First, Denver beat the Bengals. Turns out that the Bengals are a pretty good team. Then Denver beat the Browns; no big whoop. Then the Broncos beat the Raiders. Not many of the Raider Nation even bothered to show up for it. Several folks in the media said the Cowboys would put the Broncos in their place. As soon as the Broncos won, those media heads started questioning the Cowboys. Now the hard part of the schedule starts, and the Patriots show up. Yes; Denver bopped their way past the Pats, and folks questioned just how good Brady really is.
Forget about it! Denver is for real, and "proving ourselves" was never the goal. The goal is the AFC West and a playoff berth. The Raiders know more about figure skating than football, and the Chiefs look like they just sold Manhattan for a few beads. That leaves the SD Chargers as the only threat to the Broncos and the playoffs, and this isn't the same team they were last year.
LaDainian Tomlinson at RB? How about the 32nd ranked running game in the NFL. ROLB Shawne Merriman? May never be the same player again after the knee injury. Missing the offensive center and the defense's nose tackle to injury? Priceless.
SD hasn't looked this shaken since the last earthquake. Piece of cake? No, not really. SD is at home on a Monday night, they still have Phillip Rivers, Chris Chambers, Antonio Gates, and Vincent Jackson. They are also coming off of a much needed bye week, which means rest for injuries and more time to game plan. This is not a game to get too comfortable with.
The SD Offense versus the DEN Defense
What happens when you take the worst running team in the NFL (SD avg per game - 53.8 yards) and match it with the 6th best running defense in the League?
SD has spent years relying on Tomlinson to carry the ball. Heck, the guy can run, catch, throw and block. He's the all-around, real deal of RBs. But this year, nursing a hurt ankle at age 30, Tomlinson is on track for his worst year ever. 1 TD, 1 fumble (lost), 3.5 yards per carry (his longest was only 13), 2 receptions (for a total of 1 yard), and a grand 70 yards to show for the season.
Here is what you need to know about the SD offense.
- The running game is bad. Real bad.
- The passing game is good. Real good. (295.5 yards per game - 2nd in the NFL).
- Rivers likes to throw deep.
- To throw deep, he needs time to let the receivers get deep.
- Denver's pass rush is monstrously good.
- SD's offensive line (from center to left tackle) isn't so hot.
- SD's running game isn't going to do much to keep Denver's safeties from the deep field.
What all of this means is that the Chargers have two choices in this game. First, they have to establish a running game. This seems highly unlikely, as the match-up is just too hard to overcome. The second option would be for Rivers to create short route threats to compliment a few deep balls here and there. Enter Antonio Gates.
As always, TE Gates is a favorite target of Rivers. Gates was such a threat, that Denver used to match Bailey against him. SD countered brilliantly by bringing in Chris Chambers (WR) from the Dolphins, giving Gates room to do his thing.
In my mind, SD has three threats in the air. Chambers, Vincent Jackson, and TE Gates. As they've done against other teams this year with threats at TE, Denver will attempt to neutralize the TEs indirectly. Instead of focusing on coverage, Denver will likely go after Rivers, forcing the Chargers to keep their TE in to block. Between CBs Champ Bailey and Andre' Goodman, and even Jack Williams (rising in his level of play) and rookie hot shot Alphonso Smith, Denver can cover the WR threat. If the ball gets too deep, legendary safety Brian Dawkins and safety Renaldo Hill (playing very well in his first year with Denver) should stop any deep threats.
Another quick note on the running game. SD is an odd duck, in that (unlike other teams) they prefer to run to the weak side on most plays. With the left side of the OL looking weak, this should limit LT or Darren Sproles.
SD offense - game plan
Can SD run against Denver? I don't think that they can. But if they don't at least make the effort, it can cause headaches for the passing game (and Rivers, who has been getting sacked quite a bit this year). Because SD has good depth at TE (and because they aren't so hot at the outside of the offensive line), and because they face a 3-4 defense (really a 5-2 in my opinion), SD should use a lot of 2 TE looks. To aid with the run, they should use twin TE looks (both TEs to the same side).
From this formation, they can attempt runs with extra protection to one side, or go into quick passes with those TEs. They can also set up screens for Darren Sproles, who is a major threat on STs returns and could be deadly in screen situations.
SD needs to have a credible running game, or at least a consistent, short passing game to set up the vertical passes that Rivers likes. He already faces an incredible Denver secondary, so he'll need to do everything he can to sell the short yardage game.
When passing long, Rivers will need to be in a shotgun formation (the QB further from scrimmage to buy time). The advantage for Rivers here is time to drop back and throw, but the disadvantage is that the defense will clamp down on each player lined up as a receiver. If the OL continues to play poorly, any sacks this far from scrimmage will be hard to overcome.
DEN Defense - game plan
It doesn't get old. Denver needs pressure, pressure, and more pressure. Denver's pressure and penetration is not only the reason that teams have a hard time passing against Denver, but it also causes major disruptions in the run game. With five players on the line (and with even the OLBs being true [former] DEs), Denver's defense presents pass rush and run disruption opportunities on every play. But the SD offense is particularly exposed. With the loss of center Nick Hardwick, the rest of the OL seems to be in chaos.
