Denver Broncos: Jason Tarver

What to watch for: Broncos-Raiders

September, 23, 2013
9/23/13
7:00
AM ET
McFaddenKirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Preseason predictions are often a dicey affair, both for those who make them and, sometimes, for those who believe them.

The prevailing wisdom, as it were, throughout the summer was the AFC West schedule would provide little challenge to the Broncos’ course of business this season. And while the tale has certainly not been told either way in the early going, Andy Reid’s Chiefs have launched themselves from the gate with a 3-0 start, having surrendered just 34 points in those three games.

The Raiders are 1-1 after beating the offensively-challenged Jaguars last weekend while the Chargers are 1-2, yet having shown far more grit than some expected as they continue through their re-building project. So, that is how the table is set for the Broncos as they open their division schedule Monday night against the Raiders in Sports Authority Field at Mile High.

“Our guys understand the magnitude of division games,’’ said Broncos coach John Fox. “I think our goal every year -- I’m sure, like the rest of the teams in our division -- is to win the division. Obviously, your division record is conducive to getting in the playoffs -- winning your division. It’s a huge game and it’s our first of the year.’’

So in that light, here are some things to consider about tonight’s affair:

  • McFadden has it McGoing. The Raiders essentially re-tooled their run game -- and fired former offensive coordinator Greg Knapp (now happily the Broncos quarterbacks coach) -- because Darren McFadden couldn’t find a fit in Knapp’s playbook. So, the playbook was sent packing. The Raiders are more man-on-man blocking in the run game in what is now a read-option offense much of the time. Some defensive coordinators would call it a “downhill’’ attack, meaning they like to often pull linemen inside, run between the guards and pound away. They’ve done it well enough in two games to have averaged 198.5 yards rushing per game and McFadden has 177 rushing yards. The Raiders repeatedly pounded the ball, often pulling left tackle Khalif Barnes into the hole, at Jaguars middle linebacker Paul Posluszny. They run out of a two-back set plenty and the Broncos figure to spend more time in their base defense than they did in the first two games. During the preseason, both the 49ers and Seahawks had some success pounding away at the Broncos' base defense, which is some of the reason Wesley Woodyard was moved into the middle linebacker spot. Woodyard will need a no-nonsense, get-it-done night in this one. McFadden has always been feast or famine against the Broncos. The Broncos have held McFadden to fewer than 50 yards rushing in four career meetings, but overall in his nine career games against Denver, McFadden has rushed for 723 yards, at 5.8 yards per carry, to go with five touchdowns.
  • Be disciplined on D. When the Broncos dropped the read-option on the league in 2011 with Tim Tebow at quarterback, at least part of the success was the NFL mindset overall on defense. That getting up the field was Job 1, that disruptive edge rushers both get paid and pay the bills. And those running the read-option love edge players who want to only get up the field, gap control be damned. And when the Broncos ran the read-option down the stretch that year, it took several weeks for defenses to adjust and the point totals started to go down for the Broncos. It all means defensive ends Robert Ayers, Derek Wolfe and Shaun Phillips (he’s questionable after missing Saturday’s practice with back spasms), have to follow a John Wooden maxim -- play fast, but don’t be in a hurry. The Broncos have seen what it looks like -- all the way to a division title and a playoff win in ’11 -- when defenses don’t handle their business against the read-option. They also know what it looks like when defenses do.
  • Tricks and treats. When McFadden was at the University of Arkansas, the Razorbacks coaching staff often let him line up as the quarterback in the shotgun -- the Wildcat look -- to take the direct snap and do his thing. The Raiders, in their new offensive scheme, have flashed that as well. It’s another test of assignment discipline because McFadden threw seven touchdown passes in his career at Arkansas and has the ability to put the ball on target.
  • Twenty-somethings. The Raiders have nine sacks this season with five of them coming from defensive backs. Coach Dennis Allen and defensive coordinator Jason Tarver add players from the secondary liberally to the rush. There were several defensive snaps against the Jaguars when the Raiders had four- and five-man rush schemes and two of the players headed to the quarterback were defensive backs. Certainly there is a risk-reward in all of that. The reward, for a defense, is it’s often hard to track rushers coming from that far off the ball and offensive linemen will make mistakes at times. So, often a defensive back with some up-field skill will get a clean run at a quarterback. The risk is a defense suddenly has players in the passing lane who are not really pass defenders. They are more deterrents, told to get into a specific spot to force a quarterback trained to move through progression to look elsewhere when he sees the wrong color jerseys in front of him. But for an accurate quarterback who can fit the ball into coverage, it can open up big-play possibilities. The Broncos certainly have that kind of quarterback in Peyton Manning, who routinely digests blitz packages like breath mints, especially pressure off the edge which opposing defensive coordinators say he sees better than most in his pre-snap reads. It will be intriguing to see how aggressive the Raiders are, but they may have no choice. If Allen and Tarver feel it’s going to be difficult for the team's re-made secondary to hold up in coverage against Manning they may feel they have no choice other than to go after the future Hall of Famer.
  • Perhaps bigger? The Broncos have sported a three-wide receiver, two-tight end set at times in Fox’s tenure with the team. And while that essentially tells the defense a pass is coming, the Broncos have been effective using it in the past to widen the formation a bit and push the edge rushers out, forcing them to cover a little more ground to get to the quarterback. With Joel Dreessen close to coming back -- he is the Broncos' best combination of receiver/blocker at the position and is listed as questionable for this game -- the Broncos could be inclined to break it out again against the aggressive Raiders. It would be a departure of the plan so far, given the Broncos have lined up in three-wide, with one tight end and one running back, on 72.3 percent of their offensive snaps in their two games. However, in both the season opener and last Sunday against the Giants, the Broncos snapped their offense back on track by going to a traditional two-tight end look for a selection of snaps.

