Burning Questions for the Denver Broncos' 2013-14 Season
Every team in the NFL has questions surrounding them as they enter the season. Gone are the days of the dynasty franchises who could win multiple Super Bowls in the matter of a few years. Today, the NFL is all about building quickly, re-building quickly or rebounding quickly.
The Denver Broncos need to rebound quickly from a 2012 season that ended in disappointment. They were the favorite to win the Super Bowl and entered the playoffs last year as the top-seeded team in the AFC. Denver saw their season come to a sudden halt in the divisional round against the Baltimore Ravens.
The Broncos were looking like a strong favorite for the Super Bowl again until a "fax faux pas" forced them to lose pass-rusher Elvis Dumervil to the Ravens in free agency. The problems were further compiled when the news came out that Von Miller would be suspended for the first six games of the season. These are just two of many problems that arose during the offseason.
What originally looked like a year where the Broncos could coast to the championship is now, all of a sudden, filled with questions and doubt.
Let's examine some of the most critical questions the Broncos must answer this year in order to hoist the Lombardi Trophy in 2013.
*Quotes are courtesy of DenverBroncos.com, unless noted otherwise.
Will Montee Ball Be the Leading Rusher?
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In the second round of the 2013 NFL draft, the Broncos selected running back Montee Ball out of Wisconsin. Ball was known for his nose for the end zone and ability to pick up tough yards between the tackles. He's not the biggest, or the fastest, but Ball has a determined running style that head coach John Fox covets.
The original plan was for Ball to be the lead back this season; he only had to supplant Ronnie Hillman at the top of the depth chart.
During the offseason, we saw Hillman get around 75 percent of the first-team work, with Ball getting around 25 percent. As we entered training camp, many felt that ratio would start to tilt in the direction of Ball. Instead, it stayed about the same with Hillman getting a clearly bigger workload.
The preseason games weigh heavily in the minds of the coaching staff. Standing out in practice is one thing, but it must be backed up by quality play in game situations. During the preseason, we saw Hillman lose three fumbles, two of which were not recovered, but, in fact, returned for touchdowns. Ball was not overly impressive, with a preseason average of 3.2 yards per carry.
When the regular season opens up, we should see Ball in the lead role for the Broncos. The rookie feels his increased role with the first team has more to do with his play than it does Hillman's fumbling problems.
“For me, I’m looking at it as what I’ve done. I’ve been consistent. Yeah, I’ve made mistakes, but I’ve done a great job to not repeat them. That’s what I plan to continue to do.” Ball commented after practice.
The Broncos are going to use a running back by committee approach in 2013. In fact, new offensive coordinator Adam Gase put an extra emphasis on the idea when he said late in August "We've never shied away from that."
Ball is likely the starter now, but how big his role will be is up in the air. If he impresses as a runner and receiver out of the backfield, Ball could receive a majority of the touches.
However, in order to get more playing time, Ball will have to improve his pass-protection skills greatly. The rookie is rough around the edges in that department. The Broncos can't afford to get Peyton Manning hurt because Ball misses a block in pass protection.
The rookie currently has a big opportunity in front of him. We'll see if he can hang on to the starting job as the season marches on.
Can Ronnie Hillman Hold On to the Ball?
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For most of the offseason, Ronnie Hillman was the lead back for the Broncos. As we entered preseason, it looked more and more like he would be the starting running back in Week 1 of the regular season.
That all changed when Hillman fumbled three times in two preseason games. Two of those fumbles were returned for touchdowns, and Hillman was sent to the coaches' doghouse. Hillman lost out on first-team reps in practice after that to rookie Montee Ball. The team also had Hillman carry a football everywhere he went in practice as a reminder to hang on to the rock.
Offensive coordinator Adam Gase has talked to Hillman about ball security.
“We’ve talked about it. [Fumbles have] been a huge point of emphasis for us this offseason because the fumbles we had early in the season last year—that was one of the main factors of why we started off as slowly as we did. So this has been a big emphasis, and for us to have three fumbles in the first half was totally unacceptable.
