- Jeff Legwold, ESPN Staff Writer
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And the Broncos will take the first step toward trying to regain all they let slip away last January when the Ravens shredded the Broncos' postseason plans and scattered them across Sports Authority Field at Mile High as if they were confetti. So, when things get down to football business this evening, here are some things to consider:
A certain right arm. Broncos receivers, right from Peyton Manning’s workouts at Duke University early in the offseason, have said Manning’s arm strength is noticeably better, and Manning has flashed the improvement throughout training camp and the preseason. But this will be the first under-the-bright-lights exam. There were personnel executives in the league last season who felt Denver's passing game was limited at times because Manning wasn't pushing the ball downfield. Teams usually decide coverage is the way to defend Manning -- to drop seven players and take their chances in the passing lanes -- because blitzing him is often a waste of time and a potential touchdown waiting to happen. But given the Broncos didn't always consistently protect Manning in the preseason, there is the chance the Ravens take a few risks in the pass rush, and the opportunities for Manning to put the ball up the sideline would be there. Also, the Broncos will finally show what the real plans are for Wes Welker, who will have a greater variety of routes in the Broncos' offense than he did with New England.
No Champ, no Elvis, no Von. For one reason or another the Broncos' defense will be missing 29.5 sacks from last season and 17 career Pro Bowl appearances. That’s a lot of star power somewhere besides in the Broncos' defensive huddle. Champ Bailey is out with a foot injury, Von Miller is suspended for six games and Elvis Dumervil will be working for the Ravens this evening. That puts players such as Derek Wolfe, Robert Ayers and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie under the magnifying glass. Wolfe is essential to the defensive front because of his versatility, even when Miller’s in the lineup. He is all the more important now. Look for the Broncos to move him all along the line of scrimmage to find him some room to work. Ayers has consistently said he could do far more in the rush than his 6.5 career sacks in four seasons. He’s never going to have a better chance to prove it than in these next six games, and he's in a contract year. The Broncos signed Rodgers-Cromartie because they believe he still possesses the skills to play like a No. 1 corner if he would commit to it and take care of the details. He will often line up in Bailey’s left cornerback spot in this game, and his athleticism makes him the best matchup against Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith.
Play big. The Broncos’ starting defense struggled at times in the preseason when its base formation matched up with a heavier look on offense. But the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks plowed through the Broncos’ regulars with extended scoring drives. The 49ers put together a 13-play scoring drive in the preseason opener against the Broncos starters, with nine of those plays against the Broncos’ base defense. The Seahawks put together a 10-play touchdown drive against the starters, with nine of the plays against the Broncos’ base defense. Granted those two figure to be among the NFC elite this season, but the Ravens can -- and have -- played out of those heavy two-tight end, two-back looks with plenty of success in the past. The Broncos are going to have to muscle up a bit at times in this one. Wesley Woodyard certainly has the skills, the savvy and the physical edge to play at middle linebacker in the Broncos' defense. But he is 233 pounds, and the Ravens figure to test him early in this one.
Mix and match. Broncos coach John Fox has said the team intends to use all hands on deck at running back, and this will be the first regular-season glimpse at the plan. They all bring a little something different to the mix: Montee Ball is a more traditional early-down back, Ronnie Hillman has speed and big-play potential and Knowshon Moreno is still more comfortable than the other two as a receiver out of the backfield and as a blocker in pass protection. But no matter who has the ball, the Broncos want more impact in the ground game and hope to stress defenses outside the numbers more than they did last season.
Rahim Moore. The safety had a far better season in 2012 than the only play anyone wants to talk about would indicate, and some of his teammates owe him plenty for taking the heat after the playoff loss when mistakes were made all over the formation that night, including Tony Carter giving Jacoby Jones a free release off the line of scrimmage on the fateful play. But some offensive coordinators believe Moore is a little too overzealous in his pursuit of the ball at times and can be reeled in with play-action. The Ravens will test him, and Moore, who had a quality preseason, will have to play with discipline.
Trindon Holliday. Say you had perhaps the greatest playoff performance of any kick returner in league history and nobody -- as in nobody -- really talks much about it. That’s Holliday after he became the only player in NFL postseason annals to take a kickoff and a punt back for touchdowns in the same game last January. If the Broncos get one more first down on offense in the final minutes of regulation or make one more tackle on defense, Holliday's efforts are the stuff of remember-when discussions for decades. Instead, those efforts were forgotten in the wake of the double-overtime loss. The Ravens have had some bobbles on special teams in the preseason -- a 74-yard punt return by Ted Ginn being the biggest -- and have plenty of new faces in the units after their post-Super Bowl makeover.
It’s been months of waiting and hand-wringing for many in the Rocky Mountain empire, but Thursday night the Denver Broncos and the Baltimore Ravens will open the NFL’s regular season.