DENVER –Five things to watch heading into the Broncos’ Week 11 duel with the New York Jets on Thursday night:
1. LAND OF CONFUSION.
Few teams try and confuse opposing offenses like the Jets, with their myriad of formations, pre-snap adjustments and disguised coverages that cause as many fits for foes as their athletic linebackers and cornerbacks do with their play after the snap.
“Well, we’ve just got to make sure we execute and communicate,” offensive coordinator Mike McCoy said. “He (Rex Ryan) does a lot of things defensively — not just running a (Buddy Ryan) defense; he runs a number of different schemes up front, plays a number of different personnel groups.”
That being said, McCoy doesn’t believe that facing the Jets requires more work before the snap for quarterback Tim Tebow or anyone else on the offense. And perhaps that’s the Broncos’ best shot; if they continue to liberally sprinkle zone-read options and triple options into their offense, the success or failure of the play is predicated more upon how the Broncos execute as a collective unit and whether Tebow’s read of the defense as the play develops is the correct one.
“I think once you identify the base part of what they’re trying to get done and what they’re doing from time to time, it’s just making sure that everyone up front is on the same page and the backs and everybody else knows exactly what they’re doing,” McCoy said.
Added running back Lance Ball: “I think we’ve got to go out there and just play, play quick, don’t let them set there and read us, just go out there and have them try to defend us.”
2. WHO’S RUNNING?
Willis McGahee will be a game-time decision, based on how he moves in warmups. This can be viewed as promising based on the fact that he practiced the last two days and was cleared to return from his left hamstring injury on an emergency basis during last Sunday’s game at Kansas City. It can also be viewed with a pessimistic lens, seeing that McGahee said Wednesday, “You really won’t know anything until you go full speed. I’m not going full speed right now.”
But even if McGahee plays, his carries might be limited, which would leave much of the ground chores in the hands of Ball and Jeremiah Johnson. Ball has become a known quantity this year; he had a career-high 96 yards on 30 carries against the Chiefs last Sunday and is now averaging 4.1 yards per carry this year, including a 4.3-yard average in the last three games. The same cannot be said of Johnson, but unlike Ball, he has past familiarity with the option since he played at the University of Oregon, where option looks were used heavily in the offense.
“I’m a Ducky. That’s all we did, the option,” Johnson said. “We kind of majored at it, so I’m pretty comfortable with it and I’m trying to make Tebow better with another option to throw it to me.”
When he first saw the option in practice two weeks ago, Johnson, then on the practice squad, looked dreamily at the first-team offense integrating it in to the scheme.
“I was just like, ‘Man, I wish I could get some of that,’” Johnson said. “That’s kind of coming true, and I’m blessed for that.
“You’ve just got to make that option work and do it big.”
Each of the last two weeks, the Broncos have emphasized a new aspect of the option. In Oakland it was the zone-read; in Kansas City it was the triple option. Logically, the next extension of the option should be throwing more passes out of it; that would open up holes for Tebow, Ball, Johnson and Spencer Larsen when the Broncos kept it on the ground.
3. REVIS ISLAND.
The nickname for the Jets’ cornerback has never had more accuracy than it could Thursday night. The Jets will almost certainly stack the box to defend the Broncos’ running game, which will likely leave Revis in single coverage on Eric Decker, Eddie Royal or whomever the Broncos choose to send on a deep route.
Denver will almost certainly try to stretch the field vertically to force the Jets’ safeties back; four of Tebow’s eight passes against Kansas City on Sunday would have been more than 35 yards if they were completed. But if Revis does the job for which he earned a massive contract in 2010, the Jets won’t have to pull back their safeties.
It’s in a game like this where the daily work of Broncos receivers against Champ Bailey works to their advantage. Revis won’t throw anything at them that they haven’t seen from Bailey at some point since training camp.
“When you play against a guy that good, you know that you have to be detailed in what you’re doing,” Royal said. “You can’t give away any indicators on what your route’s going to be. You really just have to be smart and patient. You can’t try to rush things against a guy like that. It’s just (about) being disciplined.”
4. PRESSURING SANCHEZ.
If you get to Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez, you can affect him. This plays right into the Broncos’ growing strength in the pass rush, which has benefited from two factors. The first is players like Elvis Dumervil, Marcus Thomas, D.J. Williams and Champ Bailey returning to full health in recent weeks after being sidelined in September and enduring an expected re-transition back to the lineup in October.
“It helps, because when you have all your bullets, it gives you a better chance,” Bailey said. “We love the guys that back us up, but you know that when you’ve got all the bullets — those guys (backups) can play their traditional role of special teams and concentrate on that. It’s just more bullets.”
And some of them have struck opposing quarterbacks. Dumervil and Von Miller have combined for four sacks — two apiece — in the last two weeks as Dumervil has finally returned to health following shoulder and ankle injuries.
“We’ve still got a lot of work to do,” Dumervil said, “but I think as the season progresses and we get more comfortable, I think it’s going to be something good.”
The second factor is the increased familiarity with first-year defensive coordinator Dennis Allen’s scheme. The Broncos were hurt by the absence of offseason workouts and placed further behind because of the early-season injuries; only in recent weeks has the defense become a cohesive unit. The results have been evident on the scoreboard; after yielding 26.6 points per game in the first five weeks, the defense has accounted for 20.0 points allowed per game since the bye.
“I think the product on the field shows that,” Allen said. “Guys are beginning to feel more comfortable in the system and what they’re being asked to do, so I think some of the play has shown that.”
5. ALL THE HUBBUB.
There’s the short week … Rex Ryan grumbling about taking a four-hour flight less than 72 hours after a draining Sunday night game … the momentum — positive and negative — that each team carries from emotional clashes with division rivals less than 100 hours before kickoff Thursday.
All of these have been storylines at times in recent days; all will largely be forgotten if the Jets win, since they will have overcome the travel and fatigue disadvantage. If the Broncos win, the debate over quick turnarounds will rage again, with greater effort made in the future to ensure that teams traveling two or more time zones for a Thursday night game are a) coming off a bye week or b) coming off a home game that is not played on Sunday night. The league already makes a similar concession to teams playing on Monday night, so it wouldn’t be a stretch to see it extend the courtesy to the Sunday night combatants.
If the Jets win, it’s all meaningless, and the status quo will likely reign.