Three players to watch Sunday night

Sep 13, 2015; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders (10) reaches for a pass as Baltimore Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith (22) defends in the second quarter at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Broncos have battled through two tough opponents and come out of it 2-0. Sunday night, for the 18th time in the Broncos Peyton Manning era they will play the Detroit Lions in prime time television. The Lions, who sit at 0-2, are coming off of an 11-5 2014 season and are more dangerous than they appear.

In Detroit the Broncos will have to display consistency on offense and depth on defense in order to win their week three contest. Malik Jackson will play a major role in keeping the Lions’ offense one-dimensional and conversely, Matt Paradis will have to show vast improvement from the first two weeks while lining up across a veteran defensive interior. Lastly, Emmanuel Sanders will have ample opportunities to continue to break free for big plays.

3. Malik Jackson

Jackson has the unique ability to be a duel threat from the inside of Wade Phillips’ 3-4 defense. He has matured as a pass rusher by playing defensive end in a 4-3 his first three seasons in the NFL. Now in a contract year, Jackson is ready to be a consistent run stopper and continue to pile up sacks from the inside of Denver’s defense.

Through two games the Lions have been an extremely pass-heavy offense but with quarterback Matthew Stafford dealing with a rib injury the team will likely try to get the run game going behind a relatively young offensive line. Jackson understands the importance of forcing the Lions into one-dimensional football.

“With the quarterback banged up it makes sense that they would try to get the run game going,” Jackson said Friday. “If we go out there and do what we do as a defense and our offense puts up some points it will force them to throw often. It is exciting when you know what it is going to be on a play. You can just work on rushing and that’s how we make our money.”

According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Jackson has the most snaps (78) of any Broncos defensive lineman and has the second most stops (6) on the team. Stops are defined as solo defensive tackles that constitute an offensive failure. He will have to continue that trend in order to shut down running backs Joique Bell, Theo Riddick and Ameer Abdullah. According to Jackson, the line in front of those players will be a challenging test.

“They look good,” Jackson said of the Lions offensive front. “They look solid, they have Manny Ramirez, we know him pretty well, a solid guy in my eyes. It will be a tough game. We have to go out there and just make our mark in this game.”

Outside of former Bronco, Ramirez, the Lions offense will start four linemen with four or less seasons of experience and through two games they have not graded out well. Ramirez is the only linemen with a positive overall grade per PFF and they have struggled mightily in running game. The Lions have averaged only 53.5 yards per game in 2015, ranking 31st in the NFL. Jackson and his teammates will have to exploit that weakness and then attempt to add to only two sacks that the Lions have allowed this season.

2. Matt Paradis

Paradis, who is essentially a rookie center having been placed on the team’s practice squad in 2014, has to simply play better in week three. As the center, he must be able to ward off blitzing linebackers and work fast on his feet in order to get the running game going. In the first two weeks he has failed at both.

He has allowed four quarterback hurries and struggled to get out and effectively run block. To make matters worse he will be facing All-Pro, Haloti Ngata for much of the time Sunday night. Through two games he has six quarterback hurries, three defensive stops and one pass batted down. He looks primed for another great season and it will be a huge test for Paradis.

“He’s very experienced and physical player,” Paradis said Friday.”They are a very good team that doesn’t reflect their record and they’re going to be coming out to win. We have to be at our best.”

The Broncos offensive line as a whole has taken some deserved heat through the first two weeks of the season yet head coach, Gary Kubiak has maintained his plans for a balanced offense. This week, on two days of extra rest, the Lions defense presents the opportunity to do that upfront. They have allowed an average of 416.5 yards per game, ranking 30th overall and have been equally poor against the run and pass. Despite that fact, Friday Kubiak had nothing but kind words to say about the interior defensive line, especially Ngata.

“They’re playing a lot of guys up front and they’re an uphill front. They’re a one-gap scheme, get up the field and create a lot of havoc and a lot of push. The best thing that we can do is hopefully stay on the field and get him playing a lot. If a guy like that is playing 30 plays a game, he’s going to be hard to deal with.”

The Broncos offense will surely hope that they have righted some problematic areas from week one and two in order to win the time of possession battle. If the youth of the offensive line can wear down veterans like Ngata it could greatly impact the outcome of the game.

1. Emmanuel Sanders

The Broncos offense has not been sharp through two games but one thing is certain; Sanders has been. Through two games, he leads the team with 16 receptions and two touchdowns. Despite the team’s last place yards per play average (3.7), Sanders is averaging 9.7 yards per catch while missing on some huge plays but mere inches. He will once again, have the opportunity to break free Sunday and is ready, regardless of who lines up across from him.

“I think they have a good secondary, a veteran secondary,” he said Friday. “You know honestly it is not really about them. Whatever they do matchup-wise they are going to do. We just have to go out and execute at a high level. We need to go out there and do what we are capable of doing which is putting up a lot of points.”

The Lions will likely do what many defensive backfields do when they meet the Broncos. The will shade their safety over to Demaryius Thomas and try to limit his big play ability, leaving Sanders open to run wild.

Sanders will face Rashean Mathis or Darius Slay, who both had 1,000- plus play seasons in 2014, per PFF and had solid rankings among the league’s cornerbacks. Either player will be forced to shadow Sanders who can run any route and from any spot on the field. According to PFF, Mathis had an awful week one allowing 85 yards and a 98.9 passer rating to receivers he covered while Slay has only allowed five catches for 59 yards through two weeks. The Lions will have to pick their poison when it comes to covering the Broncos two elite wide receivers and chances are Sanders has another big day for Denver.

The Broncos are undefeated yet the struggles of the offense have put an unfair amount of pressure on the team. The Detroit Lions, just two weeks into the season, have their backs against the wall already. Sunday night’s prime time game will add yet another level of excitement to the matchup. Both teams will come out ready to perform and the one that can turn their offense around and create balance and eat clock will certainly have the upper hand. Jackson, Paradis and Sanders appear ready and willing to overcome the pressure and return home, still unbeaten.

Prediction: DEN 27, DET 17

OTHER NOTES:

The Broncos and Lions will meet for only the 12th time in team history. The Broncos own a 6-5 record against them. The last two meetings (2007, 2011) did not go well for Denver. They lost both by an average of 36 points.

The Broncos hold a fabulous +5 turnover ratio to the Lions anemic -1. The Broncos have allowed seven sacks while collecting six on defense. The Lions have only allowed two sacks but mustered only three on the other side of the ball. Both offenses have struggled to stay balanced while the Broncos defense has been stellar. The Lions defense has been porous and given up an average of 29.5 points per game.

During the week the Broncos All-Pro right guard Louis Vasquez was limited in practiced throughout the week but returned to full duty Friday and is listed as probable for Sunday. The Lions right tackle, Cornelius Lucas was limited during the week with an ankle injury and their impressive defensive end Ezekiel Ansah missed Wednesday’s practice with a back issue but both are probable for the game.


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