Broncos offense vs. Raiders defense
Because he’s a pocket passer, people assume Peyton Manning needs a stalwart left tackle. He doesn’t.
In Indianapolis, Manning often played behind average linemen. His left tackle in Super Bowl XLIV was utility backup Charlie Johnson (now a guard in Minnesota). Sure, having an All-Pro tackle like Ryan Clady on the blind side adds value to an offense, which is why the Broncos paid him $33 million guaranteed in July. But that value represents a luxury for Manning, not a necessity—a luxury that Denver lost last week when Clady went down with a season-ending foot injury.
Manning’s wizardry in dissecting defenses before the snap enables him to work through his progressions at a rapid rate, allowing him to typically get the ball out before any pressure arrives. Additionally, Manning has perhaps the best pocket awareness and maneuverability of anyone to ever play the position. His mastery at avoiding the rush can be hard to spot because it happens so naturally.
Denver’s passing game will be just fine no matter who starts at left tackle. (Chris Clark will get the first crack, with porous veteran Winston Justice behind him as Plan B.) Whatever transition pains are looming at the position might not matter this week, as the Raiders don’t have the resources to pose much of a challenge anyway. Their best edge rusher, Lamarr Houston, had four sacks last year.
This is one reason Raiders coach Dennis Allen and defensive coordinator Jason Tarver scheme so many complex pass-rush attacks. The Raiders use more third-level blitzers (corners and safeties) than any other defense in football. They’ve had success with these blitzes in 2013, but not against Manning last year. That figures. The defining mark of most third-level blitzes is not in the pass rush, but rather, in the unconventional coverage rotations behind it. The goal is to fool the quarterback into throwing a ball into unexpected traffic. Manning, however, rarely gets fooled.
Will the Raiders try their luck by blitzing Manning in this fashion again? They invested heavily in their secondary by drafting corner D.J. Hayden in the first round and signing free agent Charles Woodson in late summer. Both players are well tooled for this scheme, as Hayden can play the press-man that such blitzing demands and Woodson brings versatility and awareness for defensive disguises. But with safety Tyvon Branch out with a leg injury and the rest of the secondary still very mediocre, Allen and Tarver may be wise to just have their men focus on sound execution instead.
Raiders offense vs. Broncos defense
Quarterback Terrelle Pryor’s mobility has made Oakland’s lackluster offense competitive so far. The Raiders caught the Colts off-guard with the read-option in Week 1, though they ultimately lost 21-17. A week later, the threat of the read-option helped Darren McFadden rush for 129 yards on 19 carries in a 19-9 win over Jacksonville.
The Broncos, however, are a beast to run against. They have a stingy four-man front and two linebackers—Wesley Woodyard and Danny Trevathan—who move very well. They also seem to have a star in the making: second-year strong safety Duke Ihenacho, an undrafted player who is a fierce downhill attacker with the kind of speed that makes him a rangy playmaker in all directions.
Given that Denver’s secondary has been stifling in man coverage even without Champ Bailey, and given that none of Oakland’s receiving weapons are capable of consistently shaking man coverage, expect to see Ihenacho in the box most of this game, eyeing Pryor and helping seal gaps against the explosive but laterally stiff McFadden.
An offensive coordinator can typically help sub-par receivers defeat tight coverage by using man-beater tactics, such as bunch formations or crossing patterns. But Pryor’s inexperience reading the field limits what Greg Olson can do in the passing game. Oakland’s best chance at keeping this contest close will be Pryor making several fortuitous sandlot plays.