For more on the Broncos, check out the Mile High Huddle.
For years, whether it was Indianapolis or Denver, the question has been whether Peyton Manning had the supporting cast to win a Super Bowl. Now, it’s whether the rest of the Broncos can carry Manning along for the ride. Could this be a situation similar to 1997 and 1998, when they won Super Bowls in spite of John Elway?
John Elway and Gary Kubiak are certainly hoping it'll be a similar situation. But they have to balance the scales in order to make it happen. The Broncos have a championship-caliber defense. They lead the league in sacks and have taken the ball away 17 times. They'd lead the league in scoring defense, if Peyton Manning would quit throwing pick-sixes. And they've managed to stay healthy thus far, with the only exception being Shane Ray's MCL sprain.
The Broncos’ issues have all come on the offensive side of the ball. And even though the fans and much of the media want to pin the Broncos’ offensive struggles all on Manning, the reality is that at every level, they've underperformed. The offensive line had to overcome the loss of Pro Bowl left tackle Ryan Clady. Kubiak's solution was to start rookie Ty Sambrailo. Sambrailo graded out as one of the league's worst left tackles through the first three games, before he got hurt.
Because of Sambrailo's injury, the Broncos had to shuffle the O-line. So a unit that was already in flux, trying to gel and build chemistry, had to overcome the musical chairs. For the first four games, the O-line was a sieve. They couldn't protect Manning, nor could they get any push in the running game. They seemed to level out finally over the last two weeks before the bye, playing much better. But now, Sambrailo's back. And he's going to start vs. Green Bay, which casts an uncertain pall on the whole thing. Why ruin what was finally becoming a good thing?
And the running backs, with the exception of Ronnie Hillman, have not played well. C.J. Anderson, who dominated the NFL down the stretch last season, has been unable to break tackles and is lacking the burst that propelled him to the Pro Bowl. Were it not for Hillman.....I shudder to think.
Receivers are dropping balls at alarming rates. Tight ends aren't executing in the passing game or as blockers. And that brings us to Peyton. Because of these struggles, Manning has felt the pressure to do it all himself. The problem is, at 39 years old, he doesn't have the physical ability to put a team on his back anymore.
He's been pressing, trying to do too much. And it's resulted in his worst statistical start since his rookie season. Manning, Kubiak and company all vowed that they would find a way to turn it around over the bye. It'll be interesting to see if that comes out in the wash vs. Green Bay.
More Manning — I’m sure you’re shocked. The Packers had a tough decision to make in parting ways with Brett Favre and moving forward with Aaron Rodgers. Different circumstances here, obviously, but any chance a change is made? They didn’t draft Brock Osweiler just to help make the pickup basketball games more competitive, I’m guessing.
The only way a change is made in-season is if Manning physically can't perform. An injury. Or if his nerve situation in his throwing hand/arm deteriorates. Otherwise, the Broncos are fully committed to Manning. Yeah, he took a pay-cut to return, but they're still paying him $15 million.
And the Broncos want to compete for a Super Bowl. Throwing a young quarterback into the mix, a player who's yet to start a NFL game, isn't going to help that objective. As long as Manning can play, and as long as the Broncos are competitive, it'll be Manning at QB for Denver.
The 6-0 start gave Manning a lot of rope in that regard, too. With how terrible the AFC West has been thus far, the Broncos are a near lock for the postseason. Elway and Kubiak are committed to Manning. And they know that he gives them their best shot at a Super Bowl. In the meantime, they've got to fix their offensive struggles for that to even be a moderately realistic goal.
The Packers are No. 1 in the NFL in scoring defense. I’m not sure they’re that good but, hey, those are the numbers. I’d argue Denver’s defense is the best in the league. What are the Broncos doing right on offense to challenge the Packers’ defense? And on the other side of the ball, for the teams that have had some success against Denver’s defense, what has been the formula?
The Broncos have actually moved the ball well between the 20s. Their primary issues have been in the red zone. They can't convert long drives into six points consistently, and a lot of that has to do with the lack of a rushing threat close to the goal line. The truth is, the Broncos aren't doing much right at all on offense. But as long as Peyton's calling the signals, the Broncos have the potential to bust loose and recapture their former juggernaut status. The have talent at all the skill positions. They've just gotta put it all together.
Teams who have had some success against the Broncos’ defense have done so with a lot of movement pre-snap. Receivers going in motion to give them free releases off the snap. Crossing routes. The Broncos’ defense has also struggled some defending the athletic, pass-catching tight ends. I'm certain Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers will try to exploit that on Sunday.
Otherwise, the Broncos have been phenomenal on defense. They shut down the run and force a lot of third-and-longs, which plays into their strength in the pass rush. The opportunistic secondary has reaped the rewards and it shows in the Broncos’ 17 takeaways. They've yet to play an elite QB this year, so it'll be interesting to see how they measure up as a unit to Aaron Rodgers.
This would have been a great matchup last year, with Green Bay’s receivers battling Denver’s corners. But the Packers’ receiver corps, which is without Jordy Nelson (torn ACL), has run hot and cold. Randall Cobb’s shoulder should be healthier and Davante Adams should be back after missing most of the last four games with a sprained ankle. Does it matter, though? Is Denver’s secondary so good (and the pass rush so fierce) that no team is going to consistently get anything done through the air?
When you throw an elite QB into the mix, like Rodgers, all bets are off. And I say that because we haven't seen the Broncos compete with an upper-echelon quarterback this year. Matthew Stafford was their toughest matchup of the young season and they brutalized him.
They can be exploited by slant routes and crossing routes, because the corners like to play off-coverage. Rodgers will zero in on that really quick, I'm betting, which could lead to more press-man coverage. At that point, the onus will be on Rodgers to make them pay for it but that'll be easier said than done.