MINNEAPOLIS – Five things to watch heading into the Broncos’ clash with the Minnesota Vikings at Mall of America Field at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome on Sunday:
1. WILL VON MILLER PLAY?
All signs point to yes, given that he managed to practice Friday and emerged feeling “pretty good,” although he is officially listed as questionable on the injury report because of his Tuesday surgery to repair torn ligaments in his right thumb.
As Miller notes, he’s played through other injuries that were more bothersome.
“I played with a high ankle sprain. It’s different when you can run around and still be able to get to the guy rather than not being able to run around and having to change the way you run to get to the guy,” Miller said Friday. “I think I[ll be all right.”
The only potential negative in the pass rush is how the injury might affect Miller’s moves. While the speed rush remains his most reliable path to the quarterback, he has developed power moves to go along with those that use his quickness. Will the cast on his arm hinder him, or will he use it as a weapon?
2. NEUTRALIZING JARED ALLEN.
Penalties were an issue for left tackle Clady in the first half of the season, but the infractions have dropped in recent weeks as the Broncos veered toward a ground-centric strategy. However, more will be asked of him this week than at any point during the Broncos’ four-game winning streak, because he will spend much of the game lining up opposite Allen, one of just two players in the league with more sacks than Miller this season.
Two things will help: the assistance of extra tight ends like Dante Rosario and erstwhile offensive tackle Chris Clark and the option — specifically, the need to defend it by staying at home and not overpursuing and getting removed from the play, thus keeping pass rushers at bay.
If the Broncos are forced into pass-first situations, Allen could have a profound impact on the game. When Tebow drops back to throw, he’s been sacked once every 9.9 pass plays. No quarterback who has started at least four games this season has been sacked that frequently. (Washington’s John Beck, who started three games, has been sacked once every 9.8 pass plays.)
But since the Broncos became an run-intensive offense against the Raiders, Tebow has been sacked just once every 22.3 plays, which would place him seventh in the league among quarterbacks with at least four starts, trailing only Jason Campbell, Matt Hasselbeck, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Drew Brees, Josh Freeman and Andy Dalton.
“That’s the great thing with what we’re doing right now. You cut back on some of the rushes and some of the things they want to do defensively just because they’re playing the system we’re playing right now,” offensive coordinator Mike McCoy said. “And we haven’t been afraid to run (the football) on third down. So those times on a lot of down and distances where you might see a lot of pressures, we haven’t seen a ton of that.”
3. ADAPTING TO THE VIKINGS’ RUNNING GAME:
The Vikings didn’t need any reminder that running back Adrian Peterson is virtually irreplaceable, but they got it last Sunday, when Toby Gerhart and Percy Harvin combined for 55 yards on 22 carries, a 2.5-yard average that proved woefully insufficient. With no consistent ground game, the Vikings’ offense bogged down; they went three-and-out on five of 11 possessions and only had two drives in which they picked up multiple first downs.
If the illness that sidelined Harvin for Friday’s practice keeps him sidelined Sunday, the most dangerous ground threat for the Norsemen might be quarterback Christian Ponder, who has averaged 7.8 yards per carry on 18 rushes this season.
4. GAME PACE.
Tim Tebow isn’t the only quarterback whose offense has been prone to three-and-outs the last three weeks. Ponder has had similar struggles; in their last three games, 29.4 percent of the Vikings’ possessions have ended in three-and-outs (10 of 34, not counting two drives that ended after one play because the clock expired).
With 37.8 percent of the Broncos’ possessions the last three weeks ending without a first down and with a punt — and their defense forcing three-and-outs on 24.3 percent of their series the last three games — it could take a while before this game develops a flow beyond exchanging punts.
5. THE LETDOWN FACTOR.
It’s been nearly two years since the Broncos played a game in which they were more than one game better than their opponent; far more often than not, they’ve been substantially worse during the last 27 games dating back to the start of the 2010 season. Meanwhile, the Vikings are in a spoiler role; they have already clinched last place in the NFC North and are left trying to avoid their worst season in 27 years and their second-worst season in the last 45.
The Broncos have climbed back into the playoff race by beating a division leader (Oakland), winning in stadia where they have typically lost (Kansas City, San Diego) and coming back to knock off a two-time defending conference finalist (the New York Jets). The two games that follow this week’s offer similar challenges; the Bears and Patriots are on track to make the playoffs.
The Broncos believe they’re a playoff-worthy team; in the last four weeks, they’ve played like it. But those aspirations won’t become reality without winning the games in which they have a talent and momentum advantage — like this one.