DENVER – Five things to watch when the Broncos face the Chicago Bears at Sports Authority Field at Mile High here on Sunday:
1. DON’T OVERTHINK HESTER. JUST KICK AND COVER.
Every punter and kickoff specialist knows about Devin Hester. He doesn’t make them wake up in a cold sweat — unless they’ve got serious anxiety problems that likely are another matter entirely. But when they sit down with their special-teams coaches to cobble together a game plan, the NFL’s all-time leader in kickoff and punt return touchdowns is foremost in mind.
The Broncos are fortunate in that they can virtually nullify half of Hester’s threat; the altitude of Denver plus the strength of Matt Prater’s kickoffs and this year’s rules change regarding kickoff spot means that it’s unlikely Hester will get a viable kickoff return opportunity barring penalty or injury to Prater.
That places the burden squarely on the shoulders of Britton Colquitt, who leads the AFC with a net punting average of 41.6 yards and ranks third in the conference and fifth in the league with 23 punts dropped inside the 20-yard-line. But on the negative side is the fact that no one has had more punts returned this year than Colquitt; opponents have returned 39 of his 74 punts this year.
Dealing with Hester requires playing a mind game of sorts. Colquitt is conscious of Hester, as any punter will be, but he knows that he must not become too preoccupied with altering his kicks to account for his threat.
“It is important,” Colquitt said. “A lot of times, when he gets touchdowns off of guys, it’s because they mis-hit it a little bit. It’s not necessarily that they didn’t hit their best ball, but that they mis-hit it because they’re trying not to give him a chance.
“It’s a lot like golf. The biggest competition is in your head. It’s about what you can do, and being able to do what you can for your team.”
2. ACCOUNTING FOR JULIUS PEPPERS.
Whilst Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher are the more talkative members of the Bears’ front seven, Peppers promises to have the most impact — whether he gets a sack or not. For evidence, look at how the Broncos struggled against Minnesota’s Jared Allen last week; even though the Broncos chipped the All-Pro defensive end, he still accounted for a forced fumble on a sack of Tim Tebow and a safety when he blew past Daniel Fells and engulfed Willis McGahee on the Broncos’ first offensive snap.
This is Peppers’s second game against a Fox-coached team since leaving the Panthers for the Bears during free agency in March 2010. The two share no ill will and exchanged warm greetings during their last game against each other, in Charlotte last season. This spring and summer, Fox often cited Peppers’ impact when discussing the potential of fellow No. 2 overall pick Von Miller.
Perhaps the biggest difference between Peppers and Miller is consistency. Their top gear and repertoire of pass-rush moves is similar, but Miller’s motor appears to hit fifth gear for longer stretches than the 10-year veteran, who has a reputation for lengthy stretches where he has little impact other than occupying a blocker on third-and-long. This bears out in their games with sacks; Miller has gone without a sack in just two of his 11 games this season; Peppers has been held sackless in six of 12 games this year and in 83 of the 150 games he has played in his career.
But when Peppers gets to a quarterback, he often returns. Twenty-four of the 67 games in which he’s recorded a sack were multi-sack games, including two-sack games against Minnesota and Oakland this year. Only the afore-mentioned Allen has more multi-sack games in the last 10 years.
3. MILLER AND DUMERVIL VS. LANCE LOUIS.
This is where having two premium pass rushers can have a profound impact on an opposing team’s game plan. Chicago right tackle Lance Louis was destroyed by the Chiefs last week, allowing five of the seven sacks Kansas City amassed in its 10-3 win at Soldier Field.
If Louis struggles again, the Bears might be forced to keep two men in on the flanks to chip and block Miller and Elvis Dumervil; this would leave Chicago quarterback Caleb Hanie with only three targets running downfield. If they don’t, well, we’ve seen what Miller and Dumervil can accomplish against single blocking.
Even if the Broncos supplement their front four rush with a blitzing linebacker or safety, Hanie would effectively face double coverage on every target if the Bears are forced to keep a tight end and running back in to preserve his pass pocket. Denver can pose questions that the Bears’ injury-ravaged offense may not be equipped to answer.
4. FORCE THE BEARS TO MAKE MISTAKES.
The yardage the Broncos surrendered last week to Minnesota with Miller sidelined represented a cause for concern, but the three takeaways they snagged on two errant Christian Ponder passes and a sack-strip-fumble effectively accounted for a 13-point swing, with the Broncos scoring 10 points off the takeaways and Minnesota losing at least a certain field goal because of their fumble.
An opportunistic defense is the last thing Hanie wants to see after throwing six interceptions in his two recent starts since taking over for the injured Jay Cutler. Making matters worse is the absence of Matt Forte; Hanie hasn’t converted a third down since hitting the injured running back for a 12-yard pass on third-and-11 late in the loss to Oakland.
5. KEEP THE OFFENSE LOW-RISK, HIGH-REWARD.
This means a lot of what you’ve seen from the Broncos in the Tebow era, which blossomed in the second half last week against the Vikings’ depleted secondary: keep the football on the ground and use runs to soften up the defense for the deep strike.
With the Vikings successfully defending the read option, the Broncos reverted to a more traditional running game supplemented with rollouts and play-action passes. This looked familiar to people who watched the Carolina Panthers in their 12-4 season of 2008; their modus operandi was heavy doses of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart supplemented by deep tosses to Steve Smith. Substitute McGahee for Williams, Tebow for Stewart and Demaryius Thomas for Smith, and you have the primary thrust of the Broncos’ offense during its 25-point second half.
Expect the Broncos’ offense to lurch slowly out of the blocks once again as they decipher the Bears’ defensive game plan, but then look for the Broncos to work their core strengths to build momentum as the game progresses.