Updated 10 a.m. Saturday: The Raiders have announced that receiver Antonio Brown as been released.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Joe Flacco makes his Broncos debut Monday night. His resume screams that he is an upgrade over Case Keenum. But Broncos' fans are not falling for the banana in the tailpipe anymore, not with Flacco representing the team's fifth starting quarterback since Peyton Manning.
I bring up Manning's name for a reason. As much as optimism springs about the changes in this year's Broncos, a sobering fact lingers. For this team to contend, it must compete in the AFC West – anything less than a 3-3 mark spells trouble – and win on the road. Do you realize the Broncos have not triumphed in Oakland since Manning retired? They are 0-3, outscored 78-48.
Broncos players continued to believe Raiders receiver Antonio Brown would be ready and playing on Monday, but the team announced Saturday that it was releasing Brown. The Broncos have game-planned all week as if Brown will start. Obviously it helps Denver now that he’s gone.
Regardless, Flacco steps into this backdrop with a clear key to success: a strong ground game.
Flacco is a lot of things: calm, experienced, a Super Bowl MVP. However, he's not as effective when his teams don't run the ball well. As pointed out by former Broncos legend and NFL Network analyst Terrell Davis, the numbers are telling. In six seasons when Flacco has had a top 16 or better running attack, he is 73-39, averaging 221.1 yards passing with 147 touchdowns, 81 interceptions and a 86.2 rating. When the ground game is below the halfway point in league rankings, Flacco is 23-28, averaging 264.4 yards, 65 touchdowns, 55 picks and a 80.5 rating.
The conclusion: the Broncos can win if the ground game controls the clock, freeing Flacco to make two or three big plays on third down and in the red zone.
Is the revamped offensive line ready to throw on the mudflaps?
“I think those guys – just against our defense in practice – the athleticism they have and the speed that they play with, it can really get defenses moving. And with the backs that we have back there, you can get the defense flowing and guys overrunning things, or whatever it might be," Flacco said when I asked about the offensive line. "Those guys are going to hit the holes fast and make the most yards they can.”
The Broncos' biggest offseason addition, as I have said since January, was the hiring of line boss Mike Munchak. A Hall of Fame player, he ranks among the best assistant coaches in the league at any position.
He inherits an improved group with the addition of right tackle Ja'wuan James, rookie left guard Dalton Risner and the return of right guard Ron Leary (knee, Achilles), who told Denver7 he will play Monday. Munchak has been charged with making Garett Bolles more consistent and reducing his penalties (he's led the team in his first two seasons). This group will be looking to create creases for Pro Bowler Phillip Lindsay, Royce Freeman and Devontae Booker. Lindsay led the Broncos with 1,037 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns last season, though his year was cut short when he tore ligaments at Oakland last season.
"What happened to me last time happened (injuring his wrist), now it’s time to move on, it’s time to go get a win. It is a big game. Monday night and the tradition between the Broncos and the Raiders has always been big. It’s going to be poppin'. Now we’ve just got to go out there and execute," Lindsay said. "To me, I don’t ever pay attention to the Pro Bowl stuff all day. That was in the past. Now it’s about now and it’s about making plays now and winning games. We have a big goal and we have to chip away with other goals to get to our big goals.”
The Broncos starters showed little on the ground in the preseason. Players hint that the attack was vanilla, compromising results. But the numbers must caffeinate for the Broncos to top Oakland. Lindsay (nine carries, 14 yards), Freeman (8-49), Booker (6-22) rushed 23 times for 85 yards, but 50 came on a single run by Freeman. It was tough sledding on the remaining attempts: 22 for 35 yards. Oakland ranked 30th in rush defense last season, allowing 140.6 yards per game. Can Denver exploit this matchup? It holds a key to gobbling the clock, and setting up play-action chunk plays from Flacco to Emmanuel Sanders and tight end Noah Fant.
“I think they’ve worked well together over time. Starting in April when we got with these guys, all the way through to now, I think they’ve worked well together. I think Mike and the two coaches working with him have done a great job in bringing these guys along," coach Vic Fangio said. "They’ve got to go out and do it in a real game now, and we’ll see who can do that.”