WHERE: Invesco Field at Mile High in Denver, Colorado. WHERE THE BRONCOS STAND: The Broncos are 3-1 and in first place in the AFC West division. BRONCOS HEAD COACH: Mike Shanahan BRONCOS OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Jeremy Bates
BRONCOS DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Bob Slowik
BRONCOS SPECIAL TEAMS COACH: Scott O'Brien
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS OFFENSE OVERALL: 7th (361 ypg) RUSHING: 9th (134 ypg) PASSING: 9th (227 ypg)
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS DEFENSE OVERALL: 13th (315 ypg) RUSHING: 12th (98 ypg) PASSING: 21st (217 ypg)
DID YOU KNOW … … Denver ranks tied for 24th in the NFL with a minus-3 turnover ratio?
SCOUTING THE BRONCOS
Quarterbacks Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler leads the way for Denver's offense, which currently ranks No. 1 overall and is averaging 33 points per game. The former first-round draft pick has completed 65 percent of his passes for 1,275 yards and tossed nine touchdowns and four interceptions through four games. Although he has only carried the ball 10 times for 28 yards, Cutler has the mobility needed to execute Denver's version of the West Coast offense, which often times calls for bootlegs and rollouts. Cutler might be the best quarterback the Bucs have faced this season, which says a lot since the team played Drew Brees in Week 1.
Running Backs One of the reasons why Cutler has been so effective is because of Denver's ground attack, which is led by Selvin Young. The second-year running back has carried the ball 37 times for 228 yards (6.2 avg.) and one touchdown.
The Broncos like to use the passing game to help open up things for the ground attack. They also have a running-back-by-committee approach. Andre Hall has carried the ball 27 times for 131 yards (4.9 avg.) and fullback Michael Pittman, who played for Tampa Bay from 2002-07, has 23 carries for 80 yards (3.5 avg.) and four touchdowns.
Denver is averaging 121 yards rushing per game, but Tampa Bay's defense, particularly its front seven, has been solid against the run, allowing just 98 yards per contest. The Bucs must shut down Denver's ground game in order to make Cutler and the Broncos offense one-dimensional on Sunday.
Receivers The Broncos had quite a bit of turnover at the wide receiver position in the offseason, not to mention controversy surrounding Brandon Marshall's off-the-field issues, but that hasn't stopped this group from being productive.
The 6-foot-4 Marshall is Cutler's main target in the passing game. He leads the team in receptions with 31 for 398 yards (12.8 avg.) and three touchdowns. He is one of the main reasons why the Broncos are converting 47.7 percent of their down attempts this season. Bucs CB Phillip Buchanon hasn't been tested much by opposing offenses this year, but he likely will be charged with the difficult task of covering Marshall. It is unlikely that Cutler will avoid throwing to Marshall in this game, so Buchanon will have to make plays on the ball.
Broncos rookie WR Eddie Royal has been a pleasant surprise and productive player. The former second-round draft pick has hauled in 27 passes for 298 yards (11.0 avg.) and two touchdowns. While he's been used more in the short-to-intermediate part of the football field, Royal has the speed to make plays downfield. Bucs veteran CB Ronde Barber probably will cover Royal unless Tampa Bay is playing nickel defense. That scenario would call for Bucs rookie CB Aqib Talib to cover Royal while Barber lines up in the slot, where he is always considered a capable blitzer. When Barber doesn't blitz from the slot in nickel situations, he likely would be covering WR Brandon Stokley, who has caught 15 passes for 181 yards (12.1 avg.).
Tampa Bay's linebackers, particularly Derrick Brooks and Barrett Ruud, turned in phenomenal performances against Green Bay last week. They each had an interception. Not only will they have to play well again against the run, Brooks, Ruud and strongside linebacker Cato June could also be called on to help cover Broncos tight ends Daniel Graham and Tony Scheffler. Graham often times is kept in to block in the running game while Scheffler has established himself as a capable receiver and dangerous red zone threat. He has hauled in 12 passes for 194 yards (16.2 avg.) and two touchdowns.
Offensive Line This unit has opened up massive holes in the running game and provided a comfortable pocket for Cutler to throw out of. The Broncos have surrendered just two sacks this season, but the Buccaneers defense has generated a potent pass rush, notching 11 sacks through the first four games of the season.
Tampa Bay pass rushers Gaines Adams, Greg White and Jimmy Wilkerson likely will receive several opportunities to get after Cutler since Denver likes to use the passing game to open up the run. Cutler gets the ball out of his hands fairly quickly, though, so pressuring Cutler won't be easy for the Bucs.
Denver rookie left tackle Ryan Clady is the team's biggest starting offensive lineman at 325 pounds, but he's athletic and doing quite well in pass protection. He will go up against Adams, White and sometimes Wilkerson, who have accounted for over half of the team's sacks. Broncos right tackle Ryan Harris also will be called on to help hold off Adams and White since both players can rush from either defensive end spot. Bucs veteran DE Kevin Carter will face Harris as well. While he's considered a better run defender at this point, Carter has made some noise in the trenches this season.
Broncos left guard Ben Hamilton is undersized at just 290 pounds, which could create a favorable matchup for Bucs nose tackles Chris Hovan and Ryan Sims, who is hoping to play this week after being sidelined with a groin injury vs. the Packers. Denver likely will use center Casey Wiegmann to help Hamilton double team Hovan and Sims, both of who are considered physical football players.