We’ve been working on it again, and the point of emphasis has to be that we cannot turn the ball over. We can have 200-and-whatever yards in the first half, but three turnovers? Unacceptable.” Gase said after the preseason game against the Seattle Seahawks.
The Broncos are going to use a committee approach at running back this year, and Hillman could be in for a decent workload if he can hold on to the ball. If his struggles continue, then we could see more from veteran backup Knowshon Moreno.
How Does Knowshon Moreno Fit In?
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Knowshon Moreno has had an up-and-down career during his time with the Broncos. Last season, he was inactive for eight weeks until an injury to Willis McGahee thrust him into the starting lineup.
Moreno was a workhorse for the Broncos to finish out the season and gave their ground game some consistency. He was injured in the playoff game against the Ravens and has now worked his way back from yet another knee injury.
Moreno's durability is one of the main reasons why the Broncos are using him as a veteran insurance player in 2013. They could put him back into the starting lineup, but they, then, would have to rely on young, unproven backs like Ball or Hillman if he got hurt.
He's not as fast as Hillman, and he doesn't have the nose for the end zone that Ball has. However, he's a better pass protector than both backs and, arguably, the best receiving option out of the backfield.
Keeping Moreno as a reserve player is a good idea for a few reasons.
First, he gets to stay fresh with a reduced workload. Second, he can be used as a situational player when the Broncos want to give the defense a different look. Third, he's the insurance they need in case of injuries, mistakes in pass protection or if fumble problems arise for Ball and Hillman.
The Broncos are going to use a committee in 2013, and Moreno will be part of that mix. He's unlikely to see a bulk of the work—unless he has to due to injury or inconsistency.
Is Demaryius Thomas the Favorite Target?
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The Broncos had an embarrassment of riches at the wide receiver position last year. That corps was strengthened even further with the free-agent addition of Wes Welker.
With only one football to go around, some are left to wonder how the targets will be distributed in 2013.
It's clear that Peyton Manning's favorite target on the team is Thomas. He's bigger, faster, stronger and can jump higher than any other player on the roster. That's a great skill set to have when a quarterback is in trouble and is looking to make an improvised play.
Thomas has worked hard to hone his craft during his time as a pro. He's really taken his work ethic to another level after the Broncos added Manning in 2012. Thomas wants to be one of the best in the game and doesn't want to let his quarterback down.
His drive and determination are two reasons why we saw him flourish in 2012. Thomas finished the year with 148 targets, 94 receptions, 1,442 yards receiving and 10 receiving touchdowns.
This year, I believe Thomas could best those numbers. The Broncos are going to be more pass-happy than ever in 2013. They've got several questions surrounding their ground game, and that could mean more passes coming from Manning. Add in the new up-tempo offense under Adam Gase and it equals a team that will put up incredible numbers with their passing game.
How Does Wes Welker Affect the Numbers for Eric Decker?
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The Broncos strengthened their group of wide receivers when they added Wes Welker in free agency. Welker worked well in New England with quarterback Tom Brady and should be able to do many of the same things with Peyton Manning in Denver.
Welker's addition means a different target distribution in 2013. That could mean a decrease in targets, receptions and touchdowns for Eric Decker.
We'll see Welker line up in the slot, and Decker will be lined up on the outside. Both can switch spots if need be, but that's where we should see them most of the time.
Welker will attract a lot of defensive attention and may even be bracket covered at times. Decker should have one-on-one situations on the outside and should be facing press coverage at the line of scrimmage.
With the New England Patriots, we regularly saw Welker catch around 110-120 passes each year. In the Broncos offense, he's unlikely to reach that number. It wouldn't surprise me to see Welker catch around 85 passes this season as Manning's second favorite target.
Decker had a career year in 2012. He hauled in 85 passes for 1,064 yards and 13 receiving touchdowns. The touchdown total ranked second in the league last year and will be difficult to duplicate. Decker is still a quality red-zone target, but his touchdown total could drop to around seven or eight in 2013.
Welker will take away a lot of the short routes that Decker snared last year. Decker may see more single coverage than Welker, but his catch total could drop to around 75 passes this season.
