ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Preseason predictions are often a dicey affair, both for those who make them and, sometimes, for those who believe them.
The prevailing wisdom, as it were, throughout the summer was the AFC West schedule would provide little challenge to the Broncos’ course of business this season. And while the tale has certainly not been told either way in the early going, Andy Reid’s Chiefs have launched themselves from the gate with a 3-0 start, having surrendered just 34 points in those three games.
The Raiders and Chargers are each 1-1, having shown far more grit than some expected as they continue through their re-building projects. So, that is how the table is set for the Broncos as they open their division schedule Monday night against the Raiders in Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
“Our guys understand the magnitude of division games,’’ said Broncos coach John Fox. “I think our goal every year -- I’m sure, like the rest of the teams in our division -- is to win the division. Obviously, your division record is conducive to getting in the playoffs -- winning your division. It’s a huge game and it’s our first of the year.’’
So in that light, here are some things to consider about tonight’s affair:
McFadden has it McGoing. The Raiders essentially re-tooled their run game -- and fired former offensive coordinator Greg Knapp (now happily the Broncos quarterbacks coach) -- because Darren McFadden couldn’t find a fit in Knapp’s playbook. So, the playbook was sent packing. The Raiders are more man-on-man blocking in the run game in what is now a read-option offense much of the time. Some defensive coordinators would call it a “downhill’’ attack, meaning they like to often pull linemen inside, run between the guards and pound away. They’ve done it well enough in two games to have averaged 198.5 yards rushing per game and McFadden has 177 rushing yards. The Raiders repeatedly pounded the ball, often pulling left tackle Khalif Barnes into the hole, at Jaguars middle linebacker Paul Posluszny. They run out of a two-back set plenty and the Broncos figure to spend more time in their base defense than they did in the first two games. During the preseason, both the 49ers and Seahawks had some success pounding away at the Broncos' base defense, which is some of the reason Wesley Woodyard was moved into the middle linebacker spot. Woodyard will need a no-nonsense, get-it-done night in this one. McFadden has always been feast or famine against the Broncos. The Broncos have held McFadden to fewer than 50 yards rushing in four career meetings, but overall in his nine career games against Denver, McFadden has rushed for 723 yards, at 5.8 yards per carry, to go with five touchdowns.
Be disciplined on D. When the Broncos dropped the read-option on the league in 2011 with Tim Tebow at quarterback, at least part of the success was the NFL mindset overall on defense. That getting up the field was Job 1, that disruptive edge rushers both get paid and pay the bills. And those running the read-option love edge players who want to only get up the field, gap control be damned. And when the Broncos ran the read-option down the stretch that year, it took several weeks for defenses to adjust and the point totals started to go down for the Broncos. It all means defensive ends Robert Ayers, Derek Wolfe and Shaun Phillips (he’s questionable after missing Saturday’s practice with back spasms), have to follow a John Wooden maxim -- play fast, but don’t be in a hurry. The Broncos have seen what it looks like -- all the way to a division title and a playoff win in ’11 -- when defenses don’t handle their business against the read-option. They also know what it looks like when defenses do.
Tricks and treats. When McFadden was at the University of Arkansas, the Razorbacks coaching staff often let him line up as the quarterback in the shotgun -- the Wildcat look -- to take the direct snap and do his thing. The Raiders, in their new offensive scheme, have flashed that as well. It’s another test of assignment discipline because McFadden threw seven touchdown passes in his career at Arkansas and has the ability to put the ball on target.
Twenty-somethings. The Raiders have nine sacks this season with five of them coming from defensive backs. Coach Dennis Allen and defensive coordinator Jason Tarver add players from the secondary liberally to the rush. There were several defensive snaps against the Jaguars when the Raiders had four- and five-man rush schemes and two of the players headed to the quarterback were defensive backs. Certainly there is a risk-reward in all of that. The reward, for a defense, is it’s often hard to track rushers coming from that far off the ball and offensive linemen will make mistakes at times. So, often a defensive back with some up-field skill will get a clean run at a quarterback. The risk is a defense suddenly has players in the passing lane who are not really pass defenders. They are more deterrents, told to get into a specific spot to force a quarterback trained to move through progression to look elsewhere when he sees the wrong color jerseys in front of him. But for an accurate quarterback who can fit the ball into coverage, it can open up big-play possibilities. The Broncos certainly have that kind of quarterback in Peyton Manning, who routinely digests blitz packages like breath mints, especially pressure off the edge which opposing defensive coordinators say he sees better than most in his pre-snap reads. It will be intriguing to see how aggressive the Raiders are, but they may have no choice. If Allen and Tarver feel it’s going to be difficult for the team's re-made secondary to hold up in coverage against Manning they may feel they have no choice other than to go after the future Hall of Famer.
Perhaps bigger? The Broncos have sported a three-wide receiver, two-tight end set at times in Fox’s tenure with the team. And while that essentially tells the defense a pass is coming, the Broncos have been effective using it in the past to widen the formation a bit and push the edge rushers out, forcing them to cover a little more ground to get to the quarterback. With Joel Dreessen close to coming back -- he is the Broncos' best combination of receiver/blocker at the position and is listed as questionable for this game -- the Broncos could be inclined to break it out again against the aggressive Raiders. It would be a departure of the plan so far, given the Broncos have lined up in three-wide, with one tight end and one running back, on 72.3 percent of their offensive snaps in their two games. However, in both the season opener and last Sunday against the Giants, the Broncos snapped their offense back on track by going to a traditional two-tight end look for a selection of snaps.