The Raiders are coming off of a solid defensive game against the Seattle Seahawks, despite giving up 30 points. The Broncos once again possess a potent offense led by future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning. If you had to pick one weakness in this Denver offense, what would it be?
The offensive line. Despite this unit featuring two All-Pros, in left tackle, Ryan Clady and right guard, Louis Vasquez, they have yet to gel. Although Manning has only been sacked 9 times, against elite front sevens, like the Seahawks and even the Patriots, they have struggled to contain the pass rush.
Where this weakness shows up the most, however, is in the running game. They have been lackluster in opening holes for Montee Ball, Ronnie Hillman and Juwan Thompson. Hillman's statistical production of late, is more of a reflection of his extraordinary individual effort, than the offensive line. If the Raiders game-plan and execute effectively, this is where the Broncos are vulnerable.
Ronnie Hillman and Juwan Thompson have performed admirably in place of Montee Ball while he has been out with a groin injury. What is the running back situation expected to be like this week? Will Ball return? If he does, will he assume his duties or does it appear he has lost his starting job to Hillman?
There is a chance that Ball could return this week, although I doubt it. Even if he does, he will not go back to being the workhorse. Hillman has earned the lion's share of the running back touches, at least, for now. Hillman's issues in the past have been immaturity and ball security. All it would take for Ball to get his old role back, would be for Hillman to fumble.
But over the last 4 weeks, Hillman has produced 484 yards of total offense and 4 TDs. That's the type of production Adam Gase is looking for in this offense. When Ball returns, I expect him to split carries with Hillman though. Likely, 60/40, in favor of Hillman. Thompson and C.J. Anderson have performed well, when called upon thus far. In week 10, however, expect the primary back to be Hillman, regardless of Ball's health status.
The Broncos currently possess the best rush defense in the league, allowing just 71.6 yards per game on the ground. Is that an accurate display of their defense, or is it more of a result of having their opponents be down and forced to go to the passing game? What has made them so successful in stopping the run?
The Broncos run defense is for real, but they have obviously benefited from defending multiple score leads. With Von Miller back to his 2012 form, Terrance Knighton, and the free agent acquisitions John Elway brought in, this is a defense replete with talent. However, Jack Del Rio has fallen short, at times, in game-planning and scheming, not always putting them in the best position to succeed as a unit.
The biggest factor in their run defense has been the return of Miller and Derek Wolfe. Remember, in the Super Bowl, the Broncos were without 5 defensive starters, including these two, and Chris Harris, Jr. Wolfe is not a pass rushing defensive end. He excels at setting the edge and forcing runners inside to lanes clogged by behemoths like Knighton, Sylvester Williams and Malik Jackson. Miller is a force of nature. And as much admiration as he gets as a pass rusher, he's just as good at defending the run.
On the contrast, the Broncos are ranked just 20th in stopping the pass. Raiders rookie quarterback Derek Carr had a hard time last week against the Seattle Seahawks. Where are the weak parts in the Denver secondary for the Raiders to attack?
Now this area of the Broncos defensive stats really is a reflection of game flow each week. When the Broncos get out to a multiple score lead, it renders the opposing offense one-dimensional and forces them to play catch up, leaning on the pass. Even the best secondaries will give up yards when 70% or more of their snaps are pass defense.
Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward have been excellent additions to this team, there's no getting around that. But the Broncos saving grace has been the return of a healthy Chris Harris. With an +11.2 overall grade via ProFootballFocus, Harris is the 3rd highest rated cornerback in the league. He has been targeted in coverage 45 times, relinquishing only 22 receptions. QBs have a collective rating of just 41.4 when throwing in Harris' direction.
Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware have turned into a dangerous pass-rushing duo and the Raiders are coming off of their first week where they really lost the battle at the line of scrimmage on offense. What has been the key to the success of the Broncos' pass rush?
Primarily, it has been the pure individual talent and effort of Miller and DeMarcus Ware. They are two very special players. One thing that often goes unnoticed, however, is that they've received a lot of help by way of interior pressure from the defensive line. Malik Jackson, who lines up at DE and DT, has 2 sacks, 6 QB hits and 18 hurries. Wolfe has zero sacks, but he has 2 QB hits and 16 hurries himself.
When the Broncos are in their nickel sub-package, they'll rush Miller and Ware off the edges, while a combination of Jackson, Wolfe, and Knighton, will rush from the interior. It has been a very potent and effective approach. To keep Miller and Ware at bay, the Raiders will have to run the ball efficiently. If they can, it will neutralize their anticipation and quick first step.