Denver can play man to man with the SD WRs with no problem, and leave the safeties back for over-coverage. The front five can penetrate, while the two true LBs (both leading the team in tackles) can zone the center for runs or passes over the middle.
The presence of sack-machine Elvis Dumervil is perhaps the biggest threat on the field for Denver's defense. SD will not stop him one on one, but a team can't afford to double him with four other defensive players right on the line.
The DEN Offense versus the SD Defense
What happens when the 27th run defense in the League (SD, giving up 151 yards a game) meets the 5th best run offense in the League (DEN, gaining 139 yards a game)?
Let's give Orton some credit. His QB rating is 97.4, which is slightly better than River's 90.6. Orton's only INT of the year was an end of half hail Mary throw. He played his first four games with Denver wearing a restrictive glove to protect an injured finger, and still performed like a pro. Folks call him a game manager (as if this is a derogatory term), but the correct title for Orton is "winner". Orton has a good arm (yes, the "noodle" moniker was bs). But Orton's best quality is intelligence. He's picked up a complex system very quickly, and adjusts to radical changes in game planning (and the play book) each week. So let's give the guy credit. And then....
Let's run the ball.
SD is hurting on both sides of the ball. Injuries have hurt this team, and the team is off to a slow start from many players who were considered to be play makers. But there is one threat on the field for SD that is a constant, and that is Rivers. To keep Rivers off the field, Denver should use their vaunted running game against a weak run defense. Orton is capable of beating the SD pass defense, and has a lot of weapons. SD, on the other hand, just released a safety on Wed (Clinton Hart), and there has been talk of benching CB Antonio Cromartie (a once rising player). Antoine Cason may be the answer for this team at CB. Meanwhile, Quentin Jammer will face either Brandon Marshall or Eddie Royal this week, leaving the rest of the SD DBs to deal with the other WR, plus Jabar Gaffney and Brandon Stokley (not to mention TE threats Daniel Graham and Tony Scheffler).
But at least there is potential for hope in the SD secondary. The SD defensive line has looked dreadful, and the LBs have looked ordinary. It could be the decimation of the SD D-line, or it could be the defection of D-line coach Wayne Nunnely from SD to Denver. But the weakness of the SD defense is the front seven, and Denver can run at it.
Buckhalter is back at practice, and should be ready for Monday. Moreno has been looking better and better. Why not score early, then just run the ball down the Chargers' throats? There's nothing like a good running game to take the other team's fans out of a game and to wear down the opposing team (notice how Denver has looked great in the second half? That's endurance conditioning).
DEN Offense - game plan
If there is a game to run the ball, this is it. Keep the other team's biggest threat (Rivers) off the field, and match up a very good running game against a terrible run defense. Focus on running the gut to allow Orton his signature screens and quick hitches to the edges of the field. Nothing fancy here, just good old fashioned smash mouth football.
But when we DO throw the ball, Orton should stick with his bread and butter plays. No need to take chances in this game; just make the high percentage, quick throws to keep the clock going and to limit INTs. Let playmakers like Marshall and Royal make the big plays after the short catch. Against a team that isn't tackling too well, screens with downfield blockers can be deadly.
SD Defense - game plan
This team hasn't proven that they can rush the passer, nor stop the run. They also face a credible air attack from Orton. This is not a good defense.
In such situations, you take away the big plays as best you can and hope that long drives by the opposition will result in a failure to convert or a turn over. SD has good CBs, and shouldn't "waste" them in zone. The CBs may be the best part of this defense. Man the CBs, and deep zone both safeties. Dedicate one LB to manning the Denver RB, and zone the remaing LBs. It is a simplistic plan, and not a good one. But SD doesn't seem to have many options here.
SD likes to strip the ball, but they need to focus on making sound tackles for this game. What they've been doing hasn't been working.
(Team with advantage is in bold and italics)
Denver Offense vs SD Defense
Points - 19.8 (22nd) vs Points - 25.5 (25th)
Yards - 376.8 (6th) vs Yards - 365.8 (26th)
Pass - 237.8 (15th) vs Pass - 214.8 (12th)
Rush - 139 (5th) vs Rush - 151 (27th)
* * *
Denver Defense vs SD Offense
Points - 8.6 (1st) vs 25.2 (10th)
Yards - 252.8 (2nd) vs 349.2 (10th)
Pass - 171.8 (5th) vs 295.5 (2nd)
Rush - 81 (6th) vs 53.8 (32nd)
In summary, SD has advantages in only two areas - passing, and stopping the pass. But those advantages are small in terms of ranking and yards. (Part of the pass stats for SD may be the last quarter of the PITT game, where PITT played prevent and gave up a lot of yards and 21 points). On the other hand, Denver's advantages in other categories are much wider.
Noteworthy is that SD is losing their average game - 25.2 to 25.5 (they have no room for error in their games). Meanwhile, Denver wins their average game 19.8 to 8.6
Denver clobbers SD in running the ball and in defending the run.
