AFC West: Prince Amukamara

What to watch for: Broncos-Giants

September, 13, 2013
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – It can be tough to follow such a high-end opening act, but that is the Denver Broncos' task this week as they make their first road trip since an Aug. 17 preseason game in Seattle.

“And our last outing wasn’t too positive,’’ said Broncos coach John Fox about that 40-10 loss to the Seahawks. “I think we’ve got a little bit to learn from that.’’

By the time Broncos jog onto the field Sunday at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., it will have also been 10 days since Peyton Manning carved out another slice of football history -- and carved up the Baltimore Ravens' secondary -- with seven touchdown passes in a 49-27 opening victory. So, in that light, here are some things to consider about the third, and perhaps last, time Peyton will face his brother Eli’s team:

  • What comes after seven? Manning tied an NFL record with his seven passing TDs against the Ravens and became the first player to reach that mark in a game since 1969. Tough to top that. The Broncos would like to run the ball a few more times -- and a lot better -- against the Giants than they did against the Ravens, but Manning will still put the ball in the air plenty. The Giants have some uncertainty at cornerback -- Prince Amukamara suffered a concussion in the opener against the Cowboys -- and their linebackers struggled in coverage against Dallas. That’s a recipe for Manning to push the ball up the sidelines at times, especially out of play-action, and work the middle of the field with tight end Julius Thomas or Wes Welker. Running back Knowshon Moreno, who has the running back of choice in the three-wide-receiver set, figures to be busy in the passing game as well -- Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo completed 18 passes to his backs and tight ends, who consistently found room in the short to intermediate zones.

  • [+] EnlargeManny Ramirez
    AP Photo/Paul JasienskiDenver center Manny Ramirez could get a stiff test from the Giants' interior defensive line.
    Four of a kind. The Giants have always believed in the benefits of a four-man rush to bring pressure on opposing quarterbacks -- “That’s been true going all the way back to when I was coaching there,’’ Fox said. That allows the defense to use seven players in coverage in these pass-happy times -- and it's especially true for a Giants team with some uncertainly in its defensive back seven and that likely needs to play it a little more conservatively. Against the Cowboys, with end Jason Pierre-Paul still working his way back from offseason back surgery (he played 50 snaps in Dallas), the Giants did most of the consistent damage when they won on the inside. Defensive tackles Linval Joseph and Cullen Jenkins, a combined 628 pounds, repeated pounded away at Cowboys rookie center Travis Frederick. The two also made life difficult for right guard Mackenzy Bernadeau, so much so many in the league believe recent signee Brian Waters will be manning the position the next time the Cowboys play. The Broncos struggled at times against the Ravens' defensive front, particularly in the run game on the interior. The Giants figure to test left guard Zane Beadles and center Manny Ramirez plenty.

  • Short and not so sweet. The danger in all of the up-tempo frenzy going on in the league -- and the biggest reason the jury remains out on all of it -- is what it does to a defense when the team’s offense doesn’t get a first down when running at warp speed. The Broncos had a 48-second three-and-out possession in the second quarter against the Ravens, to go with a 59-second possession in the fourth quarter. “We have to avoid that,’’ said offensive coordinator Adam Gase. “When we go to our up-tempo stuff, we have to make sure that we’re staying on the field and put the (opposing) defense in a bad defense.’’

  • Three-pack. What the Giants could do with Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks at wide receiver was already a significant challenge for opposing defenses. And if Rueben Randle can consistently be that third option -- all three topped 100 yards receiving against the Cowboys -- it spreads things out even a little more. The alignment to watch was one that was repeatedly effective against the Cowboys, with Nicks and Cruz lined up to the offensive right and Randle as the lone receiver to the left. The Giants consistently got all three into open space with that set. It will be a significant challenge for the Broncos' defensive backs. “Real good third option," said Denver defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said of Randle. "I described him to our guys, he’s like a No. 2 in the league, I think he’s a legitimate starting-caliber wide receiver (who) happens to be the third guy in their rotation."

