So, what's another reunion? Washington Redskins coach Mike Shanahan will stand on a sideline inside Sports Authority Field at Mile High for the first time since the Broncos fired him following the 2008 season. That ended a 14-year tenure as the head coach, which included two Super Bowl wins with current Broncos executive vice president of football operations John Elway as his quarterback.
The Broncos are 6-1, having suffered their first loss of the season against the Colts in Week 7. The Redskins (2-4) have won two of their last three after an 0-3 start. ESPN.com Redskins reporter John Keim and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold break down this week's game:
Legwold: John, we'll get to the football in a minute. Sunday's game is essentially unprecedented in that a coach is coming back to face the team with which he won a Super Bowl -- one that is now run by his former quarterback. How has Shanahan described all of this? And do you get any kind of sense it means any more to him than any other opponent?
Keim: You probably know as well as anyone how Mike gets in these situations. He's talked about how important Denver is to him because he spent 21 years there, his kids were raised there and he still maintains a home in the area. But Shanahan is as competitive as they come, and there's no doubt his mindset is not on sentimentality, but on proving he should not have been fired in the first place. I remember hearing stories while he was in Denver about him, after winning the Super Bowl, showing reporters their newspaper clippings from early in the season. He coaches with a chip; it's what drives him to be successful.
I think Mike might feel better if the Broncos' offense wasn't playing so well. But have defenses started to attack them differently -- and with more success -- lately?
Legwold: For all of their struggles this season -- and at 0-7, the Jaguars have had plenty -- it was Jacksonville's defense that opened the box a bit, and the Colts took that cue. It was the Jaguars, being such a heavy underdog, who played more aggressively on defense than any of the Broncos' first five opponents. Jacksonville's defensive backs were more physical with the Broncos receivers, and the Colts went to the next level with that. The Colts played in press coverage much of the time on the outside, matched up one-on-one on the Broncos wideouts, kept the two safeties deep and defended the run with seven in the box most of the night. Now, it is a testament to the Broncos offense that "holding" it to 33 points, as the Colts did, was a season low. But it is probably a template others will try to duplicate, at least until the Broncos show they have an answer.
To that end, how do you think the Redskins will attack Manning and the Broncos' wide receivers?
Keim: They have to be aggressive, as they were against Tony Romo and against Jay Cutler, until he got hurt. The Redskins will not blitz every down by any means; they feel good about their ability to pressure with four -- thanks to having linebackers Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo and nose tackle Barry Cofield. But they will blitz from the slot and send the safety off the edge once in a while. Anything up the middle will come from the linebackers. What they've also tried to do the last couple weeks against very good receivers is jam them and disrupt timing. They won't do it every down; sometimes they'll do it at the line and sometimes they'll wait a couple yards. They will mix coverages; Washington uses a lot of three-corner, one-safety sets and that enables corner Josh Wilson to sometimes disguise his position. Will he be in the slot? Strong safety? That occasionally buys them time to get free on the rush. They will have a tough time against Wes Welker, as everyone does. But with issues at safety this week -- Brandon Meriweather's suspension and Reed Doughty's concussion -- I think you have to mix it up. If they try to just play coverage against Peyton Manning, he will pick them apart. It's not their style to just sit back.
Are you surprised by what Denver's offense has done? If so, what surprises you?
Legwold: I'm a little more surprised defenses were so passive early in the season in terms of how often they rushed Manning, especially after he simply torched coverage looks week after week. Despite the avalanche of touchdowns through the weeks, team after team chose coverage over pressure, and that's probably understandable, given Manning has routinely eaten up blitz packages like breath mints throughout his career. But until the Jacksonville game, defenses had rushed Manning with four or fewer on 70 percent of his dropbacks. The Jaguars and the Colts were more aggressive and had some success against a battered offensive line. There is a slight chance right tackle Orlando Franklin (knee) could be back this week -- that is the most optimistic scenario with the bye coming next week for the Broncos -- but left tackle Ryan Clady is on injured reserve. Manning has always been quick to adjust, so the Broncos will handle some things better than they did against the Colts. But when they're right and in rhythm, there are defensive coordinators who say the Broncos are as close to unstoppable as the league has to offer because they routinely have four pass catchers in the pattern who can consistently beat one-on-one coverages.
Staying on quarterbacks, the general feeling around the league seems to be that Robert Griffin III has been more himself over the last two games or so. Is that the case, or have the Redskins made some kind of adjustment to help him along?
Keim: No, I think the adjustment has been more about Robert trusting his knee and feeling good enough to let loose again. The Redskins say there were runs for him in the game plan in the first couple weeks, but I think that was just lip service and a desire to try and con other teams. The reality is, Robert wasn't going to be running a lot early in the season. I also think Dallas and Chicago both played in a way that fed into his running: man coverage on the outside and a big focus on stopping running back Alfred Morris. The Bears played as if they had not seen the Dallas tape; there were times when most of the eyes were on Morris, a contrast to last season when they were more on Griffin. So he had to run more. But I really think this is about him feeling better -- not healthier, but just overall better.
