Baltimore Sports and Life: Lets jump right into it. What do you view as they key match ups in this game?
John Bena: Peyton Manning against the Ravens defense. That is the key. The Ravens played 86 defensive snaps against the Colts and were forced to blitz a lot in order to generate pressure. The Colts dropped a ton of passes. Those things aren’t going to happen this week. If Baltimore cannot generate pressure with a 4-man rush it is going to be a long day.
BSL: Denver was 4th in Total Offense, and 2nd in Total Defense. On paper, it looks like there are no weaknesses on the Broncos team. They look like the most complete team. But there has to an area of improvement somewhere. No one is perfect. What is one area of the Broncos team that the Ravens can exploit? How would you game plan against Denver?
JB: My biggest fear anytime the Broncos face the Ravens is seeing Ray Rice with the ball. He is the one game changer on that offense. If Baltimore can run the ball and get the ball to Rice in the short passing game – and move the chains doing it – they would keep Manning off the field and that might be their best defense. The key for Baltimore is to shorten the game. Remove possessions by controlling the clock. A normal game has 12 or 13 possessions for each team. If that happens this week, Denver wins.
BSL: Since Willis McGahee has gone down with injury, Knowshon Moreno has really stepped up for the Broncos. Is there anything you can attribute to that? Anything more than just a guy taking advantage of a second chance?
JB: The biggest difference is #18. Defenses cannot put 8 in the box against the Broncos or Peyton Manning will check to the pass on every down. Don’t get me wrong, Knowshon has definitely stepped up and he stayed ready all those weeks he wasn’t even active. Lastly, I think health is a huge factor as well. Moreno has dealt with injuries every season of his career. After starting the season slowly(coming off a torn ACL in 2011), I think the Broncos did the smart thing to essentially shut him down and let him get right. Now that he’s gotten his chance he is making the most of it.
BSL: Between McGahee, Moreno and Hillman, who do you see carrying the load in 2013?
JB: The Broncos will definitely have some decisions to make. McGahee is under contract for the next two seasons, but at $2.5 million is a bargain. Hillman was brought in as a rookie this season and is definitely safe. Moreno still has two seasons left on his rookie contract, and could be safe as well. John Fox has always liked multiple running backs, so it is quite possible we will see all three again in 2013.
BSL: When Peyton Manning hit the open market coming into this season, there were two schools of thought. Who “wouldn’t” want Peyton, or the price tag wasn’t worth the risk for an aging QB coming off multiple neck surgeries. It obviously is paying off now, but what was your initial reaction upon signing Peyton Manning?
JB: I was elated! The Broncos were buried under the albatross that was Tim Tebow. Denver was dangerously close to falling into the abyss of irrelevant teams – at least in terms of football. Last season was a charade, and John Elway knew they were never going to win BIG – Super Bowls – with Tebow under center. By getting out from under Tebow the Broncos win. Now, the fact that Manning has played so well, so quickly, is a bonus. Not so much because of the injury, I thought it would take longer for the guys around him to catch up. Not so.
BSL: In your unbiased opinion, who’s you’re vote for MVP. Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Adrian Peterson, or someone else?
JB: Unbiased? Peyton Manning. Take Manning off the Broncos and they are essentially the same team they were in 2011 – talent wise. I think we found out a couple things during the season. One, the Broncos had a ton of talent and the 2011 success was not because of Tebow. Two, Peyton Manning can take decent talent and propel a team to elite status. That’s not to take anything away from Adrian Peterson. I think we saw in the playoff game, however, that without a decent quarterback a running back can be taken out of the game. My vote goes to Manning.
BSL: Ryan Clady is well regarded at LT. At RT is 2011 2nd rounder Orlando Franklin. What are your general feelings on the Broncos line? During the year, Denver allowed just 21 sacks. How much credit does the line get, and how much credit goes to Manning for a quick release?
JB: This line is one of the best in the NFL. Sure, Manning gets rid of the ball and that is a huge part, but he rarely even gets hit. The Broncos led the NFL in rushing behind this line in 2011, and they are one of the top passing teams this season. Add to that the fact that Chris Kuper, their starting RG, missed a ton of time due to injury.
BSL: Champ Bailey has had a HOF career at CB. Is he still a lock down corner in 1×1 coverage? Chris Harris has started 31 games the last 2 years for the Broncos. What are his strengths and weaknesses?
JB: To answer your first question, absolutely. Champ may have lost a step, but he’s gained football awareness and smarts. Playing on this defense has re-energized him as well. He’s playing at an extremely high level, and opposing quarterbacks rarely test him – Joe Flacco is one that does. Do so at your own risk. Chris Harris is a great story. Undrafted – he wasn’t even invited to the NFL Scouting Combine – Harris has earned every bit of playing time he’s received. He’s a ball hawk – as displayed on the Pick-6 against the Ravens this year – and is not afraid to tackle. If there was a weakness, I guess you could say he takes too many chances sometimes, but I’d prefer that over a guy that allows receivers to make a catch before tackling him.
BSL: 2012 2nd rounder Derek Wolfe had 6 sacks, opposite of the former All-Pro Elvis Dumervil. Have teams consistently run at one or the other?
JB: That was always the plan in the past – run right at a pass rusher and use his aggression against him. The Broncos have done a wonderful job, however, staying in their gaps and playing fundamental football. The defensive line – especially inside – is not filled with big names but these guys(like former Raven Justin Bannan) are just professional football players that take pride in what they do. Winning teams need guys like that and the Broncos have them.
BSL: 2011 All-Pro Von Miller had 18.5 sacks this year, with an interception, and 6 forced fumbles. How is he in pass coverage, or is he basically just sent after opposing QB’s on each play?
JB: NO! That’s why I felt Von deserves DPOY. Unlike J.J. Watt, or Aldon Smith, Miller is asked to play in space. He’s asked to cover. He’s asked to play the run. Von Miller is a complete football player. Now, come 3rd down, it’s time to go get the quarterback, but Von Miller can do it all.
BSL: Which Broncos were helped the most by having this week off?
JB: The old guys. Peyton Manning, for one. He said as much last week. The Broncos played a ton of games in December(they played a Thursday road game early in the month) and Manning is a grinder anyway. After that, the layoff has allowed Ryan Clady and Chris Kuper to get healthy along the offensive line, and plenty of guys with bumps and bruises to get healthy. Only one player missed practice on Tuesday, so the Broncos are ready to roll.
BSL: Denver wins, if what occurs?
JB: They do what they do best. Get going on offense early, force the Ravens to play a ton of defensive snaps and force Ray Lewis into coverage. I think we are going to see a ton of 2-TE sets, with Ray forced into coverage. As great as Ray Lewis was – and still is – playing in space is not one of them anymore. The Broncos will use the no-huddle(and altitude) to get those aging legs weary. Once they get a lead, the Broncos will force Joe Flacco to throw the ball meaning the pass rush can pin their ears back.