Bucs under tackle Jovan Haye has been quiet this season and needs to generate more of a pass rush. Otherwise, the Bucs will continue to work Wilkerson and Sims into the rotation at defensive tackle, which has been effective. The Bucs could opt to use a heavy rotation along their defensive line in this game due to the altitude, which can make it difficult to breath. Haye and Co. will be matched up with right guard Chris Kuper throughout most of the game. He's still looking for his first sack of the season.
Defensive Line Denver is on its fourth defensive coordinator in eight years, but new defensive coordinator Bill Slowik's unit, which plays out of a 4-3 and sometimes a 3-4 defensive alignment, hasn't performed well through four games. The Broncos defense is ranked 30th overall in the NFL and is allowing opposing offenses to produce 409 yards and 29 points per game.
The root of Denver's defensive woes stem from this unit's inability to stop the run. Defensive ends John Engelberger and Elvis Dumervil and defensive tackles Marcus Thomas and Dewayne Robertson are allowing opposing offenses to average 133 yards per game via the running game. Chiefs RB Larry Johnson rushed for 198 yards (7.1 avg.) and two touchdowns vs. the Broncos last Sunday.
That's good news for the Buccaneers, who are averaging 134 yards rushing per contest behind Earnest Graham and Warrick Dunn. Graham has rushed for 334 yards (5.9 avg.) and two touchdowns while Dunn is averaging 4.7 yards per carry.
Denver's pass rush is also lacking. The Broncos only have six sacks through four games. Right defensive end Elvis Dumervil, who recorded 12.5 sacks last year, has just one quarterback takedown through four games. He will go up against Bucs left tackle Donald Penn, who is part of a Tampa Bay offensive line that has allowed just four sacks this season and none over the past two games.
Broncos LE John Engelberger also has one sack. He will be matched up with Bucs right tackle Jeremy Trueblood, who was a bit banged up in last Sunday's contest. Jarvis Moss is sometimes worked into the rotation at right end as well.
The interior part of Denver's defensive line is suspect against the run. Roberston and Thomas have struggled. Neither player has a sack. Expect the Bucs to attempt to pound the ball with Graham and Dunn early behind guards Jeremy Zuttah and Arron Sears, and center Jeff Faine. That trio has been playing well and appears to have a favorable matchup vs. Robertson and Thomas. On obvious passing downs, the Broncos could replace Robertson with Kenny Peterson, who has two sacks on the season.
Linebackers This unit is extremely suspect, especially against the run. Weakside linebacker D.J. Williams is a solid player, but middle linebacker Nate Webster and strongside Boss Bailey are inconsistent and not considered playmakers. The inability of the Denver linebackers to cover teams' tight ends and running backs, and stop the run, has contributed to the Broncos' third down woes, where they're allowing teams to convert 42.9 percent of the time. Look for Bucs head coach Jon Gruden to attempt to create mismatches with Denver's linebackers by using Graham, Dunn and tight ends Jerramy Stevens, Alex Smith and John Gilmore in the passing game on Sunday.
Secondary The inability of Denver's front four to stop the run and get pressure on the quarterback has hindered the Broncos' secondary, which is fairly talented at cornerback. As a result, the Broncos have just one interception through four games. That's good news for Bucs quarterback Brian Griese, who has tossed six interceptions over the last two games and obviously needs to take better care of the football in his return to Denver, where he played from 1998-02.
Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey is considered one of the best in the league. He has Denver's lone interception and likely will cover Bucs WR Antonio Bryant, who has caught 17 passes for 220 yards (12.9 avg.). Joey Galloway (foot) probably will not be ready to play in this contest, which means Bryant needs to find a way to get consistent separation from Bailey.
Denver CB Dre' Bly notched five interceptions last year, but he's still looking for his first pick in 2008. Bly likely will cover Bucs WR Michael Clayton, who needs to do a better job of catching the ball. Clayton, who has nine catches for 88 yards, should have success blocking Bly on running plays, though.
Bailey and Bly are often times left on an island due to Denver's need to play safeties Marquand Manuel and Marion McCreen up in the box to help defend the run. That should leave Bryant, Clayton and No. 3 WR Ike Hilliard in some favorable matchups that they must take advantage of.
Special Teams Royal handles punt returns for the Broncos, and he's proven to be a dangerous player, evidenced by his 16.6-yard return average. However, Denver's defense hasn't given Royal enough opportunities. The Broncos have just seven punt returns through four regular season games, which further illustrates the defense's inability to stop opposing offenses from scoring.
Hall is averaging 22.9 yards per kickoff return for the Broncos. His longest return is just 28 yards. Tampa Bay's special teams coverage units shouldn't have a problem containing Hall, but Royal could be a little more elusive in the punt return game.
Mile High Stadium is a kicker's dream because of the high altitude and thin air. Broncos K Matt Prater has made 9-of-10 (90 percent) of his field goals, including 3-of-3 from 50-plus yards. Bucs K Matt Bryant has made 8-of-8 field goals, including three last week while coming off of the tragic passing of his youngest son Tryson.
Denver punter Brett Kern hasn't gotten a lot of work due to the offense's ability to score early and often. Kern has punted just nine times in four regular season games. He is averaging 47 yards per attempt and has pinned two of his nine tries inside the 20-yard line. His longest punt of the season was a 64-yarder. Bucs P Josh Bidwell is also having a strong season. He's averaging 45.7 yards per punt and has pinned seven of his 23 tries inside the 20-yard line.
Prater and Kern will be kicking to Bucs rookie return specialist Dexter Jackson, who struggled through the first three games of the season but had a 45-yard kickoff return and 19-yard punt return in the win over Green Bay last week. FLYNN'S FORECAST: Buccaneers 30 Broncos 24