Teams blitzed Griffin early in the season because he wasn't quite himself. They also played the zone read with a little more discipline (until last week). How do you think Denver will react to his style of play?
Legwold: It's easy to forget in all that's happened all over the league since, but it was John Fox, former offensive coordinator Mike McCoy and current offensive coordinator Adam Gase who dropped the read option on the NFL in the 2011 season. The Broncos had Tim Tebow at quarterback then, and discovered he didn't function well in a traditional pro-style, dropback passing offense. So they unveiled the read option against the Raiders that season, won big and eventually made the playoffs at 8-8. The Broncos have since defended the look well, but Griffin will be the most explosive player they've seen running it. Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio is aggressive and the Broncos like to try to force the issue. Champ Bailey won't play because of a foot injury, but Del Rio likes his other corners enough to play plenty of man coverages. They will likely use some sort of spy on Griffin in some down-and-distance situations, and take a measured approach in the pass rush so they don't get too deep into the backfield and give Griffin escape routes.
Staying with the Redskins' offense a little more, on the outside it looked as though there was at least a small rift between Griffin and both Mike and (offensive coordinator) Kyle Shanahan earlier this season. Was that the case, and if so, have they worked through it?
Keim: A rift? Not sure if it went that far (though perhaps this is semantics), because that feels harder to repair. But there was definitely a little tension as the coaches and player sought to get on that so-called same page. From Griffin's perspective, what I've always heard is that it was a matter of him being able to trust his coaches -- that what they told him during the week would play out on Sunday. He needs to trust them. From Mike Shanahan's perspective, he always liked to let Griffin know who was in charge. For Shanahan, this is a business relationship, though Griffin seems to like having something more from those he works with. Shanahan only wants to win a Super Bowl. That's it. Griffin's dad didn't help the cause by talking about how his son shouldn't run the ball; the coaches would point out that Griffin's ability to run is why he was so good last year. He's not an accomplished passer yet and needs his legs to be dynamic. I've always felt this was an evolving relationship and one that could work. But I'll be curious to see what happens with it should the Redskins fail to turn their season around (and it becomes a disaster). Just keep in mind: Griffin is tight with the owner.
How did Von Miller look in his return and is he enough to save the Broncos' defense?
Legwold: Miller looked like he had missed six weeks' worth of practice. At times he flashed his ability, but he also looked rusty and sluggish. Time will ultimately tell the tale, but it will be interesting to see if the extra 10-15 pounds he said he added in intense workouts during his suspension affect his play. His game before the suspension (for violating the league's substance-abuse policy) was predicated on speed off the ball, explosiveness and the ability to change direction at full speed, without losing any momentum toward the ball carrier. It was just one game, and publicly Fox keeps saying it will get better, but Miller did not consistently show that same explosiveness this past Sunday. Internally, some with the team are concerned Miller continues to avoid taking any full responsibility for what's happened. He is now in Stage 3 of the league's drug program, which means his next suspension is for at least a year,and he's tested up to 10 times a month for the remainder of his career. Yet he continues to say he doesn't have a substance-abuse problem or need any help in a treatment program. So, some are left to wonder how exactly he got all the way to Stage 3 without having a substance-abuse problem. Put it all together and Miller certainly does have question marks around him. On the field, though, the Broncos need him to be better than he was Sunday night if he's going to have the kind of defensive impact they hope to see.
In the end, with a 2-4 start, is Shanahan in any real trouble with owner Daniel Snyder if they don't rebound to make the postseason or at least be in the hunt down the stretch?
Keim: I haven't heard Shahanan would be in that sort of trouble. I think it would take an outright disaster for anything to happen, and former Redskins tight end Chris Cooley, for example, recently said that Shanahan would return regardless (Cooley remains close to many in the organization). But the interesting part will be whether he gets an extension. Shanahan signed a five-year deal and has constantly said that owner Dan Snyder would give him all five; otherwise he would not have come here. But would he want to enter the last year of his contract without an extension? So there is a scenario under which Shanahan does not get fired, but presses Snyder for an extension. At that point, Snyder has a decision to make; if he doesn't grant the extension, then Shanahan could end up resigning. Once again, there could be offseason drama in Washington.
Do you view Denver as a legitimate Super Bowl contender, or do you have concerns that they're built more for the regular season than postseason success?
Legwold: In the end, if they can avoid too many more major injuries, they'll have the offense to put themselves in the title hunt. The question will be, can they find enough defense from a unit that, somewhat surprisingly, hasn't performed nearly to the level of last season? Also, they have to play with a little more edge on offense. Receivers can't always be looking for a flag because there is some contact, and they can't react as poorly as they sometimes do after fumbles or other misfortunes. Just get back up and play. But it is a talented group who generally works hard across the board, and when it plays with purpose and toughness, it can be the best the league has to offer. It's a matter of keeping their eye on the ball, as it were, and closing the deal.