Ravens vs. Broncos: A preview of the season opener
Despite the fact that both of these teams are coming off great seasons and have high expectations, there will be a common theme in this game - uncertainty. For such great teams, each of them sure has a lot of question marks. Here are some of the situations I am interested to see tomorrow night:
Who is the Broncos' lead runner? Between Montee Ball, Ronnie Hillman, and Knowshon Moreno, the Broncos have some talented guys in their backfield, but no clear-cut top back. Recent reports even suggest Moreno could start on Thursday, though it was previously assumed that Ball or Hillman would be the first back on the field. It will be interesting to see if one player emerges as the go-to runner.
How will Peyton use Welker? We all know what Wes Welker is about - catching a monstrous amount of passes. He's only caught less than 111 passes once over the past six years (had 86 in 2010), but he now finds himself with a new quarterback and a wealth of talent around him. Will Welker's targets remain high in 2013, or will we see him cede looks to guys like Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas? We'll get an idea of that on Thursday night.
Can the Broncos defend the pass? Yes, the Broncos ranked third in pass defense last year, but they got roasted by Joe Flacco in the playoffs and are missing some big pieces to their pass defense. First of all, top cornerback and 12-time Pro Bowler Champ Bailey will miss Thursday's game with a sprained foot, leaving wild card Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie as the team's No. 1 corner. On top of that, they are missing their two best pass rushers from last season - Von Miller is serving a six-game suspension and Elvis Dumervil is now playing for the Ravens. This depleted secondary and pass rush could possibly lead to another big day for Flacco.
Now on to the Ravens:
Who will replace Boldin? The Ravens currently list Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones as their starting wide receivers, but both of them are straight-line speedsters. Anquan Boldin - who is now playing for the 49ers - was important to the Ravens as a physical possession receiver. Who will replace that physicality and reliability? The Ravens signed Brandon Stokley to play that role, but at the age of 37, how effective can he be?
Can the pass rush make up for losses in secondary? The Ravens lost some big-time players in their defensive backfield - namely Ed Reed, Bernard Pollard, and Cary Williams. The team brought in Michael Huff and have Lardarius Webb returning from a torn ACL, but the aforementioned losses are still significant. Fortunately, they have a fully healthy Terrell Suggs and a new sack-man in Elvis Dumervil. A secondary's deficiencies can be masked by a great pass rush (see: New York Giants), so maybe the Ravens' losses will hardly be noticed.
Who steps up now that Ray Lewis has retired? Vocally and in the locker room, the answer is probably Suggs, but keep in mind that Lewis did much more than inspire his team with words. Following the loss of Dannell Ellerbe to free agency, the Ravens definitely have question marks at both middle linebacker spots in their 3-4 defense. Daryl Smith is coming off a lost season in which he missed 14 games - at the age of 31, will he return to strong form? The other middle linebacker spot will be occupied by second-year UDFA Josh Bynes, who will be on a short leash with rookie Arthur Brown behind him. Haloti Ngata will make things easier on them, but middle linebacker will be a position to watch in Baltimore.