Each Thursday, Press-Gazette Media gets the lowdown on the Green Bay Packers’ next opponent from a beat writer who covers that team.
The Denver Broncos have taken an unexpected path to a 6-0 record: They’re winning more in spite of Peyton Manning than because of him.
The Broncos’ offense is struggling, with a sluggish ground game and Manning showing a marked decline at 39. He has 10 interceptions and only seven touchdown passes. But much like Manning feasting on chicken parm, Denver’s defense is devouring quarterbacks with an NFL-best 26 sacks.
The Packers (also 6-0) face their most difficult challenge of the season Sunday, visiting Denver on what will be an emotionally charged night. The Broncos will be inducting owner Pat Bowlen (who has Alzheimer’s disease) into their Ring of Fame and honoring members of the 1997 team that beat the Packers in Super Bowl XXXII.
We asked beat writer Troy Renck of the Denver Post to answer a few questions about what the Packers can expect from the Broncos:
Are you surprised the Broncos are unbeaten, and how have they managed it?
TR: “It’s a little surprising. They certainly caught a break in Kansas City (a 24-17 victory) when Jamaal Charles fumbled when, inexplicably, the Chiefs were running the ball (deep in their own territory in the final seconds). They have found a knack to play their best when it mattered most. They can look absolutely perplexing offensively for the better part of a game and then, when they need a drive, whether it’s running or passing, they’ve been able to put it together. … They probably have played to more of a 5-1 or 4-2 mark, but they’ve made plays when they absolutely had to.”
What can the Packers’ defense expect from Peyton Manning and the Broncos’ offense, and is Manning still capable of leading a team to the Super Bowl?
TR: “It has been a jarring change offensively, statistically. Some of the criticism is framed through fantasy football. This team was a fantasy football owner’s best friend for three years, they were putting up historic numbers. Now they rank last in yards, they went 25 straight possessions at one point without scoring a touchdown … It has taken a lot of getting used to for fans around here because it has been so different.
“The biggest criticism of Manning is just the turnovers, the 10 picks, he leads the NFL. He’s had moments of greatness when he looks like the old Peyton Manning and he’s had moments when he looks old and uncomfortable in this offense. Can he still lead big drives? He’s shown he can, but he hasn’t done it against competition like Green Bay. That’s the next test: Can they play better offensively? Because the way they’re winning, it probably won’t translate against the Packers, Patriots, Steelers and Bengals of the world. This idea of playing one quarter of offense or two good drives offensively isn’t going to translate to wins going forward, and they know that.
“Manning is in decline….he’s 39, so that’s not a shock or breaking news. But the interceptions, he’s got to eliminate. And part of what they’ve tried to impress upon him: His defense is so good, when (a play) is not there, just live to fight another day. You don’t have to force it. He is so used to carrying his teams for the better part of 15, 16 years, that’s been a transition for Peyton. He doesn’t need to force a throw if it’s not there. You’re better off punting and playing the field-position game if you need to.”
How good is the defense, and who deserves the most credit?
TR: “First it was (defensive coordinator) Wade Phillips and bringing in the 3-4 scheme. They were a good defense last year but they were very vanilla and focused on stopping the run, and they were great at it. But they didn’t produce turnovers. Wade Phillips comes in with a 3-4 and they blitz more, but more than that, this scheme plays to the athleticism and the attitude of these players. They’ve got playmakers at cornerback in Chris Harris and Aqib Talib, and their secondary can cover man, and they can get after the passer with Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware and Shaquil Barrett. Their inside ‘backers are just tackling machines. But the main thing is the change in scheme to the 3-4, it has just unleashed these guys to play with fury and aggressiveness that we did not see last year.”
How will the defense try to stop Aaron Rodgers?
TR: “It will be interesting if they ‘spy’ him because they have the talent to do that. The pass rush is key to everything this year, so it’s getting to him but also keeping him from getting outside the pocket. They haven’t had that challenge this year…when they rush a guy, they get interceptions, turnovers. With Rodgers, he’s more dangerous sometimes out of the pocket. So they’re going to try to get to Rodgers, and Talib can take away a receiver. Chris Harris can take away, in their minds, Randall Cobb. … So they’re going to try to pressure Rodgers, they’ll play man and they want to see if he can find his second or third target.”
Do you think it will be a low-scoring game? Would that be better for the Broncos?
TR:; “A game in the 20s is how they’ve been winning, would be ideal … 23-20, 24-21. If it’s not, their offense has not shown the ability to score in the 30s this year, and I can’t imagine it would start against this Packers defense.”
Are you surprised the Packers are a three-point favorite?
TR: “I am, only because of the Broncos being at home … and (owner) Pat Bowlen being honored, there’s a lot of emotion with that game. It surprised me that it wasn’t a coin-flip game, only because the Broncos never lose at home and they’re honoring their owner at halftime.”