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14 things I’m watching in the Broncos’ Week 1 matchup with the Raiders

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These things will have a huge bearing on the Denver Broncos first game...and beyond. But first, they need to beat the Oakland Raiders.

San Francisco 49ers v Denver Broncos
Can Sutton make the jump?
Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

The NFL is back! I can’t tell you how awesome it was to realize last night’s tilt between the Packers and Bears meant I’ll have four more days to study up on the Broncos’ next two opponents.

Before I get too far ahead of myself, there’s a Monday Night division matchup looming on the horizon. These are the things I’m looking for:

Special teams

1. The “boring” parts of special teams: will they be more than ____y teams?

2. Can Wadman keep up his preseason performance?

3. How big of an impact will Diontae Spencer have on the return game?

The return and coverage units were poor enough in the preseason that Fangio mentioned that starters could wind up with significant reps there. Since then, Josh Watson and Ahmad Gooden were waived (the two were among Denver’s best special teams players, per PFF).

Corey Nelson has earned a little excitement from fans the last couple days, but I’d be surprised if he sees any snaps on defense Monday. Andrew Beck is another Bronco who will probably be active in no small part for his contributions as a blocker and coverage player on the kicking units. Let’s hope they do enough to prevent déjà vu.

I got a little flak for my lack of love for Wadman through most of the preseason, but I can’t get over this bit from Football Outsiders’ Almanac:

Denver’s net punt value of -9.3 points was their worst since Britton Colquitt’s rookie season in 2010.

He looked good in the preseason outside of a bad shank against the Rams. Let’s hope it can keep up.

Someone who wasn’t very impressive in the preseason was the now departed River Cracraft, who “won” the WR6 competition because of lack of competition. He was quickly replaced by former Steeler and CFL return man Diontae Spencer. Heading into the game, Spencer is listed as the primary punt returner and number two kick returner behind Devontae Booker. I’m curious to see if he pushes Booker, who’s 21.3 yards per return in 2018 was among the three worst totals in the league since 2017.

Some have seen Spencer’s addition as a huge steal because of the explosiveness he will bring to the offense. A little digging throws that into serious question: he did have 2,635 receiving yards in Canada, but did so on 223 receptions for an average 11.82 yards per catch. Additionally, he’s all of 5’8 and 163 lbs.

I could certainly be wrong on this, and if so, I’ll admit as much. It just seems kind of peculiar that the Steelers would cut him if the 27-year-old who never caught a pass in the NFL’s regular season is a burgeoning superstar.

For now, let’s hope he’s an answer for special teams.

Defense

4. How will Fangio deploy the defensive line?

5. What will the stack backer rotation look like?

6. Will Antonio Brown play, and if so, can the secondary keep him in check?

7. Will Jacobs or Waller cause problems?

8. Can Von and Chubb take over?

The clearest look Broncos Country got at Fangio’s scheme with the starters in place came early in the San Francisco game when Bradley Chubb and Shelby Harris dominated the 49ers’ line. It didn’t last long, but it’s combined with reports out of camp to give a ton of anticipation for the new Don’s defense.

While the depth chart lists the defenders in a base 3-4 scheme, Jon Gruden’s Raiders used three receivers 68% of the time in 2018, and Oakland added talent to do it even more this year. Obviously the Antonio Brown fiasco is a wildcard, but if Gruden goes 11, the Broncos will go into nickel personnel to match that. How they do so is going to be fascinating.

Gruden’s offense could present issues.

On last year’s Bears, Fangio favored a 2-4-5 look with Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman as the only true lineman on the field, alongside four linebackers. Todd Davis’ injury means the Broncos are far deeper along the line than second level. It wouldn’t be a huge shock if there’s more 3-3-5 type of looks to hide Josey Jewell.

Regardless of alignment, the biggest threat facing the new defense is a familiar one. With the questions hanging over the linebacker corps, Oakland’s Darren Waller looms as a potential issue. A wide receiver in college, he stands at 6’6 and ran a 40-yard dash at 4.46 seconds back in 2015.

