The Denver Broncos are headed to MetLife Stadium as the AFC’s representative for Super Bowl XLVIII. They had a record-setting offense this year and are set to top off the season with a world championship.
They didn’t have an easy path to the Super Bowl. The Broncos had to overcome plenty of adversity this season. Off-field and on-field problems created obstacles for them all season long.
The team had to initially overcome the loss of Von Miller for the first six games of the season due to the league’s substance-abuse policy. Denver went 6-0 during that time but not without facing more hurdles.
The Broncos practiced most of the offseason without left tackle Ryan Clady as he recovered from pectoral surgery. He triumphantly returned to the lineup for the start of the regular season, but the team was soon without him again. He suffered a Lisfranc injury in Week 2 against the Giants, and the Broncos put him on season-ending injured reserve.
In the Week 5 game against the Cowboys, linebacker Wesley Woodyard suffered a neck stinger that cost him the starting job. Middle linebacker Paris Lenon took over as the starter and didn’t give the job back.
Denver played most of the season without Champ Bailey. He suffered a Lisfranc injury in training camp and was in and (mostly) out of the lineup in 2013.
The team was rolling toward the postseason when Miller was lost again. This time it was a knee injury that ended his season.
After winning the No. 1 seed in the AFC, the Broncos beat the Chargers in the divisional round of the playoffs. In that contest, they lost starting cornerback Chris Harris for the year with a knee injury.
They got a scare in the AFC Championship Game when Knowshon Moreno went down with a chest injury. He’s OK and should be ready to go for the Super Bowl.
As you can see, the Broncos have not had an easy path. The roster has undergone multiple changes as they are on the verge of the biggest game of the season.
Let’s take a look at every position on the roster and examine where their strengths and weaknesses.
Starter: Peyton Manning
Backups: Brock Osweiler, Zac Dysert
Peyton Manning finished the year with the greatest single season in NFL history. His 55 touchdown passes and 5,477 yards passing are both new NFL records. He made it look easy all season, and now he will face what many feel is the best defense in the league.
The Seahawks led the NFL in interceptions (28), and they allowed the fewest yards per attempt (5.8) in 2013.
The Broncos did a good job of protecting the quarterback all season long. Manning was pressured on 14 percent of his dropbacks this season, the lowest rate in the NFL. The Seahawks pressured opposing quarterbacks on 32 percent of dropbacks, good for the best rate in the league.
He will need to get rid of the ball quickly in order to combat Seattle's pressure. It's good that he had one of the lowest times in the pocket (2.23 seconds) of any starting quarterback.
Backup Brock Osweiler is athletic and has a strong arm. He’s being groomed as the quarterback of the future for the Broncos. Rookie Zac Dysert is a favorite of John Elway and is seen only as a developmental quarterback with unknown upside.
Starter: Knowshon Moreno
Backups: Montee Ball, C.J. Anderson, Ronnie Hillman
Knowshon Moreno had the best season of his pro career in 2013. He finished with more than 1,000 yards for the first time as a pro. He also became the first Broncos back to finish with 500 yards receiving in addition to 1,000 rushing yards.
The Seahawks defense is known as one of the most physical units in the league. Moreno will have to match their physical style as the Broncos try to soften them up with the ground game. Seattle ranked seventh against the run in 2013, allowing an average of 101.6 rushing yards per game.
The Seahawks will be concentrated on stopping Manning and the aerial attack. If Moreno can get a jump-start early, he will give a distinct advantage to the Broncos.
Rookie Montee Ball is the goal-line vulture. He has a nose for the end zone, and the Broncos could turn to him instead of Moreno when they are near paydirt. C.J. Anderson is the team’s most powerful runner, and he will compete with Ronnie Hillman for the right to be active as the third back on Super Bowl Sunday.
Backups: Andre Caldwell, Trindon Holliday
The Broncos have arguably the most talented trio of starting wide receivers in the league. The Seahawks have a strong secondary, but they may find covering Denver difficult.
Demaryius Thomas is the favorite target of Peyton Manning. He finished the year with 142 targets, 92 receptions, 1,430 yards and 14 touchdowns. He had only five games with fewer than five receptions in 2013, three of which were Broncos losses. He will be matched up with All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman.
|Manning Targeting Thomas This Season (Including Playoffs)||Wins||Losses|
|Receptions per Game||6.3||4.0|
|Yards per Game||96.3||56.0|
Eric Decker is a favorite of Manning as well. He had 136 targets, 87 catches, 1,288 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2013. He can make difficult catches seem routine, and he is known as a crisp route runner who can get open. The team will need him to make big plays in the passing game since he should see single coverage in the Super Bowl.
