailey.

Bailey, though, isn't the biggest loss for Denver. Flacco should have time in the pocket to look downfield because the Broncos are without their top two pass-rushers from last season. Von Miller is suspended for the first six games, and Elvis Dumervil is now with the Ravens.

There's also a difference with Flacco. He's been better at throwing deep since the Ravens changed offensive coordinators. Under Cam Cameron, Flacco completed just more than a third of his passes more than 20 yards downfield. That number is higher than 50 percent under Jim Caldwell.

What Flacco doesn't do when throwing deep is get careless. Flacco attempted a league-high 107 passes last season that went more than 20 yards downfield and didn't thrown an interception. That's the most attempts without getting picked off in the past five seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

So, if I were Moore, I would probably take a few steps back before the ball is snapped.

It was 236 days ago when Joe Flacco threw that fateful, 70-yard touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones, leading the Baltimore Ravens to a double-overtime playoff win at the Denver Broncos. The Ravens went on to win the Super Bowl, and the Broncos were left to think of what might have been. Flacco and the Ravens return to Denver's Sports Authority Stadium on Thursday night to kick off the 2013 season in a rematch of two of the top teams in the AFC.

The stakes are different, and so are the teams. Gone are Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Anquan Boldin from the Ravens. Baltimore is expected to have 10 different starters from the team that hoisted up the Lombardi trophy, and that doesn't include former Broncos defensive standout Elvis Dumervil, who is expected to play in passing situations.

The Broncos won't have Dumervil or Von Miller, who has been suspended for six games, rushing after Flacco this time. But Peyton Manning is back, along with the addition of Wes Welker to an already dangerous wide receiver group.

Broncos team reporter Jeff Legwold and Ravens team reporter Jamison Hensley discuss whether the opener will be a repeat of that memorable AFC divisional playoff game.

Hensley: Much has been made of the 50-foot Flacco banner hanging at the Broncos' stadium. Flacco has embraced the hate, saying it's not a bad thing for opposing fans to dislike you. The Ravens' focus, as it has been all offseason, has been to move forward. It's the start of a different era in many ways for the Ravens in their first game without Lewis and Reed. But it's easier to move forward when you're the ones sitting on top of the football world. How much will the "revenge factor" play into this game for the Broncos?

Legwold: Broncos coach John Fox, much like John Harbaugh with his "What's Important Now" mantra to leave the championship season behind, has tried to leave the past in the past. But questions about the kneel-down in the waning seconds despite Manning at quarterback and two timeouts in hand, as well as a third-and-7 running play late in the game, have trailed him all through the offseason. A lot of the Broncos players are willing to say memories of the playoff loss pushed them through the tedium of May and June. But over the past two weeks, they've stuck to the script -- that it's a new year, a new team -- but deep down they all know they let a potential Super Bowl trip, home-field advantage and a seven-point lead with less than a minute to play get away. And Dumervil's departure does add a little spice as well. How has Dumervil fit in and what kind of year do you think he'll have?

Hensley: Terrell Suggs has talked about Dumervil having the right mentality to play for the Ravens, and Harbaugh commented how Dumervil is already taking a leadership role. He really is a perfect fit for the Ravens on the field, too, where they have never had an elite pass-rusher to pair with Suggs. Over the past six seasons, Suggs has had only one teammate record more than seven sacks in a season. And being a pass-rusher is Dumervil's primary role. The Ravens will use Courtney Upshaw on early downs to set the edge against the run, which should keep Dumervil's legs fresh in pass-rushing situations. The Ravens have a familiarity with Dumervil because inside linebackers coach Don Martindale was Denver's defensive coordinator in 2010 and was Dumervil's position coach in 2009, when the linebacker-end led the NFL with 17 sacks. Baltimore is catching a break Thursday night with Dumervil now wearing purple and Miller serving his suspension. How are the Broncos going to generate a pass rush on Flacco?

[+] EnlargeElvis Dumervil
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyPass-rusher Elvis Dumervil was one of the Ravens' high-profile offseason acquisitions, and has become a leader on the field and off for Baltimore.
Legwold: That is the $380,687.50 question, which is how much of Miller's base salary he'll surrender during the six-game suspension. But without Miller (18.5 sacks in '12) and Dumervil (11.0 last season), the Broncos will mix and match on a variety of down-and-distances. Derek Wolfe is a key player, because of his ability to play inside and outside along the defensive line and still create matchup problems. Jack Del Rio believes Wolfe is ready to take an enormous step in his development, and among the defensive linemen only Dumervil played more snaps up front than Wolfe did as a rookie last year. The Broncos will ask Shaun Phillips, who they think has plenty left to give after 9.5 sacks for the struggling Chargers last season, to be a spot rusher. And Robert Ayers, who was a first-round pick in 2009, has always said he could put up the sack numbers if given the chance. He's played through four different coordinators -- Del Rio is his first to be on the job for two consecutive seasons -- but has just 6.5 career sacks. Now is his time. On Flacco, how has he dealt with all that comes with a Lombardi trophy and a nine-digit contract?

