2015 AFC preview: Denver Broncos
From now until the New England Patriots begin training camp, Phil Perry looks at the 15 other AFC teams: The biggest question they face heading into the season, their story line on offense, their story line on defense, and their "threat level" to the Patriots.
Today's opponent: The Denver Broncos.
How will Peyton Manning handle Gary Kubiak's offense?
Gary Kubiak's spent enough time in the NFL, that the book is out on what he likes to do as an offensive coach. Now that he's the man in charge in Denver, we can expect to see all sorts of roll-outs, play-action passes, and stretch-run plays, one might think.
But with Peyton Manning behind center, the Broncos offense may be an amalgamation of what Kubiak likes to do and what Manning can do.
Boot-legs? Manning's not the fleetest of foot, if you haven't been paying attention. And while it's possible that Kubiak will find ways to move the pocket, it would behoove Denver to help Manning get his feet set and underneath him whenever possible.
Play-action? That wasn't exactly Manning's strong suit in 2014. According to Pro Football Focus, Manning's touchdown-to-interception ratio on play-action throws last year was 8-to-15.
Manning was at his worst in 2014 at the end of the season, when he played with an injured quad and struggled in the cold. Throwing when at all off-balance -- and, really, even when he had his feet settled -- the numbers weren't pretty in December and January: In his last three regular-season games he threw six picks compared to just three scores, and in the Divisional Round, Andrew Luck and the Colts upset Manning's club in Denver, 24-13.
At 39 years old, it may not make much sense to put Manning under center -- as opposed to in the shotgun -- which Kubiak has said he'd like to do consistently. And it may not make much sense for Manning to be asked to use his legs in a new offensive system. But this may be Manning's new reality under Kubiak.
It's a marriage between coach and quarterback that isn't perfect, but it shouldn't get Manning killed; he's still too savvy to bootleg into trouble. The projected protection in front of Manning, on the other hand, doesn't bode well for his long-term health.
OFFENSIVE STORYLINE TO WATCH
Where are the answers on the offensive line?
Longtime starting left tackle Ryan Clady will miss the entire 2015 season after tearing his ACL this spring, and there is no clear-cut replacement on the team's roster. Making matters even more difficult for the Broncos is that they will have to find fill-ins for last year's starter at center Will Montgomery (now with the Bears), left guard Orlando Franklin (now with the Chargers) and right tackle Luis Vasquez, who is still in Denver but has been shifted back to right guard.
That's four of five starting offensive line spots that look like they're up in the air at the moment.
We saw the Patriots overcome offensive line concerns last season to eventually win a Super Bowl. It can be done. But at least through New England's struggles it had two capable veterans penciled in at the tackle spots. What's happening in Denver is chaos by comparison.
Not only might Manning's well-being become a concern with a completely new-look group protecting him, but the team's running game, which ranked 15th in the league last season (112 yards per game) -- the running game that could help take pressure off of Manning's aging right arm -- appears to be hampered before it ever had a chance to get started.
DEFENSIVE STORYLINE TO WATCH
Will Denver's defense be able to dominate games?
On paper, it looks like they'll have a chance.
Last year's unit ranked third in the league in total defense and earned defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio an opportunity to get another shot as a head coach in Oakland.
Now it's Wade Phillips who'll be at the controls, and he brings with him his 3-4 scheme.
For a Broncos team that features one of the best young pass-rushers in the game, Von Miller, this is very good news. At what seems as though it would be a more natural spot for him, somewhere where his skill set can flourish, Miller has the opportunity to take his game to another level. Having the option to use DeMarcus Ware and rookie Shane Ray -- who fell to the Broncos at No. 23 in the first round of the draft -- in packages simultaneously with Miller will make this one of the most imposing third-down defenses in the league.
Though there are question marks at the linebacker level and at free safety, corners Aqib Talib and Chris Harris should help hide many deficiencies in coverage and make this one of the top defensive teams in football.
THREAT LEVEL: HIGH
The Broncos will be once again one of New England's main challengers in the conference, and the two teams will square off in Denver in Week 11.
Though it will be billed as it always is, Brady vs. Manning, the most important matchup will be Brady vs. Phillips and the Broncos defense. How will Nate Solder handle Miller -- someone he's seen since their days in the Big 12 -- on the outside? Will Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell be able to shake Talib and Harris? How will yet another meeting between Rob Gronkowski and safety TJ Ward play out?
And on the other side, what will New England's new secondary do to handle Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders? What may make that job at least a little more palatable is that they no longer have tight end Julius Thomas (now in Jacksonville) to prepare for.
The chess match will be intriguing, as it has been with these teams since 2013, but take note that the threat level here is "high," not "severe." The Patriots, from this perspective, will be the better team thanks in large part to what looks like a still-growing advantage at quarterback. There are other, more serious contenders who lurk in the AFC.