Broncos-Raiders matchup of the day

September, 21, 2013
9/21/13
7:00
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- With left tackle Ryan Clady on injured reserve, the Broncos certainly have some adjustments to make up front in the weeks and month ahead, beginning with Monday night's game against Oakland.

And with Clady’s replacement, Chris Clark, now set to make his first career start at tackle -- he started six games in 2011 for the Broncos as an extra tight end when they went to a read-option look on offense -- he will find a little different look in the Raiders' defense. That’s because in addition to the nine new defensive starters the team has sported this season, the Raiders have chosen to go big at what is traditionally a speed-first spot on defense.

Coach Dennis Allen, a former Broncos defensive coordinator, and Raiders defensive coordinator Jason Tarver have elected to put Colorado Springs native Lamarr Houston at right defensive end. And the 6-foot-3, 300-pounder doesn’t fit the mold of the usual edge rusher.

Houston played the power end -- the left defensive end, who is traditionally across from the right tackle and tight end -- last season, but Allen likes Houston’s combination of strength as well as quickness for a bigger player (he was an All-American prep running back). Houston is consistently good with his handwork and often keeps offensive linemen from locking on.

The Raiders also put a little smaller player -- the 6-foot-4, 270-pound Jason Hunter (a former Bronco) -- at the power end spot, opposite of Houston. Allen likes Hunter’s consistency in holding the edge in the run game. To put Houston and Hunter in the spots where he believed their skills best fit the defense, the Raiders have put the two in positions opposite of where many would expect them to be because of their body types.

Houston looks more like a power end, and Hunter looks more like a rush end. But that’s not the way the Raiders play them. What it means for Clark is he will essentially be wrestling with a player in Houston with the strength and upfield power of a defensive tackle. The 305-pound Clark won't necessarily have the size and strength advantage as he tries to anchor to keep Houston from advancing up the field.

The Broncos could give Clark some help with a tight end to that side and allow right tackle Orlando Franklin to work in one-on-one situations with Hunter, something the two have done many times in previous Broncos training camps and practices.

The Raiders do bring the pressure from other spots in the formation -- five of their nine sacks this season are by defensive backs (3.5 from safeties, 1.5 from cornerback Tracy Porter) -- so the Broncos linemen will have to play with awareness to pass off some rushers to those next to them and pick up the late arrivals. But it all starts with Houston and Hunter forcing the issue from the two end spots.

