8:30 PM EST, NBC – Line: Green Bay -3
Undefeated teams clash tonight at Sports Authority Field in Mile High as the Denver Broncos host Green Bay Packers in a duel between Hall of Fame Quarterbacks. A trendy selection by pundits to represent their respective conferences in Super Bowl XLX, these teams couldn’t look more different despite enjoying the same perfect resumes. In the case of the visiting Packers (6-0, 1st in NFC North), it’s been business as usual, as reigning MVP Quarterback Aaron Rodgers continues to steer one of the league’s most prolific offenses, despite a number of injuries on that particular side of the ball. Losing Jordy Nelson to an ACL tear early in the preseason was thought to be a significant issue at the time, but Rodgers has effortlessly distributed the ball to a litany of teammates, from Randall Cobb all the way down the depth chart to Jeff Janis. A quick glance at the numbers will show that he’s had no problem adjusting to playing without the team-leader in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns in 2014; No. 12 has completed 68.1% of his passes for an average of 248.5 yards on 7.36 net yards per attempt, while tossing fifteen touchdowns to just a pair of interceptions. However, once you look past his superb play, you’ll quickly realize that these Packers look far different than the one that was an overtime away from a Super Bowl a year ago. No, these Packers are balanced offensively, which is something that Head Coach Mike McCarthy has been striving towards for quite some time now. Through six games, Green Bay has averaged a healthy 127.3 yards per game on the ground (7th Overall) on a very effective 4.5 yards per carry (6th Overall), both improvements over last year’s rankings (11th and 10th respectfully). Resisting the urge to pass on every down is difficult with Rodgers under center, but McCarthy has shown a resolute faithfulness to the ground game, exhibited by the 28.0 attempts that his team has logged per contest, eleventh-most in the league. Green Bay has topped 120 rushing yards in five out of their six outings thus far, including 133 yards against the Chargers’ woeful Defensive Front two weeks ago. In the 27-20 victory, the home side only rushed the ball seventeen times, yet gashing San Diego on a number of occasions. With Eddie Lacy battling injuries of his own, the carries fell to James Starks, hero of the team’s 2010 championship run, with the Tailback gaining 112 yards and a score on just ten touches. Granted, this shift has definitely been necessary given the absence of Nelson, and current injuries to the likes of Receivers Davante Adams (ankle) and Ty Montgomery (ankle), but with those two possibly returning to action tonight along with Lacy, the Packers’ offense just became much more versatile, considering Rodgers will now have the benefit of a plausible play-action fake.
On the other side of the ball, the question has been can the defense improve enough to not just complement their compatriots on offense, but slow down some of the more prolific attacks that they’ll see in the playoffs? Sadly, we probably won’t see that tonight (due to reasons discussed at length later in this article), but through the early goings of the campaign it definitely appears like Green Bay has turned a corner in this regard. Simply put, no team has allowed fewer points than the Packers, who through a confluence of Time of Possession, Sacks, and Turnovers have stopped teams from scoring touchdowns. In many ways, they resemble last year’s Dallas Cowboys, who benefitted so much from the relief of a top-tier rushing attack, that when they did hit the field, they made an impression. Yes, opponents still pick up a healthy 4.7 yards per carry when they run the ball at them (27th Overall), but with so many of them trailing in games that hasn’t really been an issue. Passing the ball against them has been a different story altogether, as Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers’ unit has been very stingy in defending the pass; Green Bay has allowed a paltry 5.7 net yards per attempt, the fourth-fewest figure in the NFL, while seven passing touchdowns, the sixth-fewest total. And those numbers are even inflated a bit due to Philip Rivers going off in the second half of the Chargers outing, amassing a staggering 488 yards through the air. However, before that performance the Packers hadn’t allowed more than 251 yards to any of the previous five Quarterbacks they faced. Defensive Backs Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix, Micah Hyde, Sam Shields, and rookie Damarious Randle have been bonafide ball hawks in the Secondary, accounting for twenty deflected passes and four interceptions, while the pass-rush has been in high gear registering twenty-three sacks. Veterans Julius Peppers and Clay Matthews have notched 5.5 and 4.5 takedowns respectfully, while emerging youngsters such as Nick Perry (3.5 sacks) and Mike Daniels (3.0 sacks) have contributed greatly as well. Remember all those picks that General Manager Ted Thompson used on defensive players between 2012 and 2014? Well, they’re starting to pay pretty sizable dividends this season; the Packers selected fifteen players on the defensive side of the ball from 2012 to 2014, with many of them such as the aforementioned Hyde, Perry, and Daniels, along with Datone Jones and Casey Hayward developing into solid players on a unit that has quickly becoming one of the league’s best. Look no further than their collective annihilation of San Francisco’s inept offense back on October 4th; Green Bay absolutely embarrassed a 49ers’ attack that in the past has given them fits (and in many ways served as the impetus for the defensive focus in the draft), yielding a mere three points, eight First Downs, and a total of 196 yards. That alone must have served as validation for McCarthy, Capers, and Thompson, who together have witnessed this group grow over the past few years into a unit that while still not as formidable as the their own vaunted offense, is proving capable of winning games themselves.
