Look, we all know the stars of the Broncos offense. It goes without saying that they’re great. But, that’s not really what I find interesting right now. So, instead, I’m going to start with Denver’s defense.
If you’re worried about the Seahawks scoring on offense, don’t be. We’re going to get ours. This defense is not very good. Nevertheless, they’ve got some good pieces out there that we should be aware of.
The Broncos are actually tied with the Seahawks in rush defense, at 101.6 yards per game. Of course, it’s easy to sort of dismiss them as a defense that’s always playing with a significant lead, and therefore is seeing the other team pass more than they run. But, the Broncos are up there on yards per attempt too (in the top 10, as is Seattle), so consider them legitimately good at holding off the run.
Just as the Seahawks’ defense poses a challenge to Denver’s biggest offensive strength (passing), Denver’s defense does the same thing to Seattle’s biggest offensive strength (rushing).
Players like Terrance Knighton are getting a lot of press right now, for good reason. He’s their big, beefy defensive tackle (wears #94) who clogs up the middle, making it nearly impossible to run up the gut. He’s flanked by guys on that line who, I’m sure, are solid if unspectacular. You don’t really need to be all that amazing when you’ve got someone like Knighton in the middle.
In the linebacking corps, I really like Danny Trevathan (#59), but I’ve read conflicting reports saying that he’s overrated and not very good. I’m reading into that that he makes a lot of aggressive mistakes. He may flash and sizzle on one play, then totally bungle his assignment the next.
You can say that’s a trend for these Broncos. Duke Ihenacho (#33) is their safety. He’s a hard hitter, but he’s not very smart, and will fall for the play-action fake like nobody I’ve ever seen. There are chunk yardage plays available in this game, and Ihenacho is a big reason why.
With Von Miller out, I’m not super-worried about Denver’s pass rush. Shaun Phillips (#90) is a 10-year vet and the only player with double-digit sacks, but he only has 10.0, so it’s not like he’s this dominant force. I think, without Miller, Phillips is going to see the lion’s share of the attention on the offensive line and will most likely be neutralized.
Miller isn’t the only injury casualty, as Chris Harris – arguably their best cornerback – is also on the IR. That leaves Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (#45), who is okay but a little overrated, the aging Quentin Jammer (#23) and the even MORE aging Champ Bailey (#24), who at 12 and 15 years of experience respectively, are mere shells of their former selves.
There are passing yards to be had. If I’m the Seahawks, I’m going right to the play-action pass early and often. Hopefully, in time, it’ll open up the run for us and let us lean on them late in the game. Everyone says the best defense against a Peyton Manning-led offense is to control time of possession and keep him off the field. To Hell with that! Let them worry about time of possession, we should look to get our points any way we can. In this game, I contend they will come in the deep passing game.
On offense, what can you say? Peyton Manning is one of the best quarterbacks of all time. This year, at age 37, he threw for the most yards and most touchdowns in NFL history for a single season. He completes over 68% of his passes, which mitigates his arm strength issues. Being super-accurate in the short and moderate passing game is enough to compensate for not taking as many shots deep down field.
And weapons? Hoo boy, does he have weapons. Demaryius Thomas (#88) is one of the top five receivers in football. Statswise, anyway. It’s tough to say how much of that is due to the offensive set-up and having Peyton Manning as your quarterback vs., say, Brandon Weeden. But, either way, he’s a concern.
Also a concern: Eric Decker (#87). This offense tends to spread out the big receiving days pretty evenly, but you could tell that Decker’s production improved immensely as the season wore on (and defenses made Demaryius Thomas their top priority). Decker actually reminds me of Doug Baldwin quite a bit. He will catch the deep balls, he will catch those insane sideline passes, and he’s Manning’s security blanket on third down. You want to stop this Denver offense? Blanket Decker on third down.
Finally, of course, there’s Wes Welker (#83). He’s clearly on the downside of his career (you won’t see any more 100-reception seasons out of Welker going forward), and from the looks of things, his numbers diminished greatly over the second half of the season (maybe due to his being used to take too many cheap shots on crossing patterns against helpless defenders?), but he’s still another quality receiver for this team. He’s also a guy you’ve got to watch on third down, and oddly enough in the red zone. Welker gets a surprising amount of touchdowns for a guy his size, because he’s so small, he can easily find the open zone in the defense and wiggle his way into the endzone.
Just when you think I’m finished talking about the offensive weapons at Manning’s disposal, I have to remind you of their #1 pass-catching tight end, Julius Thomas (#80). For fantasy purposes, he’s one of the top five tight ends in the game, and yet another guy you have to be aware of in the red zone. I like our chances here, because we’ve shut down Jimmy Graham and Vernon Davis – who are at least on-par, talent-wise, with Thomas, if not better than – but that doesn’t mean you can just ignore him, or he’ll kill you.
Before we get to the running game, I should point out that their top running back, Knowshon Moreno (#27) is an elite pass-catcher out of the backfield. He caught 60 balls for nearly 550 yards, so be aware of the screen pass and the checkdown. I think, in this game, you’ll see A LOT of checkdowns. It’s only natural, our secondary is just that good. So, we need need NEED to make sure we have a linebacker on Moreno at all times.
As far as running the football is concerned, the Broncos are better than you’d expect. They’re in the top half in the NFL (averaging 117 yards per game), and Manning isn’t afraid to go with a run-heavy game-plan if that’s what the defense is giving him.
Like I said before, Moreno is their lead back. Like the Seahawks, they will run him out of the shotgun quite a bit. Once thought to be a bust-in-the-making, Moreno has broken out as one of the more consistent backs in football. He only averages 4.3 yards per carry, but when you’re talking about a passing game that averages 8.3 yards per attempt, it’s not like you need Adrian Peterson to be effective. Montee Ball (#28) is their change-of-pace, bruising running back. He will poach his fair share of touchdowns near the goalline, but this team is not afraid to let Moreno take it to the house from short yardage either. It seems to be random, at the whim of the head coach, who gets carries and when.
If I’m scared of anything, it’s this running attack. Peyton Manning will get his yards. If we can keep him away from getting anywhere near the 400-yard mark, I think we’ll be fine. But, if this running game picks up yards in healthy chunks and gives Manning a bunch of 2nd & shorts and 3rd and shorts, then it’s going to be a long game. At that point, we’ll have to hope to hold them to field goals instead of touchdowns.
Speaking of which, Matt Prater, their kicker, is pretty solid. Of course, he’s better in the thin air of Denver’s used-to-be-Mile High Stadium, but he’s no slouch and can hit it from 50 in any stadium in America. With the weather being as cold as it is, I wouldn’t expect too many 50-yarders to be attempted (by either team), but if you’re looking for a weakness, the field goal game isn’t it.
Special teams, however, might be another matter. Denver, for playing half its games in that aforementioned thin air, doesn’t generate as many touchbacks as you’d expect. And, as stated above, we’re not in Denver anymore; this air will be thick and freezing. With Percy Harvin expected to be back and healthy (and returning kicks), our return game could be quite the catalyst. Regardless of whether you believe in “momentum” or not, getting an awesome kick return immediately after the other team scores is quite the let-down for that team. Look for Denver to frequently be disappointed after they’ve put points on the board.
Anyway, that’s my take on some of the players you should watch out for. Tomorrow, I’ll take a look at what we can expect from Denver’s offense.