The other issue Davis’ injury could cause is against opposing ground games, and Oakland could take advantage. Josh Jacobs replaced Marshawn Lynch as the Raiders’ warhorse, and the last time Gruden grabbed a first round back, Cadilac Williams carried the ball 88 times for 434 yards over his first three games.

Oakland’s offensive line could be an X-factor. Gabe Jackson suffered an injury in August that left most believing he’d miss 8 weeks. With Richie Incognito also suspended, it would leave the Raiders with two stalwarts in Trent Brown and Rodney Hudson, along with serious question marks.

Jacobs is a big back who can move in the phone booth and catch a pass out of the backfield.

Offense

9. Will Garett Bolles hold the O back?

10. Ron Leary: mystery man.

11. Joe Flacco’s fit in the offense.

12. Who steps up in the receiving corps?

13. How will Scangarello take advantage of mismatches?

14. What will the carry distribution look like?

Much like the Raiders, Denver’s offensive line is a huge X-factor to look for in this match up. Flacco’s struggled when rushed in recent seasons, and the surefire way for Oakland to take over the game is to find a way to make the Broncos’ new quarterback uncomfortable.

Garett Bolles will make this list until he proves he isn’t a liability. Let’s hope he discovers the form Elway hoped for when he picked him over Ryan Ramczyk. Heck, let’s hope Munchak can turn him into a league average tackle. Oakland lacks the level of world-beaters he’ll meet up with later in the season, so it will be pretty troubling if Bolles has issues Monday.

It’s notable how Ron Leary did not appear in the Broncos’ first practice report yesterday. Now he just needs to return to the level of play he showed in 2018. Second year defensive tackles Maurice Hurst and P.J. Hall look like the Raiders’ biggest threats in the front seven. It’d go a long way towards ensuing a Broncos victory if the interior line can keep them at bay.

If you read GIF Horse, you’ll know I believe Flacco’s performance on third downs will be the key to the game. That will start to answer the big question hanging over his 2019: will the Rich Scangarello offense help him find something akin to his 2014 form?

There’s been belief in Broncos Country that Courtland Sutton, DaeSean Hamilton, and Tim Patrick round out what may be Flacco’s most talented receiving corps in years. They’re relatively unproven, which is something that can only end with experience. Monday gives us our first glimpse into what I can only hope is a promising future for the passing game.

Oakland made a concentrated effort to upgrade their secondary last spring. Lamarcus Joyner should be an immediate upgrade, but most of the other pieces are very green. Daryl Worley and Gareon Conley are the top corners on the depth chart with rookies Traveyon Mullen and Keisean Nixon behind them. I’m looking to see how Scangarello attacks that.

One of the things that stood out to me when I watched the 49ers take on Oakland last year is how often San Francisco’s offense utilized I-Twin sets. They went to this well early and often and found a lot of success.

Look for the Broncos offense to make heavy use of misdirection to get backs in space.

On the play above, you’ll notice how both the fullbacks motion and halfbacks are working to drag the second level to the right. This catches the Raiders’ linebackers out of position for the cutback and forces a safety into a bind. Just imagine what Phillip Lindsay can do with that much grass in front of him.

Speaking of the Broncos’ second-year back, I’m very curious to see how the coaching staff utilizes him. Royce Freeman lurks as something like a 1B starter, and Scangarello went on record a number of times this preseason about how he wants to get the running backs involved in the passing game this year. I’m very curious to see both how the carry distribution goes in this first game, as well as how effective all three backs are in their roles.

Look for the Broncos to try to create pick plays on the Raiders man coverage to get Lindsay some easy touches in the flats.

Your Broncos links

Denver Broncos at Oakland Raiders: First injury participation report - Mile High Report

The Denver Broncos and Oakland Raiders participation report has been released. It’s the first one of the regular season!

Film Room: How the Denver Broncos can beat the Oakland Raiders on MNF - Mile High Report

Joe Flacco gets his first chance to shock the world and the Denver Broncos need him to do just that this season.