Double Coverage: Raiders at Broncos

September, 20, 2013
9/20/13
12:00
PM ET
Peyton Manning, Terrelle PryorGetty Images, AP PhotoPeyton Manning and the Broncos look to improve to 3-0 as they face Terrelle Pryor and the division-rival Raiders.
The Denver Broncos and Oakland Raiders open up AFC West play with a Monday night affair at Sports Authority Field at Mile High -- an 8:40 p.m. ET kickoff with the ESPN crew on hand.

The Raiders have played hard for coach Dennis Allen and sit at 1-1 after a win over the low-octane Jacksonville Jaguars last weekend. The Broncos intercepted Eli Manning four times on the way to a win over the New York Giants that moved them to 2-0.

Raiders team reporter Paul Gutierrez and Broncos team reporter Jeff Legwold break down this week’s edition of a long-simmering rivalry between the longtime division foes.

Legwold: After seeing Peyton Manning twice last season, Dennis Allen certainly knows the kind of problems the Broncos create for defenses. He also knows Denver's first-year offensive coordinator, Adam Gase, very well. What does Allen think of the Broncos running their high-speed attack at altitude and the challenge it will be for a defense that got a big makeover in the offseason?

Gutierrez: There is no doubt that this will be a huge test for the rebuilding Raiders in general and Dennis Allen and defensive coordinator Jason Tarver in particular. This is especially true with strong safety Tyvon Branch out for an indefinite amount of time with a broken leg. Not only is Branch the highest-paid Raider this season at $9.5 million, but he also started 63 of the Raiders’ past 66 games and was one of just two returning starters on defense.

While Oakland is tied for the league lead with nine sacks, five of them have come from defensive backs, and we all know how adept Manning is at picking up blitzes. So the Raiders, who will be mostly in nickel packages, will have to pick their spots wisely against Manning and that pass-happy offense while trying to get their first turnover of the season. They will need to continue to build an identity of a defense that flies to the ball, mile-high air be damned. Manning looks to be better than ever, yet there’s still the question of how his body is going to react to a brutal blind-side hit. Have the Broncos taken any extra measures to ensure that does not happen, or is that not even a concern for him anymore?

Legwold: They are concerned any time Manning takes a hit. During the preseason loss in Seattle, rookie running back Montee Ball missed a blitz pick-up and Manning took what was one of the biggest hits of his tenure in Denver. When the Broncos go to its three-wide set, the team places on emphasis on pass-protectors in the backfield. That’s a big reason why running back Knowshon Moreno has played most of the snaps when they have been in their three-wide look. But overall Manning is stronger this season. The receivers say his arm is stronger as well. Throw in his increased comfort level with the city, the team, the offense and his receivers, and you see why he has thrown for nine touchdowns in two games. Sticking with the quarterbacks, why do you think Allen went with Terrelle Pryor as the starter and what can folks in Denver expect from him?

Gutierrez: The decision to start Pryor was made for Allen. And no, I’m not talking about owner Mark Davis meddling in football affairs, although it is known throughout Silver-and-Blackdom that the Son of Al does like Pryor's potential. A brutal preseason showing by quarterback Matt Flynn forced the decision for the Raiders. I might argue that Flynn is actually a better, more polished NFL quarterback at this moment than Pryor. But with the injuries on the offensive line at the end of camp, no time for Flynn to set up in the pocket and the lack of a true No. 1 receiver, Pryor and his ability to extend plays give the Raiders the best chance at success.

He almost pulled off the upset in the opener at Indianapolis, passing for 217 yards and running for a franchise quarterback record 112 yards. Still, two red-zone interceptions were too much to overcome. He was not as electric in the Raiders’ home opener against Jacksonville but he did not have to be. Not with Darren McFadden breaking out for 129 yards on the ground. Pryor wants to be a prototypical pocket passer, and maybe that should be commended. But even his position coach, John DiFilippo, told me the Raiders want him to run. I think we’ll see more of that Monday night in Denver, especially if the Broncos bite hard on the zone read-option in trying to stuff McFadden at the line. Having said that, how adept are the Broncos at dealing with the zone read? Obviously they practiced against it a few years back with Tim Tebow there.

