The last time the Denver Broncos played the Atlanta Falcons, it was Week 2 of the 2012 season. Peyton Manning was starting his second game in orange and blue, a Monday Night Football broadcast in the deep south.
After a disastrous, three-interception first quarter for Manning, the Broncos climbed out from under a 20-point deficit to close the gap and eventually fall to the Falcons, 27-20. It was a game where they didn't give up, they just ran out of time.
Four years later and half the country over, the Broncos have a chance to carry over that momentum from the last time they played the Falcons. A few of the key components of each team still remain; holdovers like Matt Ryan and Julio Jones for the Falcons, old faces like Von Miller and Demaryius Thomas for the Broncos.
http://www.scout.com/nfl/broncos/story/1714984-mhh-predicts-broncos-vs-f... What is new for the Broncos is the player(s) under center. Trevor Siemian is still questionable to start on Sunday after spraining his AC joint a week ago against Tampa Bay. In his place, rookie passer Paxton Lynch played with the confidence and physical talent of a quarterback in his prime, reeling off 13 straight points to finish the game for the Broncos.
On the other side, the steam is still billowing off of the Carolina Panthers secondary after giving up 300 yards to Julio Jones last week. He, Ryan, and the Devonta Freeman/Tevin Coleman running back combo lead a potent Atlanta offense that leads the NFL in both total yards and points.
Calling the plays for the Falcons is Kyle Shanahan, son of former Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan. Of course, the offensive coordinator when both Shanahans were on the Denver sideline was Gary Kubiak. Shanahan now employs many of the same offensive schematics as Kubiak, including the famous stretch run.
The Falcons have used that scheme to a little more success than Kubiak's Broncos recently, but Denver's defense ranks 24 spots above Atlanta's defense in points allowed.
What does Denver have to do to make sure that the unmovable object outlasts the unstoppable force? Let's take a look.
Don't Let Julio Jones Get 300 Yards
This one feels a bit self-explanatory, but apparently it wasn't a memo that ever made its way to the Carolina secondary.
Jones is the prototype at wide receiver; he's 6-foot-3, runs a 4.39 40-yard dash, and can handle any pass that comes his way. Fortunately, the Broncos have a prototype cornerback that they like to use to their advantage in these types of situations.
http://www.scout.com/nfl/broncos/story/1714922-two-broncos-defenders-out... I'm of course referring to Aqib Talib, whose opportunistic nature has netted him three interceptions in the first four games of the season. Talib does his best work against bigger, more physical receivers that he can body up and post up with all game.
Regardless of who you have covering Jones, it's always a dicey proposition to some extent as he's a ticking time bomb that's waiting to go off from any spot on the field. To mitigate the risk, expect the Broncos to send T.J. Ward to jam Jones on occasion or Darian Stewart to keep him from blowing the top off of the defense.
At the other corner position, you have to like your chances with Chris Harris running step-for-step with Mohamed Sanu. Sanu, of course, spent the first part of his career with the Cincinnati Bengals, so he and Harris are both plenty familiar with each other.
Out-Shanahan Kyle Shanahan
The Kubiak-Shanahan relationship this Sunday is that of master-pupil. To some extent, it's not unlike Bill Walsh running out the West Coast Offense against the Cincinnati Bengals, where that offensive scheme was born, twice in the Super Bowl.
For the Broncos, they need to get C.J. Anderson and Devontae Booker some running lanes, and they need to do it before the Falcons can. That means that Kubiak, who has developed a bizarre obsession with letting Siemian throw three times to start each game, might have to switch up things early in the name of establishing the running game.
http://www.scout.com/nfl/broncos/story/1714838-fan-slant-unstoppable-for... The key to pulling that off is letting Andy Janovich clear the way against a sub-par Falcons linebacker corps, as well as letting a hopefully-available Virgil Green seal the end of the line on stretch runs.
I've said it approximately 4,089 times in the past but the obvious strategy for keeping high-octane offenses out of the end zone is controlling the clock and leaving them on the sideline. If the Broncos can run the ball well, get an early lead, and shave some time off of the clock, that will render Atlanta's offense one-dimensional and certainly make it much easier to get a pass rush on Ryan.
If the Broncos are playing from behind, their defense just isn't nearly as lethal. Denver has also been more susceptible to the run this season, so that makes it all the more vital that they secure an early lead by whatever means necessary and play keep-away from the Atlanta offense for the remaining portion of the 60 minutes.
Protect the Passer
Granted, we don't know who this passer will be quite yet. The most likely answer is Trevor Siemian, or it could be Paxton Lynch, or even some combination of both. Either way, if that unknown quarterback I will refer to as Traxton Lynchian has time to throw in the pocket, they'll have a lackluster defense to pick apart in the Falcons.
The reason we're in this situation of quarterback hypotheticals is because the Broncos line had a tough time protecting Trevor Siemian against Tampa Bay's four-man rush last week.
http://www.scout.com/nfl/broncos/story/1714678-lynch-says-he-s-ready-to-... Not to name names or anything, but Ty Sambrailo was about as effective as an orange traffic cone at right tackle the last two weeks since returning to the lineup. That may be rust (he hadn't played in a calendar year) but it's starting to look like he's not cut out to bookend the right side anymore.
With any luck, the Broncos could regain the services of Donald Stephenson on Sunday and the offensive line could be more or less secured. The Falcons don't feature much of a pass rush (just four sacks on the year), but keeping their front-seven out of the backfield is a big part of getting Denver's pass game on schedule for a third straight week.
It sounds silly, but the Broncos need to put clamps on their old nemesis, Dwight Freeney, as much as any Falcon. With two sacks this year, the 15th-year veteran leads the team in QB takedowns. If the Broncos can neutralize both him and Vic Beasley, they should have plenty of time to sit back and pick apart a porous defense.
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Will Keys is an Editor for Mile High Huddle. You can find him on Twitter @WillKeys6.