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Burning Questions: Broncos at Vikings

MINNEAPOLIS —When Brandon Allen helped lead the Broncos to a win in his first career start, it was impressive.

If Allen follows that with a win against the Minnesota Vikings (7-3) in his first road start, it would be a statement.

The Arkansas product will face a tough test at U.S. Bank Stadium against the NFL's fifth-ranked scoring defense.

Is he up to the challenge?

That's just one of the questions the Broncos must answer if they want to earn a win to start a stretch during which they'll play four of their next five games on the road.

CAN ALLEN LEAD THE WAY?

In Allen's first start, he completed 12 of his 20 passes for 193 yards and two touchdowns — and he avoided turning the ball over. A couple of near interceptions fell harmlessly to the ground, and Allen and the offense tied their highest scoring output of the season.

Allen, though, will face a different test against the Vikings. Minnesota ranks seventh in rushing defense, which means the Broncos may need to put the ball in Allen's hands to pick up first downs and score points.

But that's a risky proposition. Everson Griffin and Danielle Hunter each rank in the top three in the NFL in quarterback pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. That pays off for the Vikings in several ways. Minnesota ranks eighth in sacks and fifth in interceptions.

While the Vikings' red-zone defense isn't as good as the Broncos', they still rank sixth in the league inside the 20-yard line.

Allen will have to find a way to score regardless of those statistics. The Vikings have scored 28 points or more in six of their 10 games this season, which mean Allen and the Broncos may need to post their highest point total of the season to compete.

The Broncos have a better scoring defense than any of the teams against which the Vikings reached that 28-point threshold, but it's clear the offense must keep pace.

More chunk plays — like the 75-yard touchdown that Allen threw to Noah Fant in Week 9 — would certainly help.

CAN DENVER SLOW DALVIN COOK?

In Week 4, Leonard Fournette and the Jaguars put together a dominant second half against Denver's defense. Fournette rushed for 190 yards in that second half and totaled 225 yards for the game. Jacksonville nearly doubled up the Broncos' time of possession as they earned a comeback win.

Since that loss, though, the Broncos' rushing defense has reversed course. A trio of lineup moves helped spark the change. Safety Kareem Jackson returned to the field after missing the Jacksonville game with a hamstring injury; linebacker Alexander Johnson entered the fold after an injury to Josey Jewell forced him into action; and defensive lineman Mike Purcell subbed in for Adam Gotsis.

Johnson, in particular, has been a revelation. He has the most tackles in franchise history by a player in their first five starts with the team.

Together, the three have rejuvenated the rushing defense. Though the team ranks 17th in rushing defense on the season, the Broncos have given up just 99 rushing yards per game over the last three contests. They've also held dynamic running backs like Melvin Gordon and Derrick Henry to 31 yards and 28 yards, respectively.

Dalvin Cook represents a much bigger problem, though. Cook ranks second in the NFL in rushing yards and is just one touchdown off the NFL's lead.

"He’s really good," Head Coach Vic Fangio said Thursday. "That’s 80 percent of it. I think they’re offense really fits their personnel. They have a strong commitment to the running game. When they were down one point in the [third] quarter, I believe, against Dallas they ran the ball 11 times in a row. That’s a commitment. They’re good at it. Their line has improved over the last year or two. They’ve got good balance. Because of their defense, they’re never in a pass-a-lot mode. They can just keep handing it to him.”

Perhaps the Broncos can prevent Cook from making an impact, just as they did in Week 9 against the league's leading rusher. The Broncos gave up just 65 rushing yards to Nick Chubb, who has already crossed the 1,000-yard rushing mark.

CAN VON MILLER ADD KIRK COUSINS TO THE LIST?

If the Broncos can indeed limit Cook's production, Von Miller may be able to take over.

The seven-time Pro Bowler has sacked 49 quarterbacks during his NFL career — and he'll aim to make Kirk Cousins the 50th player on Sunday.

When the Broncos played the Cousins-led Redskins in 2017, Miller wasn't able to bring him down as the Broncos lost in a Week 16 matchup. If he can get a hold of him this time — and perhaps force a fumble in the process — Miller could swing the game in the Broncos' favor.

"Sacks are the things that you want, and turnovers and forced fumbles right after that," Miller said Thursday. "I just try to play my game. ... I don’t really put as much thought into like sacks. I go in there and try to be the best player I possibly can. I try to take on double-teams, beat double-teams, play the run, anticipate snap count and that will lead to sacks. That’s what has been great for me in the past.”

That will be a tough task for Miller, though. Cousins has been sacked just 17 times this season, which is the sixth-lowest total in the NFL. With that protection, Cousins has completed 69.1 percent of his passes and thrown 18 touchdowns with just three interceptions.

Even without the sacks, Miller could still make an impact. He is seventh in quarterback pressures, according to Pro Football Focus, and he remains active in the run game.

“Von’s gotten a lot of attention from the opposing offenses in the games," Fangio said Thursday. "I think he’s had two [sacks] taken away through penalties. You look around the league [Bears OLB] Khalil Mack’s sacks are down this year. [Rams DT] Aaron Donald’s are down. It just happens sometimes. He’s gathering a lot of attention from other teams, but overall he’s still playing good.”

If Miller sacks Cousins, he'll do more than just add another quarterback to his list. He'll also pass Jim Jeffcoat for 29th place on the NFL's all-time sack list.

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