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Broncos-Falcons: Five things to watch

ATLANTA – Five things to watch Monday night, when the Broncos and Atlanta Falcons clash at the Georgia Dome:

1. TEMPO, TEMPO:

Denver’s offense wasn’t stopped after it went to the no-huddle in Week 1; the only times it didn’t score after increasing the pace were when it took a knee to end each half. Atlanta’s no-huddle offense didn’t have that kind of 100-percent efficiency against the Chiefs, but was effective enough to pull away for a 16-point win last week.

Both teams want to do the same thing to each other, which makes this matchup so intriguing. Manning has more experience than Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan in the no-huddle, but Ryan has a more proven set of top three targets in Roddy White, Julio Jones and tight end Tony Gonazalez.

Here’s what could separate the Broncos, though: the ability to execute lengthy drives. They had as many drives taking at least 10 plays last week (three) as they amassed in the last six regular-season games of 2011 combined. They also had three consecutive 80-yard touchdown drives for the first time in franchise history; they had only 12 80-yard touchdown drives in all of 2011.

2. COMMUNICATING WITHOUT TALKING:

Simply yelling won’t be enough for Peyton Manning; he’ll have to have his full array of gesticulations ready to get his point across to his offensive linemen and skill-position players in order to communicate through the din expected for the Georgia Dome on Monday.

The Broncos haven’t had this challenge yet with the Manning-led offense; the preseason-opening crowd at Chicago’s Soldier Field was doused and drowned out by a pre-game thunderstorm. Every other first-team snap came at home, where the fans typically followed protocol and quietly allowed Manning to go about his work, allowing his calls to be clearly audible on television broadcasts.

Don’t be surprised if the Broncos absorb multiple timing penalties before they get the kinks ironed out of their pre-snap communication.

3. INTERIOR PRESSURE:

Until the Broncos’ final series against Pittsburgh last week — when Von Miller got two sacks and Wesley Woodyard one — all of Denver’s sacks came on pressure up the middle, with Joe Mays and Chris Harris splitting one sack and Derek Wolfe nabbing another via a well-executed stunt move with defensive tackle Mitch Unrein.

Until opposing pass-protection schemes turn their focus away from Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil, many sacks the Broncos get before an opponent is forced into pass-intensive mode will have to come from Wolfe, Unrein, Justin Bannan or the linebackers or safeties successfully exploiting blockers distracted by the outside threats. Wolfe was drafted to provide that interior pass-rush punch, and his tandem with Unrein in the Broncos’ nickel package looked promising on first glance last week.

4. EXPLOSIVE RUN PLAYS WOULD HELP:

The Broncos found balance in their run-pass distribution last week, and on their final two non-kneeldown drives ran an equal number of run and pass plays (11 apiece). But at no point were any of the runs a threat to become breakaways, and only two carries covered more than 10 yards.

Last year, the Broncos averaged 4.72 runs of 10 or more yards per game — and averaged 3.11 per game even when the runs of non-running backs like Tim Tebow are taken out. It’s not a key to the game; the Broncos proved last year they could win without explosive runs and lose with plenty of them. But if the Broncos want true balance, then the ground game must be as equal of a 71-yard burst as their aerial component.

5. MORE MISTAKE-FREE OFFENSIVE FOOTBALL:

The decibel level within the Georgia Dome will be high enough to ensure that the Broncos do not enjoy a repeat of last week, when their offense was never flagged for holding or a false start and was only whistled for a solitary delay-of-game penalty, with two illegal-formation infractions being declined by the Steelers. Those moments, a missed blitz pickup by Knowshon Moreno for one of the sacks allowed and a Willis McGahee fumble were all that separated he Broncos from a flawless night.

The key? According to offensive coordinator Mike McCoy, it was a philosophical foundation established in training camp.

“Hey, listen, let’s get better every day and let’s eliminate all the little mistakes, and if you do the little things right, big things happen,” McCoy said. “That’s our approach.”

Attention to detail has defined Manning in his career. Based on Week 1, it’s contagious. How far it spreads and whether it carries over to Monday will determine whether the Broncos are 2-0.

AND A BONUS PLAYER TO WATCH …

Cornerback Tony Carter, who might play extensively as the nickelback if Chris Harris is out, which would provide him with the most extensive action of his peripatetic four-season career.  You can read more about him elsewhere at MileHighSports.com.

PREDICTION:

Broncos 37, Falcons 34.

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