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5 big things to watch for in the Broncos game in Buffalo

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The Denver Broncos have a big opportunity to expose a Super Bowl pretender in the Buffalo Bills.

NFL: Denver Broncos at Minnesota Vikings
Will Allen have to run for his life Sunday?
David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

If you’ve paid attention to my NFL Power Rankings at any point this year, you know that I’ve had a hard time sipping the Buffalo Wing flavored Kool Aid. The Bills may be 7-3 and the favorite for the fifth seed in the AFC, but they’re nowhere near as scary as the Minnesota Vikings. Or the Houston Texans, or the Kansas City Chiefs, or...

Sean McDermott deserves a lot of credit for coaching up a rebuilt roster and taking advantage of a Charmin soft schedule, mind you. But one of the true tests of a team’s caliber is how they play bad teams. Good teams beat bad teams badly, and Buffalo... hasn’t done that.

Impressive victories are circles in red.

Which brings us to Sunday. There’s a few questions for the Broncos to answer, but if they can pull even the majority of these things off I expect Vic Fangio to lock up his fourth win.

Defense:

1. What will Fangio do to attack Josh Allen?

2. How does the pass rush hold up when Von sits?

3. Can the coverage hold up its end?

Looking at the 2018 7th overall pick’s second season is all about perspective. Watching the game you’ll probably hear superlatives like “he has 14 touchdowns and just one interception since the loss to New England,” or “He’s improved as a passer, look he’s completing 60% of his throws this year.”

Context is important here. Since Allen’s three interception game against the Patriots the Bills have played two teams that might have a chance at the postseason and beat up on Washington and Miami (twice).

As for all of Allen’s improvement as a passer, it’s important to remember that 30 quarterbacks with 171 attempts or more on they have completed 60% of their passes in 2019. Allen’s 60.3% ranks last among them, and it isn’t like he’s throwing deeper downfield. His yards per attempt is right behind Joe Flacco.

So while his big plays are exciting and his arm combined with John Brown’s deep speed make Buffalo scary for the secondary after Stefon Diggs’ 54-yard touchdown, he’s among the worst quarterbacks the Broncos’ have faced this year.

He does present some unique challenges with his arm strength and especially his mobility though. Brian Daboll has designed a scheme to take advantage of his legs in ways that gives hints of the Tim Tebow year. Often times Allen will line up in an empty shotgun set and ignore the playcall to run up the vacated middle. Where this makes Buffalo dangerous is in the redzone, and to Allen’s credit he’s savvy enough to take advantage of the protections quarterbacks get in the NFL.

Allen’s like your cheeky little brother who makes you use a QB spy in Madden.

Allen is averaging just over seven rushing attempts a game in 2019, which doesn’t even account for how he moves in the pocket to buy himself time and open up throwing lanes. Simply put, one of the surest ways to ensure victory is limit the damage he can do with his legs. So I’m anxious to see how Fangio will try to keep Allen locked into the pocket. If the Broncos’ can force him to win from within the tackle box, they have a pretty good chance.

The Broncos will need to keep Allen from scrambling to really shut down the Bills offense.

What could help matters even more is if Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson have a rebound game and the communication across the defense is better. These issues showed up a number of times against the Vikings. Davontae Harris will return to the starting lineup and while I still believe he’s performed well beyond expectations heading into the year, look for the Bills to try and go after him and Duke Dawson when opportunities are there.

I suspect that playing so many games against hapless defensive fronts and Allen’s propensity to run at the first sign of trouble has hidden Buffalo’s pass protection issues as well. With Ty Nsekhe likely to miss the contest due to injury, look for Von Miller to present a number of issues for the Bills pass protection. This may lead to him boosting his own numbers or creating opportunities for others, as he did last week.

Von has played at least 78% of the defensive snaps in every game this season, so expect that to continue. It will be fascinating to see how Fangio creates a pass rush when he sits, as that was a prevalent issue against Minnesota.

I’d bet money that the Bills try to protect Allen with their ground game when possible, as they’ve done most of the year. It’s a decent unit, but nothing like Minnesota’s, for them to win Allen is going to have to be a real factor.

Offense:

4. Health questions. Who plays and how well?

5. Does Brandon Allen build on his Vikings tape?

Lost amid the drama bout Drew Lock and whether he will or won’t play is the fact that Dalton Risner, Connor McGovern, and Ronald Leary have been limited participants in practice most of the week. The Friday injury report is quite alarming.

At one point early this week practice squad lineman Corey Levin was rotating in to practice with the starters, and so any and all advantages the Broncos seemingly have on the Bills’ run defense is currently up in the air.

If they can play through pain, I fully expect Rich Scangarello and Munchak to find ways to spring Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman into the second level. The front line of the Bills’ run defense is nothing to sneeze at, but they get weaker the farther in you go. Don’t be shocked if Lindsay has a big day on the ground.

Lindsay’s vision and lateral mobility could abuse the Bills’ second level.

Both backs may also be critical parts of the passing game this week as well. Buffalo’s pass defense is weakest against running backs, and Scangarello is more than happy to isolate someone like Freeman out in space on someone like Matt Milano if its there for the taking.

The Bills’ base their defense out of a MOFC shell, which means plenty of variations on Cover 1 and Cover 3. Leslie Frazier mixes in looks with linebackers and others threatening to blitz. Sometimes they’ll come, while others they’ll bail out. This could be a nightmare for cobbled together interior offensive line new to communicating assignments at the line of scrimmage.

Leslie Frazier isn’t afraid to dial up heat on passing downs.

One thing Scangarello could do to help Allen get into a rhythm is quick slants to both receivers. The Browns found some success at this and it’s an easy way to get the ball out of Allen’s hands when Buffalo threatens to blitz.

Buffalo likes to mix in doses pressure. They leave themselves susceptible on the second level when they do.

On the play above Cleveland uses a pulling guard to vacate the second level of the defense for Jarvis Landry on a quick slant. Facing Cover 1, the Browns use a stacked release to get him free of the cornerback and it’s an easy throw for the 6’0 Baker Mayfield.

Another thing the Broncos may try and dial up is a fake slant and go. Last weekend the Miami Dolphins did just that on their last gasp attempt at the win.

Tre’Davious White is good, but he’s hardly infallible.

Down 20 to 37 and facing 4th and 2, the Miami Dolphins line up in a five wide set. Buffalo responds with a MOFC shell and threatens the blitz with both of their off ball linebackers. At the snap Ryan Fitzpatrick looks to the screen on his right, but the pressure makes that an unlikely completion. He turns left as DeVante Parker gets Tre’Davious White to bite on his slant fake, opening him up for a shot play downfield.

For as good as White’s been in his young career, it’s hard to believe Courtland Sutton isn’t licking his chops at the thought of using a double move to abuse his aggressiveness.

Courtland Sutton’s got a very real test this weekend, but he’s been aces all season.

It’s important to note that the Bills have been quite good at staying on top of deep passes by and large. Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer are one of the better safety duos in the league. But we’ve also seen over the last two weeks how Scangarello isn’t afraid to dial up shot plays, or how Brandon Allen is playing like he knows he’s got house money.

There could be big plays, in either direction.

Final Thoughts

If I had to pick one X-Factor for each side of the ball, it’d be the young corners on defense and health on the offensive line. Both things come together and it wouldn’t really surprise me if the Broncos’ embarrass the Bills.

Brandon Allen could complicate things because if Frazier and Buffalo’s defense can find a way to capitalize on his tendency to lock onto his first read the passing game could throw the defense into short fields.

Denver’s final injury report leaves me sweating, but I still expect Vic Fangio to steal a win.