Burning Questions: Broncos at Raiders

OAKLAND, Calif. — Fifty-four days after the Broncos opened training camp, they’re finally set to kick off the 2019 regular season.

And if it feels like you’ve waited a while to see Denver start its 60th season, well, it’s because you have.

The Broncos started training camp before any other NFL team, and they’re featured in the last game of Week 1.

When they finally take the field on “Monday Night Football,” at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, they’ll face a Raiders team that is substantially different from the one the Broncos saw in Week 16 of the 2018 season.

The Raiders have a slew of new players, including three 2019 first-round picks and 12 rookies on the 53-man roster. How will the Broncos match up against the new personnel? That’s just one of several questions that will be answered Monday night.

As the Broncos begin the 2019 season, we’ve identified a few of the biggest questions that could determine whether Denver starts the year with a win.

What does Joe Flacco have in store for his debut?

When Flacco’s been at his best, he’s been among the NFL’s top quarterbacks. And in 2014, that was certainly the case. Flacco put together his best NFL season as he threw for 3,986 yards, 27 touchdowns and completed 62.1 percent of his passes. He played that season for former Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak, who spent a season in Baltimore as the team’s offensive coordinator. Now, with Rich Scangarello as Denver’s offensive coordinator, Broncos fans could see Flacco return to that sort of standard.

Flacco started his 2018 season with three touchdowns and 236 yards in Week 1, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him post strong numbers. But what the Broncos will need more than anything is for Flacco to perform on third down and in the red zone. If the team’s new quarterback can do that — and avoid costly turnovers — the Broncos should be poised to secure a win.

“You keep it simple and you play football,” said Flacco when asked the key to winning on the road. “You allow everyone to play fast, and that allows them to play physical and do the things that you really need to do to play football. I think sometimes if you try to get too cute, then you go into an atmosphere that’s already going to maybe lean on making you play a little bit slower than you should and you make that even worse. Now you’re not playing as fast and physical and getting off the ball like you should be and that ends up — that tenth of a second here and there, it builds up and it ends up hurting you.”

There’s plenty of unknown, though. While Flacco played just 30 snaps in the preseason — Derek Carr played just six — the starting offense didn’t score a touchdown in two games. A healthy Emmanuel Sanders and Phillip Lindsay, who each finished last year on injured reserve, should help Flacco’s cause.

How will Antonio Brown’s absence impact the game?

When the Raiders released Brown on Saturday, it rid the Broncos of perhaps Oakland’s biggest threat.

But it also clouded the Raiders’ plan of attack.

Will Oakland target tight end Darren Waller more than originally planned? Will rookie running back Josh Jacobs pick up more carries? Or will wide receiver Tyrell Williams simply slide into the spot Brown held until earlier this week?

There’s no sure way to tell — and that makes Vic Fangio and Defensive Coordinator Ed Donatell’s job a little harder.

The game will start, though, with stopping the run. 

“It’s vital,” Fangio said Saturday. “The back [Jacobs] is really good, [a] first-round pick. He’s a slasher. He’ll cut it back. He can ram it up in there. He’s hard to tackle in the open field. Defending the run is going to be critical.”

Fangio said the team will otherwise approach the game as they have all week.

“It’s just as if he was on the inactive list or suspended list or was hurt,” Fangio said. “We just have to go out there and play their team. They have a good team. They’ve made a lot of revisions to their team with a lot of acquisitions from the draft and free agency. It’s going to be a hell of a test out there for us.”

There will be at least some degree of guessing from the Broncos, though. That’s always the case in the opener, Fangio explained.

“Their offensive coaching staff stayed the same, but they have a lot of new players,” Fangio said. “… There are a lot of guys that you know you’re going to be playing against that aren’t on the tape, so that makes it challenging.”

How does Vic Fangio handle his first big test?

In more than two decades as a defensive coordinator, Fangio has almost exclusively coached from the coaching box.

“If you guys ever get offered to watch the game from the sidelines, decline it,” Fangio told the media in early August. “You’ve got a better view from where you’re at.”

Now, as a head coach, Fangio will be on the sideline. During the preseason, Fangio experimented with where to stand to gain the best vantage point. If he found it, the media wasn’t told. Fangio did, though, say he wanted as much information as possible.

“You just don’t see as much and I’m used to seeing everything,” Fangio said in late August. “I want everything. I want all the meatballsand the pasta.” 

There’s more to the adjustment than Fangio’s ability to call defensive plays from the sideline. The first-time head coach also must manage timeouts, challenges and when to take risks. If an early opportunity for a fourth-down try becomes available, will Fangio pull the trigger? How will he fare when tossing his red challenge flag?

In a close game, Fangio’s game-management skills could play a major factor.

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