This week will not be a "gimme" game for the Denver Broncos. We've been saying all week that the St. Louis Rams are a much better team than their 3-6 record reflects, despite Bill Parcells' old coaching cliche.
What has held the Rams back from likely having their record reversed, is a lack of efficient quarterback play. Sam Bradford, the former 2010 No. 1 overall pick, tore his ACL (for the second straight season) in the preseason, forcing the team to turn to their backups.
First up was the veteran, Shaun Hill. He started off the season as the starter, but suffered a quad injury in their first game of the season. Austin Davis, the team's third stringer, took over and although his stats have been respectable (at least on paper), a whopping 6 of his turnovers have been returned for a touchdown. A brutal obstacle for any team to overcome.
Once Hill recovered from his injury, Jeff Fisher still stuck with Davis. Until this week. The Rams announced that Hill, not Davis, would be the starting QB vs the Broncos. Perhaps Fisher made a mistake in sticking with Davis so long. Because when I look at the Rams, and recognize that they've defeated two very good teams (Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers), I can't help but wonder how different their record would look if they had a smart veteran leading the charge at QB.
Fisher is hoping to atone for that perceived mistake by going with Hill this week. As one of the NFL's perennial contenders, the Broncos get the opposition's best shot, week in and week out, and it'll be no different this week. The Rams have knocked off some upper echelon teams, surely they believe that they can repeat the feat against the Broncos.
The Broncos will have to come correct on Sunday. On the road, against a desperate and extremely talented team, the margin for error will be very small. Let's take a look at this week's keys to a Broncos victory.
Will The Real O-Line Please Stand Up?
John Fox made a controversial mid-season shakeup on the offensive line last week, shuffling 3 positions up front. Manuel Ramirez (Manny), was moved from center to right guard, while Will Montgomery replaced him. Louis Vasquez, a 2013 first-team All-Pro, moved over to right tackle, from right guard. Paul Cornick did not play due to a shoulder injury.
It's unclear how much Cornick's injury influenced the move. He usurped Chris Clark's spot at RT in week 7, and helped to significantly improve the running game. In week 8 vs the San Diego Chargers, he played very well, earning a +3.0 overall grade via ProFootballFocus. At the time, it seemed as if the Broncos made the right decision in playing Cornick over Clark.
But he regressed badly in week 9 vs the New England Patriots, allowing a lot of pressure on Peyton Manning. Cornick is a road grader in the run game, but lacks the quick feet required to kick out and stay in front of good edge rushers in pass protection. He missed week 10, but is listed as "probable" for week 11.
Will the Broncos go with the same offensive line unit this week? We don't know yet. One thing is for sure, however. Montgomery will be the team's starting center moving forward. Despite a series of unimpressive performances in the preseason, Montgomery shined in his first start for the Broncos at center.
Against the Raiders, he earned a +1.8 overall grade via PFF and helped pave the way for C.J. Anderson's big day. Montgomery was able to get to the second level of the defense, something that Ramirez has struggled to do all season.
However the Broncos juxtapose the offensive line on Sunday, one thing is certain. They will have to perform cohesively, at a high level, because the Rams defensive line is ferocious. Led by Robert Quinn and Aaron Donald, the Rams are extremely talented in the trenches.
Don't let their team sack totals fool you. They only have 17 sacks on the season, but 16 of them have come over the last 4 games. They've been on a roll of late and they are licking their chops at the prospect of facing a Broncos offensive line in flux.
One of the key matchups will be left tackle, Ryan Clady, vs Quinn. Quinn notched 19 sacks last season and has 6 over the last 4 weeks. Clady has only allowed 1 sack thus far, but he's appeared lost at times in the run game. The Broncos need Clady in All-Pro form on Sunday.
The offensive line's performance tomorrow will dictate the Broncos fortunes on the road. If they can play mistake-free and execute, the Broncos will score a lot of points, and likely put the game out of reach for Shaun Hill and company. If they fail, it'll provide some daylight and the opportunity keep the game close, which is likely Fisher's primary goal.
Win The Turnover Battle
The Broncos currently rank 8th in the NFL in turnover differential at +4. They've given the ball away 8 times, but have taken it away 12. At home, the Broncos seem better able to overcome turnovers, but on the road, it gets exponentially more difficult.
The Rams are not yet mathematically eliminated from the playoff hunt. They'd likely have to win out in order to make the postseason, which means that they're fighting for their lives. They will come out swinging vs the Broncos and will pull no punches.
At 7-2, the Broncos currently sit as the AFC's No. 2 playoff seed, because they lost the head-to-head tiebreaker vs the Patriots. Fortunately, the Broncos have a much easier road ahead than the Patriots do, but with how dominant New England has been lately, they look hard to beat.
Over the last three seasons, we've seen what it looks like when the Broncos have to travel to Foxboro. If the Patriots finish the season as the No. 1 seed, it makes the Broncos road to the Super Bowl a much stiffer path. They can't afford to falter.
Some people worried that last week's game vs the Raiders could be a "trap game". But that team is so disfunctional, the game was never really in doubt for the Broncos. The Rams, on the other hand, truly present a "trap" and accordingly, the Broncos must fire on all cylinders and not lose focus.
Protecting the football will be paramount. But going against a QB who hasn't played a meaningful snap since week 1, the Broncos have a tremendous opportunity to take the ball away. The Broncos have risen to the upper echelon of the NFL's best defenses, led by their No. 1 rush defense.
But what truly sets apart the best defenses, is the ability to force turnovers. The Broncos could improve in this area. What better time to start than tomorrow vs the Rams?
Run The Ball, Cripple The Pass Rush
With sack artists like Robert Quinn and Aaron Donald, there's more than one way to neutralize their ability to get up field quickly and take advantage of their aggression. Pounding the rock is one of them. After weeks of watching from the sideline, Montee Ball is "probable" to return to action tomorrow.
Ronnie Hillman, who took over duties as the Broncos primary running back (in place of Ball), is officially "out" tomorrow. Anderson, who rushed for 90 yards last week, averaging 6.9 yards per carry, is likely to carry the load. But offensive coordinator, Adam Gase, will want to get Ball back into the groove with live bullets.
Anderson and Ball must not only be effective on the ground, but also efficient. When it's 3rd-and-1, they have to convert. They'll need the big boys up front in the trenches to pave the way, of course. But both running backs have great size. Anderson is 5'8, 224lbs and has a very powerful lower body, which allows him hit the hole with power and by keeping his legs churning, break arm tackles.
Ball started the season at 224lbs, just like Anderson, but recently dropped 12lbs, in an effort get lighter. He claims that he hasn't felt this good since his record-setting days at Wisconsin. Hopefully, Broncos Country will get to see some glimpses of that same combination of a wicked jump cut and explosive running on Sunday.
Don't be surprised to see the Broncos run some draw plays and running back screens, in an effort to take away Quinn's quick first step and aggression. The Broncos have averaged only 83.75 rushing yards per game on the road this year. They'll need to do better than that tomorrow. Anderson's on a roll. Ball is back. The Rams are ranked 25th in the league in defending the run. The Broncos must exploit that.