3TFO: Broncos @ Raiders, Week 14
If you saw the 9-3 Denver Broncos were scheduled to face the 3-9 Oakland Raiders on Thursday Night Football and wondered if the schedulers opened the door for another primetime AFC West blowout, à la the Week 9 Chiefs at Chargers encounter, you’re excused. After all, Denver’s most dominant win this season came at Oakland’s expense in Week 4. Since then, they’ve become two of the streakiest teams in the league, albeit headed in opposite directions. Denver’s seven consecutive victories have starkly contrasted the rest of the division’s inability to win in over a month (excluding the Chiefs’ win over the Panthers last week).
So yes, Denver is the better team, but pencil in that ‘W’, don’t use ink. While Peyton Manning’s Broncos didn’t meet much resistance from the Raiders in Denver, they would do well to remember that not even John Elway posted a winning record in his career against them. The Raiders won’t surrender the series sweep without a fight, and Denver cannot become complacent after clinching the AFC West if they’re to keep their perfect intra-divisional record unmarred. With the possibility of a first-round bye still open, the Broncos have more than bragging rights at stake.
The Raiders, too, can attach some significance to this game. First-year head coach Dennis Allen, who is expected to coach the Raiders after his father’s death earlier this week, needs to show that his team isn’t regressing to ensure he doesn’t become the second consecutive Oakland head coach fired after only a single season. Losing six straight, which the Raiders haven’t done since 2007, isn’t the best approach.
Broncos Wide Receivers vs. Raiders Cornerbacks
One of the primary reasons the Raiders were unable to make much of a contest out of the first matchup was the glaring mismatch between the Denver receivers and the Oakland cornerbacks. In that game, Eric Decker, Demaryius Thomas, and Brandon Stokley combined for 14 receptions, 214 yards and one of Manning’s three touchdowns, with Decker and Thomas doing the bulk of the work.
Michael Huff’s willingness to play cornerback by necessity has been admirable, and he’s done very well at times this year, but he faces a tall order in covering the Broncos’ talented duo. Decker beat Huff for a touchdown in Week 4, and Thomas has emerged as one of the league’s best receivers. Huff’s 1.49 yards per coverage snap is 12th-worst in the league. This can be partially attributed to his allowing the fifth-most yards after catch (245) among cornerbacks. This could pose a problem, as Thomas boasts 2.48 Yards per Route Run and the third-highest yards after catch total (458) among all players. Thomas spends only about 36% of his snaps at right wide receiver, so Ron Bartell will get a crack at stopping the Pro Bowl candidate as well. Joselio Hanson on Stokley (who is a game-time decision) is also worth watching, as Hanson’s 7.5 coverage snaps per reception in the slot, and sure-handed Stokley’s 80% catch rate out of the slot could foretell a busy day in terms of targets for the 36-year-old receiver.
Broncos Running Game vs. Raiders Front Seven
It flies in the face of all that’s been alluded to above, but don’t you get the feeling the Broncos really want to establish the run game this week? Knowshon Moreno has played well in his return to the starting lineup so far, forcing four missed tackles in getting all he could against a stout Bucs run defense last week. The team has also been raving about his professionalism in serving on the scout team before being called back into service when Willis McGahee went down with a torn MCL and broken leg.
With the Raiders allowing about 131 rushing yards per game, what better opportunity to evaluate their rushing attack without McGahee? Denver doesn’t want to enter the playoffs with questions about their running game, and after racking up 167 yards on 36 carries in their first matchup with Oakland, Denver could decide to pound the rock early and often again on Thursday night.
The Broncos run the ball out of three-receiver sets just as confidently as they would out of an I-formation, meaning Raiders rookie Miles Burris could be isolated in sub-packages. Burris has had an inconsistent inaugural season, missing one of every seven tackles in the run game, but also laying claim to the eight-best Run Stop Percentage among qualifying 4-3 outside linebackers, ahead of even Defensive Player of the Year candidate Von Miller. Burris’ performance could go a long ways towards deciding the outcome of this contest.
Who’s Feeling the Pressure?
The old adage was “run the ball and stop the run”. Now, the NFL is unarguably a passing league, and the ability to pressure opposing quarterbacks has become correspondingly vital. The 2012 seasons of the Broncos and Raiders illustrate this perfectly. The 9-3 Broncos own the best Pass Blocking Efficiency rating (88.3) in the league, in large part thanks to Manning’s quick release time. Their defense has racked up 223 total quarterback disruptions, including 39 sacks, making their pass rush the most productive in the league — though Cincinnati has more sacks. Meanwhile, the 3-9 Raiders rank 20th in PBE and have produced 174 quarterback disruptions on defense, including 16 sacks.
Coincidence? Probably not, though there are certainly other factors responsible for either team’s record. The Raiders’ best chance of spoiling Denver’s first-round bye aspirations is improving both their ability to protect their own quarterback ,as well as pressuring Denver’s. Oakland barely managed any pressure in Week 4, allowing Manning to pick the hobbled secondary apart at his leisure. Conversely, Denver disrupted Carson Palmer’s pass attempts 21 times, including four sacks. That’s the recipe for a 37-6 score line, and if the Raiders linemen– on both sides of the ball — don’t play better this time around, it will be difficult to avoid more of the same. Taking right tackle Willie Smith (91.3 Pass Blocking Efficiency, fourth-worst among offensive tackles) out of the picture should help.