Wes Welker was a key free-agent addition this year. He missed three games due to concussions but still finished with 111 targets, 73 receptions, 778 yards and 10 touchdowns. His underneath routes are second to none. He could be an important player for a team that will be looking to get rid of the ball quickly.
In 2013, the Broncos led the NFL with 2,583 yards after the catch, while the Seahawks allowed a league-low 1,275 yards after the catch. Manning recorded 128 passing first downs on throws short of the first-down marker in the regular season (10 so far in the postseason). No other quarterback had more than 95 such first downs this year.
Denver wants to distribute the ball to the receivers as quickly as possible and will rely on them gaining yards after the catch to move the chains.
Andre Caldwell is a reserve player who will give Thomas a breather from time to time. He has good speed and can surprise a defense downfield. Trindon Holliday is listed as a wide receiver, but he’s mainly a special teams contributor as a kick returner. He lost his job as the punt returner in the playoffs.
Starter: Julius Thomas
Backups: Virgil Green, Jacob Tamme, Joel Dreessen
Julius Thomas has finally emerged as the playmaker that the Broncos envisioned when they selected him in the fourth round of the 2011 NFL draft. He had a Pro Bowl season this year with 90 targets, 65 receptions, 788 yards and 12 touchdowns.
He may be the most important player on the offense in this matchup. Seattle has had trouble slowing down tight ends at times this year. He has the speed to attack the deep middle seam and knows how to box out defenders in the end zone.
The Broncos have been moving him around the formation to create mismatches they desire. Expect Denver to use plenty of curl/flat concepts on the right side to get Thomas open against the Seahawks coverage.
Virgil Green came to the Broncos as a late-round pick in 2011. He was primarily known as a receiving tight end in college at Nevada, where he was the favorite target of Colin Kaepernick. However, during his time with the Broncos, he has learned how to be a devastating blocker.
Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen rarely see the field. Tamme has the best chemistry with Manning, as both men played with the Colts. He could get onto the field when the team is in the red zone, and he gives Denver yet another weapon.
Starters: Chris Clark, Zane Beadles, Manny Ramirez, Louis Vasquez, Orlando Franklin
Backups: Chris Kuper, Winston Justice, Steve Vallos
Chris Clark took over for Ryan Clady in Week 3. Losing Clady for the year with a foot injury could have been the death knell for this team. Protecting Peyton Manning is the most important part of what the Broncos do, and Clark has done a fine job most of the season in pass protection.
Zane Beadles is one of the most aggressive players on the roster. He plays with a mean streak, and he should be able to match the physicality of the Seahawks defense.
Manny Ramirez spent most of the offseason as the team’s starting center. He was just supposed to be filling in while J.D. Walton recovered from an ankle injury. When Walton suffered a setback (and Dan Koppen was hurt too), the team looked to Ramirez as the full-time starter, and he has played well most weeks. He is capable of standing up to defenders as he’s stout and has a strong base.
Louis Vasquez has proved to be a great free-agent addition for the Broncos. He is smothering as a run blocker, but he also is a fine pass protector as well.
Orlando Frankin is a road grader as a run blocker. His pass protection is good enough, but he can struggle against elite edge-rushers. The Seahawks are likely to pick on Franklin early to see if they can get by him and get to Manning.
Starters: Robert Ayers, Shaun Phillips
Backups: Malik Jackson, Jeremy Mincey
Robert Ayers is a solid yet unspectacular pro for the Broncos. He can set the edge as a run defender and will consistently keep contain on the outside. He will force the play inside where his teammates can clean up.
Shaun Phillips was the team’s replacement for Elvis Dumervil. He has become the team’s top pass-rusher this year due to the suspension (then injury) to Von Miller. Phillips is a pass-rusher who can wreak havoc on an opponent, and he has multiple moves to get after the quarterback.
If the Broncos can get Phillips to the quarterback consistently, it will help them against the Seahawks. With Wilson's rushing ability, the team needs to stay disciplined and not get too far upfield when attacking the passer.
Malik Jackson is a rising star on the team. He has the strength to stand up against the run, plus the motor to put quarterbacks under duress.
Jeremy Mincey was a late-season addition by the Broncos. He’s worked under Jack Del Rio before during their time together with the Jaguars. He makes plays as a part-time defender.
Starters: Terrance Knighton, Sylvester Williams
Backups: Mitch Unrein, Sione Fua
Terrance Knighton has been an important free-agent addition for the Broncos. His size on the line is much needed for the defense, and he can regularly stuff the run. He also has more speed and quickness than some think. As we saw in the AFC Championship Game against the Patriots, he can harass the quarterback from time to time.
