Broncos welcome Ravens for most difficult test of season
The Ravens' offense struggled to put up points in Week 3 but will provide the sternest test the Broncos' defense has faced so far in 2021.
The Denver Broncos are one of five remaining unbeaten teams in the NFL, with much of their success built on the efforts of a defense that is among the most efficient in the league through three weeks.
Denver's defense ranks second in the NFL by yards per play allowed, having given up an average of 4.10 so far this campaign.
That statistic comes with the substantial caveat that the three teams the Broncos have faced in 2021, the New York Giants, the Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Jets are a combined 0-10 on the season.
In Week 4, the Broncos will face by far their most difficult test of the season when they welcome the Baltimore Ravens to Mile High.
That may be a bemusing sentence to read in the context of the Ravens' last effort, which saw them score only 19 points and require a last-second record-breaking 66-yard field goal from Justin Tucker that bounced off the crossbar to beat the winless Detroit Lions.
Yet the Ravens have both a quarterback and a group of pass-catchers to stress the Broncos in ways they have yet to experience in 2021.
The Ravens' pass-catchers are coming off perhaps their most unconvincing performance of the season, one defined by a series of big-time drops from Marquise Brown.
However, in what has been a rollercoaster start to the year for Baltimore, their receiving weapons have excelled when it comes to creating separation.
Open on 91.3 per cent of his targets, the seventh-highest percentage of receivers with at least 10 targets, Brown appears to be a receiver on the verge of a third-year leap if he can become more consistent catching the football.
Brown has registered a burn, which is when a receiver wins his matchup on a play where he is targeted, on 78.3 per cent of his targets. His burn yards per target average of 19.67 is the highest in the NFL among wideouts thrown at 10 times, while his big-play percentage of 54.3 is third.
With an average depth of target of 15.6 yards, Brown is getting open on downfield routes where separation can be harder to come by, while tight end Mark Andrews leads all players at his position with at least 10 targets in burn percentage (88.2) and burn yards per target (16.18).
The Ravens' offense is also receiving a boost in the form of rookie first-round pick Rashod Bateman, who was activated from injured reserve this week. If he can reprise his form of 2019 – his last full college season – that saw him finish fourth in big-play percentage among Power 5 receivers with at least 25 targets, producing one 50.4 per cent of the time, Baltimore could have one of the most dangerous pass-catching tridents in the NFL.
In terms of defensive opponent, the Broncos represent a significant step up for Baltimore. Denver (4.31) rank first in yards per pass play allowed with the Las Vegas Raiders (5.60 - 8th) the only opponent the Ravens have faced in the top 10 to this point. The Lions (8.79) and Kansas City Chiefs (8.43) are each in the bottom three.
Of the four Denver cornerbacks to face at least 10 coverage matchups, none have allowed an open percentage above 30 per cent, with Kyle Fuller (29.79), Patrick Surtain II (28.57), Bryce Callahan (11.76) and Ronald Darby (17.65) all enjoying strong starts to the campaign.
The Broncos' ability to deal with the running threat of Lamar Jackson could be just as important as the matchup between their secondary and the Ravens' pass-catchers.
Jackson is delivering an accurate well-thrown ball on 74.1 per cent of his passes, below the NFL average of 78.9. That underwhelming accuracy is, however, partially a product of his aggressiveness — his air yards per attempt average of 12.28 is by far the highest in the NFL — and the diversity his skills as a runner bring to the Ravens' run game could prove the ideal tonic to a Broncos defense that frequently employs two deep safeties to protect against the pass.
There is no doubt that Broncos head coach Vic Fangio, one of the best defensive minds in the game, will have prepared his players for the threat of Jackson. Still, Jackson has a habit of making even the most well-equipped teams look foolish. Should the Broncos avoid that fate, then they will deserve to be taken seriously as contenders in the AFC.