Denver Broncos: John Elway likes the leadership Joe Flacco brings - Mile High Report

Will that leadership translate into points and wins? Broncos Country will find out soon.

Joe Flacco ready to play games ‘that matter’ - Mile High Report

And even thought playing the Raiders actually matters a little more to Broncos fans, the season opener on Monday Night is really just another game, Flacco says.

Broncos vs Raiders: Denver’s offense needs a strong start - Mile High Report

The offense can set the tone for Monday night’s game and in the process fire up Von Miller and the defense.

Bradley Chubb had the best rookie season in Football Outsiders’ history - Mile High Report

MHR had the chance to ask Bryan Knowles and Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders to learn about their outlook on the 2019 Denver Broncos.

The X Factor That Could Make or Break Each NFL Team - The Ringer

Denver Broncos: WR Emmanuel Sanders

The Broncos’ pass-catching corps is bristling with talent, boasting a pair of potential second-year breakout players in Courtland Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton and an athletic rookie tight end in Noah Fant. But what that group is short on is proven, reliable playmakers—the type of reliable playmakers that veteran quarterback Joe Flacco will need if he’s going to have any success this year in Denver. Sanders has recovered shockingly quickly from a torn Achilles suffered late last year—all reports from training camp have been positive—but the real test will come this week when the regular season begins. If Sanders is truly back to form, he’ll be the go-to guy Flacco can lean on.

Denver Broncos Were Losers in Stadium Naming Deal, Expert Says | Westword

According to Duber-Smith, that probably means the Broncos’ half of the estimated $6 million annual allotment (the team splits the total with the Metropolitan Football Stadium District) won’t all be in cash — another reason the Broncos appear interested in keeping details of the Empower covenant under wraps.

Eyes on Week 2 with da Bears

Packers defense bears down in 10-3 win over Chicago in Week 1 - Acme Packing Company

Brian Gutekunst’s offseason spending spree pays off in Week 1 as the defense controls the game and new additions provide enormous impact. It turns out, Adrian Amos can make plays.

Matt LaFleur’s questionable pass interference challenge overruled

Matt LaFleur’s hopeless challenge against the Bears is the type of play critics of the pass interference replay rule have in their crosshairs.

Rodgers outplays Trubisky as Packers edge Bears

If the NFL’s 2019 season opener is any indication, Aaron Rodgers mostly still looks like Aaron Rodgers.

2019 NFL week 1 season opener. Chicago Bears offense sputters and Chicago falls behind the Green Bay Packers in 10 to 3 season opener loss - Windy City Gridiron

The Bears defense looks as good as we could have hoped, but the offense falls short of even mediocre expectations in the Bears home opener

Packers vs. Bears: Mitchell Trubisky fails test as Green Bay prevails

Mitchell Trubisky was given ample chances to show he can be an answer rather than a question for the Bears, but the QB repeatedly came up short.

Green Bay Packers vs Chicago Bears - September 05, 2019 Recap | SI.com

’’He’s mentally grown, he really has,’’ Nagy said. ‘’That’s what we look for, and now we have to do it on the field.’’

A look around the rest of the AFC West

Oakland Raiders planning to suspend Antonio Brown - Mile High Report

Ahead of their Week 1 Monday Night Football match with the Denver Broncos, the Oakland Raiders have apparently had enough of Antonio Brown.

Antonio Brown suspended: Raiders WR fights with Mike Mayock | SI.com

Given the most recent news that the Raiders are planning to suspend Brown after he threatened to punch GM Mike Mayock, it’s clear he likely wasn’t much of a strong fit to start.

Mayock: Antonio Brown not practicing Thursday, no word on suspension – ProFootballTalk

Raiders General Manager Mike Mayock held one of the shortest press conferences in memory on Thursday. After word broke of an altercation between Mayock and wide receiver Antonio Brown during Wednesday’s practice that led to plans to suspend the wideout, Mayock met with reporters from the Raiders ...