  • Be in a rush. In of the rose petals tossed at the Broncos’ feet after what was a high-quality victory over Baltimore, it was easy to lose sight of the fact that Denver did not have a sack, or hadn’t really even stressed Joe Flacco all that much in the pocket, until right tackle Michael Oher suffered a severely sprained right knee on a 1-yard touchdown run by Ray Rice with 8 minutes, 3 seconds to play in the second quarter. All four of the Broncos' sacks, including the 2.5 for defensive end Shaun Phillips, came after the Ravens had to slide protections at times with Oher out. The Giants have had their own struggles in the offensive front, but the Broncos have to find a way to get some heat on Eli Manning -- or Manning will find the soft spots in coverage.

  • Adapt or punt. You don’t spend $12 million of Pat Bowlen’s dollars on Welker if you don’t want to go with three wide receivers on offense most of the time. But the Broncos struggled mightily early against Baltimore until they went to a two-tight-end look for five plays. They found their flow, played a little bigger for a few snaps ... and away they went. They have been more efficient at times over the past two seasons out of the two-tight-end look, especially early in games. The Broncos had eight plays among the first 20 that went for one yard or fewer or were an incompletion. The first 20 snaps, including penalties, resulted in three punts. The Broncos didn’t score the first touchdown until they went to two tight ends, then got back in the three-wide set on their fifth possession of the game. They scored a touchdown on a one-play drive, in three-wide, to close out their fourth possession after they got the ball on the Ravens’ 24-yard line, thanks to a Chris Harris interception.
It’s been no secret on this blog that it is going to be a pressure-filled season for high-profile running backs Darren McFadden of Oakland and Ryan Mathews of San Diego.

We’ve talked often that this season is vital for both players. Tuesday, on ESPN’s NFL32, host Wendi Nix, asked the show’s three analysts to name their one player in the NFL, regardless of position, who is entering a make-or-break season. Chris Mortensen selected Mathews and Damien Woody chose McFadden. The other analyst, Mark Schreleth, chose New York Giants’ cornerback Prince Amukamara.

I don’t think it is outlandish that the two AFC West players were selected. There is no doubt, they are entering crucial seasons.

McFadden is entering his contract year. He has missed, at least, three games in all five of his NFL seasons. If he can’t stay healthy or bounce back from a subpar 2012 season, the Raiders will surely move on.

The same thing goes for Mathews. The No. 12 overall draft pick of the 2010 draft has been hampered by injuries in his three NFL seasons. Like McFadden, Mathews has big ability, but if he can’t stay healthy, the Chargers will move away from him.

It’s interesting to note that the struggles of both of these players are being watched so closely on a league-wide level.

UDATE: The Oakland Raiders and former quarterback JaMarcus Russell have settled a long dispute over his contract. The Raiders owe him $3 million. It’s just another reminder of the disaster that was the Russell era in Oakland.

Evening AFC West notes

April, 14, 2011
In an Insider piece, Insider KC Joyner thinks Colorado cornerback Jimmy Smith is more valuable than Nebraska cornerback Prince Amukamara. He is expected to be drafted much higher than Smith, who has off-field concerns. San Diego and Oakland are among the teams that has shown interest in Smith.

Eastern Washington running back Taiwan Jones showed blazing speed at his pro day Thursday. The Raiders, who love speed, was at the pro day held near Oakland. The Broncos also have an interest in Jones.

In an interesting interaction with the readers of the Denver Post, former Denver safety John Lynch talked about the possibility of joining an NFL front office at some point and who he’d tab to be the No. 2 overall pick for Denver. His choice is a small surprise.

AFC West mailbag

April, 6, 2011
Mid-week mail call:

Mark from Denver wants to know if I think the Broncos would be interested in trading the No. 2 pick to New England for the No. 17, No. 27 and two other picks.

Bill Williamson: I think you are on the right track, Mark. According to the NFL draft trade value chart, the Patriots would likely have to give up the two first-round picks, plus their second-round picks, No. 33 and No. 60. That would give Denver two first-round picks, four second-round picks and a third round pick. It’d have seven of the first 67 picks. I think Denver would be interested in the deal because it has many holes to fill. The question is, would the Patriots pull the trigger?

John from Shingle Springs, Calif., wants to know if I think the San Diego Chargers could move up and take cornerback Prince Amukamara of Nebraska.

BW: I think there are several players the Chargers, who have five picks in the first three rounds, could move up for. If Amukamara fell out of the top 10 and he wasn’t overly expensive to grab, I could potentially see it. But I think a pass-rusher is higher on the Chargers’ need list.

