It’s back to Broncos football this Sunday and we all know the Broncos will have their toughest challenge yet.
The Green Bay Packers are 6-0 and the Broncos will wear their blue jerseys this week, which makes you wonder if they hope the uniforms bring them some of that Super Bowl XXXII mojo.
Seriously, this game will indicate how well the Broncos measure up against one of the best teams in the NFL. Although the Broncos are 6-0, the offense’s early struggles have some people questioning just how good the Broncos really are. And the Packers are 6-0 and are strong in nearly every aspect. Football Outsiders ranks Green Bay fourth in offensive DVOA, seventh in defense and ninth in special teams.
Of course, everyone knows how good quarterback Aaron Rodgers is. Interestingly, it will be just the second time in the regular season that Rodgers will face a team with Peyton Manning at quarterback. That was in 2008, when the Packers beat the Indianapolis Colts 34-14.
Much has changed since that time, but one thing that hasn’t really changed is where Rodgers does his best work, and that’s when he’s allowed to escape the pocket. Certainly Rodgers will hit throws when he has time in the pocket, but his ability to extend plays helps against teams who rush the passer well. The trick to limiting what Rodgers can do is to trap him in the pocket on a pass rush and don’t give him a chance to extend a play.
The Broncos defense may get plenty of chances to pressure Rodgers, considering that the offensive line is the weak link in Green Bay’s offense. Pro Football Focus ranked the line 26th after the first four weeks. That’s largely because starting right tackle Bryan Bulaga missed several starts. When Bulaga is in the lineup, he and right guard T.J. Lang do a good job on the right side. Josh Sitton has been good at left guard and Corey Linsley is a rising star at center. It’s left tackle where the Packers are weakest, as David Bakhtiari is inconsistent, particularly when it comes to run blocking.
Interestingly, the Packers offensive line is similar to the Broncos, with two proven players at guard and a young center. When Ty Sambrailo has started, he’s been like Bakhtiari, inconsistent with run blocking his biggest issue. The only difference is the Broncos didn’t drop off much when Ryan Harris moved from right tackle to the left side and Michael Schofield took over on the right.
That wasn’t the case with Green Bay when Bulaga missed time. Don Barclay was awful in his limited action, which brings me to this: The Packers have no depth on the offensive line. This is where the Broncos have an advantage, because Max Garcia can ably fill in for either Evan Mathis or Louis Vasquez, and the likes of Sambrailo, Harris, Schofield and even Tyler Polumbus would be an upgrade over Barclay.
As for the skill positions, Eddie Lacy hasn’t had a good start to the season, as he’s averaging just 3.9 yards per carry. James Starks has one long touchdown run, but take that away and he’s averaging 3.5 yards per carry. So the running game isn’t that strong — and, once again, it sounds familiar to Broncos fans, except Ronnie Hillman has performed better than Starks while C.J. Anderson has been worse than Lacy.
The receivers are a good group, with Randall Cobb their top overall threat. Cobb has been dealing with minor injuries, so one would expect he’ll be 100 percent coming off the bye week. James Jones, as they say, has revitalized his career, but a lot of that is because he’s playing in an offense he’s comfortable with. When he signed with the Raiders, he was expected to be the No. 1 option and he was never going to be that. When he joined the Giants, he was playing an offense he didn’t seem to fit in well. Now that he’s in a familiar system and not the No. 1 option, he’s playing well again.
The Packers rotate Davante Adams and Ty Montgomery as other receiving options. Adams has struggled this season while Montgomery has been solid, catching 15 receptions on 19 targets. I think it’s clear, though, that Bradley Roby needs to take on whoever is the No. 3 receiver, because the Broncos will want Aqib Talib and Chris Harris focusing on Cobb and Jones. I like Roby’s chances against Adams, but if he’s matched up with Montgomery, he’ll be challenged. At tight end, Richard Rodgers is the top player, and he’s solid but not a standout. He can make plays, though, so the Broncos want T.J. Ward at his best.
On defense, the Packers match up better against the pass than the run. The Packers have a good group of defensive backs. Sam Shields is the cornerback I imagine people are most familiar with and he is capable of making plays. He already has two interceptions and should have had at least one more if he hadn’t drop a sure pick against Phillip Rivers. Micah Hyde has started all six games this season and he’s broken up three passes and has an interception. The third cornerback spot has seen Casey Heyward start four games while Damarious Randall has started the other two. Heyward hasn’t played that well and Randall is a rookie, but Peyton Manning would be advised not to pick on Randall if he starts, because Randall has broken up seven passes, second behind Shields (who has eight).
At safety, second-year player Ha Ha Clinton-Dix has started all six games. He hasn’t yet blossomed into a top player at his position, but he’s getting there. I think he’s one of those players who will hit his stride in his third season, but that doesn’t mean he can be taken lightly. The other safety position has been a problem because Morgan Burnett missed the last three games before the bye week with a calf injury. He’s expected to play Sunday, so he’ll make the secondary better.
Getting to the front seven, I’m sure everyone is familiar with Clay Matthews. The Packers still aren’t having him rush on most downs, but that’s because he’s so good in coverage and that the Packers have several players who can effectively rush the passer, so they don’t need him to chase the QB often. Even so, Matthews has 4.5 sacks this season, so when he does rush, he’s dangerous. The Packers can rotate Julius Peppers, Mike Neal and Nick Perry into the game and get quality production. Peppers has 5.5 sacks, Perry has 3.5 and Neal has two. Throw in three sacks for Mike Daniels and two sacks for Jayrone Elliott and the Packers aren’t a team that has just one dominant threat with everyone else trailing far behind.
This will be another game in which the Broncos will want to get the run game established. That’s the one area the Packers aren’t as good as others. They are ranked 17th overall in run defense by Football Outsiders and have given up 4.7 yards per game. They are certainly better at stopping the run than the Cleveland Browns (Packers are at league average while Browns are the worst, ranked 32nd by FO), and Mike Daniels is good at run defense, but running is where the Broncos will need to focus their offense if they want to keep drives going. Thus, it’s important the Broncos keep improving in run blocking and control the time of possession.
When they do have to pass, Peyton Manning will need to be aware of where Matthews is, because if he drops into coverage, the throws underneath that Manning likes aren’t going to be there. If Matthews does rush, that’s the time for Manning to hit those routes, because the Packers drop off a bit in coverage when Matthews isn’t there. Screens can be effective against the Packers, too. This isn’t a game in which Manning should attempt going over the top unless he finds somebody wide open.
Obviously, taking care of the ball will be crucial. This is a game in which the Broncos can’t count on the defense coming up with turnovers, because the Packers have fumbled just three times and Rodgers has thrown just two interceptions. If the Broncos do get a turnover, then the offense needs to execute, particularly if they get good field position.
This game definitely favors the Packers, but it’s winnable if the Broncos can execute. Avoiding turnovers and finishing drives, both which were issues prior to the bye week, will be the key. We’ll find out soon enough if the bye week helped the Broncos get the offense on track.
I don’t doubt the defense will stay on track, though. Just remember that this is the best offense the Denver D has faced so far, so don’t expect a lot of three and outs or drives ending in turnovers. On the other hand, if the D does force those things frequently, it might be time to ask ourselves if we are watching the greatest Broncos defense of all time.