Coming into the season, the Denver Broncos were Super Bowl favorites and the Oakland Raiders were favorites to get the No. 1 overall pick next April. Not much has changed in two weeks except that the Raiders beat the Jacksonville Jaguars and are no longer the favorite to land Teddy Bridgewater (although Jadeveon Clowney is still a possibility).
ESPN's Monday Night Football game appears to be a real David vs. Goliath matchup; the nigh unbeatable Peyton Manning and his posse of talented receivers against the flawed Terrelle Pryor and a ragtag group of veteran defensive castoffs.
Bleacher Report's expert panel has the Broncos winning by an average of more than 21 points and Vegas has made the Raiders 16.5-point underdogs. No one is giving the Raiders a chance, but last I checked, this is the NFL, where the "any given Sunday" cliché still holds true—especially against division rivals.
If the Raiders do a handful of things well, they can hang with Denver. However, even the slightest lapse might mean the difference between a close game and getting trampled by the hard-charging Broncos.
Catching the Broncos on an off night also wouldn't hurt, but you can't count on that because they've had so few of them since early last year. Manning's teams aren't known for beating themselves, and the fact that it's a nationally televised game should keep the players completely focused.
Ride the Read-Option
The Denver Broncos have faced one mobile quarterback since John Fox took over as head coach in 2011. That quarterback was Cam Newton in 2012, and he rushed four times for seven yards, but Newton also didn't run a single read-option play.
The read-option has been and should continue to be a big part of Oakland's game plan. Pryor has done a great job executing it and the results have been very positive. The Raiders lead the league in rushing offense through two weeks.
Having not faced the read-option before means the Broncos will be learning on the fly. The Broncos can prepare for it, but until they face it in a game, there is no way to know how effective they will be at stopping it. No one the Broncos have on their scout team can match the tandem of Pryor and Darren McFadden as far as pure athleticism.
Running the ball only works if the Raiders can keep the score close. One way to beat Manning is to give him as few possessions as possible, and the other is to outscore him. The Raiders don't have the offensive firepower to do the latter, which means running the ball effectively will be a key factor.
If the Raiders are going to stay in this game, they must feed them a heavy dose of read-option, creating favorable matchups, and force the Broncos to stop it. The Raiders have used the read-option sparingly, but with great success, this season.
Houston, We Have Liftoff
Denver's franchise left tackle Ryan Clady was placed on injured reserve with a Lisfranc injury last week, and Chris Clark will start in his place. It will be Clark's first start at left tackle and just the seventh start of his four-year career.
The talent gap between Clark and Clady is tremendous, and the Broncos have gone from one of the best left tackles in the league to a below-average player who is assigned to protect Manning's blind side. Although Manning gets the ball out quickly, he's still a pocket passer who can be impacted by a productive pass rush.
Manning's weakness is actually dealing with pressure coming off the edge. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), when Denver's left tackle allowed pressure, Manning completed just 51.9 percent of his passes with four touchdowns, nine interceptions and an average of 5.3 yards per attempt.
Manning's PFF grade on those plays was an unimpressive minus-7.3. Contrary to popular belief, Manning actually performs slightly worse when blitzed. A well-timed, well-disguised blitz can be effective against the veteran.
The problem with blitzing Manning is that he is so good at making adjustments. A fierce four-man rush is going to be even more vital to slowing the Broncos passing offense down, and the Raiders happen to have one very favorable matchup along the defensive line.
Raiders right defensive end Lamarr Houston currently has 16 quarterback pressures according to ProFootballFocus. If Houston can victimize Clark and put the heat on Manning, the Raiders might be able to force Manning to make a couple of mistakes.
Even if the pressure only slows down Manning a little bit, it could help the Raiders stay in the game. Surely, the Broncos are going to try to give Clark help with chip blocks to negate Houston's impact, but doing so could make them vulnerable on the opposite side.
The Raiders might consider bringing their blitzes off the left edge (vs. right offensive tackle) early to force the Broncos to keep extra blockers in for pass protection. Disrupting the timing and reducing the number of players running passing routes should help take some pressure off Oakland's secondary.
It remains to be seen if star cornerback Champ Bailey will be able to play on Monday night.
