At 7-3, the Denver Broncos got some help from the Oakland Raiders yesterday, as they defeated the now 7-4 Kansas City Chiefs. The Broncos are now in sole possession of first place in the AFC West, with a trip to Arrowhead Stadium on the week 13 horizon.
However, the Broncos collective vision is fixed on the (6-4) Miami Dolphins this week. As much as the Raiders win last night helped the Broncos, they can't afford to falter at home. They might now have an easier path to the divisional crown, but that's not the only prize they have their sights on.
The Broncos want the AFC No. 1 seed. At 8-2, the New England Patriots currently lead in the conference, but they have a tough road ahead of them. It's still very feasible that the Broncos could win the No. 1 seed, after losing to the Patriots on the road for the third-straight year.
But they'll have to win out to have a shot at it. And the Dolphins are the team next up to stand in their way. As I said, in our week 12 preview, the Dolphins are a very good team. They might not be in that upper echelon quite yet, but if Ryan Tannehill can continue to develop, they will be. Let's talk about what it will take for the Broncos to win this game.
Give The Right Tackle Some Help
Cameron Wake currently has 8.5 sacks and is playing defensive end better than anyone. He is ProFootballFocus' top rated 4-3 defensive end, with a +28.8 cumulative grade. He has a relentless motor and knows how to get after the quarterback.
The Broncos struggles on the offensive line, and the recent shuffling therein, has been well documented by us. However, it looks like they've settled on a lineup and are likely to stick with it.
Ryan Clady (LT), Orlando Franklin (LG), Will Montgomery (C), Manuel Ramirez (RG), and Louis Vasquez (RT) make up the starting unit. Wake lines up at left defensive end a vast majority of the time, which means he'll be matched up with Vasquez and Ramirez (at times). Mostly, it'll come down to Vasquez.
In Vasquez's first season with the Broncos, he earned first-team All-Pro honors at right guard. He was dominant. But between a back injury that has nagged him since the preseason and the collective struggles of the O-line unit, he has not been able to duplicate that production in 2014. And now, the coaches have burdened him even more by asking him to shift over from right guard, to tackle.
He's capable of pulling it off. But tackle is not his forte, obviously. The Broncos are fortunate to have such a versatile lineman, because it's not often that you see an interior player have the skill-set to kick outside. With a matchup of this caliber on Vasquez's plate this week, there are things the coaches can do to help him out and limit Wake's ability to disrupt the backfield.
It would really help if tight end, Virgil Green, is able to suit up on Sunday. But to be frank, it's not looking good. He did not practice on Wednesday and Thursday, which does not portend well for Sunday. Anything is possible, but calf injuries are tricky.
But whether it's Green, or Jacob Tamme, or an extra tackle, or even a chipping running back, the Broncos have to help Vasquez and impede Wake's momentum and path to Peyton Manning. If it comes at the expense of less passing plays, or less routes within a given passing play, then so be it.
For The Love Of Pete, Establish The Run
Enough's enough. 9 planned running plays is not going to get the job done. The Broncos have to be willing to pound the rock and allow this much maligned offensive line to get into a rhythm. Any O-lineman will tell you that it's a lot easier to fire off, pushing forward, than to retreat in pass blocking.
Both aspects are vital for a modern day NFL lineman, but there's a reason that run blocking comes more naturally for the big boys up front. It allows them to become the aggressors. They're not reacting, but rather imposing their will; win or lose at the point of attack.
Running the ball effectively is a mind-set; a mentality. And it's one the Broncos have lacked all season long. Adam Gase threw himself under the bus for not calling more running plays last week. As an act of contrition, that's commendable.
But Broncos Country wants to see the proof in the pudding. There's no better way to neutralize one of the NFL's top pass rushing units than to run the ball. They don't need to average 5 yards per carry (as great as that would be), but they do need to do it consistently and efficiently.
When it's 3rd-and-short, don't go five-wide, with an empty set. We've seen how effective that is. Let C.J. Anderson and Juwan Thompson, two very powerful young running backs, hit the hole and attempt to move the chains. It's important for Gase to facilitate and put these guys in the best position to succeed as a unit. Calling 9 running plays won't do it.
It's time to make a statement this week. Heed Bill Pullman's words from the movie "Independence Day".
"We will not go quietly into the night!" We will not vanish without a fight!"
Well said, Bill. Well said.
Play Disciplined, Physical Defense
Broncos Country is tired of seeing this defense bite hook, line and sinker on play-action. Being aggressive is awesome, but not at the expense of discipline. The Broncos have been mostly stellar at stopping the run in 2014, but in their relentless focus to do so, it has often come at the expense of big plays via play-action.
Last week, the Rams displayed the perfect combination of physicality, aggression and discipline, confounding the Broncos offense, and holding them to the lowest point total in the Manning era.
The Broncos need to take their cues from that performance. When discipline breaks down, another facet that often follows is tackling. Last week, the Broncos whiffed on way too many tackles. Hopefully, Jack Del Rio took this week to get back to basics and drill proper tackling technique into the heads of his defense.
This defense is arguably the most talented unit in the league; at least on paper. But they haven't lived up to that potential. Von Miller, Brandon Marshall and Chris Harris, Jr have been stalwarts, but guys like DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward, Aqib Talib and Rahim Moore have been inconsistent.
A young QB, like Tannehill, presents this defense with a great opportunity to get back on track. Nobody gets points for the "bend, don't break" mentality on defense. Field goals add up and there's only 60 minutes in every game.
Get off the field on 3rd down. Give Peyton Manning more opportunities to score. Stop the run and limit big plays. If the Broncos defense can execute in these areas, this game won't even be close. If they fail in this respect, the game will likely come down to the last possession. And if that happens, the Broncos better pray that it's they who have the ball.