It's pick your poison when facing the Broncos' talented trio of wide receivers. Manning's favorite target is the open guy, and Welker can get open easier than Decker. Both will be productive in 2013, but Decker's numbers should dip slightly because of the addition of Welker.
With Decker set to hit free agency after the season, a dip in production isn't a negative. Lower statistics could lower his value on the open market. The Broncos may have a better chance at keeping Decker around for the future if he isn't quite as productive as he was last year.
Can Julius Thomas Be a Quality Starter?
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The Broncos have yet another weapon in third-year tight end Julius Thomas. His first two years in the pros were essentially wiped out by an ankle injury he suffered as a rookie. Last year, Thomas opted to have ankle surgery before the season and didn't get back to full strength until right before the end of the regular season.
Thomas has stayed healthy this offseason and has been a standout player in training camp and the preseason. Jacob Tamme suffered a quadriceps injury that has limited him in practice and opened the door for Thomas to show what he can do as the starter.
Joel Dreessen has a problematic knee which has kept him out of action for most of the offseason. This also has helped Thomas showcase what he could do when asked to be a blocker.
In college at Portland State, Thomas was a basketball star with one year's worth of experience playing football. He shined at the Shrine Game in 2011 and tested well at the NFL Scouting Combine that year. With his basketball skill set, he is adept at using his large frame to box out defenders for the ball. He can also high-point passes like he would sky for a rebound on the court.
Thomas creates mismatches every time he's on the field because of his size/speed combination. He's too big and physical for a safety to cover. He's also too fast for a linebacker to cover.
With all the weapons in the passing game, we should see Thomas have plenty of opportunity as defenses focus on trying to slow down Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Eric Decker.
When healthy, we should see Dreessen get used more when the team is in the red zone. Dreessen is also a better run blocker than Thomas at this time. The Broncos will use a committee at tight end this year but the lead player should be Thomas.
Who Steps Up in the Pass Rush Without Von Miller?
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The Broncos' pass rush was dealt a huge blow when it was announced that Von Miller would be suspended the first six games of the year for violating the league's substance abuse policy. Already missing Elvis Dumervil in 2013, the Broncos pass rush will have a much different look to start the season. They have a few options who will need to elevate their game while Miller is out.
Shaun Phillips is the first player the team will turn to. When added in free agency, some felt he was a good fit to help replace Dumervil as a part-time pass-rusher. Now that Miller is out, we'll see Phillips play a bigger role as the team's leading sackmaster. The veteran could get around 10 sacks in 2013 and needs to provide pressure on opposing quarterbacks early in the season.
Derek Wolfe suffered a scary neck injury in the preseason, but is healthy and will be on the field to start the regular season. As a rookie in 2012, Wolfe was second on the defensive line in snaps played, behind only Elvis Dumervil.
He finished his rookie year with six sacks, but was close to having about five more. Miller admitted this offseason he took about five sacks away from Wolfe because he arrived at the quarterback just a bit earlier. This year, the Broncos need Wolfe to secure those sacks with Miller out, and if he could push for double-digit sacks, then it would be a huge boost for the defense.
Malik Jackson has a raw skill set. He can get after the quarterback, but it's more from heart, hustle and brute strength than it is from a sharpened array of pass-rushing moves. Jackson is nasty and plays with a mean streak. His effort is unmatched, and he constantly plays with a high motor. If he can grind down opponents with his strength as a rotational player, it will help the speed rushers.
Sylvester Williams was the team's first-round pick in the 2013 NFL draft. He's stout at the point of attack, yet has the quickness off the snap to create middle pressure.
Edge-rushers can be handled by a savvy quarterback who climbs the ladder to step up in the pocket. When middle pressure is added, there's nothing most quarterbacks can do. The Broncos need Williams to give them some push in the middle as a part-time defensive tackle to open the season.
Will Von Miller Come Back with a Vengeance?
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Von Miller will miss the first six weeks of the season due to a suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy. It's a huge blow to the Broncos defense, but he can return with a vengeance in week seven against the Indianapolis Colts.
