Finally, we have a Broncos football game that actually matters. A football game with real stakes rather than the vanilla play of the preseason, and on Monday night no less.
As the Broncos travel to Oaktown to face the Raiders, let’s take a look at three key matchups that will determine who wins and who loses their season opener.
Chris Harris Jr. vs. Antonio Brown
“Last time we played?” Harris said, “Last year? When he had three catches and I had a pick?”
He’s earned the right to that level of confidence after absolutely shutting Brown down in last year’s matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Brown did catch the ball nine times, but only three of those came against Denver’s shutdown corner Following the offseason additions of Kareem Jackson, Bryce Callahan, Ed Donatell and most importantly, Vic Fangio, the matchup should only be more difficult for “Mr. Big Chest.”
For the Broncos to win, it will have to be.
The Raiders’ offense is going to run through Antonio Brown this year — as long as he doesn’t go even further off the rails — because he is easily the best player on their roster. If Chris Harris and the rest of the Denver secondary can make Brown a non-factor, the Broncos should be able to waltz to a Week 1 victory.
Update: Antonio Brown has since asked the Raiders to release him and has said that he won’t play Monday.
Bradley Chubb and Von Miller vs. Kolton Miller and Trent Brown
The Raiders made their second-greatest gamble of the summer when they chose to sign right tackle Trent Brown to the largest offensive line contract in NFL history. Brown flamed out with the 49ers in 2017 but bounced back in a big way with the Patriots under legendary offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia.
The question now is, can he replicate that same success elsewhere and was he worth that contract?
Following Week 1 we should have the answer to at least one of the questions, as he’s forced to line up opposite of Von Miller. Brown will have to keep Miller in check because Raiders’ left tackle Kolton Miller has his hands more than full with Bradley Chubb.
Kolton Miller was one of the league’s worst tackles last year in his rookie season. Last season, he earned a grade of 48.2 overall, 52.7 in pass protection and 44.1 in run-blocking. On a game-to-game basis, he earned an overall grade above 70 just once. For sake of reference, Pro Football Focus lists grades below 60 as “replaceable players,” 60-69.9 is backup quality and 70 is the bare minimum to be deemed “starter quality.”
Kolton Miller was ranked 80th by PFF last season at tackle. Out of 80. The Raiders reportedly wanted Mike McGlinchey, who was taken by the 49ers 1 spot ahead of Oakland’s pick. McGlinchey ranked 29th.
— Gregg Rosenthal (@greggrosenthal) May 9, 2019
In other words, Broncos fans should expect Von Miller and Chubb to throw a meet-at-the-quarterback party all night long.
Broncos’ Offensive Line vs. Raiders Defensive Front
While the edge-rusher position is still shaky at best, the Raiders have invested heavily in their defensive front over the past two seasons.
Clelin Ferrell, Maxx Crosby, Maurice Hurst, Arden Key and P.J. Hall were each drafted within the first five rounds of the past two drafts. All should be major contributors or, at the very least, role-players on the Oakland defensive line.
On the other side of the ball, the Broncos are installing two new linemen, Dalton Risner and Ja’wuan James, under a new offensive line coach in Mike Munchak. With these additions, the line is bound to improve in 2019, but by how much?
The Broncos will go as their line goes this season. With one of the least mobile quarterbacks in the league and an offense predicated on the running game and play-action, Denver will have to be much better up front than they’ve been since losing Peyton Manning.
If Joe Flacco is sent running for his life here, against the Raiders, it could be a grizzly foreshadowing of the 2019 season.
Denver vs. Oakland kicks off at 8:20 p.m. MT on Monday Night Football.