Keys to the Game
- Make this a running game. Denver has a massive advantage running the ball and stopping the run. SD's only chance is Philip Rivers, and perhaps a major ST play. So...
- Don't allow Sproles (or anyone else) to be a difference maker on ST.
- And most of all - Pressure Rivers early, often, and hard.
San Diego -
- If you want your best weapon to have a chance, you had better protect Rivers. Good protection also means you can sneak Gates out to the flats.
- SD might not be able to stop the run. But they must keep it in check. Give up a few yards here and there, but don't give up a big play on the ground.
Win the turnover war. Orton may be "due" for an INT, but don't count on it. Instead, make sure you fall on anything a Denver RB or QB fumbles. You'll need those chances. Denver gets their yards in bits and pieces, and a turnover can be devastating. Don't miss any opportunity if a ball hits the ground.
SD has several things going for them. A week of rest, an extra week of prep, a good QB, and home field on a national stage. Denver has a lights out defense, a solid running game, and a mistake free passing game.
While SD won a game against OAK, it was closer than a game against OAK should be. On the other hand, they played tough against PITT, and respectable against BAL in two losses. While they are injured and not playing great football, they look to me like a team that can jump up at any moment and reassert themselves. They have good players all over the team that just don't seem to playing to their potential.
Denver, on the other hand, has beaten good teams in CIN, DAL, and NE, while brushing off CLE and OAK. If anyone wants to question how good DAL and NE are, it is in part due to their losses against DEN. CIN looks like a very good team, and Denver won a game that either would have been a TD reception by the intended receiver or (because it was tipped) a TD reception by a heads up player.
I don't believe in "trap" games. If there is such a concept, it is a fan concept and not a coaching one. Any coach that thinks that any game can be overlooked deserves to lose every game he plays. McDaniels is not the kind of coach to overlook a team. He and DC Nolan know the stakes; this is a division game. So does SD, and I fully expect a team like SD (with their backs against the wall in the AFC West race) to come out swinging. In other words, expect SD to play like SD, and not like how they've played so far.
LT hasn't been LT, but count him out at your peril. Merriman may be hurt and weakened, but if he ever brings his "A game", this is the time. If SD loses this game, they'll probably have to win out the season to get a shot at a playoff spot.
And Denver is done with silencing critics. Those who still think the Broncos are a 3-13 team have been exposed, and only make themselves look more foolish for making excuses for Denver's opponents. Denver is now playing for a good seeding in the post season, and that makes this week's game the most important game they've played so far.
I think Denver is a different team from last year, from top to bottom. We have a QB that doesn't give away games, we have a defense that shuts down anything in their path, and we have a coaching staff that gets the best out of their players week in and out. SD is also different. They were an 8-8 team last year, but cracks seem to be developing further. If SD is going to make a run at glory, this is the game of the season.
For me, I'll take Denver. The match-ups seem to favor Denver strongly, but I won't pick Denver to win big quite yet. I expect a fully loaded and prepared SD team for Monday Night Football, and I expect that there will be big plays both ways. I expect a great game that may overshadow the Saints / Giants game in terms of good play. I expect a memorable game.
Most of all, I expect 6-0 going into the bye.
I knew Denver would be a better team this year. I predicted an 8-8 record, but wrote that Denver would play much better, win or lose. I figured Denver would beat Cincy and CLE, and figured we should win one or two against OAK (nice to beat OAK in OAK). DAL was a toss-up to me during the offseason, but I thought we had a fair shot. Before the season, NE would have been a loss in my book. By the time the game came up, I called it "too close to call". I was right - the game went into overtime.
It is past time to look at what I think of the games going forward, so here it is.
SD - In the reloading season I would have called this 50/50. I think we win in SD.
BAL - Before the season - loss. Now, tough call.
PITT - Before the season - loss to SB champs. Now - win (we can exploit that OL).
WAS - Before - toss up; leans win. Now - win.
SD - Likely win.
NYG - We might be able to go toe to toe. If we do, we are (gasp!) SB contenders. For now, let's say a potential loss.
KC - Win
INDY - Along with NYG, our toughest game on the schedule.
OAK - I'm really trying hard not to laugh out loud.
PHI - This could be a tougher game than we expect.
KC - If we are in the playoffs, we might rest players at this point.
I'll say that at this point our basement should be 10 to 11 games, with 11 to 12 likely. 13 (are you listening Mike Clark?) is a real possibility. More importantly, a post season spot is probable.
Forget about "power rankings" for a moment, and consider the official rankings. According to the NFL's rankings (based on games won and official tie breaks), this is how the top six teams rank -
OFFICIAL NFL TEAM RANKS
1) Your Denver Broncos
We've beat number 6, and we still have number 5 and number 2 to go. (By the way, 9-PHI, 10-BAL, 11-DAL, 12-NE, 14 PITT).
We've played, and have left to play, teams in the top half of the League right now. Any wins we get are well-deserved, and every game is good preparation for the post season. Playoffs? PLAYOFFS? That's right Mora, I said it. Denver is going to the playoffs this year. McDaniels is not a coach that allows late season collapses. I'm calling it. Denver qualifies.