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IN DENVER BRONCO PRE-GAME ANALYSIS
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What a difference a few weeks makes! Teams that looked tough going into the season have suffered injuries (Brady in NE) or declined (SD and INDY) while other teams have shot ahead (TENN and DEN). If you had asked me before the season what my thoughts were on JAX, I would have told you that the only thing holding them back was INDY. But their offensive line was decimated by injuries, and the team has never bounced back.
As for Denver, I expected them to sweep KC this year, but to win two of four games against SD and OAK. I also thought that either TB or NO could sneek up on DEN. But KC managed to beat Denver, while Denver beat the other four teams. Denver's offense is playing at a SuperBowl level, and while the defense has looked weak, it showed a lot of talent in week five.
Let's take a look at the Denver / Jacksonville match-up this week, and discuss some if the issues surrounding the game.
Denver's progression in the first five games have been instructive.
In game one, a Monday Night Football showdown in Oakland, the Broncos destroyed the Oakland secondary with a rookie receiver, while the number one receiver was under suspension. Denver fans enjoyed beating their arch-rivals, but they enjoyed the air show too.
In game two, Denver was treated to the return of Brandon Marshall. Denver not only repeated a masterful pass game, but beat a division rival that the media was crowning as SuperBowl contenders. But now Denver fans were becoming concerned. The defense declined towards the end of the Oakland game, and seemed absent during the SD game.
In game three, fans were thrilled to beat the Saints. The Saints have a terrific QB, big names on both sides of the ball, and a smart, young coach. But Denver fans began to see a disturbing pattern. The 3-4 was being used quite a bit, but with only three men rushing much of the time. Just as problematic, the CBs were playing zones, and the defensive line was being pushed around. Questions arose about the coverage teams. Some observant fans felt good about going 3-0, but worried that the team would have a hard time winning without a defense.
The KC game came along, and the house came crashing down. Despite a respectable 3-1 start to the season, most fans came together to express concerns about the state of the defense.
Week five (against TB) seems to have answered a lot of questions. Denver played one of the best practioners of the Tampa-2 defense, and did it the right way, by being patient with underneath throws and running the ball. More importantly, the defense looked much improved, and moved away from a vanilla zone scheme to a true zone blitz system (one of the two systems predicted for Denver right here at MileHighReport). Special teams also looked solid on coverage and with several touchbacks. A new hero was born, as Denver fans started to realize they have a star for a kicker.
Now, against Jacksonville, the prime thing to watch is whether or not the defense just had a good week against TB, or whether the defense is for real. This week can go far towards predicting how far Denver can go this year.
Jacksonville in Decline
The first thing you should know about Jacksonville is that they have two seperate identities, something like Jekyl and Hyde. On the one hand, Jacksonville worked hard to build a reputation for running the ball with two solid RBs, Taylor and Drew. But this year, Taylor ranks 31st among RBs and Drew ranks 38th. Jacksonville is also known for their fearsome defensive line and exotic blitz packages. This year Jacksonville is having problems stopping runs, is ranked 21st in the NFL for defense, and will likely be without a starting CB and a starting SAF for this game.
Denver on Offense
Denver can't take Jax lightly. While Jax isn't performing well, they still have the playmakers to turn around a suffering defense. Jax's defensive line remains very physical, as much or more so than TB's. While the OL of Den has demonstrated an ability to protect Cutler from anything, Jax (if playing at their best) will be perhaps the second best test of the year (with the NE defense being first). Denver has the QB and the receiving threats to rip apart the Jax secondary (even without the above mentioned injuries), but an effective pass rush or blitzing would be a new wrinkle for Denver. The line must protect Cutler.
Another consideration is the run game. WHich Jax DL will show up in this game? Is it the one that plugs gaps and wraps runners as they hit scrimmage, or the one Jax fans have been seeing lately? Denver's OL has a reputation this year for being 100% on pass protection, but only "improving" in run blocking. The answer? It may be Pittman.
