Broncos-Ravens matchup of the day

Ravens RB Ray Rice vs. Broncos LB Wesley Woodyard

The Ravens can be a difficult challenge for most any defense, not only because of the speed they put outside in the formation at wide receiver, but because they are proficient at a part of the game most offenses are drifting away from in these pass-happy times. The Ravens can throw for both consistency and impact out of heavier formations.

When they work out of their two-back and two-tight-end looks they get routinely bigger defensive personnel as the response. If a team tries to counter with a bigger nickel package, with three safeties among the five defensive backs, the Ravens put the ball in the air and if the team stays with a traditional nickel look (with three cornerbacks), the Ravens pound away in the run game.

And if the defense stays in a base look the Ravens can either play it straight with both backs in the backfield, or they open the formation a bit, putting a fullback or tight end in the slot, pulling one of the linebackers out of the middle of the field. While some teams, including the Broncos, go entire games without showing a two-back set, the Ravens had games last season when they lined up with two backs over three dozen times, including 38 times against the Redskins last December.

Many in the league believe getting Rice the ball more was one of the deciding factors in Ravens coach John Harbaugh’s decision to fire Cam Cameron as the team’s offensive coordinator just before the Ravens faced the Broncos last December and replaced him with Jim Caldwell. So, with this year’s tweaks to the offense still an unknown, the Ravens do like to work against base defenses because they feel like they can still routinely get Rice loose behind a big offensive line in the run game and then have the athletic advantage when they choose to put Rice in the pattern as a receiver against bigger defensive personnel.

The Ravens' cause is hurt at least some in this regard with tight end Dennis Pitta's injury, but they still have the ability to move the ball out of those packages.

Woodyard, in his new role as the middle linebacker in the base defense, will have to show he can stand up to the pound-it-out teams in the run game and figures to get tested in the season’s early going. He’s always been one of the Broncos' top choices at linebacker in coverage, along with Danny Trevathan, but Rice’s abilities as a receiver may force the Broncos to use a safety on him in coverage.

But Woodyard’s role in slowing Rice down will have a lot to say about how things go Thursday night.