Legwold: You could argue it was the Broncos who really got the zone read-option rolling in 2011. It was a decision made in desperation, however, after watching Detroit devour Tebow in the pocket. So, against the Raiders, no less, they dropped the read option on the NFL world and rode it into the playoffs that year. The coaches have vast experience with it and have taken it apart on many levels when they were trying to predict how defenses would align themselves against it in 2011. Nobody else was using it, so they had to sort of predict how people would defend them because there was no real video to go on at that time.

They often played devil’s advocate when looking at the scheme and it has enabled them to be a little ahead of the curve when preparing for someone else’s version. The intriguing part will be if the Raiders keep the Broncos in base defense. Both the 49ers and Seahawks moved the ball well against the Broncos’ base defense during cameo appearances by the starters in August. But the Broncos' defense also benefits from Manning’s ability to put the points on the board, because offenses often end up in catch-up mode. In terms of the Raiders' offense overall, they lead the NFL in rushing, so how have they kick-started McFadden after a frustrating 2012 season for him?

Gutierrez: McFadden, when right, is one of the most dangerous running backs in the NFL. The Broncos would be the first to attest to that fact. In nine career games against Denver, he has rushed for 723 yards, five touchdowns, and has also caught 15 passes for 120 yards and two more scores. His 5.8 yards-per-carry average against Denver is his best against any opponent in his six-year career. So what got him on track last week? Well, for one, he’s healthy (remember, he’ has never played in more than 13 games in a season). Two, and this would be my biggest criticism of Allen’s rookie season, McFadden is no longer running behind a zone-blocking scheme. He averaged a career-low 3.3 yards behind the scheme last year. The Raiders returned to a base power-blocking scheme this year.

Still, the game plan is similar in that it calls for McFadden to run into the line for negligible gains time and again in hopes of popping a big gainer. It worked to perfection against Jacksonville, when McFadden had runs of 30, 28, 26 and 24 yards. Still he had just 21 total yards on 15 other carries. McFadden has to be patient in this system. Speaking of patience, it does not look like Manning has had to have much time in developing a chemistry with Wes Welker. How well is Welker fitting into the Broncos’ scheme in his first year with Manning after six years with Tom Brady in New England?

Legwold: They have meshed quickly, as you would expect from two guys who have done so much already in their careers. The issue for the Broncos, really, is they have to be able to consistently stay in a three-wide set to use Welker to his fullest potential. When they have had some choppiness on offense to open both games, it’s because they have not consistently protected Manning while making room for the running game out of the three-wide formation. Against the Ravens and Giants, they have moved to a two-tight end look to get things going and it worked well both times. But when they move out of three-wide that takes Welker off the field. But when he’s in the game there is no situation when Manning doesn’t look for him. Welker did have three drops against the Giants. The Broncos, overall, will use him deeper down the field than the Patriots did at times. Looking at the passing game, with Ryan Clady out for the remainder of the season with a foot injury it’s a good time to ask how the Raiders' defense finds itself tied for the league lead in sacks after two games?

Gutierrez: It’s a ridiculously small sample size, but the Raiders are most definitely feeling pretty good about themselves not only being tied for the league lead with nine sacks, but being on pace for 72 for the season. Their team record since it became an official NFL stat in 1982 is the 65 they had in 1985. Remember, this unit had only 25 sacks in 16 games a year ago. So why the uptick? It’s not necessarily due to a better rush up front -- five of their nine sacks have come from defensive backs. So that means Tarver is dialing up a variety of blitzes, which the former Raiders owner despised. You might say Tarver and Allen have a class of player closer to the prototype they want in order to instill their brand of pass rush. Alas, the Raiders lost Branch on just that -- a blitz, when he was taken down by Jacksonville left guard Will Rackley while rushing Chad Henne. In fact, it looked as if the injury happened just after Branch crossed the lip of the baseball dirt infield into the grass. But I digress.

Pass rush is about technique, right defensive end Lamarr Houston told me, and it seems as though their technique is much improved … after two games. Keeping with the small sample size theme, Allen was in Denver only one year. While much was was made about Tebow, many observers say it was Allen’s defense that won the division for the Broncos in 2011. Raider Nation did not take kindly to Allen’s wide grin while shaking John Fox’s hand after the Broncos beat down the Raiders, 37-6, last year in Denver. How respected is Allen still in the Mile High City, and does he still cast a shadow?

