As snow covered Dove Valley, the Broncos practiced in their field house on Friday.
An adaptable offense**
In the last month, the Broncos' offense has leaned heavily on their rushing offense, getting career performances from C.J. Anderson, and though they haven't passed the ball as much as in the first couple months, Peyton Manning's arm has still been a useful weapon.
With the offensive shift, it has given Offensive Coordinator Adam Gase and the Broncos more options with which to work, with a running back who's hard to tackle, an extremely talented corps of receivers and Manning's historic skills behind the line. After struggles against Cincinnati after a four-game win streak, Gase discussed the offense's identity.
"I feel like as a staff we've got a good handle on what we're doing. It's just what's going to be successful for that game," Gase said. "I think Cincinnati was doing a lot of stuff to where, kinda caused us to have some negative runs and things weren't coming at us as easy as it was in the prior weeks."
"So we kind of had to change gears there a little bit. Got a little feel at the end of the first half and then when we came out in the second half, that third quarter really felt good. You kept coming back to the sidelines like, 'Ok, I feel like we're getting it rolling pretty good here.' And in the fourth quarter we just kind of got stuck in a couple of situations where we had some game-changing type things happen. We thought we were alright and we either have a penalty, or we have a drop, or a sack or a tackle for loss that kind of changed the momentum of what we were doing in the fourth quarter."
Though they found a vicious rhythm in the third quarter, scoring 21 points in the period, the Broncos struggled finding that rhythm in the first half and in the fourth quarter, and Gase said their goal is to find that rhythm earlier in games.
"Everybody's trying to find a rhythm and it's just like who's it going to be? Passing game? Run game? [Is it] going to be the quarterback, the running back, the wide receiver?" Gase said. "I mean the whole group, everybody's trying to find their own personal rhythm. That's where my job's got to be, 'How do I get our whole group rolling in the right direction as fast as possible?'"
"I think there's been some games where we've felt that way, where we've felt like, 'Alright we're going pretty good.' And we've had a couple games where we've had some rough starts and didn't really get going until the middle of the game or in that third quarter. So we've just got to try to find it earlier. The sooner we can find that rhythm in a game, the better it's going to be for our offense."
One of the solutions he's looked at and used with some success is going up-tempo with a no-huddle offense.
"Any time you go up-tempo, it puts them at a little bit of a disadvantage to where it's harder for them to get to multiple looks, it's harder for them to communicate," he said. "I mean, every once in a while you'll have a guy on their side bust (his coverage). But at the same time, it's a lot of work on the quarterback, it's everybody being on the same page. Peyton makes a lot of this stuff look really easy and it's come over time and experience. So it's easy to say, 'Hey just go up-tempo and you'll have the same success,' but we've kind of moved in and out of that this year."
In their last matchup, the Raiders jumped out to an early lead, but Denver found a relentless rhythm with 38 points in the second and third quarters. Gase and the Broncos just want to find that comfort and tempo earlier in the game.
Del Rio on helping cultivate young players
After Danny Trevathan and Brandon Marshall suffered injuries against the Chargers a couple weeks ago, and with an earlier season-ending injury to Nate Irving, the Broncos have had to dig into their depth to fill in for those key losses. The 'Next Man Up' mentality is something that's become a popular phrase, but Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio delved into that a bit more, especially in regards to what he wants those young linebackers to take away from Monday's game.
"...It's never, you know, the guys — if things don't go right, the young guys take all the heat. It's not the way we look at it," Del Rio said. "Whenever there's a play that goes bad, there's typically a few things that are a part of that. Certainly an understanding of how we fit things is where it starts, but any time you have a play that goes longer than 8 or 9 yards, you're going to involve the back end, and leveraging and tackling issues. We've been very good at that all year, had very few blemishes and just happened to have a big ugly one on Monday night. But we''ll put that behind us. We know the things we need to do to be good. We do have a good group and we'll bounce back."
The confidence that Del Rio offers to players is something that Marshall has said was instrumental in his marked improvement this season in moving into the starting lineup after being on the practice squad last season.
And now with Pro Bowl safety T.J. Ward questionable for Sunday's game against Oakland, the Broncos' defense could see another young player receive some considerable playing time in Josh Bush.
"He's been pretty good picking up the system and fitting in, learning things," Del Rio said. "I haven't seen a lot of tape on him, haven't seen him perform in live situations, so I don't have a lot to share with you right now other than he's been here, been learning, getting practice reps and if he's called on, he'll be ready to go."
Head Coach John Fox also expressed his confidence in Bush getting on the field whenever that might be.
"He was a guy we signed to the practice squad when we brought him in here," Fox said. "I think it was a matter of time when we put Quinton Carter on IR, we were able to bring Josh up. He has gotten to impress the coaches. We just haven't seen him play live [on defense] in a game yet."
Raiders a changed team since last matchup
There's no clearer marker for how different the Raiders have looked since they last played Denver in Week 10. They entered the game at 0-8 and left it 0-9 after a 41-17 loss to the Broncos. And though the Raiders haven't gone undefeated in each week since, they haven't lost a game at O.co Coliseum since losing to Denver. They've won three of their last five games, with wins over the Chiefs, the 49ers and the Bills.
"I think they've developed a young quarterback; he's further along," Del Rio said of where he's seen Oakland improve. "I feel like [Latavius Murray's] getting a lot of carries and doing a good job with it. He's kind of emerged. Where McFadden was getting most of the carries before, now [Murray]'s getting a lot of the carries."
Murray exploded onto the scene during the Raiders' first win against the Chiefs with a 90-yard touchdown run and 112 total rushing yards in the game, but had a concussion and missed much of the game and was sidelined for the entirety of their next game against St. Louis.
Still, his play has been a huge key to the Raiders' recent success. He's averaged 91.3 yards in their three wins, and those three rushing performances make up three of their four best rushing games.
It hasn't just been Murray that's driven Oakland, though. The spotlight has been on rookie quarterback Derek Carr to lead their offense, and he's done well in those wins with no interceptions and six touchdowns.
"He has definitely improved," Fox said. "I think they've improved as a football team. [Raiders Interim Head Coach] Tony [Sparano] has done a good job with that group. They've fought tough and have won three of the last five. I'm sure they are trying to close out their season with some success just like we are."
And for as much as some things change, some things stay the same.
One of those constants is 17-year veteran Charles Woodson, whose experience is instrumental for the Raiders' defense. When asked about what players stand out most for Oakland's defense, Gase singled out the consistent defensive back.
"It's amazing to me how well he's playing and how aggressive he's been against the run game," Gase said. "He's really getting down there. He's making a lot of tackles, and every time you look up, it seems like he's one of the guys that's making a play on the ball. I know he picked Kyle [Orton] off again when they played him. It's unbelievable that the guy's still playing at a high level with how long he's been playing. And he's really been a difference maker for them."
Take a photographic trip through the series history between the Broncos and the Raiders.