The second opponent on Atlanta's fast and furious schedule is the re-energized Denver Broncos. After finishing 8-8 and beating the Steelers in the wild card round, the Broncos and Tim Tebow were bounced from the playoffs by the New England Patriots. Subsequently Tebow himself was bounced out of Denver and to New York to play H-Back for the Jets. To replace Tebow the Broncos signed Peyton Manning. Now the Broncos are looking for a SB victory with Manning at the helm.
Picture from Peyton's top secret off-season work-out session
The first familar face about the Broncos is head coach John Fox. Fox coached the Carolina Panthers from 2002 to 2010. He is familiar with Mike Smith and the Falcons. However he isn't as familiar with them as normal. The Falcons replaced both OC Mike Mularkey and DC Brian Van Gorder after both left for jobs elsewhere. The Falcons brought in Mike Nolan and Dirk Koetter. The Broncos played Miami last year, and won 18-15. Even though they lost, Nolan's defense did their part. Tebow was held under 170 passing yards, Willis McGahee was limited to only 72 yards rushing, and no one reciever had more than 50 yards recieving. It is safe to say that Nolan's defense won that battle against Denver's offense. The last time John Fox faced off against Dirk Koetter was 2007 when the Jaguars beat the Panthers 37-6. Both coordinators have had success against John Fox led teams with arguably inferior talent to what Atlanta has now. Mike Smith is 4-2 against John Fox led teams as a head coach as well. If history is any indicator, the Falcons have an advantage with coaching coming into this game.
On the offensive side many are viewing the Broncos as a Super Bowl contender due to the Peyton Manning signing, but people might be jumping the gun a little. Even before undergoing four neck surgeries, Peyton Manning's arm strength looked like it was fading; ESPN's Ron Jaworski had pointed out on a live broadcast that it seemed like Manning was starting to lose zip on his throws. Now he's coming off of four neck surgeries; playing the Broncos this early could be a blessing as Manning might not have his strength back leaving him prone to floating balls on deep throws and throws to the sideline which will give a turnover hungry Atlanta secondary time to jump routes and go for the interception.
When you look at Denver's trenches it's a mess. They have one of the worst pass blocking left guards in Zane Beadles, and center J.D. Walton is one of the worst pass protectors in the league. Rookie Orlando Franklin had a mediocre year, but improved as the season went on. Left tackle Ryan Clady is a good player, but he's better suited in a zone blocking scheme. Right guard Chris Kuper is their best player, but he's nothing spectacular. Overall Pro Football Focus ranked them #30 in their OL evaluations after the 2011 season.
Furthermore, Denver doesn't have a whole lot of weaponry on offense. Demaryius Thomas is a promising player, but he's still learning and developing. The same goes for Eric Decker who was a good possession wide receiver for Denver last year. Tight end Jacob Tamme was good with Manning in Indianapolis, but that was two years ago. He shouldn't be a huge worry for Atlanta's defense. Willis McGahee had a great comeback year for Denver last year, but he took a lot of carries and at his age there is a lot of worry that he will wear down to quickly and not be as effective. Overall, Denver is relying a ton on a thirty-five year old quarter-back coming off of four neck surgeries. We'll also see how they react to the loss of clubhouse leaders Tim Tebow and Brian Dawkins.
On the defensive side the Broncos have a good arsenal of pass rushers, which is very concerning if you're a Falcons fan. Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil combined for 20+ sacks in the 2011 season. Atlanta must keep them in check and the best way to do that is by using screens and running it straight at Denver. Luckily for Atlanta this game is in week two and not week twelve. Michael Turner should be fresh and still able to carry a heavy load. Denver lost one of the best run stuffing defensive tackles in the NFL in Broderick Bunkley last year to the New Orleans Saints in free agency. Last year they signed Ty Warren to play at defensive tackle, and he is expected to start now that Bunkley is gone. However, Warren hasn't played a snap since 2009 as he missed the 2010 season with a hip injury and the 2011 season with a triceps injury. Former seventh round pick Kevin Vickerson is expected to start across from Warren, but he's an average player. Atlanta can take advantage of this weak interior running behind projected starters Joe Hawley and Peter Konz.
In the linebacker corps, the standout is Von Miller who basically acts as a standup pass rusher. Atlanta has to know where he is at all times or he will create havoc in the Falcons backfield. Joe Mays and D.J. Williams are decent players, but aren't world breakers. Perhaps the biggest hit for the Broncos defense was the loss of veteran Brian Dawkins to retirement. Dawkins was a hammer in run support for them and acted as a leader in the locker-room. Denver also signed former New Orleans corner back Tracy Porter to play across from veteran Champ Bailey. Bailey will be 34 by the time the season starts, and even though he has had a star-studded tenure in the NFL he is at the end of the road. Porter is another player that's decent, but his play has declined in recent years.
The last thing to consider is this game will be in the Georgia Dome. The Falcons have only lost six games during the regular season in the Georgia Dome since 2008. It's a tough place for opponents to play. Add in the fact that Denver is traveling from Colorado after playing the Steelers and the Falcons should have a mental advantage as well. Overall, Denver is an average team that has been overhyped by the media for basically signing a quarterback with significant health and arm strength questions. Atlanta should walk out of this one with a win, but they can't overlook the Broncos.
Previously on "Breaking Down the Schedule":
I like the fact that we face Manning early. It seems unlikely he'll possess adequate rhythm (with Denver receiving corp) by week 2 - and the Dome isn't going to be friendly. If we moderate Miller I like our chances - but much like Hali week 1 we need to do just that. Those players pose a good test for our O-line early. Observing Ryan's hurries, hits, (sacks) during those games should provide a forecast for the remaining season...