Last Week: The Broncos are coming off of a 39-33 loss to the Indianapolis Colts at the "House That Peyton Built." Unfortunately, Peyton's return to Indy was a disappointing loss to a strong AFC contender, but may have been a wake-up call for Denver. Read my thoughts on last week's game here.
The Opposing Team: The Washington Redskins are coming out of a shootout game, in which they narrowly beat Josh McCown (yes, Josh McCown) and the Chicago Bears 45-41. Washington had high hopes coming into the 2013 season, with RGIII in his second season at quarterback. However, Griffin and the 'Skins are sitting at a disappointing 2-4 record. However, Griffin seems to be on his way back to regular form, rushing for 84 yards in the win last week (more than he's rushed for since Week 10 of the 2012 season).
Interesting Fact of the Week: With a win this week, the Denver Broncos would sweep the NFC East, with prior wins against the Giants, Eagles, and Cowboys. The last season that the Broncos played all four NFC East teams (2009), they only managed a 2-2 record.
Things to Watch:
It was announced on Wednesday that Manning, along with a few other veteran players, was not practicing with the rest of the team. It turns out that Manning is simply nursing a slight ankle injury, and is fully expected to play in Sunday's game. Look for Peyton to have a bounce-back game against the Redskins, provided that he is healthy. In his career, he is 14-5-0 against teams from the NFC East (3-1-0 against the Redskins). Not only is this record fantastic, but so are Manning's combined stats in these games: 102.6 QBR, 67.73% completion percentage, 292.5 passing yards per game (most against any division), and 2.32 TDs per game. Hopefully, Manning will be given more time in the pocket this week, as compared to last week, where he was hit 13 times. Unfortunately, Orlando Franklin did not practice Wednesday, and is doubtful to play Sunday, which means that Manning could be in for another long day if the rest of the line cannot compensate for the loss of their starting right tackle. Conversely, the Redskins have the 28th overall defense in the league, and only the 23rd ranked pass rush (Football Outsiders), as opposed to the Colts, who rank 12th and 7th in those categories respectively.
Demaryius Thomas vs. Deangelo Hall
It's always a treat getting to watch a great wide-receiver line up opposite one of the leagues most talented corners. DeAngelo Hall will likely be stuck with the task of covering the Broncos most explosive receiver, Demaryius Thomas on Sunday. While Calvin Johnson is undoubtedly the number one receiver in the league, Thomas is definitely not far behind in talent, and plays a similar style of game to Megatron. Johnson was able to scorch Hall in their Week 3 matchup, posting 115 yards on 7 catches, with one touchdown. Conversely, Dez Bryant, a receiver who is very similar in talent to Thomas, was only able to notch 5 receptions for 36 yards against the Redskins in Week 5. It could be argued that the Cowboys have less weapons than the Broncos in the passing game, which may have accounted for the lack of production from Bryant, who was manned-up all day. It will be interesting to see if the Broncos are able to utilize DT more than they did last week, and who gets the better of who in this intriguing one-on-one matchup.
Mike Shanahan's Return to Denver
This week will be the first time that long-time Broncos' head coach, turned Washington head-coach will be returning to Mile High with his new team. Shanahan had a long, successful career in Denver, before being fired in the 2008 season, following three straight seasons without reaching the playoffs. In his 224-game career with the Broncos, Shanahan led the team to a 138-86-0 record and back-to-back Super Bowls in 1997/1998 (with current Broncos VP John Elway at quarterback). The Broncos reached the playoffs in 7 of Shanahan's 14 seasons at the helm, posting a .616 winning percentage. Before this Sunday's game, the team will honour their former coach with a video presentation after the Redskin players are introduced. This return will not be quite as heralded as the Manning return to Indy last week, but it is always special to honour someone who has had such an impact on a franchise. I know for one, that I had a lot of respect for Shanahan during his time in Denver, and I was actually upset when he was fired. Strategy-wise, Shanahan's return to Denver will not require a great deal of adjustments, as it's been 5 years since his departure, and much of the system established under his tenure with the Broncos has been overhauled. Additionally, it would appear that Denver has an advantage heading into this game. Peyton Manning holds a 7-1-0 record when facing teams coached by Mike Shanahan (excluding the final game of the '05 season, where he threw two pass attempts before leaving a game that the Colts would eventually lose).
