Graham, Ravens want to repeat mile-high success
EARLY BIRD: Waking up with the Ravens in Denver, before they open the 2013 NFL season tonight vs. the Broncos.
Denver - Five questions to ask as the Ravens begin their quest to repeat as Super Bowl champs.
1. Is the Ravens’ new-look defense ready for Peyton Manning?
A new era for the Ravens defense begins without Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. The unit has changed dramatically since winning the Super Bowl. Seven new starters will be on the field – defensive ends Chris Canty and Marcus Spears; linebackers Josh Bynes, Elvis Dumervil, and Daryl Smith; and safeties Michael Huff and James Ihedigbo. Two rookies should also see significant action – linebacker Arthur Brown and safety Matt Elam.
If the Ravens make defensive mistakes, Manning will exploit them. During the preseason, the Ravens had several miscommunications on defense that led to big plays. That happens when you make major changes. But facing a quarterback like Manning is a difficult first test. For the Ravens, it may feel more like a final exam.
2. Can the Ravens special teams handle Trindon Holliday?
During the Ravens’ dramatic playoff victory in Denver, Holliday had two special teams touchdowns – a 90-yard punt return, and a 104-yard kickoff return. Rarely does a road team overcome two plays like that. If Holliday has another field day, it will be a long night for the Ravens.
3. Can Joe Flacco and John Harbaugh continue their mastery of season openers?
The Ravens are 5-0 in season openers with Harbaugh as head coach and Flacco as quarterback, and they have made the playoffs in every one of those seasons.
This would be a huge road victory for the Ravens. The Broncos have been pointing to this game for months, and they are a popular choice to reach the Super Bowl. The Ravens love being underdogs in this game, and a victory would be an early confidence boost to their season.
4. Do the Ravens have enough offensive weapons?
Flacco has several new targets he’ll be counting on – most notably wide receiver Brandon Stokley and tight end Dallas Clark. The Ravens think they have added enough to counter the losses of Anquan Boldin (traded) and Dennis Pitta (injured). We’ve heard all offseason that the Ravens may lack a true No. 2 receiver, and that Torrey Smith may find life more difficult as a No. 1 receiver. During the preseason, the Ravens didn’t game plan and didn’t give opponents much of a clue. On Thursday night, we’ll finally see where Flacco goes with the football in key situations, and whether his targets deliver.
Meanwhile, a strong running game could be Flacco's best friend. If Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce get going on the ground, look for the Ravens to stick with it. Time-consuming drives keep Manning off the field, which is the only sure way to stop him.
5. Can the Ravens handle the altitude and pace?
Expect Manning to use plenty of no-huddle, and it’s expected to be warm in Denver, with afternoon temperatures reaching 90 degrees. Harbaugh runs a tough training camp, and the Ravens pride themselves on being one of the NFL’s best-conditioned teams. That reputation will be put to the test tonight, as the regular season finally begins.
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