Around the Denver Broncos’ complex, last December’s game against the San Diego Chargers is referred to by many people, Broncos coach John Fox included, simply as “Round 2." The 27-20 Chargers win was the second of three meetings between the two teams in the 2013 season -- playoffs included -- and it was also the Broncos' only home loss last season.
So Thursday night’s affair is a sequel of sorts given last year’s regular-season meeting in Denver was also on a Thursday night. This time, however, the Broncos (5-1) and Chargers (5-2) have powered to the early lead in the AFC West race with both Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers in the early conversation for league MVP.
ESPN Chargers reporter Eric D. Williams and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold preview the game:
Williams: Fair question. Rivers has done a nice job of getting the ball out quickly. The Chargers are predominantly in shotgun most of the time, so that helps Rivers get set to throw the football quickly, along with San Diego’s reliance on the short passing game. Rivers has been sacked just 11 times through seven games. The one thing the Chargers will do more of in an attempt to slow down Denver’s talented pass-rushers is give them a steady diet of cat-quick Branden Oliver in the run game.
Jeff, a lot of the conversation nationally has been about Manning and Denver’s prolific offense, but staying with Denver’s defense, it has held opponents to just 20 points a contest and an average of 74 yards a game on the ground. How have Ware, T.J. Ward and Aqib Talib made that defense better?
Legwold: When the Broncos picked through the rubble that was a 35-point loss in the Super Bowl, they went into the offseason intent on revamping a defense not only with more athleticism but also with what Ward called “that nastiness." The Broncos had confidence that Ware would rebound when they gave him a three-year, $30 million deal. He has also been a mentor to Miller. Talib, with his length and aggressiveness, has given the Broncos the press corner they wanted, and Ward has played all but three snaps on defense thus far. So the new arrivals have helped plenty, but the Broncos have also seen the starters who finished 2013 on injured reserve rebound to their previous form, most of all Miller. Chris Harris Jr. may be playing as well as any cornerback in the league despite having ACL surgery in February, as is defensive tackle Derek Wolfe. Put it all together and the Broncos play with far more versatility and athleticism in the formation than the last time these two teams played.
San Diego defensive coordinator John Pagano, a Colorado native, often takes risks with the Chargers defense, even against a quarterback like Manning. Will the injuries on defense change that philosophy, or do you think Pagano will come after Manning a bit?
Williams: Despite the lack of healthy bodies, Pagano will take his chances when he sees an opportunity. In San Diego’s win at Denver last year, the Chargers started Richard Marshall and Shareece Wright at cornerback and Thomas Keiser and Reggie Walker at outside linebacker. With San Diego’s top two cornerbacks in Brandon Flowers (concussion) and Jason Verrett (shoulder) nursing injuries, along with rookie pass-rusher Jeremiah Attaochu (hamstring), the Chargers' projected starting cornerbacks are Wright and Marshall. And the team’s projected starting outside linebackers are Jarret Johnson and Walker. The bottom line is Pagano trusts his backup players to know and understand his complex scheme. Those fill-in guys proved they can execute his game plan to try to confuse Manning last year.
The Broncos revamped the offensive line during the offseason. So far Manning has been sacked just eight times. What are the reasons for Denver’s success up front this season?
Legwold: The offense is built to keep Manning out of harm’s way, with lots of crossing routes, screens and quick-hit plays to get the ball out of his hands. And Manning may be one of the best to have ever played the position when it comes to limiting the punishment he takes by how he conducts his business in the pocket. He usually sees where the pressure is coming from before the snap, adjusts quickly and rarely holds the ball if he believes a sack is imminent. Overall, the offensive line’s play has caused a bit of consternation for the Broncos. They made a switch at right tackle for last Sunday’s game, putting Paul Cornick in place of Chris Clark. Some teams have created some room in the middle of the field, both in the run game and pass rush, and it will bear watching in this one.
In the Chargers’ win in Denver last December, Keenan Allen scored twice. Allen doesn’t have a touchdown yet this year. Where does he fit in the Chargers’ offense, and is Antonio Gates the go-to guy for Rivers?
Williams: Rivers and Gates hold the NFL record for touchdown receptions between a quarterback and tight end at 67, so it’s fair to say that the 34-year-old Gates is Rivers’ go-to guy, especially in the red zone. However, Allen leads the Chargers in targets (50) and receptions (34). But for whatever reason, the Cal product has not gotten into the end zone. One thing Rivers said is that he doesn’t want to force feed a receiver if he’s not open. And San Diego has so many other weapons, such as Eddie Royal, Malcom Floyd and Ladarius Green, that Rivers has a lot of matchups he can get to in the red zone. Allen’s turn to score will come, but Rivers won’t force it to him in coverage.
Broncos rookie cornerback Bradley Roby was a consideration for San Diego in the first round, but the Chargers selected Verrett instead. How has Roby played this year?
Legwold: The Broncos knew they would need Roby on defense, so they gave him plenty of tough love early in training camp; offensive coordinator Adam Gase and wide receiver Demaryius Thomas have both said the offense went out of its way to go after Roby in team drills early. While it was a tough go to open camp for Roby, he responded. He has earned plenty of confidence, so much so that the Broncos have matched him up with the likes of Reggie Wayne, Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Crabtree already this season. Roby has played both in the slot and on the outside and is a willing tackler in the run game. While there were some pre-draft concerns circulating in the league that Roby had some maturity issues, Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said he has had no such issues with Roby. “I told him on the first day he was going to have to earn his way and that he shouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t play," Del Rio said. “But he’s put in the work and earned his spot."