Know Your Enemy
The big story-line that you're going to hear, over and over again this week, is the return of Kyle Orton to Denver. In the midst of the 2011 season, the Denver Broncos waived the signal caller from Purdue, after he began the year 1-4 as the starter.
The Broncos turned to Tim Tebow, and the rest is history. Here's the thing though; Orton has already exacted his pound of flesh from Johns Elway and Fox. In week 17 of that same year, he came to Denver, as the quarterback of the Kansas City Chiefs, and beat the Broncos 7-3, in a game that capped off a three-game losing streak to end the season for the Broncos.
Luckily for the Broncos, they got some help from the San Diego Chargers (and others) and ended up winning the division at 8-8. They backed into the playoffs, stunned the Pittsburgh Steelers in overtime in the Wildcard, and then got trounced by the New England Patriots. Thus ended the Tebow era in Denver.
The following off-season, Orton signed with the Dallas Cowboys to back up Tony Romo. He spent two years there, but then in an odd Brett Favre-esque power-play, retired/quit on the Cowboys, forcing his way out of town this past July.
Shortly after, he signed with the Buffalo Bills. At the time, it was expected that he'd be the steady veteran hand, who could show the young "future franchise QB", E.J. Manuel, the ropes. But after beginning the season 2-2, head coach, Doug Marrone, benched Manuel and turned to the journeyman.
It was an odd move. Manuel was a 2013 1st round pick and the first QB taken in that draft. As a rookie, he struggled to stay healthy, as well as traversing the typical rookie QB learning curve. However, the future looked bright for the former Florida State Seminole, which made it so strange that Marrone would abandon him in only his second season.
Desperate coaches will make desperate choices and after finishing his maiden season in Buffalo 6-10, Marrone obviously felt the heat early on in 2014. History will tell if he made the right decision.
For now, it looks like it was the right one, as the Bills sit at 7-5; tied for 2nd place in the AFC East and in the playoff hunt. If the season ended today, the Bills would narrowly miss out on the No. 6 playoff seed to their divisional foe, the (7-5) Miami Dolphins (tiebreaker).
The Bills are a tough team and not one the Broncos will take lightly. They're dangerous on both sides of the ball and are one of the most physical teams in the league. And since they cannot afford to lose another game, if they want to stay in the playoff hunt, they'll come out swinging on Sunday. The Broncos will get their best shot.
As usual, Orton has been just good enough to get the job done. He doesn't dazzle, by any means, but he's also rarely going to be the reason his team loses. This season, he has a respectable TD-to-INT ratio of 10-to-4. Along the way, he's accumulated exactly 2,000 passing yards and has completed 64.3% of his passes.
As any fan in Denver can attest to, however, one thing that Orton is unable to do is put a team on his shoulders and will them to victory. If a team has a good defense and slightly above average run game, Orton will win games. Take away either of those components, and as Broncos fans know, he crumbles.
Orton's most dangerous weapon is the No. 4 overall pick in last May's draft; wide receiver, Sammy Watkins. The Bills drafted him with the thought in mind of building around Manuel. The young QB needed weapons. And Watkins offered elite potential.
The drafting of the skilled WR makes the benching of Manuel that much more mystifying. Perhaps there were issues behind closed doors that led to Marrone's decision. We'll likely never know. And unless Orton gets hurt, Manuel will have no impact vs the Broncos.
On the season, Watkins has been solid but unspectacular. He has been targeted a whopping 98 times, but has only hauled in 51 receptions, for 695 yards and 5 TDs. His biggest obstacle has been his health.
Watkins has been banged up all year and but has not missed a game. As of this moment, he is questionable for week 14, as he deals with a hip injury. However, I'd be shocked if he didn't suit up. Watkins possesses a rare speed and explosive athleticism that can be difficult to defend, when he's in the zone.
Even if Aqib Talib is a full-go this Sunday, I'm not sure that he's the right guy to cover Watkins. I like Chris Harris Jr's chances in coverage. Assign him to the rookie and take him out of the game.