Agent’s Take: What happens if Raiders try to void Antonio Brown’s guarantees in his contract - CBSSports.com

Is Antonio Brown all-in or all-out with the Raiders, and what do they do about his contract if it’s the latter?

Mayock: Antonio Brown not practicing Thursday, no word on suspension – ProFootballTalk

Raiders General Manager Mike Mayock held one of the shortest press conferences in memory on Thursday. After word broke of an altercation between Mayock and wide receiver Antonio Brown during Wednesday’s practice that led to plans to suspend the wideout, Mayock met with reporters from the Raiders ...

Drew Rosenhaus: Antonio Brown wants to play, unsure if he will – ProFootballTalk

Amid talk that Antonio Brown’s relationship with the Raiders has soured to such an extent that he may never play for them, Brown’s agent says he’s working on a resolution.

Antonio Brown may have a problem under the Personal Conduct Policy – ProFootballTalk

If NFL Media’s report that Raiders receiver Antonio Brown threatened to punch Raiders G.M. Mike Mayock in the face is accurate, Brown may have a problem separate and apart from his potential team-issued suspension.

Jon Gruden: We have to adapt to Antonio Brown’s absence – ProFootballTalk

Raiders coach Jon Gruden says that if wide receiver Antonio Brown isn’t with the team, they’ll manage. Gruden wouldn’t say much about Brown today but did note that the Raiders’ offense already has plenty of experience working without Brown, who missed much of training camp with frostbitten feet a...

Jon Gruden trying to ‘get to the bottom’ of incident that has Raiders reportedly considering suspending Antonio Brown, still has ‘hope it all works out’ - Silver And Black Pride

Today Jon Gruden took to the podium for his scheduled press conference. It’s game week, so the conversation should have been about that. Instead it’s all about the latest Antonio Brown drama that...

Guard merry-go-round ends with Jordan Devey named Raiders starting left guard until Richie Incognito returns from suspension - Silver And Black Pride

Newly added lineman to start against his former team in week two.

Chiefs feel comfortable with four cornerbacks on the roster — for now - Arrowhead Pride

The position is Kansas City’s most significant deficiency, but they are saying they feel comfortable with the safeties if necessary.

Report: Chiefs WR Tyreek Hill could get contract extension this weekend - Arrowhead Pride

The All-Pro wide receiver is beginning the final year of his rookie contract, and the Chiefs are reported to want to have a deal concluded before Sunday

NFL Links

Jordan Howard unconcerned about report of Eagles trade talk – ProFootballTalk

Running back Jordan Howard came to the Eagles in an offseason trade with the Bears and he’s expected to join Miles Sanders as the top backs on the offense to open the regular season, but that apparently didn’t stop the Eagles from considering another trade. Albert Breer of SI.

Sean McVay: Contract demonstrates commitment we’ve made to Jared Goff – ProFootballTalk

The Rams open the regular season in Carolina on Sunday, but the Panthers weren’t the first topic of conversation for head coach Sean McVay at Wednesday’s press conference.

Ryan Fitzpatrick embracing chance to make history on Sunday – ProFootballTalk

Ryan Fitzpatrick was joined in the huddle by players like Marshall Faulk, Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce and sacked by Sean Taylor during his first NFL start. That’s a long way of saying that Fitzpatrick has been around for a while.

Garrett: Too early to say if Elliott will be on pitch count - NFL.com

Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett was impressed with Ezekiel Elliott’s first practice back Wednesday, but says it’s too early to say whether the RB will be on a pitch count Sunday vs. the Giants.

Injuries: Eagles WR Jeffery (biceps) on injury report - NFL.com

Ahead of their season-opening clash against the Redskins, the Eagles placed their No. 1 wide receiver on the most recent injury report.

Julio Jones plans to play Sunday as talks continue - NFL.com

Julio Jones still doesn’t have a contract extension with just days before the Atlanta Falcons kick off the 2019 campaign Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings.