Sure, it takes a full team to win an NFL game, but certain players carry more weight than others. Here are five Broncos players that could heavily influence the game with their performance Thursday night against the Ravens.
1. Ronnie Hillman
Hillman had a rough preseason with two fumbles returned for touchdowns against the Seahawks and the Rams. John Fox put him into the final preseason game against the Cardinals to gain some confidence back. He carried the ball twice with one run going for 12 yards. Between his preseason play and last season’s playoff game against the Ravens, Hillman may not be the best psyche to have out there. (Remember when he rushed for two yards, one yard, and no yards on consecutive plays with 2:23 left in the fourth quarter? Just four plays later, Joe Flacco found Jacoby Jones for that 70-yard bomb). Keep an eye on Hillman and if he can pick up four yards at a time to balance out the Broncos’ offense. If not, the Broncos will have no problem looking toward Montee Ball more.
2. Chris Harris
Harris will be starting in place of Champ Bailey. Arguably the best nickel in the league, Harris still has some big shoes to fill on the outside. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie will be starting on the other side. The Ravens will have Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones running deep routes again. With Von Miller not playing, Flacco may have some extra time in the pocket, so Harris and DRC will really have to lock in their guys.
3. Julius Thomas
Thomas will get the start since Jacob Tamme was limited in preseason with a quad injury and Joel Dreessen has been ruled out (knee). Thomas really is in a win-win situation. With Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, and Wes Welker drawing so much attention, expect some big games out of Thomas. He’ll be one-on-one most of the time and he’s got the best quarterback in the game throwing to him. Thomas’ size, strength, and hands make him out to be an Antonio Gates-like target, which will be very difficult for the Ravens’ new defense to cover.
4. The Defensive Line
Okay, this isn’t one player, but they’re going to have to work as one if they hope to contain Ray Rice. Kevin Vickerson and Terrance Knighton will have to bottle up the middle and force Rice outside. Then the responsibility lies in the hands of the outside linebackers, but if defensive ends Derek Wolfe and Robert Ayers can slow Rice as he makes his way to the outside, he can in fact be contained.
5. Peyton Manning
Eyes are always on Manning, but take notice of how he paces the game. Will he go to the no-huddle right off the bat, with the hopes of gassing the Ravens by the fourth-quarter in the unfamiliar altitude? If the offense isn’t flowing in the no-huddle, will he slow the speed down to give the defense more of a break? Manning truly holds the keys to a Broncos win in this one.