Tampa Bay's offense vs. Denver's defense
With the Broncos defense looking like the bottom-feeders of the NFL, I expect Tampa Bay to dish out a heavy does of Earnest Graham on the ground. Through the first four games, Graham has an impressive 347 rushing yards, on 5.9-yards per carry. Toss in the four runs of 45 yards or more and it could be a disaster waiting to happen. For the Broncos to have any success at all it's up to Nate Webster to try and contain Graham and force Griese into passing situations. Obviously, easier said than done.
QB Brian Griese vs. Broncos secondary
Amid the Bucs' 3-0 record with Griese as the quarterback is this fundamental truth – he has an interception problem. He's thrown at least two in each of the past two games and at least one has gone back for a touchdown. It's a problem Griese has had during his two tenures in Tampa Bay. His accuracy is undeniable. But so is his propensity for interceptions. It's something the Broncos, with All-Pro CB Champ Bailey leading the way, can take advantage of on Sunday, especially if the Broncos slow down the Bucs run game and put the game in Griese's hands.
Tampa Bay's defense vs. Denver's offense
Broncos QB Jay Cutler vs. Bucs secondary
Tampa Bay's secondary is one of the best in the NFL right now. With five above-average corners and safeties, opponents have found getting the ball downfield difficult. Cutler is proving to be one of the best deep balls in football and his quick rapport with Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal have made the Broncos a vertical passing threat. The Cover 2 defense is designed to limit those options. If Tampa Bay's pass rush continues to be a threat, look for Tampa Bay's scheme to limit Cutler's options downfield and bottle up Royal, especially, who is playing only his fifth NFL game.
Broncos Head Coach Mike Shanahan vs. Buccaneers Head Coach Jon Gruden
Very seldom do I ever include coaching matchups in my pre-game analysis, but this week is an exception. This one's going to be a chess match with the mentor going against the protégé. Shanahan has owned Gruden over the course of their battles, with a combined record of 8-1. Shanahan also holds the edge by knowing the tendencies and weaknesses of Bucs starting QB Brian Griese, whom Shanahan coached for five years. You can expect a dramatic change in Denver's defensive scheme this week, specifically designed to attack and capitalize on Griese's habit of tossing out the INTs. Getting punked by Gruden in his own backyard is not something Shanahan's willing to deal with and he's breaking out all the stops to make sure this doesn't happen.
The Broncos will win if…
They control the clock and get a better mix of run to pass ratio. Dink and dunk may be the story in this one, wearing down the Tampa Bay defense with an effective short game, rather than relying on the long ball to Marshall. Both Michael Pittman and Selvin Young need to step it up big to take the pressure off the passing game. They can't abandon the long ball, but they have to keep Tampa Bay off balance with an equally impressive running game.
The Broncos will lose if…
They keep tossing out the turnovers like they did last week in KC. Tampa Bay is one of the best teams in the league at creating turnovers and Denver has to find a way avoid the interceptions and hang onto the ball. Better front line blocking and better reads are crucial against a defensive team that hasn't allowed a single rushing touchdown all year.
The Bucs will win if…
RB Earnest Graham has a big game and the Bucs get plenty of pressure on QB Jay Cutler. Graham has one of the best yards-per-carry average in the league among starting running backs, and his punishing style can dictate a game's pace. The Bucs are averaging nearly three sacks per game, meaning they're getting consistent pressure on the quarterback.
The Bucs will lose if…
Gruden gets outsmarted by Shanahan. Say this for Gruden — he's become a much more adjustable coach the past two years, mostly out of necessity. But few coaches make better in-game adjustments than Shanahan, and he has the advantage of teaching Gruden most of his tricks. If the Bucs are unable to establish the ground game early, then this will be Denver's kind of contest, and that's exactly the kind of game plan Shanahan will construct on Sunday.
Schon: Broncos take it in a nail biter, 24-21.
Postins: The Bucs have the better defense. Bucs win it, 23-20.
Matthew Postins is the editor and publisher of Bucsblitz.com
Michael Schon John is a contributor to Broncosupdate.com