3TFO: Browns @ Broncos, Week 16
With eight straight victories, the Broncos are building plenty of momentum toward the playoffs this year. All fingers will be pointing to Peyton Manning as the man responsible, and while he certainly has played a huge role, it’s scary how balanced this team looks right now. Unfortunate early losses to both the Texans and the Patriots means they won’t be winning a tie-breaker any time soon, but Denver has locked up the AFC West and with just two more games (one against the Chiefs, no less), the Broncos look primed to get a week off when the regular season ends.
On the other hand, Cleveland has had a lackluster year, something that’s been typical of late. If there’s one bright spot to this season though, it’s that they’ve been competitive in nearly every game. A lot of offensive playing time has been given to last April’s crop of rookies, and if they can get some noticeable improvement in their second year (especially in their quarterback play), it wouldn’t be too much of a surprise for the Browns to be more than just competitive a year from now. Here are a few of the most important matchups for their trip to Denver on Sunday.
Pressure Off the Edge
It’s often said that a rookie quarterback’s best friend is a good receiving tight end, but it’s hard to argue that Brandon Weeden wouldn’t rather have a nice clean pocket to work in. Lucky for him, he has the perennial Pro Bowler Joe Thomas on his blind side. Thomas is once again playing at the highest level, surrendering 13 total quarterback disruptions in 14 games, earning the former Badger a league-leading Pass Blocking Efficiency of 98.1. He’ll see a lot of Elvis Dumervil, who has been hit or miss this year, and those misses have generally come against the better tackles like Thomas.
On the opposite side is a matchup that should downright frighten Weeden, where a rookie has the task of slowing down Von Miller. That rookie is second-rounder Mitchell Schwartz, and while he doesn’t receive nearly the same press that Thomas does, Schwartz has been an outstanding pass protector in his own right. The last time he gave up more than two pressures in a game was a Week 7 trip to Indianapolis. That streak is in serious jeopardy though, as the nearly unblockable Miller will look to keep pace with J.J. Watt in the hunt for Defensive Player of the Year honors. Miller is tied for the most pressure with 82 QB disruptions, 16 of which have been sacks. Don’t let his designation as a 4-3 OLB fool you though. Miller rushes the passer over three quarters of the time that opposing quarterbacks drop back to pass.
Slowing Down Manning
It was one of the highest profile free agent signings of all time, and though he didn’t come cheap, the addition of Peyton Manning can be seen as a success thus far. Owner of the third-highest Accuracy Percentage (78.0) and QB rating (103.5), it’s hard to tell he spent a full year away from football. Sure, his arm strength isn’t all there, but he’s still the fifth-most accurate passer on deep balls (thrown over 20 yards in the air). Six of his 10 interceptions have come on these throws though, so this might be Cleveland’s best chance to force a few turnovers.
The unenviable job of covering Manning’s receivers will be given to Sheldon Brown and Joe Haden this week. Quarterbacks throwing into Brown’s coverage have managed a QB rating of just 71.9, and he’s picked off three of those to go with his 10 pass deflections. Haden has struggled with injuries, allowing four touchdowns, but like his teammate, he’s picked off three passes. Against a passer as accurate as Manning they’re likely to give up receptions no matter how tight the coverage, so the emphasis will have to shift to limiting the yards his receivers can tack on after the catch. That’s something Haden has done well this year, recording 10 stops in the passing game even after missing significant time.
Knowshon Moreno vs. D’Qwell Jackson
As well as Willis McGahee was playing earlier in the season, it was a disappointment to Denver fans when he was placed on injured reserve. Knowshon Moreno has received the lion’s share of playing time at halfback since then, and he’s graded positively ever since his insertion back into the lineup in Week 12. Since then, he’s forced seven missed tackles and picked up nearly 60% of his 403 yards after first contact. The only drawback for Moreno is his lack of big-play ability on the ground — he hasn’t had a run of over 25 yards since the final week of 2010.
D’Qwell Jackson is the definition of an every-down linebacker, playing every snap in every game outside of a Week 5 trip to New York where he missed 38 snaps due to a concussion. His Run Stop Percentage (7.5) is on the low side for inside linebackers, but he’s missed just four of his 58 tackling attempts in run defense, so he’s not a liability either. His Run Stop Percentage one year ago was markedly above average, so if he can make plays in this game like he did consistently in 2011, it would go a long way toward throwing off the balance of the Denver offense.