If Bailey can't go, Tony Carter will continue to see the extra snaps at left cornerback. With strong safety Duke Ihenacho also recovering from a minor injury, the Raiders have a golden opportunity to go over the top. The Broncos will likely force Pryor to beat them with his arm by bringing a safety up into the box.
With only one safety deep, there will be holes deep along the sidelines that the Raiders need to exploit.
Oakland's most dangerous vertical threat is Denarius Moore, and the Raiders shouldn't hesitate to give him a chance to win in a jump-ball situation against Carter, who is just 5'9". Not only would this result in big-yardage plays, but the Broncos would surely be forced to keep a safety back, and that would open up the ground game.
With Pryor running the offense, the Raiders aren't going to be able to rely on the short passing game to sustain long drives and keep Manning on the sidelines. Instead, the Raiders need a strong rushing attack. Of course, the Broncos know that and will swarm Oakland's ground game if the Raiders don't make them respect the deep pass.
One of the reasons the Broncos struggled against the Baltimore Ravens in the playoffs last year was because of the Ravens' success throwing the ball downfield.
Without Von Miller to put immediate pressure on quarterbacks, the Broncos are going to be vulnerable to deeper passes. A quarterback like Pryor, who can escape pressure and has the arm strength to throw long, could find success against a very solid secondary.
Empty the Bag of Tricks
The Raiders ran a trick play last week and it worked, but it was called back due to an illegal-formation penalty because Moore didn't cover left tackle Khalif Barnes on the line of scrimmage. The play was a right toss to McFadden, who threw a backwards pass across the field to Pryor, who then threw the ball to Rod Streater on a deep crossing pattern for a 27-yard gain.
One or two well-timed trick plays can be effective, especially against a defense that will be preoccupied trying to keep Pryor and McFadden from breaking off long runs. If the Raiders want to compete, they would be wise to pull out all the stops in hopes of catching Denver off guard.
Obviously, the tricks need to be saved for the most opportune times, as every trick play is designed to attack a specific defensive look.
The Raiders should take every opportunity to make Denver's defense hesitant. The difference between a two-yard loss and a 50-yard gain sometimes comes down to a moment of hesitation by an edge defender or cornerback. By no means should the Raiders get too cute with trick plays, but one or two couldn't hurt.
Penalties and Turnovers
The Raiders may or may not be able to force the Broncos to turn the ball over.
The best chance for a takeaway is trying to get return man Trindon Holliday or running back Ronnie Hillman to cough up the ball. Manning has yet to throw an interception in 2013, but he's also been known to throw one or two on occasion.
Teams that win the turnover battle usually win the game, so the Raiders not only need to get their first turnover of the year, but they can't turn the ball over, either.
Pryor threw two interceptions in Week 1 and Darren McFadden fumbled in Week 2. The two interceptions were the difference in the game, and that's often the case.
So far in 2013, turnovers have not been a major issue for the Raiders, but against a team like Denver, ball security will be at a premium. Turnovers can both waste scoring opportunities and flip the field in favor of the opposing offense.
Giving Manning extra opportunities is a recipe for failure. In addition to limiting turnovers on offense, the Raiders can't grant Manning free yardage or downs by way of penalties. Playing mistake-free football on the road is a tough task, but that's what it's going to take for the Raiders to hang around in this game.
It's going to be hard for the Raiders to stick with the Broncos on Monday night, but it's not impossible. If the Raiders can play crisp, clean football and take advantage of favorable matchups, they should at least be able to keep the game close.
Turn the ball over, commit penalties and/or fail to take advantage of favorable matchups and the Broncos are going to run roughshod over the Raiders just as expected. But, and as is often the case with division games, something crazy can always happen.
When these two teams met in Denver last year in Week 4, the 1-2 Broncos took it out on the Raiders and won, 37-6, but it was just 10-6 at halftime. When the two teams squared off in Oakland, the Broncos won by 13, but it was 13-7 at halftime.
The Raiders have successfully flustered Manning in the first half of games, but he always seems to figure things out by the second half. If the Raiders can adjust on the fly and continue to make Manning uncomfortable in the second half while playing mistake-free football throughout, they are going to keep the score a lot closer than anticipated.
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