Preview: Injuries Key Denver's Decline

The Denver Broncos were supposed to be a team poised for another playoff season, but injuries have undone Denver's postseason aspirations. We take a position-by-position look at the men who were supposed to be the backups and have now been pressed into duty as the Minnesota Vikings travel to Denver.

At the start of the 2007 season, if there had been talk about which of the two teams in today's regular-season finale would be playing for a potential berth in the postseason, it's likely more people would have gone with the Denver Broncos being the team with something on the line rather than the Minnesota Vikings. But, as both teams close out their regular season, the Broncos are looking to avoid their first 10-loss season since 1999 – the first season of the without John Elway under center in Denver.

This is a Broncos team that has disappointed in many ways. The offense has scored 20 or fewer points in nine games and allowed 31 or more points six times. Some of the blame has been directed at quarterback Jay Cutler, but in his first full season at quarterback for the Broncos, Cutler has played pretty well. He has completed 63 percent of his passes and has 18 touchdowns to 14 interceptions for a passer rating of 86.5. He has a strong arm and delivers passes accurately in the both the short and deep passing game. His problem is that he will panic when blitzed and throw ill-advised passes. For the Vikings to be successful, they can't allow Cutler to get comfortable. If he does, he will pick the secondary apart with bullet passes.

One of the biggest differences for the Broncos this season has been the lack of a dominant running game. Much of that can be attributed to injuries on the offensive line, but neither Travis Henry nor Selvin Young has turned into the typical stud running backs that have been a staple of the Broncos offense for more than a decade. Henry leads the team with 691 yards on 167 carries – an average of just 11 rushes a game – while Young has averaged 5.4 yards a carry – gaining 642 yards on 118 carries. Fullback Cecil Sapp also sees action in the running game, but this was a position that was supposed to be dominant this season. Instead, it's been a disappointment. Henry will get his carries between the tackle, but the player to be concerned with is Young. Blessed with very good speed, Young can break a long run at any time and has been used increasingly in the passing game (32 receptions). If anyone is going to make a dent running the ball, it's more likely to be the explosive Young.

With a lessening of production from the running game, the receiver corps has been asked to pick up the slack and Brandon Marshall has more than lived up to his billing. A fourth-round pick in 2006 from Central Florida, Marshall was given a starting job when Rod Smith went down before the start of the preseason and he has responded with 92 receptions (more than the next two Broncos receivers combined), 1,211 yards and six touchdowns. He is finally re-joined by veteran Javon Walker, who has missed much of the season due to injuries. Walker is battling for playing time with Brandon Stokley, who is battling a knee injury of his own in recent weeks.

Perhaps the biggest impact player outside of Marshall has been tight end Tony Scheffler. Another second-year player, Scheffler has 42 catches for 497 yards and four TDs and has made a bigger impact on the offense as the season has progressed. If the Broncos can't run, look for all four of their impact receivers to make significant contributions.

The biggest headache for the Broncos has been on the offensive line. Like the Vikings, the Broncos were blessed with three Pro Bowl-caliber O-linemen, but two of them – center Tom Nalen and left guard Ben Hamilton – were lost for the season early on. In their place, second-year pro Chris Kuper of North Dakota has replaced Hamilton and third-year man Chris Myers has taken over for Nalen. Both are a clear step down and leave left tackle Matt Lepsis, fighting injuries of his own, as the only top-quality linemen left. On the right side, fifth-year pro Montrae Holland has been serviceable but not much more and right tackle Erik Pears has seemed overmatched at times. This is a group that can be dominated, especially in run blocking, and the Vikings have a matchup here that they can clearly win.

While the Broncos offense has struggled at times, so has its defense. Lit up for 31 or more points six times, the defense has its share of players, but they haven't shown any consistency and have been ravaged by injury. Nowhere is that more apparent than at defensive tackle. Having finally abandoned the experiment of recycling rejects from the Cleveland Browns, the Broncos brought in veteran Sam Adams, who started at defensive tackle for much of the season before being abruptly cut a couple of weeks ago. His place has been taken by Antwon Burton, who spent much of the season as the third tackle on the depth chart. He's flanked by Alvin McKinney, who was supposed to be backing up Gerard Warren before he went down. At the end position, the ranks have been thinned by the injured-reserve losses of Ebenezer Ekuban and Jarvis Moss. But it has been a breakout season for second-year pro Elvis Dumervil, who is among the league leaders with 11.5 sacks. He has become the dominant defensive player on the team with Ian Gold slowed with a knee injury and will have to be accounted for on every play. On the other side, eight-year pro John Engelberger has been battling injuries of his own, but he is a solid run-stuffer who is an overachiever fit for this system. Depth is thin with rookie Tim Crowder providing the first level of backup help to spell the starters.

The linebacker corps hasn't been immune to injuries, as Gold has played banged up much of the season and starting outside linebacker Warrick Holdman was lost for the year during the preseason. D.J. Williams has been a rock in the middle, registering 133 tackles and Gold has played well out on the weakside. The biggest question as been at strongside linebacker, where backup MLB Nate Webster has been pressed into duty. While he is a strong tackler who rarely lets an opponent slip away from him, he has lost a step in his eighth year and has trouble with backs in coverage. Veteran Jamie Winborn was brought in earlier this month to give the Broncos some veteran presence, but depth is thin at the position.

The secondary has two of the game's best at the corners with Champ Bailey and Dre' Bly. Bly is no stranger to the Vikings from his years in Detroit, where the Lions gave him a huge contract that many believe was specifically to keep the Vikings from signing him. Bailey is one of the best cover corners of his generation, and both he and Bly will play tight man coverage that will allow the safeties more latitude to improvise and make plays. Unfortunately, the safeties haven't lived up to their end of the bargain. John Lynch remains a big hitter, but has clearly lost a step or two in coverage and we might be witnessing his last game as a pro this week. At the other safety spot, starter Nick Ferguson was lost for the year due to injury while backup Curome Cox was cut earlier this month. Hamza Abdullah and Roderick Rogers have split time at strong safety and both are vulnerable and can be attacked.

The Broncos are a team in disarray that has lost games in bunches with three two-game losing streaks and one three-game losing streak. While the Vikings' playoff hopes still look remote, Minnesota still has a ton to play for while the Broncos look like a team playing out the string. They will be working hard to avoid a double-digit loss season, but this is a team the Vikings can and should be able to wear down. This team has lost a lot of its top talent for much of the season, and what the Vikings will face in the regular-season finale today is a far cry from the Broncos team that was supposed to be on the field. With their injury and depth concerns, the Vikings should be able to take advantage of key matchups and come out of Denver with a win and an eye on the scoreboard to see if Dallas can do them any favors against Washington.

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