After the suspension was handed down, Miller released a statement:
Although my suspension doesn’t result from a positive test, there is no excuse for my violations of the rules. I made mistakes and my suspension has hurt my team, Broncos fans, and myself. I am especially sorry for the effect of my bad decisions on others. I will not make the the same mistakes about adhering to the policy in the future.
During my time off the field, I will work tirelessly and focus exclusively on remaining in peak shape. I look forward to contributing immediately upon my upon my return to the field and bringing a championship back to the people of Denver.”
Miller is going to lose a large portion of his salary this year due to the suspension. He has a base salary of $2,284,125 in 2013 and will lose $806,161.76 in wages by missing these six games.
He's known as a quirky player who likes to have a good time and enjoys himself on the football field. Miller may take this suspension as a wake-up call and mature because of it. He's been embarrassed by this situation and should take out his frustration on opponents.
The entire Broncos roster knows this team is in a Super Bowl window. Anything less than a championship title will be a disappointment for the Broncos in 2013. Miller should play with a chip on his shoulder when he returns. He's set to hit free agency after the 2014 season and wants to prove that he can stay clean and be one of the best in the NFL at his position.
Does Champ Bailey Get Targeted More in 2013?
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Champ Bailey had a rough end to the 2012 season. In the playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens, he was burned repeatedly by Torrey Smith. During that cold day, Smith caught three passes for 98 yards and two touchdowns. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco did not shy away from targeting the future Hall of Fame cornerback, and this season, opponents could follow suit.
As a shutdown corner during his NFL career, Bailey has seen fewer targets than players lining up on the opposite side of him. Now that he may have lost a step, that trend should go in the other direction. Bailey will still cover an opponents' best receiver, but may have trouble keeping up with faster receivers like Smith.
Bailey is an incredibly competitive player and will be ready for the challenge. He's sound in run support and can play closer to the line of scrimmage. Against speedy receivers, we may see Bailey give a bigger cushion and play further off the line.
This preseason, Bailey suffered a foot injury that bounced him from the final two weeks of August. An MRI did not reveal any torn ligaments in Bailey's injured foot. There is no timetable for his return, and when he comes back, he may be limited in practice because of this injury.
Bailey will be targeted more this season than he was last year, especially if the pass rush can't get to opposing quarterbacks with regularity. Also, the secondary should see more targets thrown their way as opponents have to play catch-up football against the high-powered Peyton Manning offense.
How Bailey responds to the increased attention will help determine the Broncos' defensive success in 2013.
Can Peyton Manning Throw Effectively in Cold Weather?
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In my opinion, this is the biggest question for the Broncos in 2013. Last season, Manning's arm strength held up well as the season went on. However, when they faced the Ravens in the playoffs, the weather took a turn for the worst. It was well below zero wind chill, and, clearly, it changed the way Manning could grip the football. Even wearing gloves, it seemed like proper velocity was lost on Manning's passes.
This offseason, I noted Manning's arm strength was improved at May minicamp. Even wide receiver Eric Decker commented that Manning had a stronger arm at workouts.
Arm strength and velocity are two different things. Manning has overthrown a few targets on deep passes this offseason. His arm strength, in terms of distance throwing, is fine.
Velocity is achieved first through a strong grip on the football. When it's spun tightly, the ball will rise and fall evenly, and accuracy will be improved. Any lack of velocity will hurt accuracy and create passes that are more difficult to catch.
Manning's velocity right now is fine. We won't know how the nerve endings in his arm respond until we get to cold weather games after Thanksgiving. The Broncos have three games at home in December, and that's when we'll know more about how Manning's arm responds to the cold. They wrap up the regular season with two games on the road and are likely to play at least one playoff game at home.
Manning's effectiveness in cold weather will be further tested if the Broncos reach the Super Bowl in 2013. Super Bowl XLVIII will be held at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N. J., on February 2, 2014.
During his entire pro career, Manning has never won a playoff game when the temperature is below 40 degrees. He's 0-4 in those type of games since he came into the league in 1998. Chances are, the weather will be cold on Super Bowl Sunday. Just to make it that far, Manning will have to have already won some cold-weather playoff games.