Meanwhile, it’s been a very different story for the Broncos (6-0, 1st in AFC West), who have reached this point primarily on the strength of their dominating defense, in spite of their own lethargic offense. Wait a minute… did we just read that correctly? When has an offense consisting of Peyton Manning, Demaryius Thomas, and Emmanuel Sanders ever been considered lethargic? Well, if you read the news, there have been far more unflattering adjectives used to describe Gary Kubiak’s offense. From broken, to inconsistent, to just plain bad, to words that that we simply can’t use in this article have become synonymous with Manning and Co. this season, which is arguably the most interesting storyline of the entire 2015 NFL campaign. And honestly, it’s had to a lot to do with the play of No. 18, which is easily the most disappointing aspect of all. At 39 years old, it’s become clear that the drop-off in production experienced late in the previous season was indeed a sign of things to come. Through six games, the fourteen-time Pro Bowler has seen a number of statistics fall off considerably, including completion percentage (61.6%), his lowest since 2001, interception percentage (4.2%), his worst since his rookie campaign in 1998, Total QBR (46.36), his worst since the statistic was introduced in 2006, and net yards per pass attempt (5.80), the worst such figure of his illustrious eighteen-year career. Furthermore, his ten interceptions leads the entire NFL, which is unbelievable when you consider the fact that he set a single-season record with fifty-five touchdown passes just two short seasons ago. Rumblings in the offseason of lost arm strength and lack of feeling in his fingers helped set the table for this predicament, followed shortly by Kubiak’s stubbornly ridiculous insistence in running his antique and outdated version of the West Coast Offense, essentially dumbing down one of the league’s most wide-open offensive attacks in recent years. The Offensive Line seems to have suffered the worst from these changes, which has also had a monumental effect on Manning, for the shift towards a zone-blocking scheme has not brought the desired results in the running game or in protecting the near forty-year old; Denver has only averaged 85.0 yards per game on the ground (31st Overall) on a mere 3.6 yards per carry (30th Overall), with Tailbacks C.J Anderson and Ronnie Hillman both floundering behind a blocking unit ill-suited for the scheme change. Losing a Pro Bowl Left Tackle like Ryan Clady to Injured Reserve is a huge blow (knee), while losing fellow Tackle Ty Sambrailo for an extended period of time (shoulder) is just compounding problems. Manning in turn, has been sacked a dozen times already, and hit on numerous drop backs, breaking the rhythm of a passing game where such a thing is crucial, evidenced by the next-to-last 5.8 net yards per pass attempt that they’ve been able to muster. And lastly, there is just a lack of talent on this side of the ball; apart from the aforementioned Thomas and Sanders, gone are Julius Thomas and Wes Welker, who combined for 92 receptions, 953 receiving yards and fourteen touchdowns, while proving essential in creating mismatches with opposing Linebackers, only to be replaced with the underwhelming Owen Daniels (85 yards 2 touchdowns) and Jordan Norwood (80 yards 0 touchdowns). Hell, they’re even using a Fullback in Denver these days, which must sound like a foreign concept to Manning, who hasn’t utilized that position in like… ever. No wonder these guys rank fourth-worst in the league in total offense (339.0). At the end of the day, based off of how his play declined towards the end of the 2014, Manning always looked be on this path, but Kubiak was hired to maximize what was left of the future Hall of Famer, much like Team President John Elway did late in his career. However, with over a quarter of the term already in the books, it appears that Kubiak has done nothing short of hastening his Quarterback’s demise.
So taking in consideration everything you just read, there is no doubt that you’re wondering just how the hell the Broncos are still undefeated. Well, look no further than to the opposite side of the ball for the answer to your query. For all intents and purposes, Denver has been nothing short of dominant this season on defense. Wade Phillips deserves a number of accolades for his work in turning a staunch unit already loaded with talent into arguably the best group in the league at the moment. So let’s take a moment ourselves to run down the numbers, shall we? The son of Bum has engineered a defensive juggernaut allowing 17.0 points (2nd Overall) on 281.4 total yards (1st Overall), including 192.2 yards versus the pass (1st Overall) on 4.7 net yards per attempt (1st Overall), along with 89.2 yards against the run (4th Overall) on 3.6 yards per carry (3rd Overall). As has been the case in many of his previous stops, Phillips’ attacking 3-4 defensive scheme has translated into a hellacious pass-rush; the Broncos have racked up a staggering twenty-six sacks thus far, with twelve different players contributing towards dropping hapless Quarterbacks. The usual suspects, DeMarcus Ware (4.5 sacks) and Von Miller (3 sacks), have wrecked havoc on the edges, while Malik Jackson (4 sacks) and Shaquil Barrett (3.5 sacs) have gotten into the act as well for a unit that has yet to allow a 300-yard passer this season. As expected, with such pressure applied to opposing passers, opportunities should be a plenty in the Secondary, and Denver’s Defensive Backs have collectively feasted on the violence created by their teammates. Aqib Talib and Chris Harris are excellent Corners on their own, but with this kind of pass-rush at their disposal, it’s almost unfair; the tandem has amassed five interceptions between them, three of which have been returned for touchdowns, while fellow Cornerback Bradley Roby returned a fumble twenty-one yards to pay-dirt to save the day in a stunning victory over the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium back on September 17th. Basically, it’s as simple as pressure leads to bad reads and even worse throws, which in turn leads to turnovers, and as these guys have proven time and time again, when they get their hands on the football, look out. Of the 139 points scored by this team, twenty-eight can be attributed to the defense, with another sixty-one coming courtesy of Special Steams. That means that Kubiak’s offense has only accounted for fifty points this season. That’s right folks, FIFTY POINTS in SIX GAMES, which if we do the math averages out to 8.3 per game. We just hope that somebody on the Denver offense is taking the defense out to dinner…