Behind Broncos Lines: Part 1

We talked with Chad Jensen of Mile High Huddle about this weekend's game in Denver as the Silver & Black takes on the Broncos.

CM: A lot has been made of Peyton Manning in cold weather and it's supposed to be rather chilly in Denver on Sunday. Do you hold any merit to this theory? Is this what happened in the rain against the Bengals on Sunday, or what happened?

CJ: The narrative about Peyton Manning and cold weather is a myth. In his almost three full years in the rockies, he's been forced to perform in very cold weather several times. More often than not, he has excelled and is his usual self, but wears a glove on his throwing hand. The nerve damage from his neck surgery makes it difficult for him to feel and grip the ball in the cold. Hence the glove.

With the glove, he's fine. Last week vs the Cincinnati Bengals, I feel that his biggest issue was that it had been a long time, several weeks, since he had that many pass attempts. He was cold (in the lack-of-momentum sense). The Broncos have relied on C.J. Anderson and the ground game, ever since dropping one on the road to the St. Louis Rams.

And as such, Manning was out of sync on Monday night. He threw three of his four interceptions last week in the fourth quarter, which is very atypical for him. He is usually at his best in the fourth, but against the Bengals, he and his receivers were out of sync and it made it difficult for Manning to get into a rhythm.

CM: Running back Ronnie Hillman hasn't been active since week 10 but appears to be "probable" for Sunday's matchup against the Raiders. Should he be active, how do you see the Broncos using him and what will the snap count look like between the running backs?

CJ: If Hillman plays vs the Raiders, I expect it to be strictly as a change-of-pace alternative to Anderson. Anderson has locked down the running back role behind Manning and although Hillman performed well as a starter earlier this season when Montee Ball went down, he doesn't have the body/frame to tote the rock 20+ times.

He's a good third down back and can be a dangerous receiving weapon out of the backfield. I see Anderson getting 80% of the snaps on Sunday, with Hillman (if active) and Juwan Thompson splitting the difference.

CM: How big of a loss is it if safety T.J. Ward is unable to go on Sunday? What does he bring to the secondary and is that a point where Derek Carr, tight end Mychal Rivera and the Raiders passing game can attack if he's unable to play?

CJ: If Ward is a no-go on Sunday, it will be a huge loss, especially considering that the Broncos already lost their No. 3 safety, Quinton Carter, to injured reserve. If Ward's not able to play, the Broncos will rely on David Bruton, who has been very impressive filling in for Carter in the Broncos big-nickel sub-package.

Ward is best when he's inside the box and allowed to roam close to the line of scrimmage. He's solid in coverage, but can be exploited by bigger, athletic tight ends, like Rivera. Honestly, I like the Broncos chances of defending Rivera better without Ward at strong safety, as harsh as that might sound, considering Ward is a Pro Bowler.

Ward is is better in coverage when he's the help, not the primary one-on-one cover man. When he's able to play a zone, read and react, he's much more effective in coverage. Alas, Jack Del Rio hasn't chosen to deploy him much in that way, choosing instead to often line him up against tight ends. Bruton is taller and a bit rangier. As the Broncos special teams captain, he's very athletic and should stop the gap until Ward returns.

Tight end Julius Thomas' last touchdown reception came against the Raiders in week 10. Is he still hobbled by an ankle injury or have defenses found a way to defend him better? Safety Charles Woodson has had a solid year defending tight ends, do you think Manning will still look for him Sunday?

CJ: Thomas has been playing hurt, ever since he injured his ankle against the Rams. It's no coincidence that the Broncos went run heavy when Thomas went down. The team has tried to ease him back into action, but it's plain to see that he's not 100% and to put it simply, he's not a player who can grin and bear it when he's hurt.

The entire scope of the Broncos offense changed when Thomas went down and to be honest, it's hard to get a bead on what kind of offensive identity the Broncos have, at this point. Are they an air-it-out, pass first offense? Or smash-mouth, run heavy? I'm not sure even they know the answer to that question right now, which is alarming.

I think we'll get a better answer to that question this week vs the Raiders. If Adam Gase chooses to open up the offense, spread out the defense and let Peyton be Peyton, I think that's likely what we'll see in the playoffs. If they choose to strive closer to a balanced attack and lead with Anderson, then it's likely that's the approach they'll take in the tournament. As for Thomas, he'll get looks in the redzone, make no mistake.

CM: The Broncos went into last week's matchup as the second-best rushing defense on the year, but gave up over 200 rushing yards to the Bengals. Was that a case of being, exploited by Jeremy Hill and Giovanni Bernard, or was the second-best ranking more of a factor of opposing teams being down by so much? Do you think Latavius Murray and the Raiders running backs can find some running room with LB Brandon Marshall and T.J. Ward maybe out?

CJ: The Broncos giving up 200+ yards rushing last week was a direct result of being without LB Brandon Marshall. He is the glue that holds the defense together. Todd Davis and Steven Johnson simply lack the experience and aren't as athletic as Marshall.

Marshall is definitely out this week. If Ward's out too, then yes, I like Murray's chances of finding room to run. But Murray's fortunes on the ground will also hinge on whether or not Manning and the offense are able to get out to a lead early on. If the Raiders get down by more than one score in the first half, it'll force Carr to air it out, which is exactly what the Broncos want.

I'm of the opinion that we're going to see the Broncos offense trend more toward the pass. As long as Manning's the QB, they're defying nature by running it at a ratio of 65/35. There's no question that they need to be able to run the ball in the playoffs, but they also need Manning back into a rhythm, if they want to reach the Super Bowl and I think the Raiders are going to get a big dose of that on Sunday.

Let's face it. We're not talking about Terrell Davis and the '97-98 Broncos O-line being resurrected in Denver right now. Far from it. The O-line has struggled immensely this year and if anything is going to ultimately hold the Broncos back in the playoffs, it'll be them. If they can gel and get back to playing well as a unit, both the pass and the run will be formidable. If not, we could see an early playoff exit from the Broncos.

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