When: 4:25 p.m. ET Sunday Where: Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Denver TV: CBS
Earlier this month, the Denver Broncos (7-3) were poised to enter a stretch of three consecutive road games with their sights set squarely on the AFC’s No. 1 seed. After that road trip ended with a 1-2 record, including a surprising loss in St. Louis this past Sunday, the Broncos are now in a scrap just to win their division.
The Miami Dolphins (6-4) come to Denver having won four of their last five games. They have surrendered 56 points in those five games combined. ESPN Dolphins reporter James Walker and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold discuss Sunday’s game.
Legwold: James, Ryan Tannehill was a player the Broncos took a long look at leading up to the 2012 draft as they looked for a quarterback prospect to pair on the roster with Peyton Manning. What’s been the key for his improvement this year and how he’s handled things?
Walker: Tannehill is on pace for a career year. I’ve watched all 42 career starts, and this is the most decisive I’ve seen him with the football. His play speed is better and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor has done a good job of accentuating what Tannehill does well and avoiding where he struggles. He’s posted four games with a triple-digit passer rating, including the most recent win over the Buffalo Bills. However, the Dolphins’ offense is getting away with a lot of short and intermediate passes, and I’m surprised defenses haven’t worked harder to take that away. The biggest issues with Tannehill are inconsistency and lack of a deep ball. These are areas that have haunted Tannehill for three seasons, and it doesn’t appear it will change anytime soon. Yet teams haven’t challenged Tannehill to consistently throw deep. I’m curious to see how Denver plays Tannehill.
The Broncos have lost two of three and both losses have come by a wide margin. What is the mood of the team heading into Sunday’s game?
Legwold: The mood from the Broncos players and coaches is, essentially, they got what they deserved in losses to the New England Patriots on Nov. 2 and to the St. Louis Rams this past Sunday. They've owned up to it and unveiled the usual vows to repair the mistakes. But perhaps most troubling, for a team that has designs on a Super Bowl trip, is they didn’t have a response after some early trouble in either of those losses. They simply didn’t show the kind of bounce-back capability on the road that any team is going to need if they want to go deep into the postseason. The Patriots had a 24-point second quarter filled with Broncos mistakes and the Rams went up 10-0 in the first quarter. In both cases, the Broncos were wobbly and stayed wobbly. They know they didn’t execute on offense. They let pressure get to Manning, and defensively the Broncos had moments, but never really slammed the door to get the team back in the game. And now with the Kansas City Chiefs at 7-3 as well –- the Broncos have a Week 2 win in hand, but go to Kansas City Nov. 30 –- the Broncos know every week matters as they pursue their fourth consecutive division title.
Keeping with one of the Broncos’ trouble spots of late, defenses have tried to rattle Manning in the middle of the formation. How aggressively do you think the Dolphins will rush Manning, and what’s that mean for Cameron Wake?
Walker: The Dolphins are definitely bringing the pressure. They’ve done that against every quarterback they’ve faced, whether it’s an elite talent such as Aaron Rodgers or a developmental rookie such as Blake Bortles. Manning’s constant audibles and adjustments at the line of scrimmage could provide reason for Miami’s defense not to dial up as many blitzes. But the team knows the best way to win is to get hits, sacks and pressures on Manning. Several players I spoke to were impressed with the way the Rams defended the Broncos’ offense last week. St. Louis provided a nice blueprint, especially with its defensive line. This will be a big game for Wake, Olivier Vernon, Jared Odrick and others on the defensive line to win those one-on-one matchups.
Miami’s pass protection has been an issue lately. What are your thoughts on the Dolphins’ offensive line pass protecting against the Broncos’ front seven?
Legwold: The Broncos are at their best in the pass rush when they move into a six-defensive back look -- a dime package that really plays more like the average five defensive back (nickel) package when safety T.J. Ward moves down and plays at a linebacker spot. They have speed all over the formation, with Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware moving around some. As a result, Miller is tied for fourth in the league with 10 sacks and Ware is tied for eighth with nine sacks. They use plenty of pre-snap movement, moving players toward and away from the line of scrimmage, to give the quarterback some indecisiveness, and it’s been a productive personnel grouping. However, some teams have found ways to convert some long third downs; the Chiefs converted seven third downs on third-and-8 or more, while the 49ers and Chargers each converted three times at third-and-6 or more and the Rams converted two third-and-10 situations this past Sunday. Tannehill can extend plays and that will be an issue for the Broncos to consider. But at home they play fast on defense as Ware and Miller have repeatedly caved in the edges of the pocket.
Overall, the Dolphins have had plenty of drama over the last year –- the Broncos had Richie Incognito in for a workout last week -– how has coach Joe Philbin done in the swirl?
Walker: This was a major storyline in the offseason and throughout training camp. But at this point in late November, more than a year since Jonathan Martin left the team and Incognito’s subsequent suspension, the Dolphins have moved on from the fiasco. Miami made the right call to remove both players from its locker room in the offseason. The team didn’t re-sign Incognito and traded Martin to the San Francisco 49ers. That set the tone for a better locker room culture to develop. This year’s team is together, and I think winning six of 10 games has helped. In some ways, earning a playoff spot would validate the thought that they learned from the situation and became better for it.
Legwold: That’s been the dark cloud hanging over this team this past week. Sanders, who has been one of the best free-agent signings in the league, is the team’s second-leading receiver with 67 catches to go with 954 yards. He’s now under the guidelines of the league’s concussion protocol, so the Broncos have to simply wait until he is cleared to return. Ball re-injured his right groin as he played just four snaps against the Rams, an injury that kept him out of the previous five games. He is expected to miss, at minimum, two to three weeks. And Thomas suffered a sprained ankle in the first quarter against the Rams. While Thomas’ injury wasn't nearly as serious as the team initially feared at the stadium Sunday, he has had ankle troubles before in his career and will be watched closely. His impact in the offense is no small matter. Thomas played just 13 snaps against the Rams and he still leads the league in touchdown receptions with 12, or at least two more than any other player.
The Broncos don’t have a fullback on the roster, so they can’t simply go to a two-back look to cover for some injuries. Tight end Virgil Green and running back Ronnie Hillman were out last week and Hillman is expected to miss additional time. That means young players such as C.J. Anderson and rookie Juwan Thompson have to be ready to be the guys at running back and rookie wide receiver Cody Latimer should get some snaps in the offense as well.