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Broncos feel hype of pending litmus test vs. Packers

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ENGELWOOD, Colo. — Cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said that he planned to take footage of the Green Bay Packers home with him during the bye to study. Other Denver Broncos, even as they got away, had the same thought in mind, although not to the point that it consumed them.

“I definitely took my notes with me and my iPad,” said safety David Bruton Jr. “I watched a couple of games while I was gone, but my focus was to get away from football as much as possible and just spend time with the family.”

“I got away from it at first, but as soon as Sunday came, they started talking about all the headlines — Packers, Broncos, Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning — and then they went back to when we played them in the Super Bowl in the 90s,” added linebacker Brandon Marshall.

“I started thinking about all that, so then that got my hype and got my blood boiling.”

Now, the week that many pundits have pointed to for months is at hand. Despite an alarming lack of consistent offense and a streak of nine consecutive quarters without an offensive touchdown at one point earlier this month, the Broncos sit at 6-0, tied for the top spot in the AFC, with a three-game lead and a head-to-head tiebreaker advantage in the AFC West over the second-place Oakland Raiders.

Despite the struggles of the offense and quarterback Peyton Manning’s league-leading 10 interceptions, the Broncos are positioned for a long, deep run — if they can supplement their elite defense with just enough offense to succeed against a demanding November schedule that includes two of the league’s four other undefeated teams: the Packers on Sunday and the Green Bay Patriots on Nov. 29.

With Denver’s elite defense and Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers both setting lofty standards, the hype is already under way.

Now Marshall and the Broncos have to manage it.

“I feel the hype is going to take care of itself because of the setting and the undefeated team, the crowd, everything like that. You’ve got to try not to get too amped before the game starts because then if you’re too hype when the game starts, you’re going to be low on energy,” Marshall said. “You’ve got to kind of control your energy, but if you can’t get up for this game, then you shouldn’t be out there. I promise you this will be that type of atmosphere.”

REPORT CARD AFTER SIX GAMES:

–PASSING OFFENSE: D. There can be no sugar-coating it; the Broncos’ aerial game is among the league’s least efficient. Peyton Manning has struggled, with 10 interceptions in six games, including three that were returned for touchdowns. At 39 years old, Manning has struggled with accuracy and has dealt with more defenders dropping into coverage, leading to some crushing mistakes. Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders are one of the league’s best pass-catching duos, but Thomas has struggled with dropped passes, especially in the last three weeks since suffering a neck injury against the Vikings on Oct. 4.

–RUSHING OFFENSE: D. Gary Kubiak isn’t used to having ground games that struggle like this one. Although Ronnie Hillman has shown promise with two 100-yard games in the last three weeks and explosion to the outside, the offensive line has struggled to congeal and C.J. Anderson has endured a disappointing start to the season. Anderson and Hillman are splitting carries now, and that arrangement should continue into the future, but if the blocking can’t generate more holes, it won’t matter who takes the handoffs.

–PASS DEFENSE: A. The Broncos lead the league in yardage allowed per pass play and sack rate. They have returned three interceptions for touchdowns. Their pass rush perfectly sets up their ballhawking secondary. Coordinator Wade Phillips’ willingness to mix up his blitzes leaves blocking schemes unsure of where pressure can originate. The Broncos’ work against the pass evokes memories of the 2013 Seahawks and with just a bit of offense, could carry them on a deep run.

–RUSH DEFENSE: A-minus. Only four teams have allowed fewer yards per game than the Broncos, who have surrendered just 89.2 rushing yards per game and 3.6 yards per carry, figures that were skewed by the Chiefs’ 147-yard, 5.3-yards-per-carry performance in Week 2. One of the reasons why the Broncos’ defense causes so many problems is because teams don’t have the option of going away from the pass, because the Broncos remain stout against the run.

–SPECIAL TEAMS: B-plus. Until a miss against Cleveland, kicker Brandon McManus was perfect, but he made up for it with a game-winner in overtime and has been among the league’s leaders in touchback percentage on kickoffs. Denver also has two blocked placekicks through six games, both of which helped keep the Broncos in control of the game flow against Detroit and Oakland. The return game has been a disappointment, and Emmanuel Sanders has been steady, but unspectacular, on punt returns. However, the positives outweigh the negatives for Joe DeCamillis’ units.

–COACHING: B-plus. The Broncos’ offensive struggles have not come from a lack of trying different wrinkles, including going away from extensive work under center, utilizing a pistol formation and trying an array of two-tight end and three-wide receiver packages. So far, nothing has worked with any consistency. But on defense, Phillips has preached aggression, and it has worked wonders, with the Broncos ranking among the league leaders in takeaways and sacks.


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