Even though their once-prolific offense has been a bit shaky, the Denver Broncos’ performance on the other side of the ball has keyed a perfect start.
Jack Del Rio used to be the architect of that defense, and he’s now leading an Oakland Raiders team that is showing improvement behind some offensive talent.
Denver looks to continue its defensive dominance while extending the franchise’s longest winning streak in the series to eight Sunday at O.co Coliseum.
The Broncos (4-0) have been better known for offensive prowess since Peyton Manning arrived, ranking at least fourth in scoring in each of the past three seasons.
It’s been stingy defense that has led the way this season after a strong effort last season, however. The unit is first in the league with 275.5 yards allowed per game while ranking second with 17.3 points given up.
Denver also has come up with a key fourth-quarter turnover in each of its four games. T.J. Ward helped deliver it last Sunday with a sack-strip before Von Miller recovered the fumble at midfield with 29 seconds left in a 23-20 home win over Minnesota.
”We’re not really finding ways to win,” Ward said. ”We’re making ways to win.”
The Broncos, third in total defense (305.2 ypg) in 2014, lead the league with 18 sacks, are tied for second with 11 takeaways and are fifth with a plus-5 turnover differential. DeMarcus Ware has an NFL-best 4 1/2 sacks.
They’ll also be getting defensive end Derek Wolfe back from a four-game suspension for violating the league’s drug policy this week.
”That’s just how we play,” Miller said. ”It’s just how football is. You stop thinking about the days when we would put up 40 and 50 (points) on teams.”
The defensive effort has made up for Manning’s slow start. His passer rating of 80.8 is his lowest since his rookie year of 1998 and he’s thrown five interceptions.
He’s also been sacked 10 times, putting him on pace for what would easily be a career high of 40.
Manning, however, has won his last nine starts against the Raiders dating to his time with Indianapolis. He’s connected on 69.5 percent of his attempts for an average of 283.8 yards with 23 touchdowns and seven INTs in that span.
He should be able to find some holes in an Oakland defense that ranks 31st in the NFL with 310.5 passing yards allowed per game. Owens Daniels appears primed to be a factor as the Raiders have allowed 32 catches for 388 yards and six touchdowns to opposing tight ends.
”You just have to play sticky tight coverage and try to be there when the ball gets there,” Oakland cornerback David Amerson said. ”You can watch all the film (Manning) ever played. A guy like that, he schemes the defense. He recognizes a lot of stuff that you run, even when you try to disguise. You have to definitely pay attention to detail.”
Denver has averaged 37.1 points while winning by 21.5 per game during a seven-game winning streak in the series. That matches its previous best run from 1997-2000.
The Raiders have been competitive in Del Rio’s first season after he served as the Broncos’ defensive coordinator from 2012-14. He’s looking to guide Oakland to its first 3-2 start since it finished with eight victories in 2011.
Derek Carr has gotten off to a solid start in his second season, completing 62.6 percent of his passes for 922 yards with seven touchdowns and two interceptions. But he scuffled in two meetings with Denver last season, throwing for a combined 350 yards with three scores and three picks in two blowout defeats.
Carr and rookie Amari Cooper have made for an exciting young pair in the passing game. Since a quiet debut, Cooper has 19 catches for 292 yards and two touchdowns.
Latavius Murray hopes to put forth a better effort after fumbling a pitch that Chicago recovered and juggling a pass that was intercepted in last Sunday’s 22-20 road defeat.
Murray, who was coming off a 139-yard rushing performance against Cleveland, ran for 49 on 15 carries Sunday before sitting out the team’s final drive. He had a combined 41 yards on 12 carries in the two matchups with the Broncos last season.
”We’re all capable of making mistakes," Del Rio said. "I think the sooner you own up to mistakes, the quicker you can put them behind you and move forward.”
With C.J. Anderson averaging 2.7 yards per carry, Denver coach Gary Kubiak said he considers Ronnie Hillman a co-starter at running back. Hillman shined last weekend, rushing for 103 yards on 11 carries – including a 72-yard touchdown run.