Biggest Questions the Denver Broncos Must Answer Before the 2014 NFL Playoffs

Cecil Lammey@@cecillammeyContributor IDecember 17, 2013

Biggest Questions the Denver Broncos Must Answer Before the 2014 NFL Playoffs

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    The Denver Broncos have control of their playoff destiny once again. After losing to the San Diego Chargers in Week 15, the team lost control to the New England Patriots. However, after the Patriots lost to the Miami Dolphins on Sunday, it gave the reins back to the Broncos.

    On Monday, Broncos head coach John Fox talked about that game and the impact it had on Denver’s outlook. “Well, I think you just better have your ‘A’ game ready. This is a great example of that. You look at the top three seeds, us included, losing and all division teams that maybe weren’t really high in the standings, I think it just goes to show you that on any given Sunday, you better be ready to play. If we learned a lesson, it wasn’t maybe individual games, it’s just what happened to us and what we need to do moving forward.”

    If the Broncos win their final two regular-season games, then they will enter the playoffs as the No. 1 seed in the AFC. With games against the Texans and Raiders, victory seems like a distinct possibility.

    Going into the playoffs as the top team in the conference would give Denver home-field advantage up to the Super Bowl. As the top seed, the Broncos would avoid traveling to stadiums that are difficult to play in.

    There would be no going to Foxborough or Arrowhead Stadium. Instead, every opponent would have to get used to the altitude in the Mile High City. In addition to the altitude and thinner air, the crowd noise from Sports Authority Field at Mile High could greatly aid the Broncos in the playoffs.

    The Broncos are no longer the favorite in Vegas to win the Super Bowl per Mike Klis from the Denver Post. A loss to the Chargers has certainly brought up more questions about this team’s ability to win a championship.

    So what are the biggest questions this team needs to answer before the start of (and during) the playoffs? Let’s take a look to see if we can pinpoint the team’s biggest areas of concern going forward.

    All quotes and injury/practice observations were obtained firsthand. Record/Statistical information provided via email from the Denver Broncos.

Can They Get into an Offensive Rhythm Quickly?

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    The Denver Broncos may see more teams employ the strategy the Chargers used. More opponents may try to eat up the time of possession to play defense against Peyton Manning by keeping him on the sidelines.

    After the Chargers game, Manning talked about this strategy: “I’ve dealt with it before. Teams have tried a similar game plan before where they are snapping the ball with two seconds, one second [left on the clock]. [San Diego Chargers QB] Philip [Rivers] looks like he calls a lot of plays at the line of scrimmage and he’s trying to get them into a good play. When they’re doing that, they are taking a lot of time off the clock. But hey, it’s our job to score points when we have the ball, no matter if we have it for 40 minutes or 20 minutes. We had it for 20 tonight; we didn’t do a good enough job on offense and that’s something that we have to correct.”

    The team needs to start getting off to better starts. For most of the year, the Broncos have been known as a second-half team. They rarely get off to a hot start, and that’s something they need to clean up for a playoff run.

    In recent weeks, we’ve seen an increase in scoring from earlier this year.

    From Weeks 1-13, there was one team (#Broncos) averaging over 30 PPG. In Weeks 14-15, there are 10 teams averaging over 30 PPG.#NFL

    — Cecil Lammey (@cecillammey) December 17, 2013

    The Broncos have scored a league-high 535 points this year. However, they’ve only scored 113 points in the first quarter compared to 159 points scored in the fourth quarter.

    In the first quarters of games, they only have 76 total first downs. In the fourth quarter, they have 91 total first downs.

    They clearly have a problem getting off to a hot start. If opponents keep the Broncos offense on the sideline, it’ll need to be more precise early in games then it has been so far this year.

Can the Defense Go Back to Stopping the Run?

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    For the first two months of the season, the Broncos had a top-five run defense. Up until Week 15, they hadn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher.

