ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Short. To the point. Quick.
Sean Payton’s Monday video-free Zoom call was about as brief as Nathaniel Hackett’s tenure in Denver. It lasted 3 minutes, 58 seconds. No time to discuss the sports’ biggest headline – he did not see Coach Deion Sanders lead CU to victory – no small talk about the passing of his friend and music legend Jimmy Buffett – and little interest in exploring rivalry talk – that suits the college game, he explained.
One takeaway is that he was in a mood about having to talk at all. The second thing I gleaned – he’s all in on Raiders week. And that is a good thing for a Broncos team that has dropped six straight to the Raiders, who have not exactly been confused with Ken Stabler’s rowdy bunch the past three years.
I would argue it’s more embarrassing for Denver to drop six consecutive to the Raiders than 15 to the Chiefs. They both represent facepalm achievements, but the Chiefs have won seven AFC West titles in a row during this stretch.
How did the Broncos get here? Beyond questionable clock management, tire-fire special teams play and forgettable offense, running back Josh Jacobs cannot be dismissed. He is 7-0 in his career against the Broncos, rushing for 721 yards and nine touchdowns. In the Raiders’ last two wins, he boasts 335 yards and two scores.
“Our plan defensively is ‘Here’s their key players,’” Payton said Monday. “And he’s certainly one of the more dominant running backs in the NFL. That’s how we will approach the game.”
A Broncos’ U-turn centers on winning upfront. The offense line remains determined to create this team’s attitude and mindset, right tackle Mike McGlinchey admitted. But the defense must stand up in the trenches. They ranked 10th in rushing yards per game (109.8) a year ago. This needs to be a coming out party for Zach Allen, who signed a three-year, $45 million contract with a $32.5 million guaranteed, as he teams with run stuffers D.J. Jones and Mike Purcell, the latter of whom did not practice or play during the preseason as he recovered from offseason leg surgery.
The Raiders feature a different look with Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback – he is injury prone but is 40-17 as a starter – and a superstar at receiver – Davante Adams blitzed the Broncos for 16 catches, 242 yards and two touchdowns a year ago. But when looking at the Raiders’ wins over Denver, it is impossible to ignore Jacobs’ impact.
The one wrinkle this year that could help the Broncos? Jacobs held out almost the entire training camp seeking a new contract, making it possible he will not be a bell cow back in Week 1 at altitude.
“He may have missed all of training camp and whatnot, but he’s a hard runner and he led the league in rushing last year for a reason. He prides himself on his work and that’s why he did what he did,” Purcell said. “He’ll be ready to play.”
If the Broncos can temper his impact and make Las Vegas one dimensional, their chances of winning increase dramatically. It will also reveal a cultural shift if Denver takes the fight to the Raiders, delivers the first punch in the face. Even though the Broncos were a strong defensive team last season – they return seven starters – they tailed off over the final six weeks, the lack of offense creating elasticity that eventually snapped.
The onus will be will on Vance Joseph, the one-time Broncos head coach, to guide this group. And improvement remains possible if the Broncos do something novel and lead in games. That will make opponents more predictable and unable to transition into their four-minute run-based offense.
Again, it starts with Jacobs, who paced the NFL with 1,653 yards rushing last season. Slow him, and the avalanche of positive momentum will follow suit.
“You just have to rally around the ball and gang tackle him. It’s not going to be a one-man show. He’s hard to bring down,” said All-Pro cornerback Pat Surtain II, who played with Jacobs at Alabama. “He is looking for contact and those yards after contact. It’s a pretty tough task because he’s such a great back. But we’ve got a plan and the guys that can stop him.”
BY THE NUMBERS
Five Broncos players changed their numbers: Marvin Mims Jr. (19), Riley Dixon (9), Tremon Smith (1), Fabian Moreau (23) and Ja’Quan McMillian (29). One player who did not was rookie running back Jaleel McLaughlin. He will stick with 38. And he has a great reason. He wore No. 10 at Forest Hills High School in Marshville, N.C., No. 20 at Notre Dame College of Ohio, and No. 8 at Youngstown State.
“Me and my girlfriend were talking about whether I would take a new number. But when I added up my previous three, it added up to 38,” said McLaughlin, who will have eight members of his family at Sunday’s game. “That just shows it was meant to be.”
Cornerback Riley Moss was in uniform for team stretch on Monday, another moment of progress in his return from sports hernia surgery. …
Receiver Jerry Jeudy worked on the side field as he continues to make progress with his right hamstring injury. It would still be a surprise if he plays this week given the typical three-week recovery time for this type of soft-tissue injury.
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