Sports: Rick Jussel column September 08, 2008

Ready for some football with the Broncos

As my old buddy Hank Jr.  is so fond of asking, “Are you ready for some football?”

Let’s check:

Recliner or favorite bar stool?

You betcha.

Chips and dip or assorted other goodies to suit the occasion?

Got ’em.

Brew or beverage of choice?

Got my Shiner and nothin’ could be finer.

Bronco jersey, cap, booties, etc.?

In full costume.

So let’s play!

And what better way to open than against da Raidas on a Monday night in Oakland: Halloween on Sept. 8.

For Bronco aficionados, it’s either the dawning of a new era or more of the same ol’ same ol’. Let’s hope it’s the former.

Obviously it’s difficult getting a good read on NFL teams in July and August. It was doubly difficult to get a read on Mike Shanahan’s Broncos because of the tremendous amount of change in playing personnel and on the staff.

There is one thing that is virtually a lock, however: Denver can’t get much worse than it was last year when high hopes turned to 7-9 — and a very lucky 7-9 at that.

Last season, Denver couldn’t stop anyone and couldn’t score itself, a bad combination. The defense gave up nearly 200 yards per game on the ground and the offense was one-dimensional with a constantly weakening quarterback, Jay Cutler, who was eventually diagnosed as a diabetic, completing more than 100 passes to a rising star, Brandon Marshall. When Marshall couldn’t be found often enough by Cutler, in would trot Jason Elam for three points.

The old “trade 3 points for 7” axiom didn’t work well.

Much has been done in Denver to find solutions.

Cutler is now healthy and being treated daily — and has regained roughly 25 pounds. His cannon of an arm will now go with two years of experience. He threw for 3,500 yards and 20 TDs last year. Not bad. Add 500 yards and seven or eight more TD passes and you’ve got your basic Pro Bowl player.

Marshall was expected to be suspended for four to eight games for a variety of discretions. He got a three-game sentence that was eventually reduced to one — tonight.

Denver has pass blocked very well in preseason with a line that returns only one starter from last season.

First-round pick Ryan Clady will be on the island at left tackle and much of Cutler’s success or failure will be attributed to his play. He is a question mark, sure, but he is certainly a massive mound of talent the likes of which has not been seen in Denver since Gary Zimmerman retired.

Defensively, Denver has gone back to the aggressive eight-man box formula, swapped out a bundle of linebackers and linemen, and will have a pair of new safeties.

The season, I’m thinking, rides on whether or not these changes translate into stopping the run as they were doing as recently as three years ago when they were the best in the league at that task.

The Broncos will score much better than they did last season — and will score many more touchdowns, making the Elam defection to Atlanta a rather moot point. Matt Prater will kick more than his fair share of field goals and he will boot the ball into the end zone often on kickoffs — a very important assignment when your defense is questionable.

What we have in the opener (it’s an 8:15 p.m. scheduled start on ESPN) is a matchup of two clubs with oodles of questions. For every inconsistency Denver has had over the last year, Oakland has had two. And don’t let the
Raider crazies scare you; the Raiders won only two games in Oakland last season on the way to finishing 4-12.

Problem is, one of those wins was a 34-20 romp over Denver in which running back Justin Fargas rambled for 146 yards and quarterback Josh McCown threw three TDs.

While Fargas is back and still starting in front of No. 1 draft choice Darren McFadden, the key to Oakland’s hopes revolve around young QB JaMarcus Russell, now entrenched as the starter in front of Grand Junction’s own
Andrew Walter — even though Walter had far the better preseason.

I’m going to start out on an optimistic note and say the Broncos, even though Marshall is missing, find a way to score 24 points behind Cutler’s big arm and a couple of breakaway runs from Selvin Young.

That, combined with a defense that will be much improved and put a stop to Fargas and confuse Russell, will allow Denver (a 3-point favorite) to win it, 24-17.å


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