BUFFALO—On paper, the Denver defense against Rico Ball is one of the biggest mismatches in the NFL this week.
The Buffalo Bills, whose offensive coordinator Rick Dennison is a longtime Bronco, can’t score. At least they didn’t in a 9-3 loss at Carolina last week.
And the Denver defense has been one of the league’s best the past four years.
So why do I think the Broncos will have to give it everything they’ve got to win a 17-13 game Sunday at Buffalo’s Rich Stadium?
Because it’s only human for the Broncos to feel a little too good about themselves after whipping the Cowboys last week. Because Buffalo has a tough defense. And because footballs sometimes bounce funny on Sundays.
Here are 9 keys to the Broncos avoiding an upset (they are 3-point favorites) and beating the Buffalo Bills:
1. Protect the ball
What’s that stat on the Broncos’ press release each week? The Broncos have won 30 consecutive games when they also win the turnover battle. It seems obvious one would follow the other but apparently not 30 times in a row as that’s a franchise record and the longest active streak in the NFL.
Whenever the better team loses, chances are turnovers are involved.
2. Keep fighting through adversity
This doesn’t figure to be an easy one if only because the Broncos are coming off a surprisingly easy win against supposedly strong Dallas. NFL teams don’t usually have everything clicking in back-to-back weeks. The good teams win when they’re not at their best.
3. Help Bolles and Watson protect Siemian
The Bills have a real good edge rusher in Lorenzo Alexander and Jerry Hughes and Aurora’s own Eddie Yarbrough can also get after the quarterback. And safety Jordan Poyer is a terrific blitzer. If there’s been a concern in the Broncos’ 2-0 start, it’s been protecting quarterback Trevor Siemian. Right tackle Menelik Watson has struggled in this area and left tackle Garett Bolles is not only a rookie who is still learning, he will be gimpy with a sore left leg.
4. Win field position
Buffalo has a strong defense. The Broncos have a strong defense. Low-scoring, defensive battles are usually a game of patience where the team with the best starting field position eventually breaks through.
5. Keep on rushing
Thanks mostly to running back C.J. Anderson, better run blockers and a new blocking scheme, the Broncos are the NFL’s best running team with 159 yards per game through two weeks. The Bills are missing defensive tackles Marcell Dareus and Jerel Worthy. The Broncos should be able to get a push up front. Perhaps, this is the week Jamaal Charles, who has been a nice complementary back the first two weeks, has a big game.
6. Cover kickoffs
This is the first time all season Broncos’ kicker Brandon McManus won’t have altitude to help carry his kickoffs. He can still reach the touchback zone but maybe not always. That means Brock Olivo’s special teams may have to cover a kickoff or two in this game. Kickoff coverage was an issue during the preseason.
7. Contain Tyrod Taylor
The Denver defense is stout against the run this year. If it can hold Cowboys star Ezekiel Elliott to 8 yards on 9 carries, it can stop the LeSean McCoy, who is oft-regarded as the NFL’s second-best rusher.
But even the best defenses have trouble accounting for a scrambling quarterbacks, who are unscripted weapons. Taylor may be the best running quarterback in the league.
8. Cover Clay
Taylor isn’t the most accurate of passers so it will be difficult for him to throw pin-point completions to receivers Jordan Matthews and rookie Zay Jones working against Aqib Talib, Chris Harris Jr. and Bradley Roby. But Charles Clay is one of the better receiving tight ends in the game, and Taylor may take his chances there against one of the Broncos’ safeties or linebackers.
9. Stay hydrated
Of all things, it’s supposed to be hot in Buffalo with the temperature hovering in the mid- to upper-80s. The Broncos practiced all week in Denver’s September heat, but they must make sure they don’t cramp up and sit out a few plays.
Then again, a continuous rotation of defensive linemen would probably be wise, especially with Zach Kerr and Aybta Rubin expected to play for the first time this season.