For the eighth time in franchise history, the Denver Broncos have started the season a perfect 4-0. Well, maybe not 'perfect' but they are unbeaten. This week, they face a divisional test with a resurgent Oakland Raiders team hungry to dethrone the kings.
Jack Del Rio, who spent three years as the Broncos defensive coordinator and even served as the interim head coach for a few games in 2013, is now the Raiders head coach. And he's intimately familiar with his Week 5 opponent.
And I'm not just talking about familiarity with the Broncos defensive personnel. Perhaps more importantly, he's familiar with the Broncos quarterback and knows well his tells and predilictions—and his weaknesses.
Every new head coach hopes to change and strengthen the culture of the franchise he leads. Most fall short of that objective, but so far, all signs point to Del Rio succeeding in changing the paradigm in Oakland.
They believe in themselves. And in studying their first four games of the season, it's translating to the field. This game won't be an easy one for the Broncos. The Raiders aren't going to lay down in the second half. Let's get to the keys to victory.
Peyton's Gotta Be Peyton
It's difficult to ascertain exactly why Peyton Manning has struggled to find consistency in 2015. There are a variety of mitigating factors that have contributed to the issue.
But the bottom line is that although the Broncos have won each of their games thus far, Manning's play hasn't lived up to his own standards or expectations.
One thing Manning has done particularly well, however, is come through in the clutch. Any time the Broncos have needed a drive late in the game to either tie or take the lead, he's come through.
This week, for the Broncos to not only win, but maybe even win big, Manning needs to get back to the Manning of yore because the Raiders secondary are the epitome of low-hanging fruit.
And the truly great quarterbacks always find a way to exploit the weakness of an opponent. The Raiders are currently allowing an average of 310.5 passing yards per game.
Combined, D.J. Hayden and T.J. Carrie are relinquishing an averge QB rating of 105.9. They are the Raiders starting cornerback duo. And although Hayden enjoyed a modicum of success last year vs. Manning, even intercepting him once, he seems to have regressed in his third season.
Manning is on pace to throw 20 interceptions. Most of his picks this year have been indefensible. Manning just hasn't quite seemed to hit his stride.
The interceptions have to stop.
His game in Detroit was his best of the season. In Oakland, on the road, he needs to be even better than that. The best approach to taking the wind out of the Raiders sails will be to make plays downfield in the passing game, which will loosen up the front seven, opening the way for the rushing attack.
If Peyton gets back to being Peyton in Week 5, this game won't be close. I'm not sure that he will, though.
Be Ready For Mack and Smith
Both players are in the top-10 highest rated in their respective positions, according to Pro Football Focus. They've combined for 33 total QB pressures (sacks, hits, hurries).
The Raiders defensive staff fully believes they hold the advantage in a mismatch on the edge, going against LT Ryan Harris and RT Michael Schofield. The Broncos will likely start Harris on the left and Schofield on the right again this week, since Ty Sambrailo has missed every day of practice.
Although he exceeded expectations in his first career start last week, Schofield is inexperienced. And Harris is more natural on the right side, where he's played the vast majority of his career snaps.
Del Rio likes his odds pressuring Manning off these two edges with Mack and Smith. Broncos offensive coordinator Rick Dennison willl likely counter by keeping a tight end in to help at times, with a running back around to chip.
And it doesn't end there for the Raiders. Defensive end Justin Tuck owns a +10.3 cumulative grade via PFF, good for seventh best at his position. Since donning the Silver and Black, he has been a thorn in the side of Manning and the Broncos.
Again, Del Rio knows what rattles Peyton Manning. He'll bend all of his strategy and thought on generating pressure. The Broncos must hold up and force Del Rio to manufacture said pressure by blitzing, which will create mismatches in the secondary.
Take Away Amari Cooper
The fourth overall pick in this year's draft, Amari Cooper, is off to a great start as a pro. He's already formed a strong chemistry with second-year gunslinger Derek Carr and that has translated in the stat sheet.
Through four games, Cooper accounts for 32 percent of Carr's targets. Last week, Cooper struggled to produce, mainly due to the Chicago Bears double-teaming him.
The danger in doing that is that it leaves Michael Crabtree one-on-one and say what you will about him, but he has produced thus far. He's on pace to catch 92 balls for 1,056 yards.
Last week, Aqib Talib, Chris Harris, Jr. and Bradley Roby had their worst game as a unit and it was due to playing off-coverage. The Broncos have the talent, physicality and size to line up one-on-one with any receiving unit in the league.
The nature of the Broncos CB trio lends itself well to press-man coverage. If I'm Wade Phillips and I know that I'm going against a second-year QB, I'm going to bet on my guys, play press-man and let Miller and Ware wreak havoc in the backfield.
To take away Amari Cooper, I'm putting Aqib Talib on him and telling him to play rough.
Force Carr to get rid of the ball early with the pass rush and disrupt the timing of the receivers by playing press. This will lead to good, good things for the Broncos defense and should help them to get back on top in the turnover differential.
The Broncos are currently +5—good for fifth best in the league. Manning's turnovers haven't helped that margin—true. But the Broncos defense got their hands on the ball a lot in the first three games. If they line up and play press-man vs. Oakland, I see that happening again.
Broncos 26, Raiders 24
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