The Denver Broncos are gearing up to travel to the East Coast to take on the reeling New York Jets. They'll jump ahead two time zones for this matchup, which does present it's own share of problems. But they aren't issues the Broncos can't overcome.
At 1-4, the Jets seem to be circling the drain. Head coach, Rex Ryan, has his neck precariously stretched out over the chopping block. It'll take a New York Miracle to save Sexy Rexy's job.
At 3-1, the Broncos are a half game behind the San Diego Chargers for the AFC West lead. They can't afford to slip and let a desperate team steal one. It's time to break down the 5 keys to a Broncos victory.
Win The Battle In The Trenches
This is important in any football game, but against a defensive line as talented and versatile as the Jets, it becomes a top priority. As we spotlighted earlier in the week, the Jets feature two of the best 5 tech defensive ends in the NFL in Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson. They have a preternatural ability to both stuff the run and get after the quarterback. Other than J.J. Watt, you don't see 5 techs, or 3-4 defensive ends, get a lot of sacks. But on the season, this duo has combined for 6 already.
At nose tackle, the behemoth, Damon Harrison, can consume blocks, and two-gap. At 6'4, 350lbs, he isn't easy to move. Manuel Ramirez, Orlando Franklin, and Louis Vasquez will have their hands full with these 3 defensive linemen. The Broncos offensive line, as a unit, has yet to play a complete game. With the San Francisco 49ers next up on the schedule, it doesn't get any easier in the immediate future. They must step up and win the battle in the trenches and keep these hyper-active studs out of the backfield.
Go, Ronnie, Go, Ronnie, Go!
Starting running back, Montee Ball, will miss the next month with a groin injury. That means that it's time for Ronnie Hillman to finally provide a return for the faith the Broncos coaching staff has invested in him. Hillman has never struggled as a runner. In his young career, the primary factors holding him back have been maturity issues and ball security.
But this is a new season. And a fresh start. Hillman will make his first career start on Sunday vs the Jets. He will likely get around 65% of the team's carries. The balance will be split up between C.J. Anderson and Juwan Thompson. When Ball went down last Sunday vs the Cardinals, Hillman provided a real spark for the Broncos running game. His speed to the hole and the burst to flash through it, made a huge difference.
If the big boys in front of him can plow open a few creases, Hillman has the talent to take a simple carry to the house. I'm actually very excited to see him as the featured back. He'll need to hold onto the ball and execute his assignments in pass protection. Provided he does, I can see Hillman really impact this offense and get the running game out of it's funk.
Relentlessly Pressure The Quarterback
In his 2nd year in the pros, Geno Smith's limitations are well known. Consistent pressure on him will force bad decisions and turnovers. Although he is relatively mobile, he's no Russell Wilson, which means that Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware should be able to tee off on him early and often.
I'm expecting the Broncos to get out to an early lead and extended it to more than one score. This will render the Jets offense one dimensional and squarely put the onus on Smith's shoulders. He has proven that he is not equipped to carry such a load.
This game, even though it's on the road, is a prime opportunity for the Broncos front seven to dominate the game. With the return of defensive leader and weakside linebacker, Danny Trevathan, it'll free up defensive coordinator, Jack Del Rio, to be more creative and dial up the blitz. Right now, the Broncos are -1 in the turnover differential. Following this game, they should be back on the plus side.
Challenge The Jets Weak Secondary
They say that a team is only as good as it's weakest link. This applies to a unit, as well. As good as the Jets are in their front seven (they do lead the NFL in sacks), their secondary is as porous as swiss cheese. There will be many plays to be made, at the expense of the Jets cornerbacks.
Dee Milliner, Antonio Allen and Kyle Wilson will be hard pressed to defend against the Broncos group of wide receivers and tight ends. This unit is especially susceptible to crossing routes and seam patterns, which means that Julius Thomas and Wes Welker could both have a huge game. If the Broncos get their running game going on Sunday, Peyton Manning will absolutely devastate this secondary with the play action.
Protect The Football
Last week, Manning threw 2 interceptions. One was a great play by the corner. The other was a badly under-thrown ball. It's much easier to overcome turnovers at home. On the road, they can bury you fast. Manning must be smarter with his throws.
The Arizona Cardinals blitzed on almost every passing play, primarily through the A-gap. They were able to pressure Manning just enough to cause him to be unsettled on a couple of his throws. Don't be surprised to see the Jets try and duplicate that feat. However, the Cardinals secondary is far superior to the Jets. If Rex Ryan tries to dial up the blitz on the regular, Manning will pick them apart.
As mentioned above, Ronnie Hillman has struggled with ball security throughout his young career. It will be incumbent upon him to hold onto the rock, even if that results in fewer explosive running plays.