Fauber: Not your average Ravens defense in opener

I’m probably going to have nightmares about Peyton Manning after what the future Hall of Famer did to the Ravens on Thursday night.

As a Baltimore fan, it was pretty painful to watch Manning pick apart the Ravens’ new-look defense to the tune of 462 yards and a record-tying seven touchdown passes in Denver’s 49-27 rout of the defending Super Bowl champs.

As if the beatdown wasn’t enough, I also happened to be facing Manning in Week 1 of the fantasy football season, so I will be just fine if I never see Manning play again this season. (On a positive note, I do have Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas on my fantasy team, so there’s that.)

Many of the self-proclaimed NFL experts have declared all preseason that this Ravens defense is actually better than the unit that helped Baltimore win the Super Bowl last season, and I’ll admit that I may have bought into that hype a little bit. Maybe the unit that head coach John Harbaugh trotted out against the Broncos will eventually reach that point, but what we learned on Thursday night is that this is not the same Ravens defense that we are used to seeing.

That is not at all surprising given what the Ravens lost during the offseason. Gone are the likes of Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Paul Kruger, Cary Williams, Bernard Pollard and Dannell Ellerbe, all of whom played key roles during Baltimore’s championship run last season. It can be argued that the Ravens made some upgrades, particularly with the addition of Elvis Dumervil and the underrated Daryl Smith at linebacker, but that secondary just looked bad on Thursday.

Third-year cornerback Jimmy Smith and newly acquired free safety Michael Huff were all over the place — and not in a good way — and Manning seemed perfectly content picking on corner Lardarius Webb, who is supposed to be one of the leaders of Baltimore’s secondary.

There is no doubt that this Ravens defense is more athletic, simply because it’s a lot younger, but Baltimore is missing some of that leadership from guys like Reed, whose experience alone instills a certain level of confidence, at least for me as a fan.

The defense is certain to improve — at least I hope so — as the season progresses and the unit becomes more cohesive, but it is going to be all about the offense in Baltimore this season, as weird as that sounds to say.

This is a direction in which Harbaugh pushed the Ravens late last season when he gave quarterback Joe Flacco more freedom on offense, and it worked wonders for the Ravens in the playoffs last year.

The question now is whether or not Flacco, with his shiny new contract, can shoulder the load and return his team to the playoffs. This is his team now, and the pressure will be as high as ever on the quarterback to win games. He has done it in the past, but mainly in the shadow of Ray Lewis and the Baltimore defense. How will Flacco respond when he is in the spotlight?

Flacco will need help, and having Ray Rice in the backfield is as good a safety net as you’re going to get from a running back, but Flacco needs reliable receivers to throw to. Outside of Torrey Smith, the Ravens don’t really have that.

The impact of the injury to tight end Dennis Pitta looks worse that I feared, as Ed Dickson and Dallas Clark dropped numerous balls thrown in their direction on Thursday, and Clark’s drop on a sure touchdown pass was just embarrassing.

Of course, if the defense is surrendering 49 points in a game — which is a new Ravens franchise record, by the way — it won’t matter how good Flacco and the rest of the offense is.

Thursday was a rude awakening for the defending Super Bowl champs, and a long week full of criticism lies ahead for Harbaugh and company. But championship teams rebound from games like the one the Ravens endured against the Broncos, so we’ll find out just how much trouble the Ravens are in when the Browns travel to Baltimore in a week.

Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or bfauber@nvdaily.com. Follow on Twitter @BradFauberNVD