DENVER – Five things to watch when the Broncos face the Chargers on Sunday at Sports Authority Field at Mile High:
1. PRESSURE, WITH OR WITHOUT DUMERVIL:
If Elvis Dumervil does play — and he’s questionable with a left shoulder strain — don’t be surprised if the Broncos limit his work, perhaps working him in on passing downs while leaving the rest of the work to Robert Ayers. If Dumervil is out, Ayers should still be able to help create havoc on Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, because San Diego’s tackle situation remains unsettled. Right tackle Jeromey Clary struggled against Von Miller, and fill-in rookie left tackle Mike Harris has, unfortunately for the Chargers, shown why he went undrafted. Both are among the worst at their positions, according to the metrics used by ProFootballFocus.com, and both were worn out by Miller and Dumervil last month.
The Chargers can’t really afford to keep tight end Antonio Gates in to help the tackles; he’s too necessary as a downfield threat. If Rivers can’t get the football out quickly to his targets, the day will be among the most painful of his career. That brings us to …
2. COVERING THE TIGHT END.
This a broken record, isn’t it? But after allowing consecutive 100-yard games to Cincinnati’s Jermaine Gresham and Carolina’s Greg Olsen and surrendering five touchdowns to tight ends the last four games (more than half of the nine overall allowed in that span), this remains a concern.
“Here comes the best in the game coming up this week,” said Champ Bailey.
It was San Diego’s Antonio Gates that started the recent run; he caught two first-half touchdown passes Oct. 15 to put the Broncos behind 24-0 at halftime. Denver tried covering him that night with its safeties and since then has used a variety of personnel to try to defuse Gresham, Olsen and New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham. Success for Denver has been spotty.
The Broncos could opt to use D.J. Williams to help out — and since the Broncos saw fit to place him on the 53-man roster Saturday when they had two more days on the grace period to add him, there’s little reason to believe they wouldn’t give him a jersey and place him among the active 46 players, especially since coach John Fox praised his fitness and conditioning this week.
3. ONE MORE RECEIVING THREAT:
Covering the Chargers’ wideouts is a little bit more difficult now because Danario Alexander has emerged as a legitimate target for Rivers. Expect the Broncos to primarily to use Champ Bailey on Malcom Floyd, as they did last game, but if Chris Harris or Tony Carter gets beaten deep, then Bailey might have to pull off Floyd more often than not.
That being said, Harris and Carter are playing with such confidence and steadiness that they ought to be able to handle their coverage responsibilities. Their breakthrough was against San Diego last month; if Dumervil, Ayers, Miller and others in the front seven generate enough pressure, they might again be poised for multiple takeaways off Rivers, who has given up the football for three defensive scores in the Chargers’ last four games.
Yes, the Broncos will be on edge for this. They’ve been reminded constantly of the 24-0 deficit in which they found themselves last month, a reminder of how self-inflicted mistakes are easily capitalized upon by the Chargers — even in a weakened and steadily declining state from their 2006-07 apex. Only the Broncos’ biggest comeback in 33 years separates them from entering Sunday tied with the Chargers and needing a win in order to avoid losing the division-record tiebreaker.
But for the Chargers, this game is effectively their season. A loss basically leaves them four games back of the Broncos because of a tiebreaker, with six games left to play. They could sneak back into wild-card consideration, but they’re already headed in the wrong direction with a 1-4 mark after a 3-1 start and they have yet to beat a team that currently has a winning record; their four wins have come against clubs with a combined 9-28 record, and two of the wins were against bottom-dwelling Kansas City.
It’s a last stand for the Chargers — and perhaps for their embattled coach and general manager — and they know it. Expect them to play desperate.
5. THE BLUES.
The blue jerseys, accompanied by blue pants, return Sunday. Although the monochromatic look doesn’t work for me — I prefer the white pants because the top-to-bottom blue look makes the larger linemen look like blueberries on the vine — there is value in seeing them on a cameo basis, as it calls to mind the Broncos’ Super Bowl years of 1997-98.
Sure, orange defines the Broncos, and should remain the primary color. But for one Sunday a year, what’s the harm in bringing out a look that will always be associated with the club’s fondest memories? An 86-40 record (including playoffs) in blue jerseys means they ought to be remembered with more fondness than they are.
PREDICTION: Broncos 31, Chargers 24.