Now the Broncos are widely expected to win their division and be back in the playoffs for good reason. They look to be a better team than the 2012 version and still play in probably the weakest division in the NFL. That being said despite there favorable outlook the Broncos can’t afford to get complacent and need to succeed in these five areas if they are too contend in 2013.
Last year the Broncos had a tough start to the season and were just 2-3 after 5 weeks, they of course didn’t lose another game until their playoff loss to the Ravens in the Divisional Round. Similar to last year the toughest part of the Broncos schedule is early on, but unlike last season the Broncos do have two really tough match-ups, at New England and at Houston, in the 2nd half of the season. If the Chiefs end up being a quality team like some expect them to be the Broncos face them twice in the 2nd half of the year as well (before and after the Patriots game).
The Broncos can ill afford to lose three games out of the first eight, especially if they are hoping for another number 1 playoff seed. Denver does luck out with a great bye placement at week 9, but before that bye they could have some interesting games. The Broncos in the first eight weeks go on the road to the Giants, Cowboys and Colts, while hosting the Ravens, Raiders, Eagles, Jaguars and Redskins. Now the Raiders, Eagles and Jaguars should all be easy wins, and despite the game being on the road the Broncos should beat the Cowboys, but the other four games are tricky.
The Giants may not have made the playoffs last year, but they are a quality team and should be a tough test on the road. The Colts overachieved last season, but they are a team on the rise and it will be Peyton Manning‘s return to Indianapolis. The Ravens stole the game the last time they were in Denver and they might have quite a bit of motivation since they weren’t able to open at home like is customary for Super Bowl Champions. Also, Elvis Dumervil figures to be on a mission in his return to Denver.
As for the Redskins the Broncos will not only be welcoming Mike Shanahan home, but will have to deal with his read option offense and star quarterback Robert Griffin III. Though the Broncos should be favored in both of those home games, neither one figures to be easy. These are four pretty tough games in the first part of the season and the Broncos can’t afford to do any worse than a split (as well as sweeping the other four games).
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The Broncos of course play AFC Division Leaders the Ravens, Patriots and Texans and also play against the Colts a team that could possibly steal the South. If the Broncos can win these head-to-head games the Broncos will go a long way to ensure that they not only get a first round bye, but home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
While it is true it isn’t necessary, as the Broncos lost to the Patriots and Texans last year but still ended up the number 1 seed, it definitely helps. Denver might not be able to win all four of these games, but if they could win at least three of them they would ensure a tie breaker over at least two of the other division leaders.
The Broncos finished 4th in the league last year in yards, but it didn’t have much to do with their ground game, as they were 16th in rushing yards. That though wasn’t for lack of trying as the Broncos finished 9th in the league in attempts, unfortunately their yards per attempt was 25th in the league at just 3.8 yards. Making matters worse the Broncos cut top running back Willis McGahee, who was the one runner to go over 4.0 yards per carry, finishing with a 4.4 ypc on a team leading 167 carries.
Back-up running backs Knowshon Moreno (3.8), Ronnie Hillman (3.9) and Lance Ball (3.8) all helped to bring the rushing average down. McGahee definitely had his limitations, but clearly he boosted the Broncos rushing attack.
The Broncos drafted highly touted runner Montee Ball in the 2nd round to hopefully not only replace McGahee’s production, but improve upon it. Ball should offer the Broncos bigger plays and more consistency, than what they were getting from McGahee. Even if Ball does exceed McGahee’s level of production, the Broncos still need their back-ups to step up.
Hillman and Moreno will still get a number of touches even if Ball stays fully healthy. Hillman was a rookie last season and has flashed some promise. Hopefully he takes the next step to ensure quality depth for Denver’s rushing attack. If the Broncos improve their rushing game it will make it that much harder for teams to try to take away Peyton Manning and the passing attack.
Last year the Broncos graded out as the 6th best team in interceptions, but 16th overall in turnovers. This was do to finishing 26th in fumbles lost with 14. Though Willis McGahee contributed 4 of those lost fumbles the real problem was return man Trindon Holliday who put the ball on the ground 5 times last year in just 43 combined returns.
McGahee is gone, and hopefully Montee Ball has better ball security, but a real issue could be Holliday. If he’s the full time return man his touches will go up and so could his fumbles. He has to do a better job of holding on to the ball and not putting it on the ground. While his returns were great last season, fumbled punts and kickoffs can be a back breaker given the field position that is given up.
The Broncos finished tied for the league lead with 52 sacks last year, and were one of the most feared pass rushes in the league. While Von Miller was the heart and soul of that pass rush, Elvis Dumervil was a big part of it as well. Dumervil finished with 11 sacks and 50 pressures, both clearly the 2nd best on the team behind Miller. Now with Dumervil gone, the Broncos will need other guys to step up.
Derek Wolfe and Robert Ayers figure to be the primary defensive ends. Both put up solid pass rush numbers last year, but neither is expected to be close to Dumervil in terms of consistency. One option for boosting the pass rush is first round rookie defensive tackle Sylvester Williams. Though he won’t bring the pressure from the edge, Williams will help improve the non-existent pressure from the interior guys from a year ago. Williams is a penetrating defensive tackle who had 6 sacks as a senior at North Carolina. He should offer consistent pressure up the middle and help prevent quarterbacks from stepping up to get away from Miller.
Helping out from the outside should be free agent signing LB Shaun Phillips. Phillips was long a nuisance for Broncos’s quarterbacks from his rush linebacker position on the Chargers. Now he will get some opportunities both standing up and with his hand down to put pressure on opposing QB’s for the Broncos. He won’t be an every down option, but should offer a boost on passing downs. Don’t be surprised if the Broncos sign another veteran pass rusher like John Abraham to ensure their pass rush remains strong.