Opposite of Watkins in the Bills starting lineup is Robert Woods. For a No. 2 WR, he's solid. On the season, he has 49 receptions for 550 yards and 3 TDs. Talib practiced today, so provided he doesn't experience a setback, he'll likely suit up on Sunday. He could be tasked with covering Woods.
Chris Hogan, the Bills slot WR, is one of those utility guys who finds a way to get the job done. He's not going to blow you away with his measurables, or speed, but his scrappy "can-do" attitude has propelled him to seeing 285 offensive snaps this year. He's currently fourth on the team, with 29 receptions. He's turned them into 337 yards and 2 TDs. I'm looking forward to seeing how Bradley Roby matches up with him.
At tight end, the reliable Scott Chandler still starts. He is an above average blocker and sneaky good in the receiving game. The Broncos have faced some very good TEs this year, and have had troubles defending them. Chandler is not anywhere close to an elite weapon, but like the Chiefs Anthony Fasano, who caught a TD last week, he can gouge you underneath and down the seams, if you don't take him seriously.
The Bills are currently the NFL's No. 24 offense, from a total yards perspective. They rank No. 21 in passing yards per game (221.8) and No. 24 in rushing (98.2). As a team, the Bills are averaging 22 points per game, which, in combination with their stifling defense, has been just enough to win more games than they've lost.
The biggest issue that has held the Bills back this year has been injuries to their running back corps. Because of a collarbone injury, C.J. Spiller has spent most of the season on injured reserve-with designation to return. He began practicing again this week, but isn't eligible to return to game action until week 16.
Fred Jackson, the oldest RB in the league (33), has battled a groin injury all season long. But he saw 24 touches last week vs the Cleveland Browns and converted them to more than 100 yards from scrimmage.
Last week, the Broncos got back on track in stopping the run. The Bills will try to establish that facet of their offense, on the road. But they'll have a hard time doing so, and not just because of the Broncos proficiency in that area.
The Bills offensive line has not been great this year, as their overall rankings in the running game tells. They have only one starer who has a positive cumulative grade via ProFootballFocus; left tackle, Cordy Glenn (+6.8).
They've also struggled in protecting the QB, having allowed 28 sacks on the season. Inside, they feature left guard, Kraig Urbik (-4.6), center, Eric Wood (-7.8) and right guard, Erik Pears (-24.3). As you can see by their cumulative PFF grades, they've struggled.
Rookie right tackle out of Miami, Seantrel Henderson, has played 805 snaps thus far. I liked him as a developmental prospect, going into the draft, but he was cast into the fire right away and his production tells the story. He's allowed 4 sacks, 10 QB hits and 20 hurries (via PFF). Von Miller dominated the Chiefs right tackle last week and going against a rookie this week, expect similar production.
The Bills offense is not the strength of the team. They get just enough done to stay in the game and they let their defense put them in favorable field position. However, Orton and company cannot be underestimated and even though he's already exacted his revenge for 2011, there's no doubt he'll have a chip on his shoulder playing in front of the fans who once regularly booed him.
I can't help but admire this unit. And it all starts up front, on the defensive line. The Bills kidnapped Mario Williams (+20.6), when he began his free agency tour in 2012, and didn't let him leave the building until he signed. It was a great front office move and it's paid big dividends for the Bills.
Since signing with Buffalo, Williams has notched 35.5 sacks, including 12 this season. What's interesting about him is that he lines up on the defensive left side of the line, over the opposing offense's right tackle. Traditionally, most elite defensive ends line up on the right side, doing battle with the left tackle, in order to take advantage of the QB's blindside.
Lining up on the right side creates mismatches, week in and week out, with less talented RTs, who aren't accustomed to dealing with elite assignments. Miami's Cameron Wake is another example of this tactic. It has served the Bills well, obviously.
One of the reasons they're able to get away with Williams placement is because of his supporting cast along the defensive line. Inside, the Bills sport two of the NFL's best defensive tackles in Marcell Dareus (+22.3) and Kyle Williams (+22.0). These two behemoths do an excellent job clogging up the running lanes.
