The Denver Broncos have a chance to finish the 2014 regular season with a perfect home record. They're 7-0 at Sports Authority Field at Mile High thus far. But the Oakland Raiders, who spoiled the Buffalo Bills post-season aspirations last week, are coming to town, hoping to repeat the feat in week 17.
On the possibility of finishing undefeated at home, head coach, John Fox, was nonplussed.
“There is a lot at stake," Fox said Friday via the team. "There usually is. You only get 16 of these things and a division opponent and a home record, a lot of things ride on this game. We’re looking to play well.”
Of course, Fox is also referring to the possibility of the Broncos wrapping up the No. 2 seed in their conference, which would guarantee a first-round bye, should they take care of business tomorrow and emerge victorious.
But this isn't the same Raiders team the Broncos romped in the second half of week 10. The Raiders have seemingly turned the corner, winning three of their last five games. They've defeated some talented rosters, also including the San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs.
And as we saw last week vs. the Cincinnati Bengals, the Broncos aren't bulletproof. They were road favorites, true, but they ended up losing by nine points. Simply put, the Bengals had more on the line and were hungrier out on the grid-iron.
So, what will it take for the Broncos to emerge victorious tomorrow? Let's get to it.
Protect the Quarterback
When he drops back to pass, Peyton Manning gets rid of the ball around the two-second mark. We're not talking about Tim Tebow here. But the Broncos offensive line have struggled of late to buy Manning the time he needs for his routes to develop.
Manning might put up Kryptonian numbers at times, but it's important to remember that he is human; and a quarterback to boot. And as such, when he gets pressured and hit, it's only a matter of time before the turnovers come.
We saw that last week vs. the Bengals; a team who has struggled all season long to sack the QB. But their edge rushers had great success against Ryan Clady and Louis Vasquez, the Broncos book-end tackles and it led to 4 Manning interceptions.
It was on the road, in a hostile environment, but for a team on the brink of the post-season, it was unacceptable. Some have queried that protection issues are what led the coaches to morph the Broncos offense from a pass-first attack, to a run-heavy one. It could be true, although I doubt it. However, finding a rhythm on offense has been an issue of late.
Offensive coordinator, Adam Gase, takes responsibility for getting his offense into a collective rhythm, whether they're passing the ball, or running it.
“Everybody is trying to find a rhythm," Gase said Friday, "and it’s just like, ‘Who’s it going to be? Passing game? Run game? Is it going to be the quarterback, the running back, the wide receiver?’ The whole group, everybody’s trying to find their own personal rhythm. That’s where my job’s has to be, ‘How do I get our whole group rolling in the right direction as fast as possible?’ I think there have been some games where we’ve felt that way, where we’ve felt like, ‘Alright we’re going pretty good.’ And we’ve had a couple games where we’ve had some rough starts and didn’t really get going until the middle of the game or in that third quarter. So we’ve just got to try to find it earlier. The sooner we can find that rhythm in a game, the better it’s going to be for our offense.”
Gase is right. But why did the Broncos change their approach on offense mid-season? That surely hasn't helped in the rhythm department. Likely, it's that the coaches learned a harsh lesson in the Super Bowl and may have temporarily forgotten about it; until the St. Louis Rams reminded them of the limitations of a one-dimensional offense.
Regardless, tomorrow vs. the Raiders, Gase would be wise to open up the offense and let Manning do his thing. Don't abandon the run, but figure out a way to rush the ball out of 11 personnel sets (3 WR, 1 TE, 1 RB), even if that means keeping Julius Thomas on the bench, in favor of Virgil Green.
Having Green on the field is a "tell" of sorts to the opposing defense and one that can be exploited. Overwhelmingly, when Green is on the field, the Broncos run the ball. If they throw the Raiders a curve ball and actually pass it with Green out on the grass, it would give whichever team(s) the Broncos play in the post-season one more thing to worry over.
Whether Green goes out in a route, or stays in to block, the Broncos O-line must hold up and give Manning time to make his reads. Khalil Mack still hasn't come through on his off-season aspiration to sack the Sheriff. He'll be bent on achieving it tomorrow.
