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Thursday, November 17, 2011
Five things to watch: Broncos-Jets

By Bill Williamson

The Denver Broncos have a key game against the visiting New York Jets on Thursday night. Denver has won three out of the past four games under new quarterback Tim Tebow. The Broncos have gone from a serious contender to win the Andrew Luck sweepstakes to a 4-5 team that is one game off the pace in the AFC West. Let’s look at what Denver must do against the 5-4 Jets, who are 1-4 in the past five road games in the regular season:

Keep your options open: Perhaps the Broncos are bringing the 1950s back, but as long as they continue to win with the option offense, it will continue to be used. Denver has been using the option (it even broke out the triple option Sunday at Kansas City) well under Tebow. It will be challenged Thursday night because New York coach Rex Ryan is known as a creative defensive coach. Still, Denver will give Ryan plenty of chances to stop it. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Broncos gained 95 yards on 16 rushes at Kansas City. Tebow kept the ball four times for 31 yards while using the option. Tebow ran the ball nine times and passed it just eight times at Kansas City. According to Elias, Tebow became the first quarterback with more rushes than passes in a game in which the quarterback threw every pass for his team since 1974 when Buffalo’s Joe Ferguson threw twice and ran 10 times in a game that was affected by high winds. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Tebow dropped back to pass on 14.3 percent of the Broncos’ plays at Kansas City. It’s the lowest percentage of drop backs by a team in a game since the start of 2008. Don’t expect Denver to suddenly change course on a short week and have Tebow unleash 40 passes. The option offense should continue.

Keep on running: Tebow’s presence has made Denver a great running offense. It his averaging more than 200 yards on the ground in the past five games and has led the NFL in rushing in that time span. For the season, Denver is second in the NFL in rushing, averaging 158.2 yards per game. The presence of Tebow has enhanced the Broncos’ running backs. Willis McGahee, who is enjoying a career resurgence at the age of 30 and in his first season in Denver, had 640 yards this season. He suffered a hamstring injury at Kansas City. But the Broncos hope he can be a factor. With Knowshon Moreno out for the year with a torn ACL, new backup Lance Ball will be given a chance to continue to impress. He had 96 yards on 30 carries against the Chiefs. Expect the Broncos to try to ram the ball down the Jets’ throats. The Jets are giving up 116 yards on the ground per game, which is 15th in the NFL.

Doing it Fox’s way: This game will give the Broncos a chance to show a national audience they are improved under first year John Fox. He deserves a lot of credit for this turnaround. The Broncos are starting to play just the way Fox likes -- by running the ball and by stopping the run on defense. Denver’s ownership has to be thrilled with the work Fox is doing with this young roster that is still very much rebuilding.

Hit Mark Sanchez: The Broncos have become a strong pass-rushing team in recent games with Elvis Dumervil finally becoming healthy. Dumervil and rookie Von Miller are a nasty pass-rushing duo. Denver had four sacks and constantly harassed Kansas City quarterback Matt Cassel (who suffered a serious hand injury in the game) Sunday. Watch for the Broncos to try to unleash Dumervil and Miller -- who has eight sacks and who is a legitimate defensive rookie of the year candidate -- on Sanchez.

Secret weapon: Denver punter Britton Colquitt has become a strong weapon for the Broncos in his second full season with the team. He has become particularly solid in pinning opponents inside their own 20-yard line. He pinned the Chiefs between their own 7- and 15-yard line four times in Week 10. Putting New York in poor field position will be critical in this game.