    In recent weeks, we’ve seen the rush defense struggle. In Week 15, the Broncos gave up more than 100 yards rushing to Chargers running back Ryan Mathews.

    The drop in run defense can be linked back to the injury to defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson. He was put on Injured Reserve at the end of November with a hip injury. The Broncos now rank 11th against the run, allowing an average of 105.4 yards rushing per game.

    Losing Vickerson for the rest of the year opened the door for 2013 first-round pick Sylvester Williams. He hasn’t been on the field much this year and was inactive for a handful of games earlier this season.

    Williams is not as strong against the run as Vickerson. The rookie will often guess wrong when attacking the inside shoulder of an opponent. He’ll then try to run around the blocker to make the play. That may have worked in North Carolina, but it is not effective at the pro level.

    Terrance Knighton can’t do it all himself. He’s been playing at a high level this season but now has more pressure on him without Vickerson in the lineup.

    After the Chargers game, Knighton didn’t have any answers for the run defense: “I don’t know what’s going on. I just feel like we’re a little bit too lax out there. They played with more intensity than us. They executed and they kept the ball away from our offense. We know teams are going [to] try and do that and we got to do a better job up front of stopping the run and making the team one-dimensional. They broke a few runs; they broke a few passes. We really couldn’t stop them today. We just got to find something. We got to find some type of resolve.”

    The team needs to get better play from its defensive line and linebackers in order to stop the run. If opponents start trying to take the air out of the ball by running more, the Broncos will need to respond.

    In order to get the ball back to their high-powered offense, the Broncos must be able to stall drives and stuff the run.

    Playoff football often sees a shift toward the ground game. Playing outdoors in the elements could also lead to more carries for the running backs.

    If the Broncos want to make it through the tournament, they must start playing better against the run.

Will They Run the Ball More Effectively in the Playoffs?

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    The Broncos have to run the ball more effectively if they want to advance in the postseason. This means they need better play from both Knowshon Moreno and rookie Montee Ball.

    Moreno is having a career year in 2013. He is only eight yards short of tying his career high for rushing yards in a season (947). Moreno should be able to top 1,000 yards rushing this year for the first time in his career.

    His attitude and energy are infectious for the rest of the team. Moreno runs angry and will take the fight to an opponent. He doesn’t take any grief, and Moreno won’t allow the offense to be bullied when he’s on the field.

    This type of fervor could help the Broncos topple an opponent that tries to push them around in the postseason.

    Ball has been hanging onto the rock in recent weeks. He fumbled a screen pass away against the Patriots in Week 12 but hasn’t fumbled since. Ball has three lost fumbles this year, and he’s been in and out of the doghouse because of it.

    So long as Ball hangs onto the rock, he should continue to be a big part of the ground game. In fact, we may see a near 50/50 split between Moreno and Ball in the playoffs.

    Ball has a nose for the end zone, and he can make plays as a receiver out of the backfield. His success on the field can help keep Moreno fresh.

    After the having negative rushing yards against the Chargers in Week 15, Ball knows what the team must do to improve: "We need to make more plays and get back to playing our style of football.”

    The Broncos must have Moreno in the lineup if they want to advance in the postseason. Not only does Moreno have to be on the field, but he also needs to be effective with the ball in his hands.

    A strong ground game will help the Broncos' play-action passing game. Defenses will have to play somewhat honestly if the Broncos are gashing them up front with Moreno and Ball.

    Having an effective ground game is also incredibly important when the Broncos need to keep a lead late in the game. When the Broncos build a lead, they need to be able to hand off to Moreno or Ball in order to grind down the play clock.

    The Broncos have a goal of getting to and winning the Super Bowl. They can do that if they run the ball more effectively in the postseason.

Can the Secondary Improve?

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    The Broncos have one of the worst pass defenses in the league. Their pass defense currently ranks 28th, allowing an average of 266.1 yards per game.

    They get more passes attempted against them than most teams because opponents are trying to keep up with the Broncos' high-powered offense. Their problems against the pass come down to injuries and lack of depth.

