After seemingly exceeding their somewhat lowered early season expectations, the Denver Broncos enter this division battle against the Oakland Raiders as arguably the best team in the league. With star defenders Von Miller and Champ Bailey on the sidelines, some predicted the Broncos would struggle—if not lose—in their first two games against the last two Super Bowl champions. The Broncos not only added onto their 11 game regular season winning streak, but they have won in a decisive manner while getting standout performances in all three phases of the game.
The Raiders have also exceeded expectations thus far. Still in the midst of a long rebuilding plan, Oakland was thought to be challengers for the first pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, not the AFC Wild Card race. Yet, they visit the Mile High City fresh off of a double-digit win last week and a tough road loss in Week 1 against the Indianapolis Colts, a Wild Card entrant from last season. That said this Monday night game could still easily be a Broncos blowout. Here are three matchups to focus on:
Chris Clark vs. Lamarr Houston
With All-Pro offensive tackle Ryan Clady out for the season due to a foot injury, career-backup offensive tackle Chris Clark becomes the next man up to protect Peyton Manning’s blind side. Clark actually performed this role during the preseason while Clady recovered from offseason surgery, grading much higher in pass blocking (+2.4) than run blocking (-1.7) in 148 snaps. Though Clark literally has some big shoes to fill, he will indeed benefit from Manning’s quick release and pre-snap mastery. Manning’s Average Time to Pass Attempt of 2.46 seconds ranked fourth in the league last season (he’s at 2.44 this year). After two games, Manning has proven again to be extremely effective when releasing the ball quickly, posting the second highest passer rating (139.1) when he has 2.5 seconds and less of time in the pocket.
Unfortunately, Clark will not be able to ease into his first start at left tackle, as he faces an immediate test in Lamarr Houston. Playing exclusively on the defense’s right this season, Houston leads all 4-3 defensive ends in Pass Rushing Productivity with 16 total pressures in just 69 pass rush snaps. This is significant because, since 2008, Manning has graded the lowest when pressured from the left tackle (-7.3). Given his dominance against the pass and run (fourth in 4-3 defensive end Run Stop Percentage), Houston should expect to see more of the two-tight end looks the Broncos used so successfully in the second half against the New York Giants.
Broncos Defense vs. Raiders Running Game
The loss of Miller was supposed to have a more damaging effect on the Denver defense. Granted, we’re only two weeks into the season. But this was a player who graded at +84.4 in 2012. The next highest Broncos defender? That would be Chris Harris at +18.7. The defense hasn’t been dominant by any stretch of the imagination, allowing 25 points per game and ranking in the middle of the pack in our cumulative defensive rankings (+5.0). They have, however, received strong individual performances from Kevin Vickerson, Malik Jackson, Derek Wolfe, Nate Irving, Wesley Woodyard, and Danny Trevathan, all of whom rank in the Top 15 at their respective positions in Run Stop Percentage. Not to be outdone, the Denver secondary has three cornerbacks, Dominique-Rodgers Cromartie, Harris and Tony Carter, in the Top 7 for the lowest NFL passer rating for passes into the player’s coverage.
Oakland, on the other hand, brings a more one-dimensional threat to this matchup. Led by Terrelle Pryor and Darren McFadden, the Raiders rank seventh in the league in cumulative run grading (0.8), while their passing game is 29th at -4.2. Pryor picked up where he left off against the Colts by running for 50 yards on 9 attempts against Jacksonville. Combine Pryor’s running with McFadden’s ability to make plays after contact (second only to Adrian Peterson with 3.00 yards after contact per attempt) and you have the potential to wear down a banged up Broncos defense and keep Manning off the field. If the Raiders struggle running the ball, don’t be surprised to see Denver limit their blitzes: Pryor’s NFL passer rating is 107.0 when he has less than 2.6 seconds to throw the ball and a 27.8 rating with 2.6 seconds or more.
Raiders Secondary vs. Denver Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
Even with the loss of Tyvon Branch to a fractured fibula, the Oakland secondary is still in good hands with offseason acquisitions Mike Jenkins and Charles Woodson. Through two games, Jenkins has allowed just 12 yards in 68 snaps when he is the primary cornerback in coverage, good for first in the league. Woodson returns to Denver in an Oakland uniform as the fourth-best safety in pass defense with a +2.7 coverage grade. Talented first-round draft pick D.J. Hayden rebounded from a tough debut against the Colts (-1.7 in pass coverage) by finishing second on the team in tackles against Jacksonville and going from red to green (+1.2) in pass coverage.
Hayden and the rest of the Raiders secondary will need to play nearly flawless football if they want to merely contain arguably the best set of receivers and tight ends in the game. Demaryius Thomas is second among wideouts with 14.7 Yards After the Catch Per Reception and Manning has a 117.5 passer rating when throwing into the coverage of Wes Welker. Though Eric Decker continues to struggle catching the ball—his 31.25% Drop Rate is highest in the league among wide receivers with at least 12 targets—tight end Julius Thomas has more than offset his weak play, grading behind only Jimmy Graham in tight end pass receiving (+3.3). If Decker settles down and lowers his drop rate closer to 2012 levels (11.65, which was lower than Welker’s), the Raiders secondary could be in for a long night.
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