One may quibble with how the Broncos won the first three games of the season, but nobody is ever going to be unhappy starting the NFL season 3-0. Thus far, the Broncos have established themselves as the team to beat in the AFC West and are in good position to enter the Week 7 bye with a 6-0 record.
By no means will it be an easy task, but the next three matchups favor the Broncos on paper. The Broncos are ranked ahead of the Vikings, Raiders and Browns in Football Outsiders’ DVOA rankings, in the Pro Football Reference Simple Rankings System and in the Pro Football Focus power rankings. One may debate the criteria each site uses to determine rankings, but three sites that seek to go beyond the usual stats people trot out consider the Broncos to be better than the opposition the next three weeks.
I’ll also throw in Andrew Mason’s power rankings, in which the result is the same: The Broncos outrank their next three opponents.
Regarding Mason’s rankings: As I went over the other day, Arizona is one of the NFL’s best teams and he’s got them ranked first, a ranking I won’t argue with even as a Pats fan tried it with him on Twitter.
In my rankings, you are what your numbers say you are. The point of having them stat-based is to REMOVE all bias. https://t.co/lY59xMo1cd
— Andrew Mason (@MaseDenver) September 30, 2015
But getting back to our favorite team, I’ll stick with the Broncos’ next opponent and then cover a few other items as I go through my Musings this week.
1. Obviously, the main offensive player the Broncos must be prepare for is Adrian Peterson. The Broncos aren’t going to shut him down, but the important thing is to contain him. Thus far, the Broncos defense has been great at taking the top offensive players out of the equation in the first three weeks.
For the Ravens, that’s arguably Steve Smith. Many were ready to write him off after he caught just two passes for 13 yards after being targeted seven times (but we must remember one target was a late touchdown pass that he dropped). Smith, though, proved his demise was exaggerated as he ripped out 150 yards on 10 catches (16 targets) against Oakland, then added 186 yards on 13 catches (17 targets) against Cincinnati.
The Chiefs’ best offensive weapon would be Jamaal Charles, who had 125 yards rushing on 24 carries, but 34 yards came on one play. On his remaining 23 carries, he had 91 yards, roughly four yards per carry. That’s a solid job by the Broncos defense in containing Charles. Of course, the game concluded thanks to Brandon Marshall forcing a Charles fumble, which Bradley Roby returned for a touchdown. The following week against the Lions, the Broncos contained Detroit’s best offensive player, Calvin Johnson, to 77 yards on eight catches (13 targets), the longest for 25 yards.
If the Broncos can hold Peterson to less than 100 yards, they will have done their job. If you will recall, Charles scored his long touchdown run when the Broncos rotated Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware out for Shane Ray and Shaquil Barrett, and Charles broke his big run with a quick cut that Ray didn’t respond to. It’s likely Peterson will have the advantage when Ware and Miller are rotated out, but I don’t expect him to have it when those two are in the game.
2. As for the rest of the Vikings offense, Teddy Bridgewater has improved from last season, but I’m not sure if he’s at the stage in which he can handle the Broncos’ defense. Bridgewater was sacked five times in the season opener against the 49ers, but he’s only been sacked once since. Last week, though, he didn’t grade out well from PFF against San Diego. I think the Broncos have more than enough defenders to keep Bridgewater off balance.
The best receiver the Vikings have is Mike Wallace, although tight end Kyle Rudolph is a red-zone threat. But I think a matchup between Wallace and either Aqib Talib or Chris Harris favors the Broncos. After T.J. Ward had a strong outing against the Lions, I think he’ll do fine containing Rudolph.
As for the offensive line, some of the players have been up and down. Guard Brandon Fusco had the Vikings’ highest grade from PFF against Detroit, but one of the worst against San Diego. Left tackle Matt Kalil has been inconsistent throughout his career. He’s only allowed three pressures in the first three games this year, but I think he’s going to get tested against the Broncos’ pass rush.
3. On defense, Everson Griffen is the Vikings’ best pass rusher, but he started slowly. He didn’t have a good overall game against the Niners, but has played better since. Brian Robison doesn’t have a sack but he’s good at pressuring quarterbacks. So the Broncos offensive line will again be tested against the pass rush. I expect the Vikings will try to line up Griffen and Robison in different spots to look for the best advantage they can get in the pass rush.
Minnesota’s first-round pick, Trae Wayans, struggled in the preseason, but entered the San Diego game after starter Xavier Rhodes left the game with an injury. Wayans played well in Rhodes’ absence, so if I was Peyton Manning, I’d be careful in testing the rookie. I’m not certain I’d call Wayans as good of a player as Marcus Peters, but after starting the season on the bench, I figure Wayans has incentive to earn playing time.
4. I know there’s a lot of concern about the future of two 2014 draft picks, second rounder Cody Latimer and third rounder Michael Schofield. While it’s true the arrow is trending downward on both, writing them off because one was inactive last week and the other stayed on the bench while Bennie Fowler played is a panic evaluation.
The reason I believe Schofield was inactive was because Kayvon Webster and Omar Bolden, both key special teams players, were injured and thus the Broncos needed players who could play special teams. Offensive linemen are not used on punts and kickoffs, so Schofield isn’t going to be useful there. Additionally, Schofield is learning a new blocking scheme and the Broncos seem to want him to become the swing tackle. Next season will be crucial for him to show he can at least be a depth player they want to keep active every game.
As for Latimer, I liked what I saw from him in the preseason, but it seems the Broncos aren’t comfortable with him in the slot. They’ve used Jordan Norwood and Fowler there, and after seeing what Fowler did, it looks like he could be the slot receiver. I suspect the Broncos drafted Latimer because they weren’t sure what they might get from Emmanuel Sanders or whether they could come to a long-term agreement with Demaryius Thomas. Now that Thomas is in the long-term plans and Sanders isn’t going away any time soon, it’ll be tougher for Latimer to get on the field. As with Schofield, next season is crucial for Latimer, because both Andre Caldwell and Jordan Norwood will be free agents and neither is a priority to retain, so the Broncos will expect Latimer to contribute somewhere. Where he does that remains to be seen, because I don’t think Latimer has a future in returning punts and kicks. Latimer’s best hope might be to further his development to the point the Broncos might feel comfortable with him taking over for Sanders at some point.
5. I still believe the biggest issue with the Broncos running game is the offensive line. In watching Sunday’s game against the Lions, what stood out was that the Broncos had trouble running up the middle and that’s where Matt Paradis comes in. Paradis had a good training camp, but now he’s facing starters on every snap and having to adjust to that. Plus he’s still learning how to get in sync with Evan Mathis after lining up next to Max Garcia throughout the preseason.
There’s also this to consider: Since there was this widespread belief that Peyton Manning wasn’t going to be able to make it through this season, opposing defenses were likely preparing to defend against the run and dare Peyton to beat them. The game against Detroit might cause some teams to pause with that idea, but I don’t expect them to abandon the idea entirely.
But the biggest issue is getting Paradis to improve. I believe he will, though, and once he settles down, and as Mathis and Louis Vasquez get more comfortable playing beside him, the run game should take care of itself. It’s easy to give up on it but let’s remember this O-line was going to take time to come together.
That’s all I have for you today. I’d expect this Sunday’s game to be close again, but it should favor the Broncos in the end.