One of the many things I love about the National Football League is the importance placed on each game. Sure, 2-0 is very nice, but not nearly as impressive as 3-0. Not nearly as vital, either. Since 1990, when divisional play began, teams that get off to a 3-0 start have made the playoffs over 75% of the time (66/87). That makes Sunday's matchup between the Broncos and Jacksonville Jaguars a critical affair, despite it being only Week 3. Each and every game is important, and if the Broncos are going to avoid the kind of letdown they experienced in 2006 a win tomorrow is essential. Let's take a look at what the Broncos need to do to become one of those teams that feel pretty good about their chances come Monday Morning.
Broncos Defense Vs. Jaguars Offense --
Keep The Ground Game In A Standstill -- The Jags have one of the best running games in the League, even if they haven't shown it yet. We saw last weekend what a solid running game can give you when LaMont Jordan nearly won the game for the Raiders single-handedly. Jordan averaged over 6 yards a carry and had the Silver and Black in position to win if not for a perfectly timed Mike Shanahan timeout. The Jags, at the very least, have a running attack just as good as Oakland, with Fred Taylor and last season's surprise, Maurice Jones-Drew. While both have yet to hit their stride, it is only a matter of time, and I'd much rather see that time come next week instead of during Week 3. To their credit, the Broncos have always done a good job against Taylor, who averages a career-worst 42 yards per game against the Orange and Blue. Jones-Drew will get his first look at the Broncos, but must be licking his chops a bit while watching film. The Broncos, while tough against the pass, have been gashed two-straight weeks. It's time for the excuses about adjusting to the new defensive scheme to stop and for the players on the field to start playing. I am hoping to see John Lynch help more in run support, even if it means leaving Champ Bailey and Dre Bly on islands outside. The DB's are a strength of this team and Jacksonville does not have a consistent receiving threat.
Force David Garrard To Win The Game -- Look at David Garrard's QB Rating(101.8) and you'll get the impression that the lifetime backup is playing at an extremely high level. QB Ratings can be a bit deceiving and rarely tell the whole story. A flawed statistic, QB Ratings reward mediocrity and celebrate average play. While Garrard has completed a high percentage (61.8%), his average pass play checks in at 8.7 yards. Last season he averaged 7.2 yards in 11 games, 10 starts. That means Garrard is rarely looking down the field, focusing instead on check downs and screen passes. In his defense, Garrard really doesn't have a big-play threat on the outside, and so far this season the Jag's leading pass-catcher is Dennis Northcutt, a guy that couldn't cut it in Cleveland and nearly became a Denver Bronco a couple years back. The Broncos need to take the running game and the short passing game away and force Garrard into 3rd and Long. Make the Jags offense have to consistently make plays down the field in order to sustain drives. Sure, the Broncos might give up some big plays, but I want Garrard to prove to me he can sustain a high level of play. The nature of the beast would suggest there would be some turnover possibilities and the Broncos have two proven thieves in the defensive backfield. The Broncos are allowing just 62.5 yards per game through the air, and I see the same type of game this weekend.
Make Garrard Do This To Win..
Make Taylor and Jones-Drew Protect The Quarterback -- If the Jags want to use the short passing game the Broncos need to make it harder to get the ball in the hands of their playmakers. The Broncos need to generate pressure, and not just with the front four. By sending an extra rusher, whether it is a linebacker or safety, the defense could force Taylor and Jones-Drew into blitz protection, removing the threat of the screen pass and flare-outs, or at least making them difficult. The Broncos used some well-timed blitzes last week to get into Josh McCown's face in turn forcing some mistakes. Garrard can be duped into the same type of errors. Jim Bates is known for running an aggressive defense, and I will be looking to see the Broncos dictate to the Jags offense, instead of the other way around.
