There’s no “D” in Denver these days, but the offense has been good enough to keep them atop the AFC West standings since the first week of the season. Then again, if you look at the rest of the AFC West ...
OFFENSE (#2 total yardage, #16 rushing, #3 passing, #16 scoring):
Back in early October, Jay Cutler ruffled some feathers when an interview in The Sporting News hit the stands. Among other pronouncements of his talent, he offered this appraisal:
“I have a stronger arm than John (Elway), hands down. I’ll bet on it against anybody’s in the league. Brett Favre’s got a cannon. But on game days, there’s nobody in the league who’s going to throw it harder than I am at all.”
Since then, the young Denver quarterback has done his best to live up to that braggadocio. He’s already thrown for an AFC-leading 3,851 yards this season, third-best in the league and 238 shy of Jake Plummer’s team record. People are paying attention; while the selection could be argues, Cutler will make his first trip to the Pro Bowl at the end of the season.
Joining him in Hawaii will be favorite wideout Brandon Marshall, who’s on track for another 100-catch season, something previously accomplished just eight times in league history. He leads the team with 88 receptions for 1,081 yards and six touchdowns, and has the size-and-speed combination to be a tough one-on-one matchup for any cornerback in the league. With rookie Eddie Royal (75-847, 5 TDs) on the other side, the Broncos could have one of the best receiving duos in the league for some time to come, which makes slotman Brandon Stokely even more dangerous. And if those three are all covered, Ben Graham and Tony Scheffler give Cutler a good pair of pass-catching tight ends to look for.
The Broncos are fortunate that the passing game is so potent, because they haven’t been able to keep any of their running backs on the field. Indeed, they now have more RBs on injured reserve than their active roster. Selvin Young, the opening-day starter, lasted five games before a groin injury knocked him out of the lineup for several weeks. Since then, Michael Pittman, Ryan Torain, and rookie Peyton Hillis have all gone from the starting lineup to IR. This week’s candidates for playing time are cellphone salesman Tatum Bell, midseason pickup P.J. Pope, and Young, who didn’t see a single carry after fumbling near the end of the first half in last week’s loss to Carolina..
The line is very good, as usual, giving up only 11 sacks in the first 14 games. Ryan Clady, the twelfth overall pick in this year’s draft, has started every game at left tackle and already looks like a keeper. According to the team’s weekly release, the Boise State alumnus has allowed just a half-sack, and has only been flagged for three penalties. Ryan Harris has similar stats on the right side, giving Denver a solid young set of bookends. A sore ankle kept Clady out of practice earlier in the week, but he expects to play today. Right guard Chris Kuper also expects to be in the lineup, wearing a cast to protect a broken bone in his hand.
DEFENSE (#28 total yardage, #27 rushing, #27 passing, #29 scoring):
It’s a good thing the offense is so potent, because the defense is giving up yards and points at an even faster clip. Check out these stats, courtesy of the Broncos PR department:
“During the last seven weeks since returning from its bye week, Denver’s run defense has been one of the league’s most improved units. After ranking 31st in the league in yards per carry (5.4) during its first seven games, Denver has given up 1.0 fewer yards per rush (4.4) in its previous seven games. The Broncos also are giving up an average of 29.0 fewer rushing yards per game (154.6 to 125.6) in their last seven games versus their first seven contests.”
When allowing 4.4 yards per carry is an IMPROVEMENT ...
The pass rush isn’t much better. With 22 sacks for the entire season, led by defensive ends Elvis Dumervil (5.0) and Ebenezer Ekuban (4.0), Denver is right down there with Buffalo near the bottom of the league rankings.
The secondary definitely misses Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey, who has missed a good chunk of the season with a groin injury; the team’s corners have accounted four just four interceptions this season. Bailey returned to practice a couple of weeks ago, but his status for Sunday’s game is still unclear. In his absence, undrafted rookie Josh Bell has started the last several games across from Dre Bly. Safeties Marquand Manuel and Marlon McCree have both been nicked up this year, with McCree missing several games due to an ankle injury.
Denver’s press releases laud the long-distance accuracy of new kicker Matt Prater, who’s a perfect 5-for-5 from 50 yards and out. If only he was that good on the shorter kicks; he’s just 17-25 inside the 40, including a horrid 4-of-10 from 30-39, and has missed seven of his last 15.
Grand Island native Brett Kern, signed as an undrafted free agent out of Toledo, is having an exceptional rookie season. He currently ranks fifth in the league in gross average (47.0 yards), and is on pace to break the club record in that category. Even a bad coverage team, allowing over 12 yards per return (including an 89-yard touchdown), only knocks his net average down to 38.0. The kickoff squad isn’t any better, and has also given up a touchdown. Could be a good day for Parrish, if he can get past his sore knee and fear of snow.
Royal is a decent returner, averaging 10.6 yards per punt and 26.1 per kickoff.
On paper, this should be an even matchup. Denver scores bunches of points but gives up even more, can’t stop the run, and doesn’t force turnovers. And the Bills surprised a few people (including me) with their solid performance against the Jets last week. (Minus the final 2:06, of course.) But the Broncos need this game badly – even if the Chargers manage to beat Tampa Bay in an early game, Denver can clinch the division with a win today – and Buffalo hasn’t won in the thin Colorado air since 1967.
And while I’d like to believe the team has recovered from last week’s devastating come-from-ahead loss, the amount of postgame dissension in the locker room makes me think otherwise. Denver isn’t invincible at home – heck, they lost to the Raiders – but I think they win this one.
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