DENVER – A tangible sense of urgency hangs over Empower Field at Mile High. It’s not so much the setting – splashes of orange and blue fans in the newly named stadium – as the schedule itself.
Second games remain revealing. The Broncos have not started 0-2 since 1999, the two-time defending champion’s first season without Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway. Teams that start 0-2 make the playoffs roughly 13 percent of the time. So if this team views itself as a contender, this is arguably a must-win home opener.
It’s juicy. The Bears visit for the first time since 2011. They haven’t won in Denver since 2003. It comes with a layer of interest as Broncos coach Vic Fangio faces the team he helped reach the playoffs by fashioning the league’s best defense. So, yeah, this one matters more than most. My Denver7 keys to a Broncos victory:
Home is where the W is
History sits squarely on the Broncos’ side. Denver owns a 17-1 record in its last 18 home openers. It’s a new team, a new season, yada, yada. The Broncos need to look to the past – get a lead, let the crowd roar to help the pass rush – to brighten the future.
Take, take, take
The Broncos must follow Post Malone’s advice, and “Take What You Want.” The Bears defense under Fangio led the NFL in takeaways last season. Denver produced zero in the opener. The Broncos aren’t good enough to beat Chicago without at least one takeaway.
The Broncos’ secondary issues were concerning, but not surprising. With Bryce Callahan out with a foot injury – he’s expected to miss his second-straight game Sunday – safety Kareem Jackson moved into a corner role. He can play there, but practiced roughly 25 percent of the time at the spot since joining the Broncos. It led to communication breakdowns. Those should be fixed after a full week of preparation, allowing Denver to disguise its pre-snap coverages. The other key? Look for cornerback Chris Harris Jr. to follow around Bears leading receiver Allen Robinson. It creates more chances for Harris to make plays.
Protect the ball, protect Flacco
The Bears defense makes opponents squirm. The group is talented on all levels, and plays with ferocity from sideline to sideline. As Broncos offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello said, “It's about taking care of the football, it's about being a smart team and being calculated and taking shots. But you have to take your shots. You've got to keep them honest, you've got to go up on them.” That means new starting right tackle Elijah Wilkinson and left tackle Garett Bolles need to deliver their best games. There will be mistakes, but it can’t be a missed block that leaves Joe Flacco crumpled or a holding call that takes points off the board.
Outside the box
The Broncos can’t win without Von Miller and Bradley Chubb making a big impact. Both played well in the run game last week. However, that is not where they disrupt games. The key is keeping the Bears off schedule, forcing third and longs. Last week, the Raiders converted 10 of 14 third downs, many of the short yardage variety. That’s why the Broncos offense had only three first-half possessions last week. Mitch Trubisky is not Derek Carr. He's under enormous scrutiny after a horrible opener. Get him into obvious passing situations, and Von and crew will do damage.
Stay patient on ground
The Broncos run game showed life in the second half. They ran 16 times for 80 yards after halftime, compared to 7 for 15 in the first half. It might be ugly, but the Broncos need to show patience to set up a big strike to Courtland Sutton or Emmanuel Sanders later in the game.
No special circumstances
Special teams are like offensive linemen. The less you know about them, the better. If you are talking about them afterward, it’s usually for the wrong reasons. Is the week the Broncos play a clean game in coverage, and get a chunk play from new returner Diontae Spencer? It is desperately needed to take pressure off the offense.
RENCK PREDICTION: Broncos 18, Bears 15