Hensley: The money and increased notoriety haven't really affected Flacco. If anything, he's become more vocal. There was a playful trash-talking exchange during training camp between Flacco and Suggs, who told his quarterback that the defense's "swag is on a thousand million." Flacco responded: "Then what's my swag at? I get paid more than you. A lot more!" What has really changed is the wide receiver group around Flacco. This unfamiliarity led to four interceptions in six quarters of work this preseason. His top two receivers from a year ago won't be there Thursday. Boldin was traded to San Francisco, and tight end Dennis Pitta is out indefinitely with a dislocated hip. They accounted for 36 receptions in the postseason, which was nearly half of Flacco's completions. That being said, it was Torrey Smith and Jones who did the most damage in the playoff game in Denver. The Ravens are hoping wide receiver Brandon Stokley can move the chains on third downs and tight end Ed Dickson (hamstring) can contribute in the season opener. There has to be more confidence in the Broncos' passing attack with Manning and his bunch of talented receivers.

Legwold: There is plenty of confidence in what the potential can be with Welker in the mix. The Broncos loved Stokley as a slot receiver, but Welker is younger and offers a bigger upside in terms of production. Welker will also have the best receivers to his outside shoulders in Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas, the best combo he's had since the Patriots decided they didn't want Randy Moss around any longer. The 229-pound Thomas and the 214-pound Decker make the Broncos a tough matchup for any secondary. In the preseason, teams simply backed off into coverage and took their chances they could allow the catch and make the tackle before too much damage was done. The pace, especially at altitude, is a little something new as well. The Broncos ran 49 plays, excluding penalties, in the first half alone against the Rams in the preseason. They won't always go that fast, but if they get the look they want from a defense, they'll put the pedal to the floor and not allow a substitution. The key issue will be protection: Left tackle Ryan Clady missed plenty of the preseason after offseason surgery, and Denver has surrendered pressure in the middle of the field at times. The three-wide look is what the Broncos want their base formation to be on offense, but they can't do it if they can't protect Manning. It has to be a strange thing for a Baltimore defense that has been the franchise's signature for so long to have so many changes.

Hensley: There were a lot of changes to the Ravens' defense, but there were necessary changes. The Ravens weren't a top-10 defense for the first time since 2002. This defense had slumped to No. 17 in the NFL. It's never easy to part ways with the likes of Lewis and Reed. But the Ravens aren't replacing two Hall of Fame players in their prime. Baltimore had to replace two aging players who weren't the same playmakers from a few years ago. The additions of Dumervil, defensive lineman Chris Canty, linebacker Daryl Smith and safety Michael Huff have made this a stronger and more athletic defense. The Ravens' defense is going to be significantly better in two areas: stopping the run and pressuring the quarterback. The biggest concern, especially when you're starting two new safeties, is the communication in the secondary. One mistake there and Manning will burn you for a touchdown. How is the Broncos' secondary holding up this summer?

Legwold: The Broncos would feel better if Bailey felt better. Bailey did not practice Sunday or Monday because of a left foot injury he suffered in the preseason loss in Seattle and is still a major question mark for Thursday's game. Bailey has been on the field for practice, but has not participated in any of the drills. The end result means Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie would likely line up much of the time in Bailey's left cornerback spot. Rodgers-Cromartie is one of the more athletic sidekicks the Broncos have had for Bailey since Bailey arrived in 2004. Chris Harris and Tony Carter, the player who gave Jones a free release off the line of scrimmage on the game-tying bomb last January, will play in the nickel and dime as well. But overall the Broncos kept 11 defensive backs -- six corners, five safeties -- and can mix and match for almost every situation. They have flexibility and use it, so every defensive back in uniform Thursday night could see some action in the defense.

