Saturday, January 11, 2014
By Jeff Legwold
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos have said many things this week as they moved toward Sunday's divisional round game against the San Diego Chargers. And they've tried not to say some things as well.
Words like "playoffs" or "postseason" have been replaced in and around the team's suburban Denver complex. Those words have been dumped, from head coach John Fox on down, in favor of something they believe fits the situation a little better.
The Broncos simply call it "the tournament."
"Because once you lose, you're out," running back Knowshon Moreno said. "It's a tournament. Once you lose, you're going home. No one wants to be that team to go home so you have to do everything you have to do throughout the week to make sure those things don't happen -- and see what happens on Sunday."
The Broncos' three losses this season have come to the three other teams remaining in the AFC bracket. That includes a Dec. 12 loss to the Chargers, the Broncos only loss in Sports Authority Field at Mile High this season. But to survive and advance in the tournament format, the Broncos will have to deal with important matchups.
First and everything: Last season's double-overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens came on Jan. 12, 2013, so the Broncos will have waited a year to the day for a second chance, an opportunity to make things right. For months, they have been asked to discuss, analyze, characterize and sift through that crushing loss.
And quarterback Peyton Manning's 9-11 playoff record has been the topic of the week, both near and far, as has the weather, the wind, the Chargers' defense and anything else that has caused the Broncos' faithful to commence the hand-wringing.
That all certainly brings a lot of pressure to bear over the course of a year. How the Broncos gather themselves and execute early on could have a lot to say about how things go.
If the Broncos are tight and feeling the heat, the Chargers will have an easier time getting the tempo they want. When the Broncos have been at their best this season, they have jumped all over opposing defenses and given their own defense the luxury of playing with the lead. They have to find a way to lock in and get it done in front of a crowd that will have last season's loss in front of its collective mind, at least until the Broncos get another postseason win to push it out.
Left has to be right: Chargers defensive end Corey Liuget repeatedly created problems against the left side of the Broncos' offensive line -- tackle Chris Clark and guard Zane Beadles -- in the Dec. 12 game, including hitting Manning's arm on an interception.
The Chargers used a variety of looks in the rush in that game, bringing defensive backs from off the ball and dropping front seven players into coverage, but in the end Liuget was the disruptive player in the San Diego front and made it all work. Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano created enough uncertainty with the variety that the Broncos had uncharacteristic assignment mistakes.
Linebackers in the forefront: Yes, both of Chargers rookie Keenan Allen's catches Dec. 1 against the Broncos went for touchdowns, but for the Broncos defense to have the kind of night they want linebackers Danny Trevathan and Wesley Woodyard will each need a quality day in coverage.
Allen is the only wide receiver among Rivers' top three targets this year. Tight end Antonio Gates was targeted 113 times by Rivers in the regular season -- the most on the team -- and running back Danny Woodhead was third, having been targeted 87 times.
But when Rivers throws to Woodhead, he gets a high percentage of completion with a double-take worthy 87.4 percent of those targets being caught. When the Broncos go to their nickel look -- and they played the nickel more than any other personnel grouping in the Dec. 12 game (34 snaps) -- that often puts Woodyard and Trevathan on duty in the intermediate routes.
To keep the Chargers from grinding out drives they have to keep the ball out of the hands of Gates and Woodhead.
Play big when small(er): When the Broncos are in those smaller personnel groupings, they also have to defend the run with an edge. In the Chargers win, San Diego held the ball for 38 minutes, 49 seconds, and limited the Broncos' offense to a season-low 54 plays, including penalty snaps.
And they did it, at times, by finding just enough room to convert third downs against the Broncos' specialty packages when they had to, including Ryan Mathews' 23-yard run for a touchdown in the third quarter when the Broncos were in the dime. Champ Bailey's return to the lineup as the Broncos' nickel cornerback gives the Broncos a far more versatile look, especially with Bailey's sure tackling around the line of scrimmage.
Knowledge is power: Certainly plenty has been made of Chargers head coach Mike McCoy's familiarity with Manning's game, offensive coordinator Adam Gase's philosophy and the Broncos' playbook as a whole because of McCoy's time in Denver.
But the Broncos know McCoy just as well and in the end these two division rivals won't have many secrets unless they break out something they haven't done much, or at all, already this season.
So how things get done will matter far more than who knew what before kickoff.
But the Broncos may need a little curveball to shake things loose and Gase has shown some precedent already this season to break out a little something new.
When Gase had the Broncos open the Dec. 22 win over the Houston Texans in a three-wide receiver, two tight end set -- no running back in the formation -- it was a look Denver had played for just once previously this season. The Broncos played the first six snaps of the game out of the look and effectively moved the ball against the Texans' base 3-4 defense.
With Wes Welker back in the lineup -- he did not play in the Dec. 12 game -- the Chargers will face more difficult choices in coverage and the Broncos will have more options, particularly with Welker and tight end Julius Thomas in the slot. The Chargers can't double both, and San Diego can't play safety Eric Weddle everywhere. So look for Pagano to try to muddy the water in coverage, dropping seven or even eight players into the passing lanes and look for the Broncos to turn up the heat on the Chargers cornerbacks, especially in the middle of the field.