OAKLAND, Calif. — Fifty-four days after training camp began, the Broncos open the regular season Monday night at Oakland. Denver is determined to return to the playoffs for the first time since Super Bowl 50.
The Broncos unveil a new coach in Vic Fangio, a new quarterback in Joe Flacco (the fifth starter since Peyton Manning), and a renewed focus on discipline. Nobody, it seems, believes the Broncos will contend this season. Most predictions range from 2-14 (that's silly) to 9-7. I have the Broncos posting an 8-8 record this season, vying for a playoff spot until the end. For the Broncos to return to relevancy, they can ill-afford a misstep as a road favorite.
Coaching matters. With Fangio, it will be better. But it has to translate to results. My Denver7 key to a Broncos victory over the Raiders:
Don't overthink it. Run the ball
Fangio is not old school. He is nuanced in his approach, showing a modern touch in how he relates to players. However, his team is built to win in an old-school fashion: low scoring, defensive-oriented brawls with complementary boosts from the offense and special teams. The Broncos need to run the ball to make this work. It controls the clock, mutes the crowd, and creates the much-needed physical identity the revamped offensive line seeks. The Raiders allowed 140 yards per game on the ground last season. They will likely dare Flacco to beat them early by stacking the box and using stunts up front like the 49ers did during the Broncos' joint practices with them. The Broncos must remain patient and committed to the run game. Phillip Lindsay might finish with 70 yards, but the last five carries will set up play action.
Play to strengths
Flacco has a celebrated history of winning with a solid ground attack. When his team's rushing attack ranks in the top 16, he is 73-39, averaging 221.1 yards passing with 147 touchdowns, 81 interceptions and a 86.2 rating. When the ground game sits below the halfway point in league rankings, Flacco is 23-28, averaging 264.4 yards, 65 touchdowns, 55 picks and a 80.5 rating. If the Broncos run well -- remember, they had issues in the preseason -- it will set up play-action. Flacco excels at such, especially if rookie tight end Noah Fant emerges as a popular target. If Fant catches four passes, it should translate to Emmanuel Sanders taking the top off the defense at least once for a 35-yard plus gain.
Stop the Run
With Antonio Brown gone, the Raiders will rely on the running game and short passes. Rookie Josh Jacobs is big, strong, and willing to put his foot in the ground and cut back behind an enormous offensive line. The inside linebackers must play smart, not overly aggressive and end up out of position. This is where Todd Davis will be missed. He is a terrific run stopper. This could be the night Shelby Harris takes his next big step into the spotlight after a fantastic preseason.
Win turnover battle
Of all the reasons the Broncos were 10-21 the last two seasons, turnovers figured prominently. It's on Flacco to take care of the ball while taking a few calculated chances on third down. The Broncos ranked 28th in third down conversions last season (33.3 percent). Denver's defense figures to produce a takeaway or two, so the benefit of protecting the ball -- this applies to special teams as well -- will be amplified.
No red face in red zone
The Broncos showed fissures in the preseason. The red zone remained an issue. Last season, the Broncos ranked 19th in red zone percentage. To post a winning record, they need to be in the 10-12 range. The easiest way to lose is to settle for field goals. The Broncos have to show creativity inside the 20.
Cover for the inside backers
The expectation remains that the Raiders will employ jumbo packages early in the game. It will help Jacobs and keep the two inside linebackers on the field in Josey Jewell and Alexander Johnson/Corey Nelson. This leaves the Broncos vulnerable to covering the tight end and running backs. How Fangio adjusts to this will be critical. Will he employ Nelson, a faster linebacker, more than Johnson? Employ Justin Hollins as a weapon to guard tight ends? Or rely on an extra safety like Will Parks to give the Broncos flexibility in coverage while still tackling well at the point of attack?
Strip sack, please
Here is where Fangio can make a difference. With the Broncos disguising coverages and using his outside linebackers differently, it gives his defense a gnarly unpredictability. Maybe Von Miller is in coverage one down, stopping the run the next, then lined up on the opposite side on third down creating havoc for Derek Carr. Raiders right tackle Trent Brown is a mountain of a man at 6-foot-8, 380 pounds. There's no one like him in the league. Look for the Broncos to move Miller and Bradley Chubb around to exploit left tackle Kolton Miller in pass protection. I believe Chris Harris Jr. wins his matchup consistently with Tyrell Williams. Get pressure form Chubb, Von and Malik Reed, Harris, Justin Simmons or Kareem Jackson will produce one pick.
It's worth noting that the Broncos' secondary could be without a key offseason addition. Talked to multiple sources about cornerback Bryce Callahan's foot issue. There is increasing doubt he plays. Callahan didn't play in the preseason or practice much after re-injuring his foot on July 27 in the stadium practice. He might need more time to heal. Callahan will test his foot in pregame with the trainers. He rested much of this week so he needs to prove he's ready to go and comfortable on Oakland's dirt/grass field. If he can't go, Broncos have played and practiced without him for much of training camp so not a huge adjustment. It means they will lean on Issac Yiadom and De’Vante Bausby.
RENCK'S PREDICTION: Broncos 20, Raiders 17