Just yesterday, we talked about how important it is to know your enemy. The Denver Broncos are uniquely qualified to take advantage of this knowledge. Just a few months ago, on a proverbial day of Murphy's Law, they suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl.
But that was last season. The Broncos have gotten out to a 2-0 start this season, a feat accomplished with 12 new faces as starters. Some of those faces are All-Pros. Guys like Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward, and Ryan Clady, not to mention Aqib Talib, a Pro Bowler in 2013. This team is so different from it's 2013 counterpart, especially on defense. The Seahawks are cognizant of that fact, make no mistake. The Broncos team they'll be facing on Sunday is quite different than the one they defeated in February.
Last week, the Seahawks got trucked by the San Diego Chargers. The Bolts executed a phenomenal game plan that kept Russell Wilson and the offense on the sideline for 42 minutes and 15 seconds. There are many things the Chargers did that the Broncos can learn from and duplicate. Here are my 5 keys to victory.
1. EXECUTE, EXECUTE, EXECUTE
It doesn't matter how smart, or how strong, or how talented you are as a team. If you don't put it all together and execute consistently on Sundays, it's all for naught. The Broncos, as talented and balanced as they are, have yet to put together a full 60 minute performance this season. If they hope to defeat the Seahawks, in the belly of the beast, that must change.
The offense can't get out to a fast start in the first half, and then fizzle in the second. They must execute throughout all 4 quarters. The defense can't continue to miscommunicate and play sloppy football. It's time to batten down the hatches. If the Broncos can do this; execute, I really like their chances of taking down the defending Super Bowl champions and exacting a small measure of revenge.
2. WIN ON 3RD DOWN
This goes for both sides of the ball. On the season, the Broncos are 10/22 on 3rd down thus far. That means they've converted only 45% of their 3rd down opportunities. It's not good enough. Last season, they didn't fare much better, to be honest, but it was enough to rank 2nd in the NFL.
A big reason that teams, including the Broncos, fail on "the money down", is because of 3rd-and-long situations. Running the ball effectively and getting Wes Welker and Julius Thomas heavily involved, early and often, could make all of the difference here. The good news is, the Legion of Boom is allowing 3rd down conversions at a rate of 55% so far this year. However, the Chargers game has heavily inflated those numbers, so it might be prudent to view that particular statistic as an outlier.
The Broncos defense has surrendered a 3rd down conversion on 51.7% of their opportunities to get off the field. Again, not good enough. Too many mental mistakes, penalties, and busted coverages have kept Peyton Manning and company on the sidelines. If the Broncos hope to win at Century Link Field, they must keep their 3rd down conversion rate below 45%.
3. STOP Marshawn Lynch
The Broncos did a great job of this in the Super Bowl. Lynch was limited to just 2.6 yards per carry in the big game. The Broncos must focus on stopping Beast Mode again, if they hope to win on Sunday.
In a radio interview I did earlier this week, the host, a big Seahawks fan, pointed out that Lynch is the "engine" of the Seahawks' offense. He's their primary weapon and a tool used to pummel the opposition into submission and loosen them up for big play-action plays down the field. The first step in stopping Russell Wilson, is stopping Lynch.
So far, the Broncos have been solid against the run, only allowing an average of 93.5 yards per game. With the depth of their defensive line and the speed of their linebacking corps, the Broncos defense is primed to stop what the Seahawks hope to establish early.
4. CHALLENGE THE SEAHAWKS VERTICALLY
The Broncos failed to do this in the Super Bowl. They were content with utilizing underneath routes, and pick plays, to move the ball. It played right into the Seahawks' hands. They were able to keep the play in front of them, and swarm to the ball carrier, effectively stopping any yards after the catch. The result was a Broncos offensive performance replete with 3-and-outs.
The Seahawks have 3 of the best defensive backs in the NFL in Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas. But they're not super-human. They can be beat. It's important that Manning keeps them honest by selectively choosing to challenge them down the field. Emmanuel Sanders is the perfect player to do just that. His combination of speed and short-area quickness will make it very difficult for the Seahawks "long and strong" cornerbacks to put their hands on him and impede him off the snap.
The Chargers proved that the Legion of Boom is not invincible. You can bet that Manning and offensive coordinator, Adam Gase, have been poring over that game film, looking for things they can duplicate. The NFL is a copycat league. And the Broncos are hoping to be on that bandwagon on Sunday.
5. OFFENSIVE LINE MUST GEL
I've argued that on paper, the Broncos have the best offensive line in football. Unfortunately, that potential hasn't exactly been realized in reality thus far. Going into Seattle, a highly underrated key to the game is the return of 3 time All-Pro left tackle, Ryan Clady. Clady was absent from the Super Bowl with a lisfranc injury. And the Seahawks, as a result, were able to pressure Manning both off the edges, and inside.
The Broncos let last year's left guard, Zane Beadles, walk in free agency and moved right tackle, Orlando Franklin, inside to replace him. This has been done in an effort to beef up the interior and keep aggressive defensive lines out of Manning's face. After tossing a NFL-record 55 touchdowns last year, Peyton Manning might seem like Superman, but if that is true, his kryptonite is interior pressure. When the pass rush is in his face, it flusters him and leads to bad decisions and tipped balls. Moving Franklin inside has been the Broncos answer to what happened in the Super Bowl.
The move can pay huge dividends, if the offensive line gels and plays well as a unit on Sunday. Center, Manny Ramirez, has been excellent thus far in 2014, but All-Pro right guard, Louis Vasquez, has struggled some. The same can be said for right tackle, Chris Clark. They've struggled to open up holes for Montee Ball and C.J. Anderson. But running the ball with authority will be paramount to beating the Seahawks at home and keeping Russell Wilson on the sideline.
I've chalked this up to a unit dealing with a new juxtaposition, going through the learning curve of playing as one. They've simply needed time to gel. But they've run out of rope to do it. The time is now. The Broncos offensive line must gel, if they hope to win in Seattle.