Legwold: Anyone who was associated in the turnaround season that was 2011 carries a little more cache with fans. Things were so dismal in 2010, when they finished 4-12, had Spygate and fired John McDaniels. When John Fox arrived with his new staff, including Dennis, people treated it like the fresh start it turned out to be. Pitch in Von Miller winning defensive rookie of the year that season, Tebow’s popularity and the six-game win streak that year on the way to a division title at 8-8, no less, and folks generally think 2011 started what’s going on now.

In terms of Allen, people appreciated the improvement the team made, but given he was here just one season I don’t think fans, or even some folks in the media believe they got to know him very well. From a football standpoint, what the defense did that year often gets lost in all of the chatter about Tebow, when in fact the team continued to win games despite the offense being in the lower third in the league in scoring after going to the read-option. There were an awful lot of games when Tebow would have never had a chance to chase some late-game glory had the defense not hung in there for the first three quarters. How have people taken to Dennis there, and do people see the 1-1 start as progress?

Gutierrez: Allen has had a lukewarm reception. If the Raiders win, he’s cool, so to speak. If they lose? Then it’s all his fault for hiring Greg Knapp last year to destroy the offense. It’s like any fan base, I suppose, but as I mentioned earlier, they were really upset with Allen after that picture caught him with a big smile after last year’s game in Denver. I asked him about it at the time and Allen said he was simply caught off guard by a joke Fox told him during the postgame handshake. Fans were not having it. This year, though, there’s more of a wait-and-see approach. Even if some fans believe Allen did not want to give Pryor a fair shot at winning the quarterback gig. That’s all water under the bridge now, though, and many of the more level-headed denizens of Raider Nation believe Allen deserves at least three years to get his program up and running -- similar to a college hoops program. Unless, of course, the players quit on him this season, like they seemed to do last November before rallying late.

Legwold: Paul, great stuff. That about covers it. It should be great divisional match-up for a Monday night audience.

Broncos-Raiders matchup of the day

September, 19, 2013
9/19/13
7:00
AM ET
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase and Oakland Raiders defensive coordinator Jason Tarver, two not-quite-40-something guys on the headsets, have some of the same issues as they move toward Monday night’s meeting between their teams.

Gase is missing his left tackle, Ryan Clady, who is now on injured reserve because of a left-foot injury he suffered late in the Week 2 victory over the New York Giants; Tarver is without safety Tyvon Branch, who suffered a fractured lower leg in Oakland’s victory Sunday over the Jacksonville Jaguars. While those injuries will force some adjustments here and there, both coaches figure to stick pretty close to the plans they’ve made so far.

For Tarver, that has been a pass rush that comes from anywhere -- an approach he's called "activating'' player at the snap. Half of Oakland's NFL-best nine sacks have come from defensive backs buzzing opposing quarterbacks.

But throwing the defensive kitchen sink at Chad Henne and the rebuilding Jaguars is one thing; cranking up the heat on Peyton Manning is quite another. Many defensive coordinators with experience facing Manning note that when you blitz a defensive back, Manning will often simply bypass the hot read and instead try to push the ball down the field because he knows there’s a hole in the intermediate or deep area.

Tarver has so far mixed zone and man looks behind that pressure to try to keep quarterbacks from finding those holes. After showing little in the preseason, Tarver's group held the Colts' Andrew Luck to 178 yards passing and sacked him four times (though Luck did toss two touchdowns). The Raiders followed that with five sacks against the offensively challenged Jaguars.

However, Oakland has yet to force a turnover, and Tarver's challenge Monday will be to keep his defense aligned and well aware of each player's assignments when the Broncos put their foot on the gas in a no-huddle offense. A steady diet of pressure has not been a good recipe for defenses facing Manning through the years -- and Manning has plenty of options around him in Denver.

Gase may try to open up the Broncos' formation to get some of those defensive backs away from the ball at the snap. But Clady’s loss is significant. The Broncos certainly like his replacement, Chris Clark, but they gave Clady a $57.5 million deal because they believe he is a franchise player. And Clark will now have an awful lot of eyes on him, including those of the defensive coordinators still awaiting a date with Denver.

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