The Buffalo Bills (7-5) travel to Mile High Stadium this week to take on the Peyton Manning-led Denver Broncos (9-3) in a game the Bills absolutely have to win in order to keep their already-slim playoff hopes alive. The Broncos feature a vaunted offensive attack that’s averaging 30.1 points-per-game (5th in NFL) and 304.4 passing yards-per-game (2nd). The Broncos’ defense has been similarly impressive to the offense, ranking 10th in pass defense and 2nd in run defense, allowing just 302.4 yards-per-game.
The Bills’ offense has struggled to score touchdowns, leaning on strong defensive play and consistency from Dan Carpenter to keep them in games. This is not a game where that formula will work. The Bills have struggled to move the ball downfield, as noted by their 21st ranked pass offense and their 24th ranked rush offense. The defense has played lights out, holding opponents to just over 216 yards-per-game through the air, good for 5th best in the league, while their 7th ranked rush defense has held opponents to 96.3 yards-per-game.
Bills DL vs Broncos OL
If the Bills have any hope at beating or limiting the Broncos’ vaunted passing attack led by Peyton Manning (66.8%, 3,742 yards, 36 TDs, 9 INTs) they’ll have to pressure him consistently. The Bills’ defensive line is one of the best in the league, featuring three of the league’s top 13 sack artists in Mario Williams (12), Marcell Dareus (10) and Jerry Hughes (9.5), but getting after Manning is easier said than done.
The Broncos offensive line has allowed the fifth-lowest amount of QB pressures during their 12 games, while the Bills’ defense has generated 231 sacks, hits and hurries. But these numbers are deceiving. Manning’s average time to throw is 2.25 seconds, the lowest figure in the league. His 2.98 time to sack is also the lowest number in the league, as he’ll typically just take sacks when pressure is in his face.
Pressure affects Manning, as noted by his 70.5-percent completion rate with a 28:6 TD-to-INT ratio when he has a clean pocket. When pressured, he completes just 51.1% of his passes, and he’s thrown just eight touchdowns and three interceptions.
The Bills’ defensive line will need to win their one-on-one matchups, get hands in the face of Manning and disrupt his timing and throwing angles as often as possible.
Bills Linebackers and Safeties vs Broncos Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
This matchup will be huge, as Emmanuel Sanders one of Peyton’s favorite targets (115). Sanders has caught 82 passes for 1,157 yards and seven touchdowns, lining up primarily at the left “flanker” position or in the slot in base formations.
He’ll likely see Stephon Gilmore for the majority of the game, and it will be interesting to see if Jim Schwartz alters his game plan for this specific matchup. Gilmore has typically been used in off-man or zone throughout the year, where he’s allowed “gimme” receptions, while negating explosive plays. Emmanuel Sanders is an explosive weapon that can beat you vertically (12 catches, 3 TDs on 27 targets 20+ yards downfield) and horizontally (39 rec, 587 yards, 3 TD on 48 targets between the hashes).
If Jim Schwartz wants to limit the impact Emmanuel Sanders has on this game, it would be wise to let Gilmore press at the line of scrimmage and use some bump and run coverage with him to disrupt the timing between him and Manning.
In addition to Sanders, Demaryius Thomas will be a handful for Corey Graham, who will likely require safety help. Thomas has hauled in 88 passes for 1,255 yards and 10 touchdowns on 132 targets. Most of Thomas’ work takes place in the left intermediate portion of the field, where he’s caught 76 of 106 targets for 950 yards and six scores on 106 targets.
Basically, Sanders and Thomas work the intermediate-to-deep game with horizontal routes that allow Julius Thomas, another All-Pro weapon at tight end to flourish on vertical routes down the seams. Thomas has missed the last one and a half games due to an injury, but it appears he’ll play Sunday. In his 10 games this season, he’s caught 40 passes for 426 yards and 12 scores. Thomas is a physical beast that can “post up” defenders and make contested catches in the middle of the field.
Jim Schwartz saw what a similar player in Rob Gronkowski did to his defense when covered by safeties and cornerbacks, so here’s to hoping that Nigel Bradham is tasked with covering Thomas throughout the game.
Broncos DL vs Bills OL
Like the Bills, the Broncos have a talented duo of edge rushers of their own in Demarcus Ware and Von Miller, who’ve combined for 21.5 sacks on the year while generating 110 total QB pressures. The Bills’ offensive line has been the team’s weak link throughout the year, but it appears that they’ve finally found some stability since they inserted Kraig Urbik into the left guard position in week 8.
Prior to week 8, the Bills’ offensive line surrendered 84 pressures (12 per game) and 19 sacks. Since Urbik’s been in the lineup, the unit has surrendered 41 pressures (8.2 per game) and 9 sacks. While the unit still isn’t anything to be confident in, they’re finally starting to gel together. Protecting Kyle Orton will be a priority, as Von Miller is an outstanding pass rusher that has the potential to take over games. He’ll be lined up across from Seantrel Henderson, who’s had his ups and downs as a rookie, while veteran DeMarcus Ware will face off with Cordy Glenn, who’s developing into one of the league’s top tackles.
In addition to a fierce pass rush, the Broncos feature the league’s No. 2 rush defense, holding opponents to 72.7 yards-per-game on the ground. Over the past two weeks, Buffalo has moved the ball a bit more effectively than previous weeks, but moving the chains, keeping the clock rolling and sustaining drives will be key to keeping Peyton Manning on the Sidelines.
Bills WRs vs Broncos CBs
Kyle Orton has done a good job of spreading the ball around to the multiple receiving options at his disposal, but he’ll have a tough task this week against a secondary featuring Chris Harris, arguably the best cornerback in the league and Aqib Talib, a physical boundary corner that can present problems for opposing wideouts.
Over the past several weeks, opposing defenses have rolled coverage over Sammy Watkins, which has created one-on-one opportunities for guys like Robert Woods and Chris Hogan to make an impact. It will be interesting to see how Denver gameplans for the Bills’ offense, as they have two quality corners each capable of handling their own in man-to-man situations.
The outcome of this game will be determined by the play in the trenches. Peyton Manning is an elite quarterback that can pick a defense apart, but can be forced into poor decisions when pressured. If the Bills can effectively and consistently get in his face and disrupt his timing, in addition to efficiently rushing the ball, the Bills have a chance to squeeze out the upset.
Jim Schwartz will need to be aggressive on defense, pressing Denver’s wide receivers at the line of scrimmage in addition to mixing up coverages. He’ll need to understand that the defense isn’t going to confuse Peyton Manning, and that executing the gameplan and playing physical at the line of scrimmage will be the only way the Bills will earn a win.