Strategy And Personnel

The Sports Xchange

September 05, 2018 at 1:08 am.

GAME PLAN: The Broncos had the second-worst team-wide passer rating in the league last year. Yet their best path to success against the Seahawks might rest in that passing game, thanks to the addition of Case Keenum and a Seahawks defense with a decimated secondary. If Earl Thomas doesn’t make a quick return to Seattle, Keenum, Emmanuel Sanders, Demaryius Thomas and rookie receiver Courtland Sutton will have a chance to exploit mismatches against a young secondary. Defensively, the Broncos will have to ensure that Russell Wilson stays in check, which will require discipline from their edge rushers — including rookie Bradley Chubb — and strong work from Bradley Roby and Tramaine Brock, the two cornerbacks most likely to be tested.

–Broncos edge rushers Von Miller, Bradley Chubb, Shane Ray and Shaquil Barrett vs. Seahawks Ts Germain Ifedi and Duane Brown. The Broncos go two-deep with quality at both outside linebacker slots, allowing them to attack from the outside in waves. The key for Chubb, in his first pro game, will be to stay disciplined and not allow Russell Wilson to sprint outside of containment, because his ability to discombobulate a defense by scrambling represents one of the Seahawks’ best chances of torpedoing the Broncos’ hopes.

–Broncos WR Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, Courtland Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton vs. Seahawks CBs Shaquill Griffin, Dontae Johnson, Tre Flowers and Justin Coleman. With Byron Maxwell on injured reserve and Earl Thomas still holding out, the Seahawks’ “Legion of Boom” days are long gone, bringing a series of matchups that Case Keenum should be able to exploit. Keenum’s timing with Sanders has been particularly strong, and Sutton’s ability to win 50-50 balls downfield ensures he will see plenty of work. If Keenum can exploit these matchups, the Broncos could be in position for a passing output that they haven’t seen since the salad days of Peyton Manning.


QUARTERBACKS: Starter — Case Keenum. Backups — Chad Kelly, Kevin Hogan.

Keenum offered signs that his breakout 2017 season with Minnesota was not a fluke, bringing steadiness, leadership and good decision-making to a position that lacked all three attributes in the last two seasons, when the Broncos cycled through three quarterbacks who are no longer on the roster. Kelly surged past Paxton Lynch for the No. 2 role following a two-touchdown performance in the preseason opener and tightened his grip on the position in the games that followed, rendering Lynch unneeded. The Broncos jettisoned Lynch in favor of Hogan on Sunday, and while Hogan does not have Lynch’s physical attributes, his intelligence and ability to learn a scheme could allow him to push Kelly.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters — Royce Freeman, FB Andy Janovich. Backups — Devontae Booker, Phillip Lindsay.

Freeman, a third-round pick, earned the job with a solid preseason, beating out Booker in a race that wasn’t that close, based on their practice-field and preseason-game production. Booker, the senior member of the Broncos’ three-man running back corps, is the best blocker of the group, which should ensure he receives plenty of snaps. Lindsay, the Broncos’ breakout undrafted player, is the smallest and fastest player in the group; he is a chess-piece back who has the toughness to get the occasional carry between the tackles, but is best used in space where he can use his speed and quickness to maximum effect. Any doubts as to whether the Broncos would keep a fullback on the 53-man roster evaporated when Janovich delivered the key blocks on two touchdowns by the first-team offense at Washington in the third preseason game.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter — Jeff Heuerman. Backups — Jake Butt, Matt LaCosse.

Heuerman overcame knee soreness early in training camp to earn the starting job ahead of Butt, who was in his first training camp after his rookie season was scuttled because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered in his final college game. But the top two tight ends are close, and could be used interchangeably in the offense. Butt’s route-running and pass-catching skills could make him the primary option on third down and in the red zone, while Heuerman could see more work on first and second downs. LaCosse earned the No. 3 role by improving his blocking this summer to the point where he beat out incumbent blocking specialist Austin Traylor.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters — Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders. Backups — Courtland Sutton, DaeSean Hamilton, Tim Patrick, Isaiah McKenzie, Jordan Taylor (PUP/could return later in season).

