The Denver Broncos want to continue building momentum as they inch closer to the postseason. They won easily in Week 16 on the road against the Houston Texans. The team stays on the road for the final week of the regular season as they take on the Oakland Raiders in Week 17.
On Christmas, the Broncos did not take the day off. In fact, they practiced in pads to get ready for the Raiders.
Peyton Manning talked about that after practice was over: “I thought today was a good practice for Christmas Day—[head] coach [John] Fox gave us a nice gift with full pads (laughing). I think we’ve been pretty good, too. So I guess that was our present and I thought guys responded pretty well.”
The Broncos still have plenty to play for this week. They have secured a first-round bye, but they have not yet secured home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. If they beat the Raiders, then the road to the Super Bowl is paved through the Mile High City.
Manning has already broken the record for number of touchdowns thrown in a single season. His 51 touchdown passes this year is likely to grow against the Raiders.
With 266 passing yards against Oakland, Manning will hold a new record for passing yards in a single season.
The team will break the record for most points scored in a season if they score 18 points against the Raiders on Sunday. Needless to say, the Broncos are one of the league’s best teams.
It also goes without saying that the Raiders are one of the worst teams in the NFL. The Broncos should be able to secure a victory with ease, but they are not going to overlook a division rival.
“It’s an important game for us; we’re playing a division team, great rivalry in the history between the two teams. I’ve played the Raiders before, but this is only the fourth time in this division rivalry, and there is a lot of pride between the two teams. That’s where our focus is. We have another opportunity to improve as a team. There are some things that we can improve on, offensively. Some goals that we’re trying to achieve each week as far as ball security, eliminating penalties, and this is another chance to improve on those and hopefully we can get a win at the same time,” Manning said.
As the playoffs approach, we could see the team emphasize the ground game a bit more. This is the type of game where both Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball could have success running the football.
The last time these two teams played (Week 3), Moreno had 12 carries, and Ball finished with 11 carries. However, the team’s leading rusher was third-string running back Ronnie Hillman. The second-year runner gashed the Raiders for 66 yards on only nine carries.
Hillman has been slowly climbing out of the doghouse since a Week 7 fumble against the Colts near the goal line. He actually had a few carries last week against the Texans to close out the game.
The Broncos had something in Week 3 versus the Raiders they haven’t had consistently in a few weeks: balance. The team had 37 passing attempts and 35 rushing attempts against the Raiders earlier this year. We could see them strive for that kind of balance once again this week.
The Broncos are going to be playing without Wes Welker again this week. However, Welker did return to the practice field in a limited basis on Wednesday.
“I think just getting back out there, running around, being with his teammates, getting his timing back—all those types of things. He’s still in the steps of the concussion protocol and we’re taking it day-to-day. It was good to see him out there,” Fox said after practice.
The Raiders defense currently ranks 26th against the pass. They allow an average of 250.5 yards passing per game. The last time they played Manning, the Raiders surrendered 374 yards through the air.
We’ll see a new (old) starting quarterback for the Raiders in Week 17.
Earlier this week, the team announced Terrelle Pryor would get back in the starting lineup to close out the season. Pryor has played in 10 games this year, but he hasn’t started a game since Week 10 against the Giants. Injury and ineffectiveness caused the Raiders to start undrafted rookie Matt McGloin for a few weeks.
Pryor started the Week 3 game against the Broncos, so the team will be familiar with defending the strong-armed, athletic quarterback. They will need to play with discipline on the defensive line to prevent Pryor from gashing them as a runner.
They got a bit of good news as Derek Wolfe returned to the practice field. John Fox talked about getting Wolfe back at practice.
#Broncos Fox on Derek Wolfe back at practice "We've got everything under control. Now only a matter of getting him back into football shape"— Cecil Lammey (@cecillammey) December 25, 2013
Wolfe is unlikely to play this week, but the team is hoping to get him into football shape as quickly as possible.
The playing status of rookie cornerback Kayvon Webster is up in the air right now. He was out at practice wearing a cast on his hand due to recent thumb surgery. He may be able to play against the Raiders.
#Broncos Fox on Webster playing with a cast "The rest of him is healthy...we'll make a decision as it gets closer to game time."— Cecil Lammey (@cecillammey) December 25, 2013
The team will not only have to contend with Pryor as a runner, but they’ll also have to slow down Rashad Jennings and Darren McFadden.
Jennings took over as the starting running back when McFadden went down with (another) injury. He’s done such a good job the Raiders felt no need to rush McFadden back. Now that McFadden is healthy enough to play, we’ll see the team use some form of running-back-by-committee.
The passing game will feature a breakout player in second-year wide receiver Rod Streater. He only had one catch for two yards in the first game against the Broncos, but Streater has really started to shine since then. He especially started to play better once McGloin took over at quarterback.
With Pryor back under center, we should see him continue to feature Streater in the passing game. Denarius Moore was Pryor’s favorite target earlier this year. In the earlier game against the Broncos, Moore had six catches for 124 yards and one touchdown. Those numbers were greatly aided by a 73-yard touchdown catch on a busted coverage by the Broncos.
