Five things to watch Sunday when the Broncos renew their enduring rivalry with the Oakland Raiders at Sports Authority Field at Mile High (2:05 p.m. MDT).
1. DICTATE THE EARLY PACE.
Two weeks ago, the Broncos tried to jump on the Falcons early by taking three deep shots and got burnt by Atlanta’s disguised coverage and some scattershot passes by Peyton Manning. But in the quarters that followed, he has become much more accurate on those throws; he completed two 30-yard passes against the Texans, had one nullified by penalty and another taken off the board when Demaryius Thomas didn’t drag his back foot in the end zone. Another potential gain of 30 yards ended in an Eric Decker drop in the fourth quarter at Atlanta.
Based on those passes, it appears as though Manning’s deep accuracy is improving, even if the receivers are still rounding into form. Injuries to Raiders cornerbacks Ron Bartell and Shawntae Spencer also forced safety Michael Huff to move to cornerback, which leaves Oakland vulnerable to deep attacks; the Broncos would be wise to go deep and work without a huddle early. Yes, a similar strategy failed in Atlanta, whose secondary was similarly dogged by injuries, but the Falcons had cornerback depth the Raiders do not possess.
2. ROTATE THE RUNNERS.
Willis McGahee’s rib cartilage injury proved to be minor and won’t keep him out Sunday, but it serves to remind the Broncos and fans of the fragility of their 30-year-old workhorse who has become the most consistently dependable weapon in the Broncos’ arsenal.
Look for the Broncos to try and rotate their running backs more liberally than in previous weeks. It’s unlikely they’ll have a 55-to-21 pass play-to-run imbalance like they did last week; this means more carries — and potentially more chances for whichever backup running back (Ronnie Hillman or Knowshon Moreno) they opt to use with utility man Lance Ball.
3. INTERIOR VS. INTERIOR:
The strongest part of Oakland’s defense is its defensive tackle complement, where Richard Seymour and Tommy Kelly have the potential to collapse Denver’s pocket from the inside. Last week’s loss to Houston showed what can happen when the interior is attacked; instead of forcing a one-on-one matchup between J.J. Watt and Orlando Franklin, the Texans sent Watt at Manny Ramirez, and the results were disastrous; Watt had 2.5 sacks and an opportunity for two more. Kelly and Seymour present a different challenge; they lack Watt’s array of speed moves and burst off the line of scrimmage, but often work in tandem with stunts to free each other and confuse opposing linemen.
4. YOUNG LINEBACKERS ASSEMBLE:
John Fox and Jack Del Rio would like for their backup defenders to rotate into the lineup to keep the first-teamers fresh at positions other than just defensive tackle; that’s why defensive end Robert Ayers, safety Jim Leonhard and linebacker Nate Irving have been worked into the lineup for a handful of defensive snaps in recent weeks.
But with Irving coming off a concussion, and Joe Mays suspended, the Broncos are likely left with three players who have never taken a regular-season defensive snap as their backups: Steven Johnson, Danny Trevathan and Mike Mohamed. If Del Rio wants to give Sunday’s likely first-teamers (Von Miller, Wesley Woodyard and Keith Brooking) a respite, he’ll have to gamble on energy and unexpectedness trumping the potential perils of inexperience.
Johnson was a tackling machine in the preseason and Trevathan was the same at the University of Kentucky. But they’ve never faced a running back like Darren McFadden, against whom the Broncos have struggled even when at full strength.
5. NEVER UNDERESTIMATE OAKLAND.
There’s little reason for the Broncos to look past a team that has beaten them four consecutive times at home, but a 38-24 win in the rematch at Oakland last November and the massive changes since then on both sides might fool fans into believing this could be a walkover. The perception of the teams also factors into this; Broncos have grand aspirations even after a 1-2 start, and the Raiders are widely perceived to be at the dawn of a rebuilding effort to transform not just the on-field squad, but the organization as well.
There are enough Broncos on the roster who were around for those four home defeats since 2008 to motivate them. Defensive tackle Justin Bannan admitted that the 59-14 loss in 2010 was a low point of his career; others on the team then would undoubtedly concur. There’s little chance the Broncos will look past the Raiders; if they do, they deserve any negative result they may receive.
PREDICTION: Broncos 37, Raiders 21.