In Week 3, the Broncos proved they could adequately protect quarterback Peyton Manning without All-Pro left tackle Ryan Clady. His replacement, Chris Clark, did a good job most of the night but did give up one sack against the Raiders.
The Broncos were a more balanced unit on offense, and Denver is looking to continue that trend as the season marches on. Manning has now thrown 12 touchdown passes in the first three games of the season, the highest amount in NFL history.
If Manning tosses three touchdowns against the Eagles in Week 4, he’ll set the record for touchdown passes through four games. That current record stands at 14 and is shared by Sammy Baugh (1943), Don Meredith (1966) and Kurt Warner (1999).
Defensively, the Broncos held the Raiders to 2.9 yards per carry on Monday Night Football in Week 3. They’ll be facing a strong rushing attack this week against the Eagles and will have their hands full defending a superstar back like LeSean McCoy.
Eagles quarterback Michael Vick creates his fair share of problems for an opponent as well. He has an outstanding blend of speed and athleticism, which makes him dangerous as a runner. Denver will have to prevent him from having a big night on the ground if it wants to keep the Eagles in check.
When the Broncos Run the Ball
The Broncos could turn to the ground game more than some think. Last week against the Raiders, Denver attempted 37 passes but also finished with 35 rushing attempts. This is the offensive balance that Denver is striving for in 2013.
The Broncos are using the hot-hand approach when doling out carries for their trio of backs, Knowshon Moreno, Ronnie Hillman and Montee Ball. On Wednesday, second-year running back Ronnie Hillman talked about the way the carries are split:
"It’s whoever has the hot hand. [RB] Montee [Ball] did a great job running last week and [RB] Knowshon [Moreno]. The offensive line just did a great job these past couple of weeks taking advantage of the soft coverage that they give us."
Moreno should once again get the start for the team as he’s the most trusted back on the roster. If the Broncos build a lead, then we could see a mixture of Hillman and Ball.
Hillman is the most explosive back on the roster and seems to be getting back into the good graces of the coaching staff. In the preseason, he had three fumbles and lost his spot at the top of the depth chart. He led the Broncos in rushing against the Raiders and finished the game with nine carries for 66 yards and a rushing touchdown.
Ball was the team’s second-round pick in the 2013 NFL draft. He’s a favorite of the staff, who are hoping he can develop into the bell-cow back the team envisioned when he came out of Wisconsin. He has struggled holding onto the ball, losing a fumble each of the last two weeks.
When the Broncos Pass the Ball
The strength of the Denver Broncos is Peyton Manning and the passing game. The Eagles defense ranks 29th against the pass, allowing 323.0 yards passing per game. We should see Manning go over 300 yards passing for the fourth straight week this year.
It’s especially important for the Broncos passing attack to score points whenever possible. Facing the up-tempo Eagles offense, it will help the Broncos defense if Philadelphia has to go into a pass-happy mode before it wants to.
On Thursday, Wes Welker talked about the importance of scoring as much as possible to aid the defense:
"Absolutely, they’re a very explosive team and they can score at any time. They have a lot of guys that are big play makers and we have to be on top of everything that we do and make sure that we’re doing our jobs and staying consistent with it."
Manning will be able to spread the ball around to all the different weapons in the passing game. We should see Welker, Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Julius Thomas all have strong performances against the Eagles.
It truly is pick your poison when facing the Broncos. Demaryius Thomas should get bracket coverage for most of the game. As seen in the picture below, the Broncos will use shorter routes to let him do his damage after the catch.
If the Eagles don’t keep a safety over the top to watch Julius Thomas, then they’ll be in trouble. He has the ability to attack the deep middle seam as he is too fast for a linebacker to cover.
We’ll see many teams try to double-cover Welker. It’s a good idea in theory but falls apart during the game. He is one of the best in the league at running jerk routes underneath. As seen in the picture below, he gets an easy touchdown catch because of his quickness.
Decker has the fourth highest drop percentage in the NFL (13.7). However, he did not have a drop last week against the Raiders. He finished the game with 133 yards receiving and one touchdown. We’ll see if he can carry that positive momentum over to this week against the Eagles.