Michael Vick and Troy PolamaluIcon SMI, AP PhotoMichael Vick, left, needs another turnover-free game against Troy Polamalu and the Steelers.
AFC North blogger Jamison Hensley and NFC East blogger Dan Graziano discuss the issues surrounding Sunday's game between the Philadelphia Eagles (3-1) and the Pittsburgh Steelers (1-2):

Jamison Hensley: While there will be plenty of talk this week about Peyton Manning going against Tom Brady, the biggest game of the week is the Philadelphia Eagles at the Pittsburgh Steelers. That's where myself and NFC East blogger extraordinaire Dan Graziano come in. To get you prepared, we decided to provide some "Double Coverage" for this game. A major storyline will be turnovers. The Steelers don't force any, and the Eagles seem to give the ball away like Christmas gifts. Pittsburgh has only three takeaways this season and had a league-low 15 last season. Dan, what's the over-under on Eagles turnovers for this one?

Dan Graziano: Wow, what an introduction, "blogger extraordinaire." I'll take it, even if I do remember being a little punchy myself in that sleep-deprived, new-dad phase way back when. As for turnovers, yeah, the Eagles turned it over 12 times in their first three games, which always looks like a misprint but isn't. They did not turn it over once against the Giants on Sunday night, and it's a good thing, too, since they only won by two points and a few field-goal inches. My sense is that it's easy for these NFC East teams to get and stay focused when they're playing the Giants (as I think the Cowboys showed in Week 1, as well), and that maintaining the newfound responsibility for ball security will be a greater challenge for Michael Vick this week in Pittsburgh. It's encouraging for the Eagles that this year's Steelers haven't been too opportunistic, because I think if the Eagles don't turn the ball over they can beat just about anybody. But I'll set the over/under at 2, and I think if they're under they'll win. What's the latest on linebacker James Harrison and the injury situations on defense in Pittsburgh? That could have a lot to say about this, as Vick is more turnover-prone when pressured.

JH: Injuries have really taken a toll on the Steelers. It's gotten so bad that I have ESPN injury expert Stephania Bell as one of my favorites in my iPhone contact list. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday that he’s optimistic that safety Troy Polamalu and Harrison will both play against the Eagles. I see Polamalu starting, but my guess is Harrison will be limited. The Steelers are always smart with their injured players, and they will look to ease Harrison back. He had a setback with his knee last week. That’s why Harrison could be more of a pass-rush specialist Sunday. The return of Polamalu helps the Steelers, because he brings unpredictability. Quarterbacks don't know where he's going to line up, even though it's hard to miss him with that helmet of hair. If Harrison does play, the Steelers have a much better shot at getting to Vick. Without Harrison, Pittsburgh has just five sacks this season. The Steelers also expect to get back running back Rashard Mendenhall, who hasn't played since tearing his ACL in last year's season finale. Pittsburgh ranks 31st in the NFL in running the ball, and the hope is Mendenhall can provide a boost in that area. Is there any chance the Steelers will have success running the ball against the Eagles?

DG: Chance, sure, but this isn't your older brother's Eagles defense. All the tackling and gap-control problems they had last season that led to allowing big plays in the run game seem to have been shored up with the addition of DeMeco Ryans at middle linebacker and Mychal Kendricks on the strong side. The Eagles have turned the ball over 12 times in four games, scored just 66 points, and are 3-1. Their defense isn't playing well, it's playing great. And I imagine it will have to continue to do so. Polamalu is a bad matchup for a quarterback like Vick, who doesn't read blitzes or defenses well and doesn't always see all of his available options down the field. I'm thinking this could be a low-scoring game. One thing I'm interested to see is how the Eagles set up their coverages against the Steelers' receivers. Nnamdi Asomugha seems to be having trouble staying with the speedier guys, so Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has been taking most of those assignments and handling them very well. Which of the Steelers' great receivers is the burner? Mike Wallace still?

JH: Wallace is still the best deep threat on the team. He didn't attend offseason workouts in the spring or training camp to protest the lack of a new contract, but he kept himself in great shape. Antonio Brown is quick as well, and he finds a way to get open on the crossing routes. Generating big plays, though, has been a problem for the Steelers this season. Ben Roethlisberger is averaging 7.5 yards per attempt (12th in the league) and is one of four starting quarterbacks who have yet to complete a pass beyond 40 yards. New offensive coordinator Todd Haley has been stressing a short passing game. I expect the Steelers to take more shots against the Eagles if Roethlisberger has enough time to throw it. And that's a big "if." This is essentially the same offensive line that failed to protect Roethlisberger last season. Should the Steelers be worried about the amount of pressure the Eagles will bring?

