I saw a headline regarding this game that said “Broncos could pull off upset”. Anyone thinking that Denver winning this game would be odd probably needs to watch them a little more closely. So far, the Broncos 2-3 record includes losses to the 3-2 Patriots (away), 5-0 Falcons (away) and the 5-0 Texans but maybe it’s the way in which both teams performed against Atlanta that gives the lie to that caption. The truth, as many Falcons fans will tell you, is that barring those three Peyton Manning interceptions the away team was better in most facets of the game. Meanwhile, the Week 3 victory in Qualcomm was a complete drubbing with the final score not indicative of the scale of defeat.
Does that mean the Broncos are a shoe-in? Certainly not, I’ve gone with the Chargers in our weekly “Pick’em” but it was a very close call and one I may well regret; I certainly don’t feel like somebody that’s riding a clear favorite. Let’s look at three of the key battles that may swing this one way or the other.
Michael Harris/Jared Gaither vs. Von Miller/Elvis Dumervil
It now looks unlikely that Jared Gaither will have recovered sufficiently from his groin strain to play on Monday. For those who didn’t see the debacle that ensued after he remained on the field after his injury, maybe these stats will help; before: 49 pass blocks – one hurry, after: two pass blocks – one hit, one strip sack. What’s the lesson here? Trying to pass block on one leg is not conducive to keeping your quarterback upright.
So the mantle of blocking the first (Von Miller) and fifth (Elvis Dumervil) most productive pass rushers in the NFL from the left tackle position will fall to rookie free agent, Michael Harris who started in Gaither’s position earlier in the year.
It all began so well for him with a decent performance on MNF, Week 1 in Oakland, where he only allowed a single hurry. Unfortunately, thereafter, things degenerated quickly as he was abused in successive weeks by primarily the Titans Kamerion Wimbley and the Falcons John Abraham. In those two games he allowed a sack, two hits and 13 pressures as well as giving up two holding penalties.
So which of these two assassins will he face the most? The good news, if there is such a thing, is that he’ll likely face the lesser of the two evils more frequently. Dumervil broadly takes 65% of his snaps on the right and will therefore be the defender that Harris will have to contend with the most.
Regardless of who he faces he’ll need help and this will come in the form of Randy McMichael being left in to block on passing plays. Of those tight ends in for more than 40 passing plays he is easily left back the most in percentage terms. His 48% of pass plays blocking (38 of 79) is well ahead of the Buccaneers Luke Stocker (43%) and the Saints Dave Thomas (37%).
Peyton Manning’s Short Passing Game vs. Chargers Defense
So we are now all aware that Peyton Manning’s arm is not what it once was. He doesn’t really drive a throw much anymore and even his shorter passes do float a little. What should also be obvious though, particularly after his excellent game against the Patriots, is float or not, most passes usually get to their targets. Somehow, he’s compensated for his arm and is now making the throws he knows he can. That doesn’t mean not throwing deep though and as seen last week in New England, he threw over 20 yards five times and completed three for 109 yards at a QB rating of 104.2.
That’s interesting because so far the Chargers have been rather better at defending the intermediate throws than the longer ones. They allow:
Between 0 & 19 yards: 101 of 144 for 999 yards, seven TDs and six interceptions, QB rating = 83.3
Over 20 yards: 7 of 18 for 225 yards, three TDs and no interceptions, QB rating = 126.2
Keep an eye on the depth of throw here and how Manning tries to take advantage of the Chargers deep as this could be crucial.
Antonio Gates vs. Broncos Intermediate Passing Defense
Antonio Gates is healthy and ready for a big year. It’s all we heard in training camp and, to be fair, he looked very fluid and energetic when I saw him. Since then he’s dramatically underproduced as his 143 yards from 137 routes ran leaves him dead last in our Yards per Route Run (YpRR) listing among tight ends. He’s dropped more passes (two) than he’s caught touchdowns (zero) and he needs a BIG game. Well here’s his opportunity because if the Broncos defense is weak anywhere it’s in nickel defense underneath. One of the key issues here is that Joe Mays is now being left in on third down and struggles in coverage. As a reminder, watch the way Heath Miller embarrasses him for the TD with 0:36 left in the first quarter of Week 1 or his horrible attempt to cover Danny Woodhead on his 25 yard reception last week. To exacerbate matters slot corner, Chris Harris, who played pretty well last year is not performing at anywhere near that level in 2012. Maybe covering Wes Welker in that sort of form is too much for anyone, but allowing five of six targets for 45 yards and a TD was still unacceptable.
So if anyone is debating letting Gates go from their fantasy team now is not the time. He has a ready made opportunity to do well but it remains to be seen if he can.
Follow Neil on Twitter @PFF_Neil