Remember that time when nobody took the St. Louis Rams seriously? There was no way the mighty Denver Broncos could fall to a lowly team like they, who weren't even in playoff contention, right? Don't make the same mistake with the Buffalo Bills.
The Bills might not have the most potent offense in the NFL, but they know how to get just enough done to put themselves in a position where their defense can win the game. On defense, it doesn't get much better than them.
They have the best defensive line in football, bar none. Led by November's AFC Defensive Player of the Month, Mario Williams, the starting lineup in the trenches has accounted for 36.5 out of the 48 sacks they've accumulated as a team.
Give The Bills A Massive Dose Of C.J. Anderson
Over the last two weeks, Anderson has rushed for 335 yards. And as a result, the Broncos have beaten two above .500 teams. All but two of the Broncos nine victories in 2014 have come against teams with a winning record. They have faced a tough schedule this year, as the defending AFC champions, and Broncos Country should take heart that they've managed to get to 9-3.
Add to that the fact that this week's matchup will mark the sixth time the Broncos have faced a top-10 defense, and it becomes even more impressive. Offensive coordinator, Adam Gase, was asked about this season-long challenge.
“The schedule-makers don’t like us (laughing). Every week it seems like the front gets better. This group is really good. Three guys with double-digit sacks—you don’t see that very often. Their pass rushers are about as good as what we’ve played against this year.”
John Elway's fingerprints are all over this squad's 2014 success. But it's John Fox's on the recent rushing turnaround. We've questioned the decision to shake up the offensive line, but it looks as if the team finally has the right combination up front.
More than anything, the catalyst to the team's new-found offensive balance has been Anderson himself. The former undrafted rookie free agent has played lights out. Between Anderson's emergence and the team's change of philosophy, the opposition doesn't know how to defend the Broncos.
Demaryius Thomas was asked whether he thinks opposing safeties are going to be forced to creep up into the box, in order to defend Anderson. His response:
“I think so. If he keeps doing what he’s doing, like he been doing, the past couple weeks, I feel like there are some guys that will put more people in the box to try and stop him and might help the receivers on our side.”
Last week, we saw the Kansas City Chiefs fall prey to that strategy. And it led to a few explosive plays down-field. Manning had a bit of an "off day", otherwise, at least half of Connor Barth's five field goals would have been touchdowns.
The Broncos have to be patient and establish the run tomorrow, if they want to neutralize the Bills league-leading pass rush. Get the big boys up front thinking run, and suck the safeties into the box. Get them on their heels, and then take some strategic shots down-field. Play-action could be a killer tomorrow.
Turn The Pressure Up On Orton
For most of this season, the Broncos have been at the bottom of the league in blitz frequency. However, over the last couple of weeks, defensive coordinator, Jack Del Rio, has taken more chances in blitzing and it has paid off.
Last week, the Broncos sacked Alex Smith six times. Two of them came from a defensive back and one from a blitzing linebacker, Brandon Marshall. That kind of pressure also opens things up for DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller, as it forces the opposing offensive line to have to think, rather than simply react to their one-on-one matchup.
There's no question that more blitzes and getting back on track in stopping the run, directly correlates to safety, T.J. Ward, playing more inside the box. This is where he excels. And it's just another way to confound the opposing offense.
On Thursday, Del Rio was asked about Orton.
“Kyle is playing well. He’s doing a good job in their offense running it and leading it. He can throw the football. He’s protecting it. He’s thrown 13 touchdowns and four or five picks on the year, so he’s doing a good job with that ratio. He can make all the throws, so he’s veteran guy that knows where he’s going with the ball and they have a good group of receivers. We’ve got to make sure we’re on point.”
Del Rio has a point. Kyle Orton is more savvy than many give him credit for, but like most of his quarterback brethren, when he's pressured consistently, especially in the "A" and "B" gaps, he melts down and starts making some bad decisions.
Broncos fans saw this time and time again, in Orton's time in Denver. Some QBs handle pressure better than others. Look at Manning. Like Orton, he's not mobile, but what Manning does well, which separates him from a guy like Orton, are his pre-snap reads, quick release, and the ability to sense the pressure in the pocket and step up, or out.
Orton is nowhere near as proficient as Manning in those areas. And John Fox knows it. After all, it was Fox who made the decision to bench Orton in 2011, following his 1-4 record as the starter. When Orton is forced to improvise, the defense feasts. His old coach knows his limitations. And must exploit them.
Take Away Sammy Watkins
Other than Watkins, the Bills don't really have many weapons on offense. They've been without C.J. Spiller (collarbone) for a huge chunk of the season, but 33-year old jack-of-all trades running back, Fred Jackson, returned to action recently and had more than 100 yards from scrimmage last week.
With how suffocating the Broncos run defense has been all season, they should be able to stop Jackson. But the fourth overall pick in last May's draft is another story. Aqib Talib missed last week's game with a hamstring injury. He's practiced fully all week long, however, and is listed as "probable" for tomorrow.
When Talib was asked what he sees in Watkins and the Bills receiving corps, he said this:
“Explosion. A lot of speed, crisp route runners. They have a real smart quarterback feeding them the ball.”
There is no doubt that Watkins is explosive, especially when he gets hot. However, he's been targeted 98 times this season, but he's only been able to haul in 51 of them. That is a very telling stat.
It means that his QB forces the ball to him, probably more than he should. To compare, Emmanuel Sanders has been targeted 116 times by Manning. He's caught 82 of them. And has we've seen, many of those receptions have been tough catches, in traffic.
Orton has a history of forcing the ball to his primary receiver. When the Broncs traveled to Lucas Oil Stadium, back in December of 2009, Orton targeted Brandon Marshall a whopping 28 times. Marshall ended the day with 21 receptions; a new single-game record. Of course, it was in a losing effort, as Manning and the Indianapolis Colts proved to be too tough for the Broncos to handle on the road.
I'm sure Orton has grown as a QB since then. But the Watkins statistics showcase that Orton still has a penchant for force-feeding his studs. Watkins only hauls in 52% of his targets. The Broncos can take advantage of this.
The Broncos are a legit defense in their own right. And they have a chance on Sunday to shine brighter than the Bills, who lead the NFL in sacks and are the No. 5 overall. Talib was asked if the Broncos defense challenges themselves to out-perform opposing defenses.
“We go into the game trying to be the best defense on the field," he said. "We put emphasis on that a couple weeks ago. That has been our motto for the past couple weeks. We’re trying to be the best defense on the field. So we’re going against that offense, but at the same time, we’re going against that defense.”
If the Broncos can collectively achieve that goal tomorrow, and be the best defense on the field, they will emerge at 10-3.
Check out Brandon Perna's prediction for tomorrow's game. You'll laugh at least once.