Broncos-Raiders: Five Things to Watch

Darren McFadden

Darren McFadden was end-zone-bound far too often for the Broncos' tastes last year. (PHOTO: ERIC LARS BAKKE / DENVER BRONCOS)

DENVER – Off we go with another season …

1. SCREENS: The Broncos are nothing if not quick on the edges of their front seven.

Elvis Dumervil’s first step remains fleet. Von Miller has been ubiquitous in both the pass rush and run pursuit. Robert Ayers brings above-average foot speed to his duties, which often revolve around funneling ballcarriers into the grasp of waiting linebackers and safeties. And Wesley Woodyard, who is expected to fill in for D.J. Williams at weakside linebacker, has stuck in the league not because of his 6-foot, 229-pound frame, but his ability to zip from point to point on defense and special teams.

The time-tested way to expose speed along the edges is through screen passes and draw plays, to capitalize on the tendency to overpursue.

“If we can do what we want to do, I’m sure teams will try to slow us down with screens and draws,” Dumervil said.

Diagnosing these plays — particularly screen passes — is on the linebackers and the interior tackles, placing some of the least experienced components of Denver’s front seven in the crosshairs Monday night — the rookie Miller, new starting linebacker Joe Mays and recently acquired nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley. At the other two spots are players projected to be backups before injuries struck: Woodyard and defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson.

Chasing the pass-catchers and runners down after screens and draws are identified is the responsibility of the men on the edge.

“We’ve been coached through our practice, with those guys (that) if somebody let’s you by … you’ve got to turn back and chase,” Woodyard said. “So, we’ve been doing a lot of screen drills throughout camp to help us with screens. And that’s something that’s been placed a lot of importance on. Behind the running game, the screens are something that we have to stop this whole year.

“You’ve got to be situationally smart,” Woodyard said. “Most screens come on second and long. It’s called get-back-on-track downs, so you know you just have to be smart. Once you’re a rusher (like) Von and Elvis, they’ve seen a lot of screens and draws. You’ve just got to play and react.”

How quickly the Broncos react will determine whether they can avoid being the victims of another Raiders rampage.

2. WEARING DOWN THE RAIDERS. Veteran observers of John Fox-coached teams know that he believes in establishing the run so much that he’ll stick with it, even when a murmur of panic sinks in among fans who see seconds draining from the clock in the second and third quarters.

The point is simple — like a tough piece of meat being beaten with a wood mallet, keep pounding away, and eventually you’ll tenderize it. That’s what he could do when he had DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart at his disposal in Carolina; when those two were healthy through much of the 2008-09 seasons, the Panthers went 20-12, posting the best two-year record in that club’s history.

But if it becomes apparent that the run isn’t having that effect, offensive coordinator Mike McCoy assures fans that the Broncos can — and will — shift gears.

“There are going to be some weeks we may run it 40 times and some weeks we throw it 40 times,” McCoy said. “As long as we’re having success moving the football, (Fox) is not going to worry about that. But we all know he wants to run it.”

That being said, against the Raiders the key is possession. If Oakland cobbles together a 12-play, 80-yard touchdown march, the Broncos must be able to respond in kind. This might mean forsaking the run for screen passes that force the action away from the defense’s interior, but if successful have the same clock-draining, defense-exhausting effect.

3. PLAYING WITHOUT D.J. WILLIAMS: A game like this would have represented a perfect opportunity for the eighth-year linebacker to begin a career renaissance: a return to his natural position of weakside linebacker in the defensive alignment that suited him best. That will have to wait until after his elbow injury heals. While Wesley Woodyard can replace Williams in foot speed, the Broncos lose 13 pounds of mass and will miss the power Williams would have brought to the position.

That being said, the Broncos did find success stopping the Seahawks’ running game in the starters’ last preseason game Aug. 27 through a swarming, gang-tackling defense that often buried Marshawn Lynch under four defenders. Woodyard can use his speed to close holes, hold up McFadden and Bush and allow the swarms to arrive — which is exactly what they want.

“Eleven-man football,” cornerback Andre Goodman said. “The run game is everybody’s responsibility and don’t count yourself out because the play may be going the other way. Everybody has to be in the camera angle. Once the play’s over, everybody’s got to be in the camera. That’s how we kind of look at it. It’s getting to the ball and getting there with a mean attitude.”

4. THE ROOKIES. Barring injury, there will come a point this season when right tackle Orlando Franklin, safety Rahim Moore and linebacker Von Miller have played enough to where they will be rookies in name only. Until that day comes, the Broncos are still relying upon three newcomers at fairly crucial slots.

“We’re not trying to get our feet wet,” Moore said. “We’re jumping straight in the pool.”

While each has made a splash by increasing the athleticism and/or speed at his respective position, others still have to help point the way from time to time.

This is true of no veteran more than strong safety Brian Dawkins, who has helped shepherd Moore through some early difficult moments, such as the aftermath of his helmet-rattling hit on Bills wide receiver Donald Jones during the Aug. 20 preseason game in Denver. Monday night, Dawkins might have to make sure Moore knows what to look for in pre-snap reads of Oakland’s formations and cadences.

“It’s just one of those things where I’m learning the defense as well as I can to help out as many guys as I can without losing what I’m supposed to do. That’s always the key,” Dawkins said.

“I’m really someone who likes to dial in and play. I’ll alert as much as you want me to alert, but I really like to be just dialed into the game and just go. But if asked to do it, I’ll do it and I’ll do it with a smile on my face.”

5. THE REVENGE FACTOR. The Broncos don’t look and sound like a team hung up on last year’s twin humiliations to the Raiders that resulted in a cumulative 98-37 scoreline that may have been deceptively close, considering how the Raiders played out the fourth quarter of the Oct. 24 game in first gear. Some players were matter-of-fact about the games — particularly the one in Denver. Others, like Mays, couldn’t forget it — but that was in part because it was his first start as a Bronco.

“It was one of those days where nothing went right for us. That was my best recollection of that game,” Mays said. “It was just terrible. It’s one of those things where you want to forget it, but it’s still in the back of your head.”

Some had put it out of sight and mind — until the last few days.

“I don’t think about it as much now,” said cornerback Champ Bailey, “but it’s kind of hard when you bring it up all the time.”

That being said …

“You definitely don’t want that to happen again,” Bailey continued, “and I guarantee that won’t happen again.”

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About Andrew Mason

Andrew Mason has covered the NFL since 1999, when he worked as an editor on NFL.com when the site was managed by ESPN.com. He worked six seasons (2002-07) covering the Broncos on their official website and two (2008-09) on the Panthers' site. He began MaxDenver.com in 2010 and now contributes to CBSSports.com, The Sporting News and The New York Times.

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