    The team has been plagued by injuries on the defensive side of the ball, especially in the secondary.

    Champ Bailey has missed most of this season with a foot injury he suffered in the preseason. Rahim Moore has been put on the Injured Reserve/Designated to Return list with a rare lower leg injury called lower compartment syndrome. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has been slowed down by a shoulder injury for a brief time this year. Rookie corner Kayvon Webster had to have thumb surgery after getting torched against the Chargers in Week 15.

    The team is being cautious with Bailey as he continues to deal with his foot injury. It would be a boost for the Broncos to get Bailey back on the field. He could play as the third (nickel) corner behind Rodgers-Cromartie and Chris Harris.

    After the Chargers game, Harris felt concerned: “It’s definitely reason to be concerned. We’re not going to panic too much. We’re 11-3. We’re still a good teamstill one of the top teams in the AFC. We got to keep everybody together and continue to work to get better for next week.”

    Moore won’t be able to return to the field until the AFC Championship Game if the Broncos make it that far. The safeties on the roster have been shuffled around since Moore was hurt.

    Mike Adams is now starting at strong safety with Duke Ihenacho playing fewer snaps. Omar Bolden is now working at free safety, and he’s been struggling in coverage. Getting Moore back at free safety would help the team tremendously.

    We’ve seen the rookie Webster getting more playing time as the Broncos shuffle around their secondary. He played terribly against the Chargers in Week 15 and now he has to recover from minor thumb surgery. Webster may have lost confidence with his poor play, and he would be better off as a reserve player.

    If the Broncos get into a shootout in the postseason, they will need their secondary to play better than it has so far this year.

Can They Keep Protecting Peyton Manning Adequately?

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    Protecting Peyton Manning is the No. 1 priority for the Broncos this year. As we get into postseason play, we’ll see more teams go after Manning in order to make him uncomfortable.

    The Broncos offensive line has played much better since the team’s Week 9 bye.

    Over the last six games, Manning has only been sacked five times. The Broncos have done a much better job stunting edge-rushers in recent weeks. They’ve done this by using tight ends or running backs to chip a pass-rusher on an overloaded side.

    Left tackle Chris Clark struggled against Robert Mathis in the Colts game, but since then he’s done a much better job of controlling his man. Clark has done a fine job filling in for All-Pro left tackle Ryan Clady, who was lost for the season after a Week 2 injury.

    Right tackle Orlando Franklin is mostly known as a road-grading run-blocker, but he’s made great strides as a pass-protector in 2013. Franklin has the strength to maul any opponent he gets his hands on. He’s doing a much better job of sliding his feet to keep up with quick rushers on the outside.

    The interior of the offensive line has generally done a good job in pass blocking.

    Center Manny Ramirez struggled in the Week 15 game against the Chargers. He historically has struggled with quicker, more agile defensive tackles. Ramirez does a great job against stout defensive linemen. He uses his brute strength to control the point of attack and can essentially stonewall an interior pass-rusher.

    Left guard Zane Beadles plays with a ton of aggression and constantly has a chip on his shoulder. He’s playing at a Pro Bowl level again this season, and he takes pride in protecting the Broncos' superstar quarterback.

    Right guard Louis Vasquez has arguably been the most important free-agent addition this year. He’s stout as a run-blocker, and he’s rarely beaten in pass protection.

    Giving Manning better pass protection has given offensive coordinator Adam Gase more confidence to call for more downfield routes.

    It’s extremely important for the team to maintain balance in its passing game. If it only throws short passes, then defenses will be able to quickly adjust. However, if it can strike an opponent deep, then a defense will constantly be guessing as to what the play will be.

    In order to create time for downfield routes to develop, the offensive line needs to hold strong and protect Manning. It has answered this question over the last month of the season, but it needs to continue answering the bell in the postseason if the team wants to make it to the Super Bowl.