Denver has a terrific opportunity to wear down the defense this game. The best way to beat a powerful DL is to run at it and wear it down, and with Coach Shanahan talking about mixing Pittman in the rotation instead of just playing short yardage, this may be the time.
Expect Graham to be used often in the pass game, but as a pass blocker. Expect him to be used even more often in the run blocking program. This is the kind of game where Graham earns his money. Many fans love the flash and fireworks of a Tony Scheffler (as I do), but this match-up begs for run and pass blocking skills more than a receiving TE. (Scheffler is likely out with an injury anyway). While Jackson is the likely TE for receiving, Mustard has just been activated, and may have even more value as a blocking TE.
In the passing game, there is some question as to whether Royal will play or not. Recent comments from the team look hopeful. However, with a banged up secondary for Jax, Denver should do well even if Stokely is forced up to #2.
If healthy, I would prefer for (WR) Jackson to play as the #2. In football depth charting, a "sandbag" refers to the clever practice of promoting one man up the chain, instead of bumping several people up. By playing Stokley at #2, we make him play a tougher CB and make Jackson play a tougher CB. By just jumping Jackson, Stokley remains a dangerous threat at slot. Keep in mind that Martinez has been recently activiated by the team, and could see time also.
I expect Denver to run very few 2-TE formations. Denver will keep a FB in (likely Larson over Hillis) to give added protection to Jay, and to hep the inside runs. Denver may also try to stretch the defense by running to the edges. Denver should also try to establish a lead they can protect. Jax will likely try to establish a run game to keep Cutler off of the field.
Denver on Defense
Here again, the trenches should determine the game. Denver has the secondary to stop Jax in that air, but as we have seen through the season, it must be paired with a pass rush. The strength of the Jax offense has been running, and the OL of Jax is built for that purpose. Denver must not get pushed around like last year's game. EIther the defensive line will have to stop the runs at the line, or the LBs will have to tackle effectively.
Jax is built to run, but hasn't been getting it done. Denver's defensive line has been questionable this season, and even in the improved TB game didn't prove that they are ready to stop runs outright.
Will Denver use the zone blitz to slow down the Jax pass game? It was used in the TB game with great effect, and the LBs have the speed to stop QB breaks from the pocket. A good indication of Denver's intentions is to watch formations this week. If Denver plays a 3-4, they will probably make this their base formation. I say this, because a 4-3 would likely be more effective against Jax. Using a 3-4 shows a strong commitment to the system we saw last week. Using a 4-3 may indicate the team is not yet finished establishing their identity.
Special Mention: Special Teams
I don't often include special teams in the break downs. This week I will, because Denver has slowly morphed into a special teams threat.
Kickoffs are becoming touchbacks. I believe I heard that Prater is practicing from 60 or 70 yards for FGs? And our coverage units are quickly improving too. Our kicker is perfect from over 50 yards (four times so far). This means several nice things.
- We have an excellent opportunity to win the field position game.
- Third and long can become 3 points on the board instead of punts from more places on the field.
- Opposing teams may have less of a chance for good returns.
- Good special teams coverage can be good for a few turnovers in a season.
Keys to the Game
- Protect Cutler.
- Limit interceptions.
- Stop the Jax running game.
- Either get to Cutler or control the clock.
- May have to double cover Marshall.
- Must convert 3rd downs (currently the worst in the NFL).
I see this game as being won in the trenches. The biggest match up to watch is Denver's OL against Jacksonville's DL. The next area to watch is to see if Denver's defense is for real, or if last week was a flash in the mist instead of being part of an improvement in stages.
If Jax plays the way they have been, Denver should win in a blowout. If Jax plays to the potential of its current roster (particularly at HB and DL), this game could be very close. If the latter is the case, Denver's special teams may be the cavalry.
Jacksonville's incentive is to get to the .500 mark, and have a bye and three teams with losing records ahead. Denver's goal is to establish confidence in the defense and special teams, and to establish a record that can't be denied. Currently ranked as the third best team in the AFC (by tie-break), a 5-1 record would clearly establish Denver as a first tier team.