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Three Keys: Broncos vs. Redskins

Posted Oct 27, 2013

Independent Analyst Andrew Mason takes a look at the three keys to the matchup between the Broncos and the Redskins.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- If you're at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on Sunday, will you applaud when the video tribute to former head coach Mike Shanahan plays on the three screens that loom above the stands?

If you have a doubt, you should follow the example of cornerback Champ Bailey. He won't play, but he'll be around, just as he has for the last 10 seasons, when he cemented a career that will likely end with enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Bailey is one of three defensive backs all-time to earn at least 10 Pro Bowl trips and three first-team All-Pro selections; Ronnie Lott and Rod Woodson are the others. In other words, he's in the most elite of company. And he's here because Shanahan pulled the trigger on a stunning trade nearly a decade ago.

It's not a question of whether Bailey will applaud for the man who remains the Broncos' winningest coach -- it's just a matter of how long.

"Of course. He's the reason I came here, so I owe him a lot, so why not?" said Bailey. "It's just a moment. I won't clap for him all day."

And that's the point. Like last Sunday's Indianapolis tribute for Peyton Manning, it will fade by the time the opening kickoff flies. There will be no awkwardness or divided loyalties, and then the focus will belong on the field, where three keys to the game loom above all.

1. PROTECT THE FOOTBALL.

Quite a bit went awry last week, but it's reasonable to argue that if the Broncos had not fumbled three times and been intercepted once, the outcome would have been reversed. A touchdown, a safety and a field goal immediately followed three of the miscues, and Ronnie Hillman's goal-to-go fumble cost the Broncos at least three points, and likely seven, given the momentum the offense had at that point. 

That's 12 points the Colts scored and seven the Broncos didn't. And since a touchdown followed the safety, you can argue the Colts got 19 off these plays. That was the difference, and it will cost the Broncos again if they don't remedy the problem.

The Broncos' 10 fumbles lost leads the league, and they have recovered just two opponents' fumbles this season, tied for fifth-fewest in the league. The last two seasons, the Broncos lead the AFC and rank second in the NFL with 24 lost fumbles, so this is a problem that continues to bedevil an offense and special teams that have been the league's most explosive in that time.

2. KEEP RGIII IN CHECK.

Check, not "checkmate," because no one is better at wiggling out of containment than the second-year quarterback -- which causes problems for both the front lines and the secondary.

With Griffin more mobile than at any point since his January knee injury, Washington rediscovered its big-play touch in recent weeks. The team has 13 plays of 20 or more yards in the two games since their Week 5 bye; in the four games preceding it, it had just 10 -- three of which came after Washington fell behind 31-0 at Green Bay.

Limit the large chunks of yardage, and you'll force Washington's offense to play more deliberately than it would prefer. 

3. MAKE THE BIG SPECIAL-TEAMS PLAY.

Washington special-teams coordinator Keith Burns is more familiar with Trindon Holliday's capabilities than almost anyone, since he was the Broncos' assistant special-teams coach last year when Holliday arrived and began his high-wire act. Last week, Holliday fell; his fumble led to an Indianapolis touchdown.

But if Washington decides to kick off and punt to Holliday, there's a chance for a big play. Washington has allowed touchdowns on punt returns in consecutive games, and its rate of one touchdown allowed per 13.5 returns is the league's second-worst. Holliday has allowed the Broncos to average one touchdown every 16.5 returns, which is second-best in the league.

Washington has allowed punt-return touchdowns in consecutive games; the one conceded two weeks ago against Dallas helped the Cowboys escape in spite of being held to just 213 yards by Washington's improving defense. 

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