(Sports Network) – An intriguing matchup of strength on strength will take place this Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, where the Denver Broncos bring their multi-faceted aerial attack into Baltimore for a battle with the AFC North co- leading Ravens.
Baltimore has built its current 3-1 record largely on the exploits of an imposing defense that has limited the opposition to league-lows of 119 passing yards per game and a 23.5 percent success rate on third downs. The Ravens also rank second in the NFL in total yards allowed (235.8 ypg) and haven’t permitted more than 17 points in any of their first four outings this season.
The unit figures to face its toughest challenge to date, however, from a pass- happy Denver offense that’s averaging a prolific 354.8 yards per game through the air thus far. Quarterback Kyle Orton has already racked up 1,419 passing yards, the second-highest four-game total to begin a season in NFL history (Kurt Warner, 2000), while attempting an eye-popping 107 throws over the past two weeks.
After amassing a career-best 476 yards in a 27-13 home loss to Indianapolis during Week 3, Orton burned Tennessee’s secondary for 341 yards and two touchdowns on 35-of-50 passing to lead the Broncos to a much-needed 26-20 road victory over the Titans this past Sunday. Denver scored 10 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to prevail, with Orton’s six-yard strike to running back Correll Buckhalter with just 1:33 left to play providing the go-ahead score.
The comeback win evened the Broncos at 2-2 and closed Josh McDaniels’ squad within 1 1/2 games of surprising Kansas City, the league’s only remaining unbeaten, for first place in the AFC West.
Baltimore put forth a stirring rally of its own to notch an important win last weekend, with quarterback Joe Flacco’s 18-yard touchdown pass to wideout T.J. Houshmandzadeh with only 32 seconds remaining lifting the Ravens to a 17-14 triumph on the road over rival Pittsburgh. The verdict moved Baltimore into a tie with the previously-undefeated Steelers for the top spot in the competitive AFC North.
Spurred by that uplifting result, the Ravens return home seeking to extend a four-game winning streak at M&T Bank Stadium. Baltimore has compiled a strong 13-4 record as the host during head coach John Harbaugh’s two-plus seasons in charge and dealt the Broncos a lopsided 30-7 setback in the Charm City last November.
Denver, which brought a 6-0 record into last year’s showdown between these teams, managed just 200 total yards in that contest, while Flacco completed a sharp 20-of-25 passes for 175 yards and a touchdown for Baltimore.
The Broncos had lost five times in a span of six road tests, including a 24-17 defeat at Jacksonville in this year’s season opener, prior to last week’s breakthrough.
The Ravens lead the all-time regular season series with the Broncos, 4-3, with Baltimore breaking a deadlock in the series with the above-mentioned 30-7 home victory in Week 8 of last season. Denver won the previous meeting, taking a 13-3 decision when the clubs met in a Monday night tilt at Invesco Field at Mile High in 2006.
In addition to the regular season series, the teams have met once in the postseason, with the Ravens scoring a 21-3 home win in a 2000 AFC First-Round Playoff en route to their lone Super Bowl appearance and victory.
Including playoffs, the Broncos are 0-4 in road games against the Ravens all- time, and haven’t won in Baltimore since beating the Colts at Memorial Stadium on Sept. 11, 1983.
Harbaugh is 1-0 against the Broncos, while McDaniels is 0-1 against both the Ravens and Harbaugh as a head man.
WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL
Denver has attempted more passes than all but one team (Detroit) this season, mainly because Orton (1419 passing yards, 6 TD, 3 INT) has been so efficient in directing McDaniels’ spread-based offense but also due to the fact that the Broncos have been downright awful running it. The team has put up anemic averages of 55 rushing yards and 2.2 yards per carry through the first four weeks, and the backfield duo of Buckhalter (49 rushing yards, 11 receptions, 2 total TD) and Laurence Maroney (29 rushing yards, 4 receptions) mustered a mere eight yards on 17 attempts against the Titans. Help looks to be on the way, however. Denver’s best running back, Knowshon Moreno (111 rushing yards, 2 TD, 5 receptions), is on track to return this week from a hamstring strain that sidelined the talented sophomore for the previous two games, and he’ll be counted on to add a measure of balance to Orton and a quality cast of receivers. Top target Brandon Lloyd (25 receptions, 454 yards, 1 TD) is coming off an 11-catch, 115-yard effort last week, the third time the rejuvenated journeyman has eclipsed the century mark this season, while speedy slotman Eddie Royal (25 receptions, 299 yards, 2 TD) posted 113 yards and a score on eight grabs. Veteran Jabar Gaffney (22 receptions, 1 TD) was the go-to guy in the Indianapolis game, recording career-bests of 12 catches and 140 yards in that Week 3 loss. A young and revamped front line did a good job in protection over the first three games, but Orton was sacked six times by a stout Tennessee pass rush last Sunday.
