Denver Broncos (6-0) at Baltimore Ravens (3-3)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
SURFACE: Sportexe Momentum
TV: CBS (Greg Gumbel, Dan Dierdorf)
SERIES: 7th regular-season meeting. Series tied 3-3. The Broncos won the last meeting, 13-3, in 2006. The Ravens have the biggest win, a playoff win in 2000. That was Baltimore's first playoff game that season, and the Ravens went on to win the Super Bowl.
PREDICTION: Broncos 19-16
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Broncos' transition to the 3-4 defense has gone smoother than anyone could have imagined, and it starts with a swarming run defense allowing just 79.7 yards per game. And Baltimore must build a lead because Denver has allowed just 10 second-half points all season. The Ravens need to match the Broncos' intensity on both sides of the ball. Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison's unit has given up consecutive 100-yard rushers. If Denver is able to run the ball effectively, QB Kyle Orton has proven to be very efficient and will methodically pick apart Baltimore's subpar secondary.
FAST FACTS: The Ravens' three losses have come by a combined 11 points. ... Broncos OLB Elvis Dumervil has 10 sacks. The only player in NFL history with more through six games was the Giants' Michael Strahan (10.5) in 2001.
--NT Ronald Fields returned to practice after missing Wednesday's session with a hamstring injury. Fields has been playing at a high level in the middle of Denver's improved run defense.
--LB Spencer Larsen continues to practice in full. He is on track to play Sunday, which would be his first game this season. He has had a shoulder injury.
--S Brian Dawkins has been limited in practice with a hamstring injury. Dawkins won't miss this week's game, but the team will take measures to keep him fresh during the season.
--WR Eddie Royal is the AFC special teams player of the month, but he won't be Denver's only returner. The coaches will rotate other players in occasionally when Royal needs a rest, so he doesn't get worn down.
--K Matt Prater shouldn't have a problem adjusting to new holder Mitch Berger, who was signed this week to be Denver's new punter. Prater has kicked well this year so there's some concern a change would throw him off, but Prater, Berger and long-snapper Lonie Paxton have put in extra work to get their timing down, and Berger has been a good holder in his career.
--OT Jared Gaither seemed to have a setback and could be a game-time decision Sunday with a neck injury. He had a full practice Wednesday but then missed Thursday's workout. He wore a red jersey (which signifies no contact) during the media viewing portion. If Gaither can't play, Michael Oher will start a third straight game at left tackle and Marshal Yanda will start at right tackle.
--OT Michael Oher could start a third straight game at left tackle if Jared Gaither (neck) is sidelined again. Gaither missed practice Thursday after having a full practice Wednesday.
--LB Tavares Gooden was limited in practice Thursday with a head injury but should start Sunday. Concussions are becoming a trend for Gooden this season.
--OLB Jarret Johnson had full practices all week with a shoulder injury. He has been dealing with the same shoulder injury for the past three weeks. He has yet to miss a game because of that injury.
--QB Joe Flacco is expected to start but he has been listed with an ankle injury all week. He has yet to miss a practice this week but his scrambling ability could be limited.
--FS Ed Reed had a full practice Thursday after missing Wednesday with an illness. He is expected to start.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
There is a lot of respect for the Ravens coming out of Denver, starting with the Broncos' head coach.
Coach Josh McDaniels wants his team to be tough, physical and smart. Although plenty of what McDaniels has brought to Denver is from his time with New England, he said this week that the Ravens are another team the Broncos want to be like.
"Our group is new, and we are trying to play that way," McDaniels said. "I think they've played that way for awhile. This is a team that has had a lot of success, has a lot of great football players, great organization, great coaching staff."
The Broncos play at Baltimore on Sunday. They have the second ranked defense in the NFL, and the Ravens have long prided themselves on a strong defense. The Broncos realize they have to have some longevity at the top of the rankings before they can be considered in a class with the Ravens.
"They have done it for a lot longer than we have in terms of us talking about it as much with the new group," McDaniels said.
One of the reasons the Ravens have been so good on defense for so long is safety Ed Reed. The Broncos will be well aware of him this week. Quarterback Kyle Orton said Reed is the first player he'll be looking for at the line of scrimmage, but his freelance skills still make it tough to avoid him.
"Just because you see 10 guys doing one thing, it doesn't mean he's going to fall in line," Orton said. "It's unorthodox."
When the Ravens look to en
d their three-game losing streak to the unbeaten Denver Broncos on Sunday, Baltimore's defense is looking to avoid allowing a 100-yard rusher in three straight games for the first time ever with middle linebacker Ray Lewis in the lineup.
This has been a sudden change for the Ravens, who had the NFL's top-ranked run defense the first four weeks of the season. In fact, the Ravens hadn't allowed a 100-yard rusher since 2006.
But the one-time strength has become a concern for the Ravens. This doesn't happen with Lewis roaming the middle of the defense. Since 1999, the Ravens have given up 100 yards to 12 running backs in 140 games with Lewis in the middle of the defense (that's 8.5 percent of those games). In 26 games without Lewis, the defense has allowed six 100-yard rushers (that's 23 percent).
There has been increasing talk over the years that the 14-year veteran's game has declined.
Some say Lewis doesn't have the same speed. Others point to him getting blocked on more plays.
Still, there has been no one better at shutting down running backs over the past decade. From 1999 to 2008, the Ravens have ranked in the top eight in run defense in all but two seasons. It just happens that those two seasons (2002 and 2005) were the ones when he missed over half of the season with injuries.
With the Pro Bowl linebacker, the Ravens had two of the longest streaks of not allowing a 100-yard rusher of this era (46 games from 1998 to 2001 and 39 games from 2006 to '09).
That's why this recent lapse is so startling. Lewis has only given up 100-yard rushers in consecutive games one previous time. It came in the middle of the 1997 season against Pittsburgh's Jerome Bettis and Miami's Karim Abdul-Jabbar.
This time, it was Cincinnati's Cedric Benson and Minnesota's Adrian Peterson who accomplished the feat. Benson gained 120 yards because the Ravens over-pursued and didn't stay in their gaps. Peterson ran for 143 yards by breaking long runs (58 and 26 yards).
It's understandable how the Ravens could give up 100 yards to Benson, the NFL's leading rusher, and Peterson, who is generally regarded as the best running back in the league.
"Anybody can make a big deal about anything," Lewis said. "You go 39 straight games without seeing a 100-yard rusher, and you come back and give up two. It's the same thing. It's the same formula. Come back. Be who you're supposed to be. Make the tackle when you're supposed to make the tackle, and the game takes care of itself."
A better measure for where this run defense stands comes Sunday against Denver rookie running back Knowshon Moreno. He ranks 19th in the league with 63.5 rushing yards per game and is 35th with 3.8 yards per carry.
If the Ravens allow 100 yards to Moreno, it would put a significant dent in the reputation of Lewis and the Ravens.
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