I'm thinking Sunday's season opener between the Ravens and Denver Broncos could come down to heat – and I don't mean the 90-degree temperatures being forecast for Sunday in Colorado.
I'm talking about the ears-peeled-back pressure I expect the Broncos to hurl at Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco.
That style of defense gave Flacco and the Ravens offense trouble at times a year ago. Remember the Houston debacle? Remember games against underdogs Jacksonville and Cleveland that became slogs because the other defenses let everything hang out?
I'm sure the Broncos head coach remembers because, um, he was the Ravens offensive coordinator a year ago. That's Gary Kubiak, of course. Now he's running the show in Denver (no hard feelings, by the way, he took a dream job) with a defense led by an aggressive coordinator, Wade Phillips, and a nasty pass rush featuring DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller.
With Kubiak surely recalling that aggressive defenses could make things sticky for Flacco and the Ravens a year ago, is there any doubt about the tactics Denver will employ Sunday? I don't think so. A more pressing question is what will the Ravens do about it?
They're well aware of last year's trend. What, you didn't think they noticed? All NFL coaching staffs go through elaborate self-scouting exercises after a season, looking for what went right, wrong and needs to be changed, Even though Marc Trestman, the Ravens' new offensive coordinator, was the Chicago Bears head coach last year, he's a keen observer and surely noted on film that the Ravens need to fare better against aggressive defenses.
In fact, there's no doubt he noticed. Listen to what Flacco said in a June press conference after the spring season of Organized Team Activity practices and minicamps:
"We're trying to do some new things so that when teams come after us we can hurt them a little more and take some hits off here and there. There are more checks [at the line] and stuff like that to get us into the right thing [for a play]."
For some reason, the comment didn't get attention. But I know my ears perked up. For all the talk about how Trestman's offense is going to retain Kubiak's principles, look similar, unfold similarly, etc., there are going to be alterations, differences, and a major one could be the blueprint for attacking defenses that "come after us."
If the Ravens do a good job with that Sunday, I like their chances.
Oh, sure, a handful of other storylines will also be in play and help determine what happens. Offensively, the Broncos claim they're a work in progress with Kukiak and quarterback Peyton Manning seeking to meld their distinctive philosophies while breaking in several rookie linemen. It certainly will be fascinating to watch Kubiak, Manning and Ravens Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees match wits. The game will serve as a test of the Ravens' reconfigured secondary and also a challenge for their Haloti Ngata-less run defense.
The Broncos have spent months trying to tamp down expectations. With a run-first coach in charge now, Broncos GM John Elway has said there might be some periods of adjustment early in the season as Manning, 39, transitions into being "a cog in the machine rather than the machine itself," a switch Elway himself made late in his career. They're trying to save Manning, 39, for the long haul, so they gave him days off during training camp and barely played him in the preseason, leading to speculation that he might be rusty Sunday.
Ha. I'm not buying that the Broncos will be anything less than at their best Sunday. They're tough at home, they've had months to prepare, and it's hard to imagine Manning not putting up a decent amount of points.
The question is whether Flacco can match him. He's going to need help, quality protection, a decent running game in support. But regardless, it's going to be hot for the Ravens quarterback, literally and figuratively.
The Ravens have had months to prepare for the moment, give Flacco the tools to succeed in a situation where he struggled at times in 2014. He's 30 now, in his prime, unfazed by road environments, last seen tormenting playoff pass defenses. The Ravens will happily roll their dice with him.