Miller got off to a bit of a rusty start to his 2013 season, after his return to the lineup was talked about a great deal throughout the week leading up to the game. To Miller's credit, he has not participated in drills involving physical contact for six weeks, and this clearly showed in the first game. With two weeks of practice and a complete game under his belt, look for one of the league's most exciting defensive players to have a bounce-back game to his usual form. Getting to the quarterback won't be easy though, as Washington has the 11th ranked pass protection offensive line, according to Football Outsiders. However, Miller hasn't gone two straight games without a sack since Weeks 3 and 4 of last season against Houston and Oakland, and should be much quicker this week after getting additional practice time.
Wes Woodyard practiced in full on Wednesday for the Broncos, and is expected to make his return to the lineup this week. Woodyard was definitely missed in the Colts game, both in his play and leadership on the field. The 6-year pro, who Mike Shanahan coincidentally signed as an undrafted free agent enters play with 19 solo tackles, 1.5 sacks, and 2 pass-defenses. The speedy linebacker, who has great horizontal speed and awareness, will be an integral part of containing Robert Griffin's option game. Woodyard played a large part in containing Raiders' QB, Terrelle Pryor, during the Broncos' Week 3 game, and will be an integral part in stopping RGIII this week.
While Robert Griffin has gotten off to a not-so-spectacular start to his sophomore season, coming off ACL surgery, he has seemed to regain some of his rookie form in the past couple weeks, particularly on the ground. Griffin rushed for 84 yards in last week's win over the Bears, something he hasn't done since Week 10 of last season against the Giants. The Broncos' team of versatile linebackers will have their hands full trying to contain the speedy quarterback. However, as mentioned above, the Broncos held similarly-versatile quarterback, Terrelle Pryor, to 36 yards. Denver essentially eliminated all of Pryor's opportunities to run, so much so that he only attempted to carry the ball four times over the course of that game. RGIII is definitely more talented than Pryor, but I think that the Broncos have the right composition on defense to slow his run game down drastically.
While the Broncos can likely shut down the Redskins rush game, as they have to teams all season, they may struggle again against the pass, with Champ Bailey set to miss this game against his former team (5 seasons, 18 INT, 292 tackles). With Bailey out of the lineup, the Broncos will rely on a very young secondary (mean age of 24.5 years old) to contain a talented group of receivers and an offensive line who generally provides their quarterback with time to throw. The key to shutting down the passing game will be 1) an increased efficiency in pass rushing, which Von Miller can hopefully provide; 2) the containment of Pierre Garcon by Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie; and 3) the continued impressive work of the rookie Kayvon Webster, who will have an expanded role in this game with Champ out.
Broncos' running backs
Much has been made of the Ronnie Hillman fumble this week, and rightly-so. Hillman lost a fumble on what was possibly the most crucial offensive drive of the game for the Broncos. The second-year back out of San Diego State was surrounded with concerns of fumbling in his college career, and clearly this is still an issue for him. Hillman is an explosive back, likely the most explosive of the Broncos' runners. However, don't look for him to get many carries in the near future after last weeks gaffe. Look for Montee Ball to have an expanded role in this game, if Denver gets a lead. Ball will likely be given the late-game carries that Hillman has received in other games where the Broncos lead late.
Knowshon Moreno also had a rough game against the Colts' physical defense, behind a depleted offensive line. After only managing 40 yards on 15 carries in last weeks game, Moreno will look to bounce back to form this week. Through the 2013 season, he has averaged 59 rushing yards and 28 receiving yards per game, along with 8 TDs. In his fifth season, Moreno appears to finally be slightly justifying the first-round pick that the Broncos used on him in 2009 out of Georgia. The former member of the Bulldogs has also proven to be the most effective pass blocker of the Broncos' backs this season, enough reason to start him alone, based on the importance of keeping Peyton Manning healthy. I'd look for Moreno to have a big game on the ground this week, against a Washington defense that has allowed over 200 yards on the ground in their last two games.
Conclusion: The Broncos seem to have a favourable matchup in the 2-4 Redskins, as long as they can contain the versatile quarterback, Robert Griffin. Both the running and passing game should see success against a weak Redskins defense, and I fully expect both Peyton and Knowshon to bounce back from relatively weak Week 7 performances. Having a fully healthy linebacking corps this week should give the Broncos a much-needed improvement in their pass-rush, which will be important to minimize the time that their young secondary will have to maintain coverage. I expect a shoot-out in Denver, with the Broncos finding their winning ways again, while Washington slowly slips out of contention in the weak NFC East.