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Top-rated Denver defense faces stern test with Packers

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The Sports Xchange

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The Denver Broncos’ defense has dominated this year. It leads the league in yardage allowed per play and per game and in takeaways per game because it melds a ferocious pass rush with ball-hawking defensive backs who can capitalize off errant throws.

“They put their pressure on the quarterback. They make the quarterback make decisions that he might not make if he wasn’t under pressure,” said cornerback Aqib Talib. “We work hand-in-hand with those guys up front. We need them.”

And in their two games before the bye, the Broncos’ defense has been more effective at finding the end zone than its offense, with two touchdowns compared to one by the offense.

But it hasn’t faced an offense quite like that of the Packers. The Broncos’ opponents to date have ranked anywhere from 11th to 28th in yardage per play, with an average rank of 19th.

The Packers, on the other hand, are fifth in yardage per play — and with four turnovers, have fewer giveaways than all but the Patriots.

Not that this fazes the Broncos, who are a home underdog for the first time since Sept. 23, 2012 — Peyton Manning’s third game as the Broncos’ starting quarterback.

“Have they played any DBs like us? They haven’t played anybody like us yet,” Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said.

And teams can get to Aaron Rodgers. The Packers have allowed one sack every 17.5 pass plays, which ranks 16th in the league — six spots below the beleaguered Broncos’ offensive line, which has allowed one sack every 20.8 pass plays.

But Rodgers can also elude pressure and extend plays, increasing the challenge for the secondary.

“The guy is extremely accurate, I’ll just say that,” said Broncos inside linebacker Brandon Marshall. “He’s mobile — he’s more mobile than you think. The guy can scramble. He can get around and get away from sacks and everything like that. We have a tough challenge on our hands this weekend as far as that.”

Easily the toughest of the season so far for the undefeated Broncos.

“I think at the end of the day, it will come down to what defense plays the best,” Marshall said. “You have two great quarterbacks that put up a lot of points.

“What defense plays the best, I think that’s who will win the game.”

But the Broncos’ offense hasn’t put up a lot of points this year. And if it can’t reverse its struggles, the onus will be on the defense to carry the day — but this time against a quarterback who is arguably the best in the game today.

“A battle of the defenses, I guess, but we’re going to make sure Peyton will be the best quarterback,” said Broncos defensive end Antonio Smith. “That’s our job.”

SERIES HISTORY: 13th regular-season meeting. Packers lead series, 6-5-1. Packers have won three straight. The most historic meeting between these two teams was on Jan. 25, 1998, when Terrell Davis’ game-winning touchdown run propelled the Broncos to a 31-24 upset of the Brett-Favre led Packers in Super Bowl XXXII.

GAME PLAN

–Either the Broncos’ defense will have to maintain its team-record defensive production — particularly in the pass rush, where it’s on pace for a franchise-record 69 sacks — or the offense will have to snap out of its funk that has seen it account for just nine touchdowns this season — with only three coming during three October games. The Broncos’ offense could try to bring back some elements it has gone away from, particularly the no-huddle, which has been effective in limited doses in recent weeks. Denver has averaged 8.64 yards per no-huddle snap in October — and 4.35 yards when they huddle. The sample size is small — 18 no-huddle snaps, including four called back for defensive penalties — but that could give the Broncos reason to consider more no-huddle looks going forward.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH

–Broncos OLBs Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware and Shaquil Barrett vs. Packers Ts David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga.

With Ware expected back after missing the Browns game Oct. 18 because of back spasms, the Broncos will try and attack Aaron Rodgers, who has been sacked once every 17.5 pass plays this year, 16th-most in the league.

–Broncos QB Peyton Manning vs. Packers LBs Clay Matthews and Nate Palmer and Ss Ha-Ha Clinton Dix and Morgan Burnett.

With Julius Peppers the Packers’ primary pass-rushing threat, Green Bay will use Matthews, Palmer and their safeties in short and intermediate coverage to try and have the same kind of success the Browns and Vikings had. Burnett is expected back from a calf injury, and could cause problems for Manning, who has thrown a league-worst 10 interceptions this year — eight of which have been thrown to safeties and linebackers.


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