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Three Keys: Broncos at Raiders

Posted Dec 29, 2013

Independent Analyst Andrew Mason takes a look at his three keys to Sunday's game.

SAN FRANCISCO -- In a situation like the one the Broncos will face Sunday in Oakland, everything comes down to focus. Focus on the play at hand, in not thinking ahead to later in the series, the quarter, or even to the playoffs.

And focus on the issues that have dogged the team in recent weeks, starting with third downs, which the Broncos will try to fix without Wes Welker available, since he's sidelined for a third consecutive game following his second concussion in a four-game span.

1. PICK IT UP ON THIRD DOWNS.

Without Welker in the slot, the Broncos' third-down offense has struggled the last two weeks, converting just four of 20 opportunities the last two weeks and seven of 26 since he was injured just before halftime against Tennessee, dropping their season-long percentage from 48.1 to 45.3.

Penalties have had an impact. Two of the Broncos' failed third downs last week came after penalties earlier in the play sequence, including one 10-yard infraction that moved the Broncos back from a third-and-1 situation. Yardage has been crucial; the Broncos are 0-for-6 in their last two games with third-and-8 or more.

But the Broncos must be careful to not force matters on third down to where they leave themselves open to a giveaway. With a kicker as effective as Sebastian Janikowski, a turnover inside the Denver 30-yard-line virtually guarantees at least three more points on the scoreboard. There's nothing wrong with flipping the field with a punt and letting a defense that had arguably its best performance of the season last week take the field and do its job.

2. DON'T PROVIDE THE OPENING.

That means not getting caught up in trying to overcompensate for the absence of Welker and the trouble on third downs. Working for the extra yard is laudable, but only if it is combined with protecting the football. The Broncos must force Oakland to make the big plays; if they give them a lifeline, they give them a chance at what would be a stunning result.

3. CONTAIN TERRELLE PRYOR.

Pryor is the league's most effective running quarterback, and is more efficient at getting first downs when he runs than when he passes. It will be up to the Broncos safeties and linebackers Danny Trevathan, Paris Lenon, Nate Irving and Wesley Woodyard to contain him and prevent his explosive runs of 10 yards or more.

In six of Pryor's eight starts, he has at least one gain of 23 yards, punctuated by a 93-yard jaunt against the Steelers on Oct. 27. The other item worth noting is that this is just the third time this season that Pryor will have started with Rashad Jennings as the primary running back; in the other two games together, the Raiders lost both, but the duo combined for an average of 151.5 rushing yards per game and between them averaged 6.1 yards per rush in those games. Oakland's upset threat lies in their legs.