When: 1 p.m. ET Sunday Where: Edward Jones Dome, St. Louis TV: CBS
At 3-6, the Rams appear headed toward their 11th consecutive year without a winning record. The 7-2 Broncos again look poised for a Super Bowl run. Rams coach Jeff Fisher and his coaching staff have a long history with Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning dating to their days in the AFC.
ESPN Rams reporter Nick Wagoner and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold discuss the chances of the Rams pulling off the upset.
Wagoner: Obviously, the Broncos are a top Super Bowl contender and they're all in on trying to get it done this year. More than halfway through the season, what are some reasons you think this team might be better equipped to finish the job this year and what are some things that might give you a little bit of pause?
Legwold: This time around they bring a far better defense into the mix. When John Elway dove into the offseason, he felt like the Broncos who were returning from injured reserve -- starters like Von Miller, Chris Harris Jr. and Derek Wolfe -- could be supplemented with free-agency additions, and the Broncos used cap space they had been holding back to sign DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward and Aqib Talib. The result is an across-the-board athleticism they did not have last season. And Miller has returned to his form of 2012 when he had 18.5 sacks. The Broncos also replaced Eric Decker with the more versatile Emmanuel Sanders at wide receiver and Peyton Manning has plenty of options. So much so that Manning is on pace to be the first guy to have back-to-back 50-touchdown seasons -- 55 in 2013 and currently on pace for 51 this year. All that said, their biggest question mark at the moment is the offensive line, where they have already made four changes that weren't injury related, including three for this past Sunday's game against the Oakland Raiders. Manning will always be the biggest reason the offense limits sacks, but three of the nine the Broncos have surrendered this year have come on three-man rushes. And they have had 36 rushing attempts this year for no gain or negative yardage combined. It's a fairly glaring issue at this point, but the Broncos' offense as a whole is historically explosive and they always seem to find a work-around to repair the issue week to week.
This past offseason there were plenty of folks in the league, probably among the Rams' decision-makers as well, who believed this team could put itself into the playoff discussion this year. What's happened?
Wagoner: Indeed, the Rams had been pointing to this, the third year of the Fisher regime, as the season they break through into playoff contention. But it hasn't come to light for plenty of reasons. It started with the season-ending knee injury to quarterback Sam Bradford, which spiraled into more injuries to key players over the first half of the season. But the other, perhaps bigger piece of the puzzle is a lack of development in many of the team's young players. The Rams are the youngest team in the league again this year and were banking on many of those young players who have already been playing to take a major step forward. While some have flashed promise, there haven't been enough taking the leap the Rams had hoped. The defense is finally starting to come around under new coordinator Gregg Williams but that took nearly half the season and the offense has regressed back to bottom-of-the-league levels as the quality of opponent has improved.
I've heard from a number of fans who are excited for this week just because they think it might be Manning's last visit to St. Louis (for reasons beyond just the possibility of him retiring before the Broncos would be back). He seems like he's as good as ever though. The Seahawks were able to beat the Broncos in the Super Bowl by generating consistent pass rush, especially from the front four. The Rams' pass rush is finally starting to live up to the hype. Do you see this as a matchup that could possibly be similar given Manning and the offense's relative issues, or will this be just another day at the office for him?
Legwold: The Broncos offense is a perfect storm at the moment between Manning's arrival, coordinator Adam Gase's ability to construct an offense around Manning that suits the 38-year-old quarterback, Gase's risk-taking in play calling and the personnel the team has. Throw in a pass-friendly rulebook and you have the pile of touchdowns Manning has put up with Denver. In 41 regular-season games with the Broncos, Manning has now thrown 121 touchdown passes and been sacked just 48 times. He has 15 consecutive games and counting with at least two touchdown passes and his current streak of 48 consecutive games with a touchdown pass is third all time. In the end, teams that have success against him in the rush get the pressure in the middle of the field. Manning tends to identify the edge rushers quickly, even if defensive coordinators try to disguise them, and the ball is usually gone before the edge guys can win the one-on-ones. So the teams that have affected him the most made him pull the ball down, the ones that get push between the guards into the A gaps. Manning can also see those guys coming, so a defense has to get there or the price is high. But overall, the Broncos are dialed in, they find the matchups in the secondary to exploit and have enough impact players. They consistently get one-on-ones their guys can win. Even when Manning said he "stunk" after the loss in New England, he had thrown for 438 yards.
Sticking with the quarterbacks, what's the long-term plan there? Do they believe Bradford comes back with potential to still be the long-term starter, so the Rams commit to another contract? Or are they looking at what is, at least in the early going, considered a thin class at quarterback in the 2015 draft beyond the top tier?
Wagoner: At this point, I think they're still figuring out the best option moving forward but there's a sense that it's possible Bradford could be back. The Rams have budgeted for his $16 million-plus cap number and could theoretically bring him back at that level, but it seems more likely that they won't. The question then becomes whether he'd come back at a reduced rate with incentives built in and a rookie quarterback to compete with or if he'd want to explore other options. Austin Davis has done enough to earn a role as a backup but probably not more than that. And Shaun Hill is now the starter but he's only on a one-year deal and he's 34. One way or another, the Rams have to prioritize quarterback in next year's draft. It should be in the first round but Fisher's knack for getting teams to mediocrity might take the top options out of play, which could in turn force the Rams to move up to get their guy. That would be a bit of a bitter pill to swallow for a team that has been flush with premium picks the past few years after trading the chance at Robert Griffin III to Washington.
The offseason additions to the defense seem to be paying off just fine. How much better is that group and what can Davis expect from that unit in terms of scheme and approach?
Legwold: When things are going well the Broncos have a rhythm on defense. They pound opposing run games out of their base look on early downs and this year have consistently forced teams into long second- and third-down situations. At that point defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio likes to go to their specialty packages in the nickel and dime when Del Rio loads the formation with speed. They give a variety of defensive fronts at that point; move Miller and Ware all over the formation and Del Rio will bring pressure from a variety of places. The Broncos have been successful this season in doing that because they have the lead so often and force teams to chase them and they have the No. 1 run defense in the league. They haven't surrendered over 67 yards rushing in a game since Week 3 in Seattle and over the last six games they've only faced more than 20 rushing attempts by an opposing offense one time -- 25 by New England, which ran for 66 yards.
On defense, there may be no collection of coaches who have faced Manning more than Fisher, Dave McGinnis, Williams and Chuck Cecil. How do you think they go about it and have they finally found some rhythm in their pass rush after a slow start?
Wagoner: I would think that the Rams took plenty of notes from how Seattle handled the Broncos in the Super Bowl and in their game earlier this season. The pass rush has been much better over the past four weeks, in part with improved play by the front four and even more so by better timed and executed blitzes. The Rams are first in the NFL in blitz percentage, which is no surprise given that Williams is running the show. Manning is probably the best ever at diagnosing blitzes pre-snap and getting the ball out quickly and accurately. I have to think that would give the Rams a little bit of pause in dialing it up as much as normal but I also tend to doubt they'll stop being who they are completely. The best bet is for the Rams to lean on the front four to do most of the heavy lifting, which is what they had hoped they'd be able to do at the beginning of the season. But for that to work, they'll need to have their best performance of the season.