The Packers and Broncos are each 6-0, and Sunday will be just the fourth meeting in NFL history between two teams that are at least 6-0, and the first since the 8-0 Patriots played the 7-0 Colts in the 2007 season (the Pats won 24-20).
It will be the Packers’ first trip to Denver since 2007, the year before Aaron Rodgers became the Packers’ starter. ESPN Packers reporter Rob Demovsky and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold take a look at the matchup.
Jeff Legwold: There has been plenty of discussion about the erosion of Peyton Manning's skills, as well as his league-leading 10 interceptions. How do you think the Packers will approach defending Manning and a Broncos offense that has struggled for much of the season?
Rob Demovsky: The Packers defense has done two things well this season: pressure the quarterback and intercept passes. I know what you’ll say: One thing leads to another. And you’re right. But this is the best defense Dom Capers has had at doing both. They’ve always been a high takeaway defense. No NFL team has more interceptions since 2009, Capers’ first season in Green Bay, than the Packers. But their pass rush is so much better this year. You wouldn’t think it, given that they’ve moved Clay Matthews out of a full-time pass-rushing role, but the best part of this defense is the pass rush comes from all over. Nine players have shared in their 23 sacks this season.
Speaking of sacks, where does this Broncos defense rank in terms of pass-rushing units you’ve seen in your many years covering the league (and no, I’m not saying you’re old, just old-ish)?
Legwold: I prefer "seasoned." This Broncos defense has a chance, if it continues its current level of mayhem, to be the best defense I’ve covered. It’s probably also the best defense Manning has had on his team, especially in terms of impact plays made with the game on the line. The Broncos defense has scored four touchdowns in the team’s six games: three interception returns for touchdowns as well as a fumble return for a touchdown. And for a team that has outscored its opponents by 37 points in its six wins combined, those touchdowns have certainly helped decide the issue. What separates this defense is its ability to cover in man-to-man all over the formation. Chris Harris Jr., Aqib Talib and Bradley Roby can all match up in man coverage. Plus, the Broncos have elite edge players in Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware. Offenses have paid the price for their decisions to move protection toward Miller and Ware as 11 different players have at least one sack. And the Broncos defense has been its most aggressive in the games' tightest spots and has consistently made teams struggle in third-and-long situations.
Overall, the Broncos defense has 26 sacks and 17 takeaways in six games. Rodgers is easily the most mobile threat and most accomplished thrower the Broncos have faced this season. How has Jordy Nelson’s injury impacted the Packers offense and how will the Packers try to protect Rodgers?
Demovsky: They’ve done a good job protecting Rodgers. He’s been sacked only 11 times in six games, but four of the sacks were the fault of right tackle Don Barclay, who filled in for three games while Bryan Bulaga recovered from knee surgery. Bulaga is back, which should solidify the protection. And you’re right, Rodgers’ mobility helps in that regard. His sack numbers are also lower because he’s not holding the ball as long to try to go deep to Nelson. Without Nelson, Rodgers isn’t airing it out like he used to. In two of the six games so far, he hasn’t even attempted a pass of 30 yards or more in the air. Last year, he averaged two per game. Look at his yards: He’s 18th in the league in passing yards through Week 7. Hard to believe, isn’t it?
Peyton’s arm certainly looks shot. How far could he throw it if he had to? And how does that compare with his prime?
Legwold: People consistently look at Manning’s arm. But if you really want to see how things are going, look at his feet. Specifically, look at his setup to throw. When he has room for the full slide and stride, he can still get the ball to all parts of the field. His best throw of the year might have been a ball that traveled 47 yards in the air, on a line, perfectly into the waiting hands of Emmanuel Sanders against the Kansas City Chiefs, but the ball was then punched out by the defender for an incompletion. There was the tight-window toss to Sanders for a 75-yard catch-and-run touchdown against the Browns and the two-minute drill against the Chiefs. Again, when he has room for his footwork, his body of work is much better in the passing game. Defenses have gotten better at disrupting that, however, and with the Broncos’ unsettled situation in the offensive line, they have gotten more traffic on Manning’s doorstep. He no longer can physically make those throws if his footwork is altered in any way.
Has Mike McCarthy’s decision to surrender play-calling duties changed much about the Packers’ offense?
Demovsky: The biggest difference is how much faster the Packers want to play. When McCarthy first came in, he wanted to use multiple sets as much as possible. One play, you’d see three receivers, a tight end and a running back. The next play, you’d see two wides, two backs and a tight end. The next play, you might see five wides and an empty backfield. Now, they stick with one personnel group, usually some form of a three-wide set, and go, go, go. They want to play as fast as possible and run as many plays as possible out of their no-huddle offense. It’s not exactly the Chip Kelly philosophy, but it’s close. Rodgers has more freedom at the line of scrimmage than he’s ever had.
I watched the Brett Favre situation deteriorate in Green Bay in 2008, when it was clear the Packers wanted to move on. How do you think the Broncos will handle moving on from Manning, which seems inevitable after this season?
Legwold: The Manning decision overwhelmed the Broncos’ early offseason work, and it will again after this season. Those who know Manning say he won’t make a decision without all the facts, including how things go the remainder of the season. He has a dominant defense, and if he can trim the turnovers, the Broncos think they have a championship contender with him behind center. But the turnovers have to stop.
The team is 44-10 in regular-season games he has started. The Broncos and Manning hammered out a $4 million pay cut before this season but left alone his 2016 salary, which has a base of $19 million and counts $21.5 million against the cap. His contract will probably be the starting point again. I can’t see Manning trying to play for another team, so whatever happens will happen, with Manning and the Broncos doing their best to make it work. The Broncos have two quarterbacks they've drafted, Brock Osweiler and Trevor Siemian, and they like both as prospects. The decision from Manning, and about Manning, will be the first priority after the season.