Though partly a product of having faced a pedestrian spate of opposing quarterbacks, the Ravens have yet to yield more than 159 net passing yards at any time this season and may have the depth to combat Denver’s formidable receiving corps, as corners Chris Carr (17 tackles, 3 PD), Fabian Washington (9 tackles, 4 PD) and Lardarius Webb are all capable covermen. Outside linebacker and three-time Pro Bowl participant Terrell Suggs (22 tackles, 2.5 sacks) is the defense’s only feared pass rusher, however, so expect coordinator Greg Mattison to dial up a steady helping of blitzes in an attempt to prevent Orton from establishing a rhythm. Don’t count on Denver re- establishing a running game on a Baltimore front seven that held the Broncos to 66 rushing yards in last year’s meeting and features a trio of standout stoppers in venerable inside linebacker Ray Lewis (30 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) and linemen Haloti Ngata (26 tackles, 2 sacks) and Kelly Gregg (17 tackles). Ngata was a one-man wrecking crew against the Steelers last week, generating 11 tackles, two stops for loss and a sack from his end spot.
WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL
Baltimore has been less consistent on the offensive side of the ball than the defensive end, having had trouble getting a usually effective ground attack unleashed and getting uneven performances out of Flacco (920 passing yards, 5 TD, 6 INT). The strong-armed youngster was mostly on point in the Pittsburgh game, however, making good on 24-of-37 throws for 256 yards and an interception while artfully engineering the late go-ahead drive, and has a very good track record when playing at home over his three-year NFL career. He’s also been quick to develop a rapport with offseason pickup Anquan Boldin (27 receptions, 355 yards, 3 TD), and the ex-Arizona wideout has made a big impact in his short time as the team’s new No. 1 receiver. There are plenty of other established alternatives for Flacco to turn to as well, as steady vet Derrick Mason (13 receptions, 1 TD), Houshmandzadeh (5 receptions, 1 TD) and tight end Todd Heap (17 receptions) have all previously been to Pro Bowls, and dangerous running back Ray Rice (230 rushing yards, 11 receptions) is well-regarded for his pass- catching skills as well. Rice, coming off a breakthrough 2009 campaign in which he delivered over 2,000 yards from scrimmage, has put up only modest numbers as a runner so far this year and had his workload reduced last week due to a knee bruise, but likely won’t be restricted in any way come Sunday.
The Denver defense should pose an obstacle to Rice’s quest for a first 100- yard game of the season, having bottled up Titans All-Pro Chris Johnson for a non-threatening 53 yards on eight carries a week ago. Leading tacklers D.J. Williams (30 tackles, 1.5 sacks) and Mario Haggan (21 tackles) form a physical and active inside linebacker duo that benefits from the space-eating skills of free-agent signee Jamal Williams (8 tackles), a three-time Pro Bowl selection with the rival Chargers who anchors the interior from his nose tackle position. The Broncos also have two well-decorated players in the secondary in cornerback Champ Bailey (8 tackles, 1 INT, 4 PD) and free safety Brian Dawkins (19 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT), though the veteran duo’s presence hasn’t been enough to raise the team’s suspect No. 25 rating in pass efficiency defense. Getting Andre’ Goodman, the usual starter opposite Bailey, back from a quadriceps injury that kept the seasoned corner out of the past two games should help matters, and finding a reliable rusher opposite second-year outside linebacker Robert Ayers (17 tackles, 1.5 sacks) would provide a boost to the back end as well.
Still seeking his initial touchdown of 2010, Rice may be the biggest fantasy disappointment of the first quarter of this season, but you have to believe the first-round pick in preseason drafts will bust out some time and should therefore remain entrenched in weekly lineups. Boldin is the other must-start among Ravens players, with Flacco possessing upside — albeit with some risk — at quarterback. Heap and the remaining Baltimore receivers aren’t recommended choices, unless you’re in a major bind. Denver’s penchant for airing it out has made Orton a starting-worthy signal-caller and Lloyd, Royal and Gaffney all worth consideration at the wide receiver or flex spots. The Broncos also sport a top-notch kicker in Matt Prater, who’s 8-for-8 in field goal tries so far, but avoid their situation at running back this week, with Moreno coming off an injury and possibly having to share touches while facing a good run defense. Neither defense has done much from a fantasy perspective over the first month, so explore other options.
Denver came in flying high in their most recent visit to Baltimore, but was humbled in a big way in a one-sided loss that triggered the team’s collapse of the second half of last season. This year’s Ravens have been a little too erratic to expect a repeat of that result, but they still own a distinct edge on defense and have better offensive balance than the one-dimensional Broncos. Denver should be able to have some success moving the football in the middle of the field, but look for Flacco, Boldin and the Baltimore offense to be the ones coming up with the big plays that’ll spell the difference.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Ravens 24, Broncos 16