The Denver Broncos are going to have more to worry about than the larger-than-life Joe Flacco banner at their stadium. Their bigger concern in tonight's season opener against the Baltimore Ravens should be Flacco's big arm.
It was Flacco's ability to go over the top of the Broncos' usually stingy defense that propelled the Ravens to the upset victory in the AFC divisional game. Flacco was 4-of-7 with three touchdowns on throws more than 20 yards downfield in that Jan. 12 contest, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Flacco's biggest throw was the high-arcing 70-yard touchdown to wide receiver Jacoby Jones, who beat safety Rahim Moore and tied the game in the final seconds of regulation. But that wasn't the only time Flacco hurt Denver. He had touchdown passes of 59 and 32 yards to wide receiver Torrey Smith.
The three touchdowns on those throws were Flacco's most in a game in his career, and tied the most for any quarterback in a game since the start of 2008. The Broncos had allowed three such touchdowns all season. Flacco's average target depth was 13.4 yards downfield in the divisional playoffs, his highest rate in a game all season.
Should the Broncos expect a similar game plan Thursday? Going deep will be the Ravens' best chance of scoring through the air. Flacco is without his top two red-zone targets, wide receiver Anquan Boldin (traded to San Francisco) and tight end Dennis Pitta (injured reserve-designated for return list). What Flacco has Thursday night is his best deep threats in Smith and Jones.
The Denver secondary, though, will look a little different, although Moore is still the starting safety. Champ Bailey won't play because of a left-foot injury. Not sure if this is a positive for the Ravens, since Smith beat the 12-time Pro Bowl cornerback twice for touchdowns in the last meeting. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie will replace Bailey.
Bailey, though, isn't the biggest loss for Denver. Flacco should have time in the pocket to look downfield because the Broncos are without their top two pass-rushers from last season. Von Miller is suspended for the first six games, and Elvis Dumervil is now with the Ravens.
There's also a difference with Flacco. He's been better at throwing deep since the Ravens changed offensive coordinators. Under Cam Cameron, Flacco completed just more than a third of his passes more than 20 yards downfield. That number is higher than 50 percent under Jim Caldwell.
What Flacco doesn't do when throwing deep is get careless. Flacco attempted a league-high 107 passes last season that went more than 20 yards downfield and didn't thrown an interception. That's the most attempts without getting picked off in the past five seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
So, if I were Moore, I would probably take a few steps back before the ball is snapped.