But their pass rushing is what sets them apart as a duo. They have combined for 15 sacks, 10 to Dareus and 5 to Williams. They have a penchant for giving interior offensive linemen fits. Orlando Franklin, Will Montgomery and Manuel Ramirez will have to play their best game of the year on Sunday. These boys are no joke.
The bookend DE to Williams is former Indianapolis Colts 1st round pick, Jerry Hughes (+8.1). Hughes is a different pass rusher than Williams. He relies more on speed around the edge, and has a very quick first step. He won't over-power anyone with a bull-rush or rip move, but he can beat them around the edge, bend, and get to the QB. He has 9.5 sacks already.
The Bills lead the NFL with 48 sacks. The starting defensive line accounts for 36.5. It's ridiculous. The Broncos have turned the corner lately in rushing the ball, eclipsing the 200-yard mark as a team in consecutive games. They'll have to stick to that balanced formula and neutralize this pass rush. Otherwise, it'll be a long day for Peyton Manning.
At linebacker, the team is led by former Patriot, Brandon Spikes (+2.8). Spikes is a down-hill thumper and and is one of the best in the league at stopping the run. The Bills signed him this past off-season and he has fit into their system perfectly.
Next to Spikes, the Bills have Preston Brown (+8.4) and Nigel Bradham (+10.2). These guys have been tackling machines, but can be exploited in coverage. Manning will look to take advantage of a favorable matchup on Sunday. Look for him to target his tight ends a lot.
Julius Thomas practiced today, so his prognosis for Sunday looks promising. Along with Virgil Green and Jacob Tamme, expect the Broncos to go with heavy TE sets, in an effort to run the ball. But they'll also be able to gash the Bills by targeting their TEs in play-action.
Like the Dolphins, the farther back you go in the Bills defense, the better they get. Although they don't have an "elite" player in the secondary, they have a very good collection of excellent players who know their assignments and execute them with discipline.
Corey Graham (+9.5) leads the way at left cornerback. He is PFF's No. 8 CB. Although he's only managed to pick off one pass, at 6'0, 196lbs, he's defensed 11 passes and has the size to be physical at the line of scrimmage. He also happens to be third on the team in tackles, with 61 combined. If he lines up with Emmanuel Sanders, Graham could struggle to keep up with his speed and quickness, however.
Former 1st round pick, Stephon Gilmore is the other starting CB. He's had a very productive season too. With 2 INTs and 40 combined tackles, he's beginning to reward the franchise for their faith in selecting him with the 10th overall pick in 2012.
Both of these guys get a lot of help in the form of a ferocious pass rush up front. If left on an island, I'm not so sure they'd be as productive. When the Broncos pass, if the big boys up front can buy Manning 2-3 seconds in the pocket, he could slice this secondary up. They're rarely tested that way.
At safety, the Bills have Da'Norris Searcy (+8.1) and Aaron Williams (+1.4); a 2011 2nd round pick. The team lost their All-Pro center-fielder, Jairus Byrd, to the New Orleans Saints in free agency, but they have seemingly not missed a beat. Searcy and Williams have combined for 4 INTs and 100 tackles.
Every starting player on this defense has graded out positively via PFF. They are the NFL's No. 5 defensive unit from a total yards perspective and they're allowing only 18.1 points per game (2nd). They'll present the Broncos with very stiff competition. Manning and company will have to bring their A-game on Sunday, if they hope to win and retain sole possession of 1st place in the AFC West and remain in the hunt for the AFC No. 1 seed.
Again, offensive coordinator, Adam Gase, will have to continue to stay committed to balance and be willing to grind it out on the ground with C.J. Anderson. The Broncos will have to play complimentary football and out-physical the Bills. It won't be easy, but I see the Broncos eeking out a win this Sunday.
Broncos 29, Bills 22
As usual, the one and only Brandon Perna has his own hilarious take on what we can expect on Sunday.