There may not be a more impossible unit to game-plan against in today's NFL than the Denver Broncos offense. Quarterback Peyton Manning has been about as perfect as it gets through three games, and an astounding four players are currently on pace to crack 1,000 yards receiving this season.
No, prayer is not a viable game plan.
Yet while seemingly all of the focus this week has been squarely on Manning and what is by far the league’s most prolific offense, the Philadelphia Eagles are no slouches in ithat department either. The Birds enter Week 4 ranked second in yards from scrimmage, and not even the Broncos are averaging 7.0 yards per play—but Michael Vick and company are.
In fact, you can almost detect a hint of concern from Peyton over what Philly’s offense will bring to the party, given that head coach Chip Kelly has had extra time to prepare.
Peyton Manning: "We're coming off a short week. It was nice of the NFL to give Philly 12 days and give us six."— Reuben Frank (@RoobCSN) September 24, 2013
For the record, it’s actually 10 days, not 12. He may very well be the greatest passer the sport has ever known, but that doesn’t mean math is one of his strong suits.
Regardless, Vick will have to put last week’s ghastly performance behind him if the Eagles are to prove that the first two games were no fluke, much less compete on Sunday. We’ll get to the gargantuan task facing the Philadelphia defense in due time, but let’s place their offense under the microscope first.
Philly Offense vs. Denver Defense
Attack the Broncos’ Secondary
Naturally LeSean McCoy will be a huge part of any Eagles’ game plan.
The NFL’s leading rusher should see his usual 20-plus touches, although Shady faces his stiffest test to date in the form of the Broncos’ number-one run defense. It’s not just a matter of high-scoring games forcing opponents to abandon the ground attack either; Denver is also holding opponents to a league-best 2.3 yards per carry.
If the Birds are going to keep up with Manning, though, there will come moments when they have to rack up yardage in big chunks, and the easiest way to do that is through the air—especially given the injuries to the Broncos’ defensive backfield.
Even if Denver's 12-time Pro-Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey finally plays, it will be his first game action in over a month, and his suiting up is no given, seeing as he was limited in practice. Tony Carter is the primary backup, and he didn’t practice at all, nor did starting safety Duke Ihenacho. Both defensive backs are dealing with ankle injuries.
Oh, and not listed on that injury report is outside linebacker Von Miller, the club’s best pass-rusher who continues to serve a suspension.
Denver has conceded the third-highest number of passing yards in the NFL so far, but a lot of that yardage came after the Broncos had built significant leads and could play prevent defense. More revealing is the fact that opposing quarterbacks have a passer rating of 75.4—only seven NFL defenses have done better.
That said, with a depleted and/or dinged-up secondary, there should be opportunities as long as Vick can get back on track.
Protect Lane Johnson, And By Extension Vick
The Broncos may not have Von Miller, but they did sign outside linebacker Shaun Phillips away from the San Diego Chargers during the offseason. The 10-year veteran quietly had 9.5 sacks in 2012, and he’s recorded 2.5 this year already—all working against the opposing team's right tackle.
Meanwhile, fourth overall pick Lane Johnson has struggled increasingly in pass protection. It all came to a head for the rookie right tackle in Week 3 when Kansas City's Justin Houston abused Johnson to the tune of 3.5 sacks.
Scary thought for an offense we insist wants to go vertical this Sunday.
For as much as Vick’s disappointing showing last week was largely the quarterback’s own fault, there is no denying his offensive line didn’t play well, particularly the right side. Whether it’s rolling McCoy or one of the tight ends over there to help Johnson, Vick needs to have his blindside protected so he can take his shots downfield.
Anytime somebody says “protect the QB” it seems like stating the obvious, but the Phillips-Johnson matchup requires extra attention this week. Johnson has been tremendous in the running game, but it’s clear he’s not quite up to speed with the game’s more explosive and seasoned pass-rushers.
Philly Defense vs. Denver Offense
Pick Your Poison
There is no coverage known to man that the Broncos receivers can’t exploit, unless the Eagles win their petition with the NFL to use 13 players on defense this week. And even then…
Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker are Pro Bowlers. Eric Decker went for over 1,000 yards last season as well. Even if you haven’t heard of Julius Thomas yet, you can probably imagine how a 6’5”, 245 lbs. tight end who runs a 4.6 40-yard dash might create matchup problems. Add a trio of talented running backs, and you have nightmare fuel for defensive coordinators.
That goes double if Philadelphia winds up starting rookie Earl Wolff at safety in place of Patrick Chung, who is presently dealing with a shoulder contusion.
That said, if I had to pick one guy whom I would force Peyton to beat me with, it’s Decker. Is he good enough to beat a cornerback one-on-one? Absolutely. The Eagles went out this offseason and paid good money to sign free-agent corners Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher though, both of whom have done a nice job on the outside.
Neither Williams nor Bradley is going to win every battle against Denver—they may even lose most. Just keep the play in front of them and hope the pass rush gets to Manning once in awhile, perhaps forcing a mistake on his part.
No(one)thing Can Stop Peyton
What else can I tell you? So far this season, Manning has completed 73 percent of his pass attempts for 1,143 yards, 12 touchdowns and no interceptions. He’s been sacked just four times. A Manning-led squad hasn’t won fewer than 10 games since 2001, and the Broncos are off to a fast start this year.
Simply stating that the Eagles should try to pressure Manning obviously fails to do justice to the difficulty of such a task. As Chip Kelly said himself at his Tuesday press conference (transcribed by PhiladelphiaEagles.com), there isn’t one magical scheme that can trip this guy up:
The one thing with Peyton that you realize is that you can't just do one thing against him. He's such a great mind at the quarterback position. You may say this blitz beat him, but if you beat him the first time on the blitz, he's going to come back and beat you on the blitz.
You have to try to give him different looks. But you have to make sure your disguise isn't a liability.
Whether or not defensive coordinator Billy Davis or his defense—a unit that has allowed opposing passers to post a 99.2 efficiency rating—have it in them remains to be seen. My gut feeling is Kelly will have to rely on his own offense lighting up the scoreboard like it’s a pinball machine for the Eagles to have any chance of stealing a victory in Denver.