DG: They should. The Eagles didn't get a sack Sunday night, and I believe they're annoyed about that. The Giants helped out their tackles by chipping the defensive ends, and most of the pressure the Eagles produced against Eli Manning was from the interior, where Cullen Jenkins and Fletcher Cox had great games. The Eagles believe they're eight deep with quality defensive linemen. They believe in pressuring the quarterback with the front four, so they don't blitz much. I'm interested to see whether they can contain and wrap up Roethlisberger if and when they get to him, since his reputation is that of a guy who keeps plays alive longer than most, where someone like Manning gets rid of the ball quickly. Different challenge for the Eagles' front this week, but they believe they're deep and talented enough to keep the pressure up for all 60 minutes. This time last season, the Eagles were 1-3 having blown three fourth-quarter leads. This year, the fourth quarter is where they've been at their best. Do you think coming off the bye helps the Steelers against a team built on the idea of outlasting people?

JH: If the Eagles are annoyed about not getting a sack, you can imagine what the Steelers are feeling after failing to hold a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter at Oakland. The Steelers had an extra week to think about how they allowed Carson Palmer and the Raiders to score on all three of their fourth-quarter possessions to pull off the upset. This has been a bad trend for the Steelers this season. In their two losses (at Denver and at Oakland), the Steelers have been outscored 30-6 in the fourth quarter. That being said, Pittsburgh is a different team when playing at Heinz Field. The Steelers have won nine of their past 10 at home. In its win against the Jets, Pittsburgh shut out New York for the final 39 1/2 minutes, which doesn't seem much of an accomplishment after this past weekend. You know their recent fourth-quarter collapses have to be in the back of the Steelers' mind when they're watching film of Vick's late-game heroics. Do you think this game comes down to the final couple of minutes?

DG: It probably should. The Eagles' offense hasn't played well enough to think they could run away with a game in a place like Pittsburgh, and the defense has played too well to forecast a blowout in the other direction. What's amazing is what a difference a year makes, and the idea that after what happened last year you might pick Vick and the Eagles to win a game in the final minutes against Roethlisberger and the Steelers. But they did it Sunday against Manning and the Giants, so anything is possible. This season's Eagles are definitely tougher than last season's were. I think it should be a good game, and I look forward to seeing you there Sunday.
Steelers backup quarterback Byron Leftwich said the shot to the head from Eagles cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie "wasn’t that big a hit.”

The NFL obviously disagrees with Leftwich. The league fined Rodgers-Cromartie $21,000 on Friday, according to ESPN's Chris Mortensen.

This fine serves as a reminder for every defensive player in the league. This is now the minimum that players will be fined for a hit on a defenseless player, a five percent increase in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Maybe Rodgers-Cromartie can get Leftwich to help him with his appeal.

“It looked worse than it did,” Leftwich said. “It was a DB. I’d rather it be a DB rather than a lineman or a linebacker. I’m a pretty big guy myself. I feel like I can hold my own with certain types of things."

Steelers need Hines Ward

January, 21, 2009
1/21/09
10:00
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Can the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII without star receiver Hines Ward?

 
  Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
  The Steelers are hoping that top receiver Hines Ward will be able to play in the Super Bowl despite a sprained knee.
The Steelers are hoping they don't have to find out.

Ward, the Steelers' leading receiver, is expected to miss practice time this week with a sprained MCL in his knee that he suffered Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens.

Typically, recoveries from MCL sprains can range 2-4 weeks, depending on the severity. I was among a group of reporters talking to Ward about his chances of playing in the Super Bowl Sunday night, and he seemed confident in his return.

"I will play," Ward said in the locker room. "Rain, sleet or snow, I will be there."

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and teammates also expect Ward to tough it out in two weeks. But let's say Ward doesn't play or, at the very least, participates in a limited role. What does this mean for Pittsburgh?

Nate Washington would be the starter. Washington has come up with big catches all year as the No. 3 receiver. But he's mostly beaten backup cornerbacks and could struggle against Arizona starters Rod Hood and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Washington had three receptions for 21 yards replacing Ward against Baltimore.

This also would mean rookie second-round pick Limas Sweed would get significant playing time. Pittsburgh loves to run three-wide receiver sets, particularly on third down. So after sitting on the bench most of this season, Sweed will have to be ready for the opportunity. He dropped a big touchdown catch against Baltimore but bounced back with a pair of receptions and a crushing block on Ravens defensive back Corey Ivy.

Starting receiver Santonio Holmes would take over as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's top target. Holmes had a huge, 65-yard touchdown reception, which was his second score of the playoffs.

"I told [Ward] when we came into the locker room at halftime that I had his back," Holmes said. "If there was going to be a play to be made, I was going to be the guy to make the play."

Even if Ward plays, he will be coming off an injury and mostly likely not at 100 percent. So players like Holmes, Washington and Sweed will need to be ready to step up on the big stage.

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