OAKLAND – Five things to watch when the Broncos (9-3) face the Raiders (3-9) at O.co Coliseum on Thursday night:
1. WORKING THE GROUND GAME.
It hasn’t always been explosive, but the Broncos’ quest for balance has led them to run on 40.6 percent of their snaps this year, which places them near the middle of the league in run percentage (18th) and is 1.4 percent below the league average (the only teams who run more often than they pass are the Seahawks, Redskins and 49ers).
They’ve tried running repeatedly to various degrees of success — even when the home fans didn’t appreciate the attempt, as was the case on a third-and-16 handoff to Lance Ball last week. They’ve done it not just for the short-term benefits — as multiple Broncos noted at Cincinnati last month, the early runs helped wear down the Bengals, softening their defense and setting up double-digit yardage gains late — but for the long term, which is the Broncos’ focus now that a playoff bid has been clinched.
“That (running) is something that we feel like we have to be able to do and do better,” quarterback Peyton Manning said. “Especially as potential weather approaches, that run game is something you want to have clicking on all cylinders.”
They emphasized it during practice Tuesday, Manning said. Look for a similar focus Thursday — even when it seems the air is the path of least resistance.
2. FILLING IN FOR WOODYARD.
A sprained right ankle prevented Wesley Woodyard from making the trip to Oakland, which cemented what appeared likely when the first-team weakside linebacker didn’t practice Tuesday or Wednesday: that the Broncos will make do with D.J. Williams and rookie Danny Trevathan working in place of the Broncos’ leading tackler.
“It will definitely affect the defense. He’s been playing well for us — really all season,” Broncos linebacker Von Miller said. “But D.J., he’s ready to go. If Wood can’t go, D.J. will step right in that position. That’s the same thing that Wood did for D.J. at the beginning of the (2011 season).”
And this, of course, is why the Broncos would have been foolish to cut Williams when his suspension ended. While he is not as explosive as Woodyard — especially in pass coverage, where Woodyard has more interceptions this year than Williams does his entire career — the Broncos trust him to not be a liability and play with steadiness.
Denver’s defensive strengths change slightly with Williams replacing Woodyard, but not enough to cause great concern.
3. McFADDEN’S RETURN.
Running back Darren McFadden will play for the first time since Nov. 4, but even before he injured his ankle and missed four games, he wasn’t the same back as he was before he suffered his Lis Franc injury last year. But when the Broncos last faced the Raiders, there wasn’t enough evidence to say that McFadden was suffering lingering effects from the injury.
There were questions about the Broncos’ run defense as that Sept. 30 game against Oakland neared, and they were justified at the time. Houston’s Arian Foster had just singed the Broncos for 105 yards a week earlier, and McFadden had three consecutive 100-yard games — averaging 144 yards per game — at the Broncos’ expense dating back to 2010.
But the Week 4 win over the Raiders was the first time that Keith Brooking started at middle linebacker, and that was the change that helped the Broncos’ run defense congeal into a firm unit. McFadden only gained 34 yards on 13 carries, and the most reliable aspect of the Raiders’ offense was essentially taken out of commission, leaving the Broncos free to rush quarterback Carson Palmer and disrupt Oakland’s aerial timing.
McFadden hasn’t found his form often at all, though, regardless of the competition. In six of the eight 2012 games he’s played, he’s averaged less than three yards per carry. It’s conceivable he could recapture his form Thursday, but the odds aren’t in his favor.
4. A QUICK START.
This has been elusive for the Broncos in recent weeks, as the poor first quarters that dogged them early in the season have returned after a two-week respite at the midway point. In their last four games, the Broncos have been outscored 30-14 (check to confirm) in the opening 15 minutes. As a result, the Broncos have trailed at some point in every game but Oakland in Week 4 and New Orleans in Week 8.
The balky beginnings caught up to the Broncos when they lost to the Falcons, Texans and Patriots, the three best teams they’ve faced. They haven’t been a problem since, and one Thursday likely wouldn’t bug the Broncos for long. But for their long-term hopes, they’d like to break this pattern before they jump back into elite competition at Baltimore in 10 days.
5. DON’T GET CAUGHT LOOKING AHEAD.
We’re not talking about next week. We’re talking about this weekend.
As much as the short week in advance of the Thursday games leads to consternation from players and coaches alike, they adore the Saturday and Sunday respite in its backwash. Champ Bailey noted that the weekend is like another bye, and those two days have been the tempting piece of meat dangling in the distance.
Of course, that meat is often booby-trapped — see the third Star Wars movie, “Return of the Jedi,” for an example — and Oakland offers similar peril if the Broncos are carelessly sloppy. The penalty for a loss is great; it means the Patriots will have to lose twice and the Texans three times for the Broncos to have a shot at earning a first-round bye, even if they win at Baltimore.
Neither John Fox nor Manning has fared well after postseason byes — Fox is 0-1; Manning is 1-3 — so it’s not like getting a week off is a guarantee of success. But the Broncos would just as soon avoid being tossed into a fiery first-round duel with surging Indianapolis or the Steelers or Bengals, both of whom played Denver tough earlier in the season and could hit their peak at the right time — especially if Ben Roethlisberger returns to his pre-injury form.
If the Broncos truly want a postseason bye, every game is a must-win. Even winning out might not be enough, but it’s their only shot.