Knighton will be huge against the Seahawks. The rush defense has only allowed one 100-yard rusher this year (Ryan Mathews), and it will be put to the test against Marshawn Lynch.
Sylvester Williams was the team’s first-round pick in 2013. He has seen an increased role since the Broncos lost Kevin Vickerson for the year with a hip injury. Williams has steadily (but slowly) improved each week with more playing time. He has a blue-collar work ethic, and he’s known as a high-motor player.
Mitch Unrein is a valued veteran who can create pressure from the inside on a part-time basis. He also can be used as the team’s fullback when the offense is near paydirt. Fua is a veteran who sees some work.
Starters: Nate Irving, Paris Lenon, Danny Trevathan
Backups: Wesley Woodyard, Steven Johnson, Brandon Marshall
The team has had a ton of movement at this position. Nate Irving is now starting on the strong side since the team lost Von Miller to a knee injury late in the season. Irving is a stout player who loves to hit. He is mostly known as a run defender and struggles when asked to cover.
Paris Lenon has struggled as the team’s starting middle linebacker from time to time. However, the Broncos feel he’s their best option as he replaced an ineffective (and injured) Wesley Woodyard. Irving and Lenon will have to be on the top of their game when facing Marshawn Lynch in the Super Bowl.
Danny Trevathan can fly all over the field. He’s athletic and has a nose for the football. He will bait quarterbacks into targeting the receiver (or tight end) he’s covering. He will then swoop in and pick off (or knock away) the pass.
Woodyard moved to the middle linebacker spot earlier this season when the team couldn’t find the right fit inside. He did a decent job until a neck injury bounced him from the game against the Cowboys. He was never quite the same after that and now plays mostly in the nickel package.
Brandon Marshall and Steven Johnson play special teams and give the team depth.
Starters: Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Tony Carter
Backups: Champ Bailey, Kayvon Webster, Quentin Jammer, Marquice Cole
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is the team’s best cornerback. He regularly shuts down the top receiver each week. He has regained his swagger and is playing with confidence.
He should be able to keep up with the likes of Doug Baldwin or Golden Tate downfield. It's unclear at this time if Percy Harvin is going to play in the Super Bowl.
Tony Carter started in the AFC Championship Game against the Patriots. He was filling in for the injured Chris Harris and didn’t do a bad job. He is athletic and loves to take chances on the field. He can get burned, but he can also get his hands on the football to make a play.
Champ Bailey is the team’s starting nickel cornerback. He’s not the same player he used to be, but he can be used effectively in the slot near the line of scrimmage. He has worked through a nagging foot injury and looked closer to full strength against the Patriots last week. He is also a sound run defender who can find a way to the ball.
Rookie Kayvon Webster started at times this year as the team was experimenting with different lineups. He’s big, fast and physical. However, he struggles to transition from his backpedal and was regularly burned late in the year.
Quentin Jammer is a savvy veteran, but he’s best used as a reserve player. When asked to play a more prominent role, he has struggled. Marquice Cole gives the team more veteran depth.
Starters: Mike Adams, Duke Ihenacho
Backups: Omar Bolden, David Bruton
Mike Adams is a team-first player who initially started the season as a backup. When Rahim Moore was lost to a rare lower-leg injury, the team turned to Adams to play a larger role. He responded by giving the team quality starts, and he regularly made plays on the football.
Duke Ihenacho has been on-again/off-again as a starter. He has been starting in the postseason and has shown improvement. He’s a big hitter who loves to initiate contact. He gives the team an intimidator in the defensive backfield.
The safeties are the last line of defense. If Marshawn Lynch or Doug Baldwin breaks a big play, the safeties will have to stop the bleeding by stopping the play before a touchdown is scored.
Omar Bolden converted from cornerback to safety this year. He’s just a depth player who struggles with increased reps. David Bruton is a special teams star with incredible straight-line speed.
Kicker: Matt Prater
Punter: Britton Colquitt
Long Snapper: Aaron Brewer
Matt Prater is one of the best kickers in the league. Earlier this year, he set a new NFL record with a 64-yard field goal against the Titans. He’s automatic on extra points, and the team has supreme confidence in him on long-distance field goals.
Britton Colquitt is a weapon as a punter. He hasn’t punted that much as the Broncos offense set the record for most points in a single season. When the team needs him to, he can pin an opponent deep in its own territory.
Aaron Brewer is a quality long snapper who the team trusts to deliver the ball back to Colquitt and Prater.
Note: All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/statistical information provided via email from the Denver Broncos. All contract information for individual players is from Spotrac.com.
Cecil Lammey can be followed on Twitter @CecilLammey.