Broncos Offense Vs. Jaguars Defense
Own The Point Of Attack -- The Jaguars have a reputation as a hard-hitting defense. I personally think they are bit soft and do little to respond to a physical challenge. When the Broncos have beaten the Jags it has been largely because the Broncos have won interior battles on both sides of the ball. Despite missing Ben Hamilton, the Broncos O-Line has done a solid job, especially run blocking. Travis Henry leads the League in rushing and Jay Cutler has had time to deliver the football. The Jags have issues all over the D-Line, with Reggie Hayward still trying to come back from a torn achilles, Marcus Stroud coming off of off-season surgery on an ankle and John Henderson doubtful for the game because of a concussion. The Broncos need to take advantage of this matchup to force the Jags to bring more help into the box. Rashean Mathis is one of the best corners in the game and the Broncos will need to avoid 3rd and long situations. If the Broncos win the game it will be because the O-Line won this battle over and over again and Travis Henry will have another big day running the football.
Nalen and Lepsis Need To Own The Trenches
Find The Tight End -- Is this the game Daniel Graham figures prominently in the air attack? Graham is one of the best blocking Tight-Ends in the game. His performance in that category alone might be worth the big contract he signed, but I would love to see more from him in the passing attack. Part of that comes down to Jay Cutler having the maturity to check the ball down to Graham when nothing comes open downfield. The coaches need to do a better job featuring Graham as well. There is going to come a game when Graham is a major part of the offense. What better time that the present? Tony Scheffler is another name to keep an eye on. Foot injuries are often harder to come back from a mental point of view but Tony should just about be ready to go. There is no denying that Cutler and Scheffler had a sweet thing going at the end of last season and it would be great to see them rekindle the magic a little bit.
Turn Those Threes Into Sevens -- The Broncos have the #1 offense in yards gained, but sit only 17th in points scored. The offense is getting into the opposing team's Red Zone one third of the time (7/22), but have settled for more field goals that TDs(4 FGs, 3 TDs). That is the biggest reason the Broncos have had to kick two late field goals instead of coasting to victories. The offense did a better job against the Raiders, but consistency in the Red Zone has been an issue for the Broncos for awhile. I am confident, however, the tide will turn. If the Broncos keep putting 400 yards on opposing defenses, the points are going to come. I compare Mike Shanahan to a child on Christmas Morning. He has so many new toys he has no idea which one to play with first. I would prefer to see a healthy dose of Travis Henry, especially inside the 10, but with Brandon Stokley, Brandon Marshall, Javon Walker, Scheffler and Graham the Broncos have plenty of weapons. This group will find a groove in the Red Zone, rest assured.
Don't Let The Jags Be `Special' -- The Broncos get another dose of a solid special teams unit this weekend, and like Buffalo, if the Broncos aren't careful they could find themselves behind after a big return. While Jones-Drew hasn't gotten his running game going yet he is one of the best in the NFL returning kick-offs. Averaging over 35 yards a kick return, Jones-Drew can make his presence felt in the return game as easily as he can in the offense. What Jones-Drew can do on kicks, Dennis Northcutt can do on punt returns as well. Northcutt has returned 3 punts for TDs in his career, and averages better than 10 yards per punt return over his career. The Broncos need to stay in their lanes and makes sure Northcutt in accounted for. You can be sure the Jags have watched tape of both the Broncos games so far, and have seen the Broncos drop the ball a bit on special teams. The Broncos can't afford another punt return for a TD, the Broncos can't afford another on-side kick surprise. The special teams have been bitter sweet for the Broncos in 2007, winning two games while nearly costing the Broncos 2 games as well.
Denver Gets To Salute T.D.
My Prediction -- The Broncos have not been pretty in getting to 2-0, but they haven't been as bad as their scoring average would indicate. The Jags have been equally unimpressive, and the hapless Falcons gave Jacksonville all it could handle last week. I tend to lean towards the team that is averaging 455 yards per game and feel confident that the Broncos will begin to eliminate the mistakes that have allowed Buffalo and Oakland to hang around and put the Jags away rather easily. It's alumni weekend and Terrell Davis is being inducted into the Broncos' Ring of Fame. The fans will be ready, the team will be ready and come sun-down, the Broncos will be 3-0.
Broncos 27 - Jaguars 13