1. DEFENDING DOUG MARTIN.
It’s not impossible, as the Falcons showed last week, limiting Martin to 2.4 yards per carry — although two of his 21 rushes were for short touchdowns, warming the hearts of his fantasy-football owners. And in the last six games, the Broncos have the league’s best run defense in yardage per game, yardage per carry and first-down percentage — statistics that remain true even after giving up 148 yards and 4.8 yards per carry to Kansas City last week.
Defending Martin requires discipline. Over-pursuit and abandonment of responsibilities is what he thrives on — which has also been rare for the Broncos since Keith Brooking became their starting middle linebacker in Week 6, setting a stable tone that permeates the entire unit. Thus, the Bucs’ hopes of keeping pace in a shootout might rest on …
2. SO WE MEET AGAIN: VINCENT JACKSON AND DALLAS CLARK.
Jackson is a long-time Broncos foe from his days with the Chargers, but is hardly a tormentor; in 12 games against Denver, he’s scored just three touchdowns and averaged less than 50 yards per game on 3.1 catches per outing. That being said, he’s on pace for the best season of his career, and cornerback Champ Bailey says he sees something different in Jackson than in previous years. But given Bailey’s past success against the big Northern Colorado product, you’d have to bet on No. 24.
Clark, however, might be a greater concern. Although the Broncos have fared better against tight ends recently — no touchdowns allowed to San Diego’s Antonio Gates and Kansas City’s Tony Moeaki since Greg Olsen’s two for Carolina on Nov. 11 — Clark has averaged a touchdown per game against the Broncos and has become a more prominent target for Josh Freeman in recent weeks. The intelligence that ex-Colts Peyton Manning, Jacob Tamme and Brandon Stokley possess on Clark will help the Broncos, but they still have to stop him, and if Jackson is covered, Freeman might lean heavily on Clark.
3. LAVONTE DAVID.
There was ample reason why the rookie linebacker he won NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month honors for November; he might be the NFC’s most active linebacker, particularly in run defense, and had five tackles for losses last month — even though he didn’t have a sack — while averaging 11.75 tackles per game. As the Bucs have ascended, so has David’s star, and he’s become more than just a standout in IDP fantasy-football leagues to simply being a standout, period.
David, Martin and safety Mark Barron were the Bucs’ top three picks. All seem likely to be linchpins of Tampa Bay’s lineup for years to come — certainly long enough to be in their prime the next time the Bucs and Broncos duel, at Raymond James Stadium in 2016.
That being said, David could be the least important third of that group Sunday. David’s strength is in chasing down ballcarriers behind the line of scrimmage, which has helped the Bucs soar to the league’s top in run defense, allowing just 3.4 yards per carry and 81.5 yards per game. Thus, Denver should play to its strengths — passing, passing and more passing.
This season David doesn’t have a sack, hasn’t broken up a pass and hasn’t forced a fumble. Against Manning, he’ll have to be more active in coverage — and show that he can do more than just make the stop; he needs to make a big play.
4. THE BUCS’ TURNOVER TOUCH.
Much is made over the Bucs’ dead-last ranking in terms of passing yardage allowed (both per game and yardage per attempt, where they’re yielding a whopping 8.4 yards per pass), and that could allow Manning to have his first 350-yard day as a Bronco. But they rank third in the league with 16 interceptions, which helps compensate for not only the yardage they concede, but their relative lack of sacks (18, tied with the Eagles for 28th in the league). Manning has averaged an interception a game the last four weeks, and his younger brother, Eli, was intercepted three times by the Bucs in Week 2.
But Eli also completed 31 of 51 passes for 510 yards and three touchdowns that day — which shows that the Bucs’ strategy doesn’t always work. Further, the quarterbacks to beat Tampa Bay this year read like an all-star list of the past, present and future: Eli Manning, Robert Griffin III, Matt Ryan, Drew Brees and Tony Romo. This bodes well for a Peyton Manning-led offense.
5. THE QUEST FOR RECORDS:
Here’s where Manning will start picking off the Broncos’ single-season records, one-by-one. The first to go will be touchdown passes; he needs two to break the club record of 27.
Assuming Manning remains healthy and doesn’t go into a tailspin, he should claim every major standard for the Broncos. It’s Manning’s second-best season, but looks to be the best ever by a Broncos quarterback, validating his acquisition no matter what else happens.