Jake K. from Bolivar, Mo., wants to know what top prospects from the SEC the Chiefs could look at.

BW: It’s a great question, Jake, because Kansas City and general manager Scott Pioli have a history of taking players from the SEC early in the draft. Pioli figures if players can produce at the highest collegiate level, they’ll be equipped to compete in the NFL. The Chiefs are looking at pass-rushers and offensive linemen early in the draft. The top SEC pass-rusher who could be available when the Chiefs pick at No. 21 is Georgia’s Justin Houston. The Chiefs are investigating Houston. The top tackle from the SEC is Mississippi State’s Derek Sherrod. Let’s see if the SEC streak continues in Kansas City.
Let’s catch up on some of the more interesting visits that have been recently set up by AFC West teams:

Denver: The Broncos are reportedly going to visit with Oregon linebacker Casey Matthews. The word around the league is Matthews – the younger brother of Green Bay star linebacker Clay Matthews -- would be a perfect middle man for John Fox’s defense. He’d likely cost a second-round pick.

Kansas City: Surprisingly, the Chiefs are visiting with Nebraska cornerback Prince Amukamara. He is expected to go way before the Chiefs pick at No. 21 and it is not a big need position for the Chiefs. I’d be stunned if he ended up in Kansas City.

Here’s a visit that makes more sense for the Chiefs: Florida center Mike Pouncey. The Chiefs could use a guard/center and Pouncey is worth taking a look at.

Oakland: The Raiders have been predictably quiet about the players they are visiting with. In fact, in a radio interview, Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett rattled off the names of several teams he is set to visit with and then he dropped a juicy one. He said there was another visit that he couldn’t mention. It made me the think of the secretive Raiders, who could use a strong-armed quarterback prospect. I’m not saying Mallett will visit the Raiders. Just connecting the dots.

Anyway, here is a reported visit for Oakland: Clemson offensive tackle Chris Hairston. He is expected to be a mid-round pick.

San Diego: The Chargers are reportedly going to visit with California defensive end Cameron Jordan. That makes sense. Jordan should be one of the Chargers’ top targets with the No. 18 pick.

San Diego is also looking at Baylor guard Danny Watkins. He could be a target in the second round if he drops a bit. San Diego, along with Denver, is also looking at Miami defensive end Allen Bailey.

AFC West mailbag

January, 26, 2011
Mid-week mail call:

Jon from KCMO wants to know if I think the Chiefs could go after receivers Vincent Jackson or Larry Fitzgerald.

Bill Williamson: Fitzgerald, who played for Kansas City coach Todd Haley in Arizona, isn’t a free agent until after 2011, and Jackson could be given the franchise tag by San Diego. If Jackson was free I could see Kansas City perhaps making a move. We haven’t seen Scott Pioli make a huge splash in free agency, other than signing running back Thomas Jones. Signing Jackson would be a huge splash. But he’d fit in great. A Jackson-Dwayne Bowe combination coupled with that running game would make Kansas City nasty. But he’d cost big money.

Junior from RAF Lakenheath wants to know if I think Denver could trade Elvis Dumervil to Houston for Mario Williams.

BW: I see why you thought of this, Junior. The Broncos are expected to go to a 4-3 defense and Dumervil is best suited for a 3-4. The same exact opposite is occurring in Houston, where Williams is best suited for a 4-3. It makes sense. But it might be one of the deals that makes so much sense that there’s no chance it would happen. I don’t know if these teams would have the guts to do it, although Williams would probably be a better Bronco than a Texan, and Dumervil would likely be a better Texan than a Bronco because of the scheme changes. My best bet is that each team will try to fit these immensely talented players in their new schemes and see what happens.

James McCullough from Orlando wants to know if I could see the Chargers moving up to draft Nebraska cornerback Prince Amukamara if they can’t sign Nnamdi Asomugha as a free agent.

BW: I would be surprised if either player ended up in San Diego. It was reported that the Chargers are thinking about pursuing Asomugha, but every team will likely think about it. The Chargers really don’t have a need at cornerback, but you have to think about adding a talent like Asomugha. I think if the Chargers move up, it could be a for a player at another position such as Alabama receiver Julio Jones. The Chargers, who moved up 16 spots last year to grab running back Ryan Mathews, are equipped to move up. They have extra second-and-third-round picks.