Get Back On Track In Run Defense
Last week, the Broncos defense uncharacteristically gave up more than 200 yards rushing, after entering the game as the NFL's No. 2 rush defense. The explanation is simple and twofold: they were without linebacker, Brandon Marshall, and the unit failed to execute.
Marshall is officially out this week and strong safety/nickel LB, T.J. Ward, could miss tomorrow's action, as well. That means that Todd Davis and Steven Johnson will likely get the majority of snaps at weakside and middle linebacker, respectively.
There is a chance that the team could choose to turn to one of, if not both rookie linebackers, Corey Nelson and Lamin Barrow. These two young players, mainly Nelson, saw significant snaps on defense, earlier in the season.
Nelson played well in his opportunities with the first-team defense. In week 6 vs. the New York Jets, he saw 36-of-63 snaps and finished the game with a +1.6 cumulative grade via ProFootballFocus, but has only seen 44 snaps since and none since week 12.
Barrow saw his season high in snaps (20) in week 12 but like Nelson, hasn't sniffed the field since. It's intriguing that the coaches had faith in these two earlier in the season, but have since seemingly lost it, because the linebacking play in week 16 was about as bad as it can get, and they received no reps.
Defensive coordinator, Jack Del Rio, offered some constructive criticism to his inexperienced LB corps.
“Just to be better," Del Rio said via the team. "If things don’t go right, the young guys take all the heat. It’s not the way we look at it. Whenever there is a play that goes bad, there are typically a few things that are a part of that. Certainly an understanding of how we fit things is where it starts, but any time you have a play that goes longer than eight or nine yards, you’re going to involve the back end, and leveraging and tackling issues. We’ve been very good at that all year, had very few blemishes and just happened to have a big ugly one on Monday night, but we’ll put that behind us. We know the things we need to do to be good. We do have a good group and we’ll bounce back.”
Whomever the Broncos trot out at LB tomorrow, they have to stay disciplined and when they make contact with the runner, wrap up and take them down. Missed tackles and poor angles are what cost them vs. the Bengals. If they can limit Latavius Murray and the Raiders rushing attack, it will put the onus on Derek Carr and render them one-dimensional.
Crank Up The Pressure
There's no getting around it. The Broncos Pro Bowl edge rushing duo, Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, have virtually disappeared over the last 2-3 weeks. They've been solid defending the run, but Ware hasn't notched a sack in three games and Miller hasn't in two.
Against the Bengals, the Broncos, as a team, did not register a single sack. And according to PFF, they only managed 6 combined QB hurries and hits.
Part of the reason for their ineffectual pass rush was a dominant Bengals run game, but the predominant factor was an inability to execute, plain and simple. There's no question that Carr has improved of late, but as a rookie QB, the surest way to rattle him and potentially force him into some bad decisions, is to consistently pressure him.
Raiders left tackle, Donald Penn, is an excellent player. And rookie guard, Gabe Jackson, has performed well this season. But as a unit, the Raiders O-line can be exploited in pass blocking.
It wouldn't hurt for Del Rio to shake things up and not be so predictable. If he can mix it up and throw a few blitz packages into his calls, it could pay big dividends. But the bottom line is this: Miller and Ware must come ready to execute on Sunday.
Regardless of the perceived failures in getting to the QB, Del Rio remains confident in his unit's pass rushing prowess.
“It hasn’t been a problem," Del Rio said Friday. "We’ve had a very effective pass rush, got off the field, one [sack] on third down. If you’re asking sack numbers, it’s not always reflected in the sack numbers. We’re happy with the rush that we’re able to get and we’re happy with the results being able to get off the field and so those things are all part of it. It’s not about one guy or one facet. It goes hand in hand: good rush, good coverage. If they are content to punt, go three-and-out or turn the ball over, we’ll take those and sometimes you just don’t get the sack in those situations.”
There's no doubt that Del Rio has gotten the coverage production from his secondary consistently this year. Both of his starting corners, Chris Harris, Jr and Aqib Talib, were elected to the Pro Bowl. They'll do their jobs on Sunday. Whether or not the front seven can execute theirs, will be a key to the game, however.