The Denver Broncos are a different sort of team this season than they were this time last year.
Last year, QB Peyton Manning was coming off a season in which he led the league in passing yards and touchdowns, and the offense was expected to be a juggernaut once again. This season, Manning and his noodle arm have struggled to put points on the board, and it has been their defense that has been dominant. The good news for Broncos fans: The team (3-0) is a game better in the standings this year, undefeated to start their 2015-2016 campaign.
The Denver defense has started the year as an unstoppable unit, and it will likely be all over Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and running back Adrian Peterson on Sunday. Denver has allowed only 176.3 yards through the air per game, with opposing quarterbacks throwing just one touchdown to six interceptions. Defensive end Demarcus Ware’s rejuvenation has been a big part of the team’s success, and Ware is buying into his own rebirth.
“When I left the Cowboys, people sort of put you in the wash a little bit, say you got a couple more years," Ware said, per 247 Sports. "But I just feel like I opened a 1982 bottle of wine, I'm drinking it right now, it's pretty expensive. So it tastes good.”
"I do feel like I have hit that fountain of youth and feeling really good."
Strength against the run and pass has Denver at the top of Football Outsiders’ defensive efficiency stats, far ahead of the second place New York Jets in DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average), a statistic that measures effectiveness while taking into account down, distance, and score. Their most impressive stat so far is in their ability to stop offenses on third down, giving up first downs only 18.8 percent of the time.
It has been far more of a struggle for Manning and the offense, however. The plan for this season – given Manning’s age and injury history – was to rely heavily on the run game, but that has not worked. C.J. Anderson, slated as the lead back following a year in which he ran for 849 yards and 8 touchdowns in 7 starts, has started the year off poorly, running for only 74 yards on 32 carries.
The ineffective run attack has made the offense one-dimensional, and the passing attack has become predictable. Manning is on pace to throw for the second fewest yards of his career, and he depends heavily on wide receivers Demarius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, with 67.1 percent of his yards split between the two. If Minnesota can shut down the run, Peyton and the offense should struggle again.
Minnesota, like Denver, has been successful because of their defense, however the defense has been more opportunistic and frankly, lucky, rather than good to start the year. The team (2-1) has given up 1 more point total than Denver this season, allowing only 16.6 points per game to opposing offenses, but the defense is ranked 18th against the pass and 22nd against the run through three games this season. Their efficiency reflects this as well, as the Vikings rank as the 16th best defense in the league according to Football Outsiders.
The player to watch on the Vikings defense – who could have a big day if Denver cannot run the ball – is defensive end Everson Griffen. Griffen is coming into his sixth season in the league and he has been terrorizing quarterbacks this season, racking up three sacks and sits in the top ten for quarterback hurries. The defensive end is not short on confidence either, which was revealed after he was mic’d up against San Diego, yelling at the Chargers at one point, “I know your weakness! I know you better than you know yourself! I just got a sack on you. I went power, power, and I long-armed you, because I knew you was gonna lean, and I spun back inside. That's what I did."
Denver is a seven-point favorite in this game, and their defense is likely going to be too overwhelming for Teddy Bridgewater and Adrian Peterson to navigate. Bridgewater, only in his second year, has shown a knack for not making mistakes, but the quarterback is not far enough along in his development to shoulder the load. Unless Adrian Peterson can go off, expect the Broncos to win.
The game will be broadcast on Fox at 4:25 p.m. Eastern Time Sunday.