As we've been saying all week long, this Sunday's game for the Denver Broncos is anything but a "gimme" game. The Arizona Cardinals are for real. And although they might lack elite talent at the most important position, namely, quarterback, they more than make up for it with the top-flight supporting cast on both sides of the ball.
The Broncos last game resulted in an overtime loss on the road to the Seattle Seahawks. That was in week 3. With a week off on their bye, the team is recharged, refocused and ready to hit their stride as a complete unit. They'll have to play smart, tough football because as a NFC West opponent, the margin of error to beat the Cardinals is very small.
1. Win The Turnover Battle
So far on the young season, the Broncos are +1 in the turnover differential. Peyton Manning has thrown one interception and Montee Ball has lost one fumble. On defense, they have nabbed 3 interceptions and although they have forced 3 fumbles, they haven't recovered any of them. Arizona, on the other hand, is +2.
Last season, the Broncos broke even in the turnover differential. Oddly, since Manning came to Denver, they have struggled with fumbles as a team. Manning only threw 10 interceptions last season, but their old adversary, fumblitis, persisted.
Overall, the Broncos have been solid in protecting the football thus far. But on Sunday, they'll have to be stellar. If they can win the turnover margin, they should be able to pull out the win at home. And with the increasing likelihood that Drew Stanton, a relatively inexperienced quarterback, will start for the Cardinals, the full-strength Broncos defense has a great opportunity to force some bad decisions that could lead to turnovers.
2. Establish The Run
This might sound like a generic key, but nonetheless, it is a vital one. The Broncos have struggled to run the ball in 2014, in large part, due to a lackluster performance from the offensive line. As a unit, they've yet to gel and have been unable to win the battle at the point of attack.
Against the Seahawks in week 3, Broncos ball carriers were hit in the backfield on 11/19 rushing attempts. That's downright putrid. The talent of a team's running back stable becomes obsolete, when their first contact comes behind the line of scrimmage. The Broncos recognize this and have reportedly worked hard throughout the bye to iron out the kinks.
According to Julius Thomas, one of the big issues up front has been communication. When 5 and sometimes 6 guys are not on the same page and are unable to communicate a run blocking scheme effectively, execution will fall by the wayside. It's no secret that the Broncos aren't a "run first" offense, but they have hoped to be more balanced in their attack in 2014. So far, those hopes have not manifested into results. That needs to change on Sunday.
3. Pass Rush, Pass Rush, Pass Rush
When Von Miller didn't come out in week 1 and notch 3 sacks, some in Broncos Country worried that he was behind the 8-ball in his recovery from a torn ACL. However, as Miller himself opined, following their week 1 win over the Indianapolis Colts, his conditioning was lacking.
That came as no surprise, since Miller had yet to play a full 60 minutes, since he injured his knee in week 16 of 2013. But over the next two games, he was his usual dominant self. And in the Seahawks game in particular, he was disruptive all day long.
Since they signed DeMarcus Ware last March, the Broncos feel like they have the best pass rushing duo in the NFL. Miller and Ware have flashed that potential a few times thus far, but this week will be the perfect opportunity to really cement their partnership and validate the Broncos hopes.
This week will mark the first time they haven't faced an elusive, mobile quarterback. Whether it's Stanton, or Carson Palmer who gets the start on Sunday, the Broncos will get to target a quintessential pocket quarterback. On the season, the duo has a combined sack total of 4.5. It might sound like hyperbole, but I wouldn't be surprised to see that total almost double by week's end.
4. Utilize The Interior Passing Lanes
The Broncos offense boasts two of the most dominant interior pass catchers in the NFL in Wes Welker and Julius Thomas. The team was without Welker for the first 2 games of the season, but got him back from suspension in week 3 vs the Seahawks. Welker's ability to find the soft spot in the zone and get open is a unique skill-set that has arguably never been duplicated.
Against the Seahawks, Manning waited too long to get him involved in the passing game. Once they finally opened it up, Welker gashed the opposition with crossing routes underneath. With the Cardinals aggressive secondary and an average inside linebacking corps, Welker should be unleashed.
As for Thomas, the Cardinals will likely utilize their young, talented safeties to bracket him. Deone Buchannon and Tyrann Mathieu can be dispatched to attempt to take Thomas out of the game. Easier said than done. But if they scheme that way, it'll leave Welker on an island inside, where he thrives. With two top-flight outside defenders in Patrick Peterson and Antonio Cromartie, matched up against Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders , respectively, Manning has to take advantage of the middle of the field. Someone will be open on each play. Either Welker or Thomas. This could be the week that Welker breaks out.
5. Play Physical Football
The thing that impressed me the most about the Broncos overtime defeat in week 3, was their willingness and ability to go toe-to-toe and blow-for-blow against the most physical team in the NFL. Like their NFC West brethren in Seattle, the Cardinals are an extremely physical team as well. They like to set the tone and impose their will on the opposition.
The onus will be on the Broncos to not only answer, but take it up a notch. What I witnessed in week 3 encouraged me. Now, it comes down to maintaining that level of physicality for a full 60 minutes. On both sides of the ball, the Broncos must execute.
On offense, that starts in the trenches, as mentioned above. On defense, it's no different. The Broncos must win at the point of attack. If they can play physical football, and execute for a full 60 minutes, I don't think there's a team in the NFL who could beat them. But as the old anecdote goes, "if ifs and buts were candies and nuts, we'd all eat our fill".
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