When the Eagles Run the Ball
The Eagles are the No. 1 rushing offense in the NFL after three weeks. Their high-powered ground game averages 209.0 yards rushing per game.
The carries are split two ways in the offense between running back LeSean McCoy and quarterback Michael Vick. The Eagles use the inside zone read and outside zone read to create mismatches.
When McCoy is lined up behind Vick, it’s usually an inside zone-read play. The Eagles won’t block the edge-rusher to the opposite side of where the play is going. This gives them an extra blocker on the play side. That’s an advantage that serves them well.
In fact, McCoy is averaging almost three more yards per carry between the tackles (6.7) than he did last year (3.8). On the play below, he runs for a 10-yard gain between the tackles.
The defense is confused because Vick can go three different places with the ball immediately after the snap. The Eagles use the inside zone read here with a built-in pop pass. Vick could give the ball to McCoy, pass to Brent Celek or keep the ball himself.
Broncos linebacker Wesley Woodyard knows that he will have his hands full defending McCoy on Sunday. On Thursday, he commented on McCoy:
"He makes guys miss in the open field. He has a great eye, I’ll tell you that. He’s probably one of the best backs as far as seeing, cuts, setting guys up, setting the holes up. He’s one of the best to do that in the league."
Covering Vick will be troublesome for the Broncos. They will be best served if they create a pocket around him with their front four. The Broncos should then use a linebacker like Woodyard to spy on the quarterback.
Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio talked on Thursday about the keys to stopping Vick and the offense:
"Leverage and tackle. That’s the main thing. At the end of the day, we’re going to have to do that. I know it sounds simple, but it’s not an oversimplification. And regardless of how the play comes out, regardless of the design, what you’re trying to do defensively—you’ve got to leverage the ball carrier and tackle him and get him down. Then you’ve got to go back and do it again the next play. So that’s where our conditioning can be important. Our effectiveness and efficiency will be important and I’m looking forward to it."
When the Eagles Pass the Ball
The Eagles passing offense is built off making quick decisions after the snap. Vick is not known as a quarterback who can do that consistently. The Broncos will need to take away the short routes and force Vick to hold onto the ball longer.
He has shown the willingness to wait for deep routes to develop. When doing this, he’ll usually have to extend the play by rolling away from pressure. If he does stay in the pocket, there’s a good chance he will get hit right after releasing the ball.
No quarterback in the NFL has been pressured more than Vick this season. So far in 2013, he has been sacked, hit while throwing or put under duress 48 times. To make him uncomfortable, the Broncos must get pressure early and often.
When throwing short, Vick can’t lock onto his initial target. He must do a better job of using his eyes to manipulate the defense. The Broncos lead the league with 20 passes broken up or intercepted in 2013.
When throwing deep, his best target is DeSean Jackson. The veteran wide receiver can reach top speed in a hurry and will get on top of the defense in the blink of an eye.
Here we have an example of Vick using his eyes to move the deep secondary. He holds his gaze after the snap, all the time knowing he is going to take a deep shot to Jackson down the right sideline.
Broncos cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie spent two seasons with the Eagles before coming to Denver in free agency earlier this year. On Thursday he talked about what it would be like to go up against his former teammate:
"Oh, it’s going to be very competitive. Like I told you, (Jackson) called me and when I answered the phone, I was like, ‘Who is this?’ And he was like, ‘Such and such.’ So I treated him like a stranger because right now, I don’t know him. He’s not my friend right now (laughing). It’s going to be very competitive."
The Broncos want to stay on the winning track. The Eagles have a high-powered ground game but may have trouble keeping up if they fall behind early. Denver needs to stay disciplined at all three levels on defense.
On offense, the Broncos need to continue doing a good job of protecting Manning. The Eagles defense isn’t strong against the pass or the run, so it could be another large offensive output from the Broncos on Sunday.
If Denver gets ahead early and can maintain the lead, then we could see more from the ground game than some think. This could lead to an increase in playing time for both Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman.
Expect the Broncos to come out on top as they continue to march toward the Super Bowl.
All quotes and injury/practice observations were obtained firsthand.