ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – It can be tough to follow such a high-end opening act, but that is the Denver Broncos' task this week as they make their first road trip since an Aug. 17 preseason game in Seattle.
“And our last outing wasn’t too positive,’’ said Broncos coach John Fox about that 40-10 loss to the Seahawks. “I think we’ve got a little bit to learn from that.’’
By the time Broncos jog onto the field Sunday at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., it will have also been 10 days since Peyton Manning carved out another slice of football history -- and carved up the Baltimore Ravens' secondary -- with seven touchdown passes in a 49-27 opening victory. So, in that light, here are some things to consider about the third, and perhaps last, time Peyton will face his brother Eli’s team:
What comes after seven? Manning tied an NFL record with his seven passing TDs against the Ravens and became the first player to reach that mark in a game since 1969. Tough to top that. The Broncos would like to run the ball a few more times -- and a lot better -- against the Giants than they did against the Ravens, but Manning will still put the ball in the air plenty. The Giants have some uncertainty at cornerback -- Prince Amukamara suffered a concussion in the opener against the Cowboys -- and their linebackers struggled in coverage against Dallas. That’s a recipe for Manning to push the ball up the sidelines at times, especially out of play-action, and work the middle of the field with tight end Julius Thomas or Wes Welker. Running back Knowshon Moreno, who has the running back of choice in the three-wide-receiver set, figures to be busy in the passing game as well -- Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo completed 18 passes to his backs and tight ends, who consistently found room in the short to intermediate zones.
Four of a kind. The Giants have always believed in the benefits of a four-man rush to bring pressure on opposing quarterbacks -- “That’s been true going all the way back to when I was coaching there,’’ Fox said. That allows the defense to use seven players in coverage in these pass-happy times -- and it's especially true for a Giants team with some uncertainly in its defensive back seven and that likely needs to play it a little more conservatively. Against the Cowboys, with end Jason Pierre-Paul still working his way back from offseason back surgery (he played 50 snaps in Dallas), the Giants did most of the consistent damage when they won on the inside. Defensive tackles Linval Joseph and Cullen Jenkins, a combined 628 pounds, repeated pounded away at Cowboys rookie center Travis Frederick. The two also made life difficult for right guard Mackenzy Bernadeau, so much so many in the league believe recent signee Brian Waters will be manning the position the next time the Cowboys play. The Broncos struggled at times against the Ravens' defensive front, particularly in the run game on the interior. The Giants figure to test left guard Zane Beadles and center Manny Ramirez plenty.
Short and not so sweet. The danger in all of the up-tempo frenzy going on in the league -- and the biggest reason the jury remains out on all of it -- is what it does to a defense when the team’s offense doesn’t get a first down when running at warp speed. The Broncos had a 48-second three-and-out possession in the second quarter against the Ravens, to go with a 59-second possession in the fourth quarter. “We have to avoid that,’’ said offensive coordinator Adam Gase. “When we go to our up-tempo stuff, we have to make sure that we’re staying on the field and put the (opposing) defense in a bad defense.’’
Three-pack. What the Giants could do with Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks at wide receiver was already a significant challenge for opposing defenses. And if Rueben Randle can consistently be that third option -- all three topped 100 yards receiving against the Cowboys -- it spreads things out even a little more. The alignment to watch was one that was repeatedly effective against the Cowboys, with Nicks and Cruz lined up to the offensive right and Randle as the lone receiver to the left. The Giants consistently got all three into open space with that set. It will be a significant challenge for the Broncos' defensive backs. “Real good third option," said Denver defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said of Randle. "I described him to our guys, he’s like a No. 2 in the league, I think he’s a legitimate starting-caliber wide receiver (who) happens to be the third guy in their rotation."
Be in a rush. In of the rose petals tossed at the Broncos’ feet after what was a high-quality victory over Baltimore, it was easy to lose sight of the fact that Denver did not have a sack, or hadn’t really even stressed Joe Flacco all that much in the pocket, until right tackle Michael Oher suffered a severely sprained right knee on a 1-yard touchdown run by Ray Rice with 8 minutes, 3 seconds to play in the second quarter. All four of the Broncos' sacks, including the 2.5 for defensive end Shaun Phillips, came after the Ravens had to slide protections at times with Oher out. The Giants have had their own struggles in the offensive front, but the Broncos have to find a way to get some heat on Eli Manning -- or Manning will find the soft spots in coverage.
Adapt or punt. You don’t spend $12 million of Pat Bowlen’s dollars on Welker if you don’t want to go with three wide receivers on offense most of the time. But the Broncos struggled mightily early against Baltimore until they went to a two-tight-end look for five plays. They found their flow, played a little bigger for a few snaps ... and away they went. They have been more efficient at times over the past two seasons out of the two-tight-end look, especially early in games. The Broncos had eight plays among the first 20 that went for one yard or fewer or were an incompletion. The first 20 snaps, including penalties, resulted in three punts. The Broncos didn’t score the first touchdown until they went to two tight ends, then got back in the three-wide set on their fifth possession of the game. They scored a touchdown on a one-play drive, in three-wide, to close out their fourth possession after they got the ball on the Ravens’ 24-yard line, thanks to a Chris Harris interception.