Without key personnel, the Broncos are beatable
ELVIS DUMERVIL is gone. Von Miller is suspended. Champ Bailey is injured.
The Denver defense that helped attract Peyton Manning to the Mile High City has been patched and cobbled, repaired and hobbled.
Combined with a massive loss on their offensive line, the 3-0 Broncos team hosting the Eagles on Sunday isn't as bulletproof as it seems.
The defense in which Brian Dawkins rode into the sunset on top of his game - a Pro Bowl season in 2011 alongside the aforementioned trio - now, justifiably, exists as the undercard to the Manning Show. Consider: Without Dawkins, the defense actually got a little better.
Who will win the Eagles-Broncos game?
|Eagles pull off an upset.|
|Broncos win as expected.|
|Total votes = 3230|
The Broncos in 2012 ranked third against the pass, third against the run and, most important, fourth in points allowed. Sure, Manning's presence helped. Now, Manning and his targets are nearly all they have.
The Eagles' 2012 season was doomed from the moment they lost Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters to successive Achilles' tendon ruptures suffered in the offseason.
Two weeks ago, former Eagles defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins, now playing for the Giants, rolled onto the priceless left foot of unlucky Broncos left tackle Ryan Clady (likely a more valuable contribution than Jenkins made to the Eagles as a player from 2011-12).
Clady will miss the rest of the season with a Lisfranc tear.
Clady allowed one sack of Manning last season, his third Pro Bowl campaign. Monday night was the first start he has missed since being drafted in the first round out of Boise State 6 years ago.
Clady protects Manning's blind side, and in July was given a 5-year extension that could be worth as much as $57.5 million.
That side will be attacked this week by Trent Cole, a converted 4-3 defensive end now playing linebacker in a 3-scheme; but who, really, simply acts as an end on 90 percent of the plays. Cole will be ravenous after three games without a sack.
Clady's replacement, Chris Clark, has started just one game at left tackle in his five NFL seasons - Monday night, against the hapless Raiders.
Clark gave up a sack, on which Manning fumbled, against the Raiders.
Should the Broncos decide to help Clark on the left side, Connor Barwin could find himself freer than usual to harass Manning from the right.
Typically, Cole declined to recognize the significance of Clady's absence: "It's not an advantage. It's not an advantage. They could put Superman in there. We come to play, brother. He's not a worry to us. We didn't talk about him. He's just another o-lineman."
Which is about as true as saying Manning is just another QB, compared with, say, backup Brock Osweiler.
Typically, Brandon Graham, Cole's backup, addressed the personnel shift with alacrity:
"He's a leader to them, but the other tackle looks solid himself."
(Note how "the other tackle" rates no name recognition.)
"[Clark] does enough to make sure Manning doesn't get hurt; plus, a little bit is Manning, too," Graham continued. "He's getting rid of the ball quicker. He was pretty fast; no more than 2 seconds, and it's gone. If they start seeing [Clark] become a weakness, they'll help him out."
Hitting Manning [either Manning] always has been the best way to flummox him, but any quarterback who can deploy the ball quickly avoids hits; and, so, Graham realizes that what happens behind him affects what he can do against Clark.
"I'm hoping that everybody wins their matchups. At the end of the day, we can fight and scratch up front to get to the quarterback, but we have to make sure we handle our matchups behind [us], too," Graham said. "You can take us out of the game by throwing the ball quickly every play. We've just got to make him hold the ball a little bit, give ourselves a chance."
That, of course, is the crux of the 10 1/2-point betting spread. Manning could feast on the Eagles' secondary and linebackers, who have shown little capability to cover tight ends or receivers running through the middle - the sorts of routes that quickly develop.
Bailey missed the Broncos' first three games with a Lisfranc injury. It appears likely he will miss at least a fourth. Yesterday, he told reporters that he didn't want to be "half-stepping" when he returns, which will be, "when I feel good."
The Eagles should feel good about Miller's suspension and Dumervil's free-agency move to Baltimore.
Nate Irving is playing passably well in Miller's absence. Similarly, there have been few complaints about Robert Ayers, who replaced Dumervil.
Either Miller or Dumervil would cause considerable concern for the Birds.
Peters and the rest of the line suffered several breakdowns against the Chiefs last Thursday. They, more than any other unit, were responsible for the loss; they looked exhausted, playing three times in 11 days at coach Chip Kelly's prescribed frenetic pace. With no Dumervil to worry about, and with 9 days of rest, Peters could return to dominant form.
The whole team, as currently comprised, depends on that. If he protects well, then the Eagles can help rookie right tackle Lane Johnson and sputtering right guard Todd Herremans.
The Broncos' defense has allowed just 43.3 rushing yards per game, but, as Kelly pointed out, that number likely is a product of their opponents abandoning the run to overcome early deficits. And, frankly, the Broncos have not faced a running back the caliber of LeSean McCoy, who has the second-level speed to score from anywhere on the field.
And, if Michael Vick gets time, he can fillet any defense.
Especially this one.
On Twitter: @inkstainedretch