The Denver Broncos enter Saturday's preseason contest with the St. Louis Rams limping noticeably. They've suffered physical injuries thus far during training camp that will seriously challenge the quality of their depth. The psychological pummeling they took during last week's 40-10 loss in Seattle is another matter.
Are the Broncos still legitimate Super Bowl favorites in the AFC? Or have injuries and age caught up with them?
The Broncos' defense is reeling most of all, a combination of a major off-season contract snafu, a key suspension and some key injuries during preseason games. Elvis Dumervil and his double-digit sack totals are now in Baltimore after Denver asked him to take a pay cut. It appeared that Dumervil and his agent were willing at the 11th hour, but somehow their response got lost in faxland, making Dumervil an unrestricted free agent.
Dumervil's loss wouldn't be nearly so painful if it weren't for the off season miscues of start LB Von Miller. Miller will miss the first six games of the regular season because of violations of the league's substance abuse policy and some other missteps that aren't exactly clear as of now. Miller has been the Bronco defense's unquestioned leader and emotional barometer. Replacing the production of both of these players will be a huge challenge for John Fox. Add to that an emotionally draining spine injury to DE Derek Wolfe, and you've got a front seven in some serious turmoil.
Pressuring the quarterback may be a new concern in Denver, but defending receivers was something they knew would be an issue going into camp. Champ Bailey may be on his way to Canton, but he just passed the age of 35, not an age when shut-down corners are typically in their primes. He'll likely be out Saturday dealing with a foot sprain. On the other side, the Broncos signed Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie after his ill-fated foray with Philadelphia. Does DRC still have the play-making skills he showed with the Arizona Cardinals? Or have his skills eroded after two seasons of sub-par play?
On offense, Peyton Manning is at quarterback, so the Broncos automatically have a weapon no one else in the league can equal. The addition of Wes Welker in the slot, along with Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas, should give Manning an ample supply of quality targets.
The question is whether the Broncos' line can keep the pocket clean for Manning. Last year, Manning was only sacked 21 times, 31st in the NFL. But when veteran center Dan Koppen went down the first day of training camp with a knee injury, the line depth became an immediate problem.
Koppen was a veteran center in "hurry-up" offenses in both Denver and New England. Replacing him is Manny Ramirez, a converted guard who has never snapped a football in a regular season game. Manning may be the master of calling plays and reading coverages at the line of scrimmage, but his centers, Jeff Saturday in Indianapolis, and Koppen, were veterans who could call out blitzes and line shifts on the fly. The question isn't whether or not Ramirez can consistently make shotgun snaps. It's whether he can consistently find where the zone blitz is coming from.
The Broncos will be looking to prove something when the Rams hit the field Saturday night. It's their first home appearance since their heart-breaking playoff loss to Baltimore last season. They're also coming off a thrashing at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks.
It's just a preseason game, but for Denver, it's a needed boost of confidence in the midst of an awful lost of questions.
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