Battle Lines: The Broncos can bury the Raiders with a win in Week 4
It hasn’t been pretty, but after a week in which the Broncos were the only AFC West team that won — albeit by the skin of their teeth — they’re now tied with the Kansas City Chiefs at 2-1 and atop the division. A road win against the Las Vegas Raiders on Sunday would at least keep them there, and put their longtime rivals into an 0-4 hole that all but eliminates their playoff hopes. That means that the Broncos will get the desperate Raiders’ very best effort on Sunday, and that 11 points isn’t likely to get the job done; Denver will have to be much better offensively than they have in their first three games to secure a victory.
Here’s how the battle lines are drawn:
Denver offense vs. Las Vegas defense
The Broncos finally broke through in the red zone last week when Melvin Gordon III rushed for Denver’s only touchdown in last week’s win over the 49ers. The offense is still not putting many points on the board, and Russell Wilson’s clearly been struggling in the season’s early going. Only wide receiver Courtland Sutton is playing at a Pro Bowl level, and if the Broncos were hoping for help on their offensive line, they’re not likely to get it — backup right guard Graham Glasgow and backup right tackle Cam Fleming will start again on Sunday.
Fortunately, left guard Dalton Risner returned to practice on Friday after dealing with an ankle injury. He’s still listed as questionable, but seems likely to go. Jerry Jeudy looked terrific during a solid opening week in Seattle, but he’s been almost invisible since, and needs to return to form quickly. Albert Okwuegbunam should match up well against the Raiders, but he hasn’t been able to capitalize against inferior defenses in Seattle and Houston.
The running tandem of Gordon and Javonte Williams has been good, but not great, and ball security’s been a problem for both. Denver seems tantalizingly close to breaking out, and perhaps it’ll finally happen this week, but that embattled right side of the offensive line must keep the Raiders’ Maxx Crosby from wrecking their game plan. Only Crosby has had success getting to the quarterback for Vegas, as offseason addition Chandler Jones hasn’t yet clicked. Cornerback Rock Ya-Sin is questionable with a knee injury; he leads the Raiders in pass breakups with three. Up the middle, converted safety Divine Deablo has been racking up tackles at linebacker, but it’s safety Jonathan Abram that the Broncos need to worry about. Abram’s smart and reliable, as well as equally adept against the pass and the run. Wilson, who prefers to attack the sidelines, will need to test the middle of the field early and often on Sunday.
Denver defense vs. Las Vegas offense
Even without safety Justin Simmons, the Broncos’ defense has been borderline elite; carrying the team to a pair of victories (and nearly three) despite their offense’s failure to pull their weight.
The offense they’ll face in Las Vegas will be their biggest test yet. Young star cornerback Pat Surtain II will be tasked with limiting Davante Adams, perhaps the league’s best receiver. Reportedly “angry and frustrated” with the Raiders’ 0-3 start, the Broncos won’t be afraid to help Surtain if necessary; teams have been doubling Adams all season long, limiting him to 17 receptions for 189 yards on the season — but three of those catches have been touchdowns.
Fellow receiver Mack Hollins has been the beneficiary of the extra attention paid to Adams, leading the Raiders in receiving yards with 240 on 14 catches; it’ll be up to Ronald Darby to keep tabs on Hollins. Slot corner K’Waun Williams’ job became easier when the pesky Hunter Renfrow was ruled out of the game on Friday with a concussion.
The Broncos will face their best quarterback thus far in Derek Carr, and they may do so without lineman D.J. Jones, who’s dealing with a concussion of his own. Jones returned to practice in full on Friday, but is listed as questionable. If the Broncos were paying attention to the frightening Tua Tagovailoa injury in Thursday night’s game, it wouldn’t be a surprise if they held their free-agent addition out for Sunday and let Mike Purcell handle the role.
The pass-rushing tandem of Randy Gregory and Bradley Chubb have lived up to expectations, combining for five sacks, while lineman Dre’Mont Jones has added a pair of his own. If the Broncos can get a lead, they’ll have an opportunity to wreak havoc on the Raiders’ passing game.
Carr is the team’s second-leading rusher with 26 yards, so the Broncos only need to worry about fourth-year running back Josh Jacobs, who’s averaging a paltry 14 carries per game, even though he’s been running at a solid 4.6 yards-per-carry clip. The Broncos’ rushing defense allows the sixth-fewest yards per game with 81.3. The Raiders average only 80.0, so Las Vegas isn’t going to win this game on the ground.
Carr’s ability to force the ball to Adams and tight end Darren Waller will make or break the Raiders’ offense on Sunday.
As a reward for his 10 moonshot punts against the 49ers — six of which were downed within the opponents’ 20-yard line —Broncos punter Corliss Waitman was named AFC Special Teams Player of the Week. He’s been exactly what the Broncos hoped for; a field-flipper that gives their defense a jumpstart on most every drive.
The Broncos know what they have in veteran kicker Brandon McManus; all but automatic from 50 yards and in, and 50-50 beyond it. That said, Denver knows that they can legitimately try a field goal from up to 65 yards if the game depended on it. Rookie returner Montrell Washington has been solid, and appears to be a threat on every return.
For the Raiders, kicker Daniel Carlson’s been perfect on the season, going 8-for-8 on field goal attempts, including 2-for-2 beyond 50 yards. In Las Vegas’ domed stadium, he’s deadly accurate. Punter A.J. Cole’s gross (51.4 yards) and net (46.1) rank third and fourth in the NFL, respectively. The Raiders’ kicking game hasn’t been their problem.
Return man Ameer Abdullah has been at it for a long time, and with good reason; he’s consistent and reliable, if not explosive. Punt returner Keelan Cole has only returned a single punt this season.
One thing is clear: it won’t be coaching that decides the game on Sunday… not good coaching, at least. The jury is still out on Broncos coach Nathaniel Hackett, whose offensive bona fides haven’t translated to production despite the addition of Wilson at quarterback, and while the timing on his play-calling has improved, many of those calls are head-scratchers, especially on third down. Denver’s penalties continue to plague them at a nearly record pace, as well. Hackett may be a winning coach today, but it’s fair to say it doesn’t seem like it.
Josh McDaniels is still looking for his first head coaching victory since Nov. 14, 2010, when he coached the Broncos to a now-equally rare win over the Kansas City Chiefs. He was fired three weeks later, and his 0-3 start hasn’t endeared him to the transplanted Raider Nation. McDaniels can work a whiteboard as well as anyone, but coaching actual human beings seems to be a problem that he has yet to overcome.
It’s entirely possible that either Hackett or McDaniels makes some critical mistake that costs their team the game on Sunday. Both teams’ fan bases are merely hoping that the man in charge stays out of the way.