The secondary will need to play better this week in order to prevent those types of big plays. They won’t be aided by a stronger pass rush as the Broncos will be playing the rest of this year without linebacker Von Miller.
His knee injury will once again open the door for guys like Robert Ayers and Shaun Phillips to do more. In addition to those two, the team will look to guys like Nate Irving and newly activated linebacker Brandon Marshall.
On Wednesday, Marshall talked to the media in the locker room. He first commented on getting activated off the practice squad: “This is my childhood team. That’s going to be amazing to play for the Broncos. I’ve loved them since I was kid. Just to get out here with this great group of guys—I love my teammates, the coaches. This is probably the best staff and players I’ve ever been around. This is just awesome.”
Marshall also commented on taking the place of Miller on the active roster. “It’s sad because Von is a great player. It’s just a ‘next man up’ mentality and I’m happy they chose me but it’s very unfortunate that we lost a great player like Von.”
In order to beat the Raiders, the team will have to avoid any sort of letdown. The Raiders are going nowhere, but they would love nothing more than to play spoiler for the Broncos.
Let’s take a look at how the Denver Broncos will attack the Oakland Raiders on both sides of the ball.
When the Broncos Run the Ball
The Broncos should strive for more balance this week. That means more carries for Moreno and Ball. It could also mean getting Hillman more involved (if he’s active).
Below we see a toss play to Ball that goes for an eight-yard gain. The Broncos are lined up in the shotgun, and Manning simply pitches the ball to his running back right after the snap.
Ball is able to get to the second level quickly and decisively here. A player with Hillman’s speed could perhaps have an even larger gain on a play designed and executed like this.
When the Broncos Pass the Ball
Denver knows there’s blood in the water, and I fully expect them to come out on the attack. This means deep targets and throws to outside receivers like Decker and Demaryius Thomas.
However, the team will also continue to use 12 personnel (two tight end sets) to attack shorter routes close to the line of scrimmage.
Here we see a play with “five wide” receivers, but two of them are tight ends. Julius Thomas is going to get a lot of attention any time he’s on the field. Defenses can’t forget about long-time favorite Jacob Tamme though.
The Broncos use several different route combinations out of this formation. Tamme and Decker run routes exactly to the first-down marker. Julius Thomas stretches the seam, while Demaryius Thomas and Andre Caldwell run vertical routes. The Broncos move the chains easily with a four-yard pass to Tamme on the right side.
When the Raiders Run the Ball
The Raiders will use Jennings as their starter against the Broncos. He’s done a fine job this season as both a runner and receiver out of the backfield.
In addition to Jennings, we could also see a bit more from McFadden. This is likely the final game for McFadden in a Raiders jersey. He’s a free agent after this season, and the veteran running back may decide to try a fresh start somewhere else.
This play shows the Raiders no-nonsense rushing attack. The Raiders motion a tight end over before the snap to strengthen their Strong-I formation.
Jennings gets the ball and can decide to follow his blockers through the hole to the right or to another spot of his choosing. The veteran decides to slam it up behind the center for an eight-yard gain.
There’s not a lot of nuance to what the Raiders do on the ground. They line up in power formations and run power plays. The Broncos must be able to stand up to this kind of power in Week 17.
When the Raiders Pass the Ball
Pryor has a strong arm, and he could certainly attack the Broncos defense vertically. This means outside receivers like Moore and Streater could be featured. The team also has Andre Holmes to attack deep.
Jennings is a fine receiver out of the backfield, but arguably their best receiving back is fullback Marcel Reece.
In the play below we see how the team can be creative with where Reece lines up before the snap. He’s listed as a fullback, but he can really contribute from a number of different positions. Here we have Reece lined up in the backfield.
The ball is snapped, and the team executes a play-action fake. This draws the linebackers up for just a moment.
In this play we see how wide open Reece is after the catch. This 45-yard gain is made possible by a defense that put too much into stopping the run. The Chiefs bite hard on the play fake, and Reece flips the field in one play.
The Broncos have a lot to gain by beating the Raiders. Most importantly, the team has home-field advantage on the line.
Even though the Raiders are not a playoff-caliber team, we could see a playoff-like atmosphere this week in Oakland.
Things aren’t going as smoothly for the Broncos as they did last year, yet they may finish with the same 13-3 record.
On Monday, cornerback Chris Harris talked about the amount of adversity the team has had to endure this season.
“That’s just part of the journey. Every team goes through adversity but for us to go through everything that we’ve been through starting in the offseason up until this point and be 12-3 shows the character of this team. The goal is to win a Super Bowl, so regardless of who’s out there on the field we all have the same Bronco helmet and we expect greatness from everybody.”
The Broncos are ready to continue making history, and Sunday against the Raiders they could do just that.
All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/statistical information provided via email from the Denver Broncos.