Broncos face tough task vs. hard-nosed Buccaneers
Today’s Denver Broncos matchup at New Mile High against the Tampa Bay Bucs is bubbling with the obvious.
One thing we should notice right away is the fact that these are two pretty good football teams. Denver is 8-3 and in need of one more win to clinch the AFC West. Tampa Bay is 6-5 and very much alive in the chase for an NFC wild-card spot.
Denver has won six in a row, the longest current winning streak in the league, and the Bucs have won five of seven, having been nipped last week 24-23 by the NFC’s best, Atlanta.
Greg Schiano has the Bucs playing very well in his first season as an NFL head coach after having spent a decade as collegiate coach at Rutgers. His hiring lifted many an eyebrow — but critics are quiet now.
It should be obvious to Bronco fans that this one will not be a gimme.
As far as game planning today, it is soooo obvious that Denver should not spend much time trying to run the football against the Bucs.
After all, the Broncos are starting backup running back Knowshon Moreno, fourth-string scouting team fodder until last week when he replaced the injured Willis McGahee.
And even when McGahee was in top form, the Broncos averaged only 104 rushing yards a game, good for a mediocre 20th in the NFL.
The Broncos might also eschew the run today because Tampa Bay’s defense is awesome against the run, first in the league, allowing only 84 yards a game.
In the Bucs’ past four games, San Diego’s Ryan Mathews was the opposition’s leading rusher, gaining 54 yards on 17 carries. Atlanta’s Michael Turner had 17 yards on 13 carries, Carolina’s Jonathan Stewart had 43 yards in 15 carries and Oakland’s Darren McFadden had 17 yards on seven carries.
Four games. Four good runners. Very little success.
In each of those games, teams started trying to run the ball, then gave up the ghost and attacked through the air.
That’s why The Peyton Manning Factor should loom large against the Bucs. Manning has been effective to the tune of 3,260 yards in 11 games, 67 percent completions, 26 TD passes, only eight interceptions and a passer rating of 104 — all among the NFL leading figures.
And, oh yes, Manning is pretty decent when it comes to finding weaknesses in opposing defenses.
Hello: Tampa Bay ranks last — dead last — in the league in passing defense, allowing 315 yards per game.
The Bucs have shown very little pass rush, something that hasn’t boded well for a team that starts two rookies in the defensive backfield and a safety in Ronde Barber who was old when his twin brother Tiki retired five years ago (Ronde is actually 37; this is his 16th year in the league).
The Bucs have allowed 3,471 yards passing this season, 221 yards more than Manning has thrown for in his first season in Denver.
Think Manning and the Broncos coaches haven’t taken notice of that?
The only damper on Denver’s throwing early and often today is the questionable status of slot receiver Brandon Stokley, who injured a wrist last week in the 17-9 victory in Kansas City. That could, however, lead to more excitement from Trindon Holliday sightings from the line of scrimmage (hold your breath every time he touches the ball: maybe a touchdown, maybe a fumble).
Another thing that will become obvious today is that Tampa Bay has some rather unique weapons of its own.
The Bucs offense hasn’t been as consistent as Denver’s, but it does score 28 points per game.
Quarterback Josh Freeman is a monster, bigger even than Cam Newton at 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds. He can run and has a cannon, albeit often off target. He has, however, improved on a terrible 2011 season and thrown for 2,761 yards with 21 TD passes and only seven interceptions, completing a rather low-level 57 percent of his passes.
When he does connect, however, it’s normally to former Northern Colorado and San Diego Charger standout Vincent Jackson, who has caught 47 passes for 957 yards, more than 20 yards per catch.
There’s also the Bucs’ rushing game that has come to the front with the emergence of rookie Doug Martin. All Martin has done is rush for 1,050 yards so far, 4.8 yards per carry.
The Bucs are balanced offensively much like the one team that beat Denver at home, Houston.
They will pound it and pass it deep.
I’ll take my 9-2 record picking with or against Denver and say John Fox and his staff spend too much time early trying to spring Moreno. The Bucs win it because they run it too well, taking plenty from last week’s Denver vs. Kansas City film.
Tampa Bay 31, Denver 28.
Rick Jussel is a former Daily Sentinel sports editor (think Dark Ages) and Grand Junction High School journalism teacher who belongs in the Armchair Quarterback Hall of Fame, if only there was one.