This could be the deepest position on the roster, thanks to the draft-weekend additions of Sutton and Hamilton, both of whom should see extensive rotational work behind Thomas and Sanders. Patrick, who used an outstanding summer to earn a roster spot, will play on special teams and can win jump balls, while McKenzie gets to continue his development as he tries to improve his ball-security issues from last year. Jordan Taylor starts the season on the physically unable to perform list after missing the offseason because of two hip surgeries; if he can return by midseason, the Broncos will have a solid relief option if injuries strike.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — LT Garett Bolles, LG Ron Leary, C Matt Paradis, RG Connor McGovern, RT Jared Veldheer. Backups — G/C Max Garcia, RG/RT Billy Turner, G/T Elijah Wilkinson, G/C Sam Jones.

Although Leary missed playing time in the preseason due to injuries, the Broncos appear to have more stability on the offensive line than they have in recent years. Paradis heads into his final year before being eligible for unrestricted free agency as one of the league’s steadiest centers; he has not missed a snap in three years as the starter. Bolles looks improved from his inconsistent rookie season; playing next to Leary has helped him find stability. Veldheer looks like an upgrade on the revolving-door right tackle situation of the last three years, while McGovern looks like he can make his natural strength translate to a starting role. Garcia brings starting experience as the swing interior backup, while Turner is the first man in on the right side. Wilkinson and Jones are versatile depth pieces who could factor into the Broncos’ plans for future years.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — DE Adam Gotsis, NT Domata Peko Sr., DE Derek Wolfe. Backups — DE/NT Shelby Harris, DE/NT Zach Kerr, DE DeMarcus Walker.

What this unit lacks in raw star power it makes up for with depth; Harris delivers starting-caliber work in a rotational role and was second on the team in sacks last year. Walker could have a specialized pass-rush role after being moved to outside linebacker last year before being shifted back to the inside; he will play at 280-285 pounds, his college weight. Denver’s run defense led the league in per-carry average allowed last year, and the defensive line was a significant reason why.

LINEBACKERS: Starters — OLB Von Miller, OLB Bradley Chubb, ILB Brandon Marshall, ILB Todd Davis. Backups — OLB Shane Ray, OLB Bradley Chubb, ILB Josey Jewell, ILB Joe Jones, ILB Keishawn Bierria, ILB Alexander Johnson.

On the outside, the Broncos are set with talent and depth. Miller remains in his prime, and Chubb could provide an ideal complement, playing at 269 pounds and occasionally lining up with one hand in the dirt. Both of their backups — Barrett and Ray — have 15 career starts apiece, and Ray is playing at 250 pounds, the heaviest weight of his career to date. Marshall and Davis return as the starters on the inside, but Jewell’s strong preseason work ensures that the Broncos will find repetitions for the fourth-round pick. Jones and Bierria should factor on special teams. Johnson, who signed during the preseason after not playing football for three and a half years while facing rape charges for which he was acquitted this summer, will be brought along slowly, but the Broncos like his potential.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters — CB Chris Harris Jr., CB Bradley Roby, S Justin Simmons, S Darian Stewart. Backups — CB Tramaine Brock, CB Adam Jones, S Will Parks, S Dymonte Thomas, CB Isaac Yiadom, S Su’a Cravens (IR/could return later in season).

Depth is a concern in the secondary following the offseason trade of Aqib Talib and the decision to place Su’a Cravens on injured reserve after he dealt with knee soreness throughout the preseason. Cravens’ injury and the season-ending torn hamstring suffered by Jamal Carter likely gave Thomas a roster spot; he showed promise in the preseason win over Washington on Aug. 24, and could see sub-package time along with Parks. Denver’s starting quartet of Harris, Roby, Simmons and Stewart should still be solid, but teams will likely throw at the No. 3 cornerback. Brock will handle that role right away, but Jones could rotate into the spot. Either way, look for teams to stay away from Harris and, to a lesser degree Roby, and force the issue to the rest of the defensive backfield.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Brandon McManus, P Marquette King, LS Casey Kreiter, KR Phillip Lindsay, PR Adam Jones.

McManus looks like he might have put a frustrating 2017 season behind him; he was 9-of-10 on field-goal attempts in the preseason with his only miss coming from 58 yards. King should offer improvement in distance and precision punting over Riley Dixon, who was traded to the New York Giants after King was signed. Jones worked on returning punts last week and did enough to earn the job ahead of McKenzie, who was cut for a day and then re-signed to the 53-man roster Sunday.

PRACTICE SQUAD: WR River Cracraft, T Avery Gennesy, WR Carlos Henderson (serving a Week 1 suspension), OLB Jeff Holland, CB Brendan Langley, S Trey Marshall, TE Brian Parker, NT Kyle Peko, G Austin Schlottmann, RB Dave Williams, DE DeShawn Williams.