Bills vs. Broncos preview


When: 4:05 p.m. ET, Sunday Where: Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Denver TV: CBS

Denver Broncos cornerback Chris Harris pretty much spoke for any and all folks who still find themselves in the playoff conversation this week.

Asked what the Broncos (9-3) need to do over the last four games of the regular season, Harris said: "I've been saying, we need to treat every game like a playoff game because everybody we play is going to be looking at us like that. So, we need to be our best, play our best, because anybody we play is going to be doing that. You don't want to look back and think you let a game slip away."

The "fourth quarter" of the regular season, as Broncos coach John Fox calls it, starts with the Buffalo Bills' visit to Denver. The Bills (7-5) have designs on a playoff spot as well, and bring along a familiar face to Broncos fans in quarterback Kyle Orton.

Orton started 33 games for the Broncos before Denver's coaching staff benched him after the team's 1-4 start in 2011, replacing him with Tim Tebow. Orton won the most recent game he started against the Broncos -- a 7-3 Chiefs win to close out that '11 season after Denver had released him.

ESPN Bills reporter Mike Rodak and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold take a look at Sunday's matchup.

Legwold: Mike, the Bills have had an ownership change this season, a home game in Detroit because of the enormous winter storm, and their share of injuries. How have they kept their balance, and do they feel like they are an ascending team?

Rodak: It definitely has been a season unlike any other for the Bills, especially when you consider their change at quarterback. From this perspective, players and coaches have shown poise throughout all of the bumps in the road. Buffalo's 38-3 win over the Jets at Ford Field two weeks ago was a good example of that: Despite the upheaval of its normal week of preparation, the team turned in its best all-around game of the season. Players have credited a long training camp (they stayed in dorms for nearly five weeks), an extra preseason trip to Canton, Ohio, and two days of joint practices with the Steelers on the road with helping the team bond. So when some of these outside factors have invaded, the team has responded well.

Jeff, I get the sense that Bills fans have some hope in this game after watching the Dolphins go into Denver a few weeks ago and nearly take down the Broncos. Between that game and Denver's loss to the Rams a week earlier, what made the Broncos so vulnerable?

Legwold: Denver's 22-7 loss to the Rams in St. Louis is certainly one that got most people's attention. So much so that this past Sunday, the Chiefs tried to run the same play the Rams used for a 63-yard scoring pass. It didn't work for the Chiefs, a small indication the Broncos learned at least some of their lessons from a bad outing in St. Louis. For the most part, the same formula gets the Broncos in trouble at times. They allow pressure on quarterback Peyton Manning in the middle of the field, they don't run the ball effectively enough to slow down opposing pass-rushers with play-action, and they don't defend the run well enough out of some of their specialty packages on defense. The hangover from the Rams loss lasted until almost halftime of the following week's game against the Dolphins, when the Broncos trailed Miami 21-10 with less than two minutes to go in the first half. But Manning and the Broncos put together an 80-yard touchdown drive before halftime, dominated the second half against the Dolphins, and overpowered the Chiefs this past Sunday. They've used a far more balanced look on offense -- 80 run plays over the past two games -- and it has settled things down on both sides of the ball.

Staying with the quarterbacks: Orton arrives to face his former employer with a team in the playoff mix. How has he played for the Bills?

Rodak: Orton has teetered between adequate and inadequate -- never truly great and never a disaster. His QBR since taking over the starting job is 44.1, which is ahead of only a handful of other quarterbacks, some of whom have lost their jobs. He's been worse over the past month than he was in his first month as the starter, losing some of his accuracy that made him an instant upgrade over EJ Manuel. Orton completed 67.4 percent of his passes and averaged eight yards per attempt over his first four starts. His completion percentage has dropped to 61.3 over his past four starts, while he's been averaging 5.81 yards per attempt. Yet it's still arguably better than what the Bills were getting from Manuel over the first four games -- a 58 percent completion rate and 6.4 yards per attempt -- so Orton remains the starter. As far as returning to Denver, Orton brushed off the notion of Sunday's game having any extra meaning when we asked him about it Wednesday. Of course, defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz also did that before the Bills' game in Detroit this year, and he ended up getting carried off the field, per his wishes. So you never know.

The strength of the Bills' defense is their line and its ability to create pressure, yet Manning is notorious for getting the ball out quickly. How well have opposing defenses been able to get pressure on Manning this season?

Legwold: The short answer is not very well overall. Manning, even with all of Denver's offensive line struggles, is still the least-sacked starter in the league (13 times). The Jets, 49ers and Rams are the only teams to have sacked him at least twice in a game. Those defenses that have some success usually have to do it with four rushers with the ability to drop seven players into coverage. Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who has had more success than most against Manning, routinely chooses coverage over pressure as he rushes three or four defenders at Manning much of the time. The pressure in the middle is the key since Manning tends to identify any potential pressure from the outside in his pre-snap work, and gets the ball out. Those teams that take away his ability to climb the pocket and step into his throws do far better against him. The Broncos, at least until the past two games, have surrendered more than their share of unblocked rushers in the A gaps. But as they have pounded out 201 and 214 yards rushing in the past two games, they slowed down the Dolphins' and Chiefs' fronts. The Raiders, Rams and Chiefs did bat down some of Manning's passes by making a conscious effort to get their hands up into the throwing lanes when they couldn't get to Manning.

In that vein, the Bills lead the league in sacks, and Marcell Dareus was a player the Broncos took a long look at in 2011 when they selected Von Miller. How aggressive do you think the Bills will be in coming after Manning?

Rodak: I wouldn't expect them to blitz much. First of all, that's not their forte; they've done an excellent job generating pressure just from their four-man line, which includes three Pro Bowlers and can be considered the best in the NFL. Because of their strength up front, they've blitzed on just 19.8 percent of plays, the third-lowest rate in the league. Second of all, I don't think blitzing Manning is the wisest idea, given his ability to diagnose defenses and get the ball out quickly. Manning averages 2.22 seconds before he passes, the quickest rate in the NFL. The better strategy from the Bills may be to drop more players into coverage. There aren't many weaknesses on this defense, but their secondary and linebackers have shown some vulnerability when their front four isn't as effective. Having the numbers advantage against the Broncos' receivers should help.

Opposing defenses have tried (and succeeded) in taking Sammy Watkins out of the Bills' most recent games, whether it's been by "rolling" coverage or putting a top cover man on the rookie. How well-equipped are the Broncos to do that?

Legwold: When all hands are in the lineup, the Broncos have two matchup cornerbacks in Aqib Talib and Harris. That gives them more flexibility than most in how they disperse their resources in coverage. Champ Bailey said last month that Harris is playing "the best of anybody at his position in the league," and the Broncos use Harris all over the formation since he has been the nickel cornerback early in his career, so he can play the outside spots or in the slot on either side of the formation with equal comfort. Rookie Bradley Roby has also played well enough. He should get at least some consideration for defensive rookie of the year. The Broncos do play more man coverage than most teams in the league, so there is always potential for a big play if a receiver can win the matchup down the field before Miller and DeMarcus Ware disrupt things up front. Miller and Ware are a key part of the coverage equation as well. Overall, the Broncos have surrendered just 11 pass plays of more than 25 yards, and no team has had more than two pass plays of more than 25 yards in any game against them this season. There are opportunities for offenses, it's just that when receivers have found some room to get open, Miller and Ware have closed the deal before the quarterback can deliver the ball.