ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — On Sunday at 11:00 AM MST, in a city far, far away… The 2-0 Denver Broncos face their first road test of the season against the Buffalo Bills.
In the early-season matchup, the 1-1 Bills and the Broncos are trending in the complete opposite directions. Buffalo is coming off a terrible offensive performance in which they only put up three points against the Carolina Panthers, while Denver dropped 42 on the defending NFC No. 1 seed Dallas Cowboys.
However, the last time the two teams squared off in Buffalo (2011), the then-Tim Tebow led 8-6 Broncos were smoked by the 5-9 Bills, led by Ryan Fitzpatrick, 40-14. In 2017, only one Bronco remains from that team: wide receiver Demaryius Thomas.
In a league built on quarterbacks, Sunday’s game defies the odds as 2011 sixth-round pick Tyrod Taylor faces off against 2015 seventh-round pick Trevor Siemian. With many other components that will factor in the outcome of Week 3’s game, here’s how the teams matchup.
Denver’s running game has remarkably been the best in the league through the first two weeks of the season, putting up a league-best 159 yards per game on the ground. C.J. Anderson, the “bell cow” of the group as Broncos’ head coach Vance Joseph calls him, has shown that when he’s healthy, he’s one of the best in the game, averaging 99.5 yards per game, with an incredible 3.1 yards after contact.
The Broncos’ ground game has not only been impressive in itself, it’s taken the defense's focus off Siemian, helping him lead the league in passing touchdowns with six. The effective run game has also taken pressure off the defense as Denver’s ability to run the ball has won them the time of possession battle in both games—controlling the clock for over 55 percent of the game in the first two weeks.
It’s difficult to pin the Bills’ one loss on the defense after they gave up a mere three field goals to the Panthers on Sunday and have only given up one touchdown in the first two weeks of the season, thanks in large part to the run defense.
Clocking in just after the Broncos’ run defense—fourth-best in the league, giving up 52 yards per game—the Bills have been the fifth-best team against the run so far, giving up 57.5 yards per game going up against two teams that like to run the ball in the New York Jets and Carolina. With a stout front-seven, it’s going to be a challenge for any team to find success on the ground for an entire game.
“Their front seven is really, really stout with [Marcell] Dareus and Kyle Williams and the young kid Shaq Lawson from Clemson. It’s a stout front-seven watching them play twice last year,” Joseph said as he praised his next opponent.
Entering Week 2, Denver’s greatest weakness was protecting the quarterback. With Bolles ruled questionable for the game, protecting the quarterback becomes an even greater concern. Bolles, however, isn’t the biggest concern.
On the right side, Menelik Watson has struggled in the first two games, giving up three-times more pressures than the rookie Bolles and grading out as the second-worst tackle in pass protection in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus.
Buffalo’s leading “receivers” on the year are running back LeSean McCoy (11 receptions) and tight end Charles Clay (7). It’s not until third on the list that an actual wide receiver checks in with Jordan Matthews leading the group with five receptions.
Through the first two games of the season, the Bills’ receiving core of Matthews, Andre Holmes and rookie Zay Jones have combined for 11 receptions. The Broncos’ receivers, in comparison, have caught 26.
Broncos’ run defense vs. Bills’ run game
It’s hard to believe, but through the first two weeks of 2017, the Broncos’ run defense has been one the best in the league. Off to a great start—only giving up 54 yards per game—the drastic change from last year, fifth-worst against the run, to this year, currently third-best, is eye-opening. The transformation was highlighted by holding the Cowboys’ running game to only 40 yards in Week 2.
While Dallas and Ezekiel Elliott received most of the spotlight last year, Buffalo has had the best rushing attack in the league the past two seasons, led by “Shady” McCoy. However, last week against the Panthers, McCoy was held to nine yards on 12 carries and the entire team was only able to muster up 69 yards on the ground, making the offense stagnant, only putting three points on the board.
With Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr. on the outside, Denver will likely devote plenty of assets to stopping McCoy and the Bills running game, much like they did against the Cowboys.
Bills’ edge rushers v. Broncos’ offensive tackles
The Bills don’t lack talent when it comes to getting after the quarterback, and with Denver’s known problem of protecting Siemian, this matchup will be crucial in the outcome of the game. Buffalo’s seven sacks are the seventh-most the league, while the Broncos’ six sacks allowed are the ninth-most in the league.
“It’s going to be a challenge,” Joseph said about facing Buffalo’s front-seven. “It always is, they have a couple edge rushers, that’s going to be a problem for us that we have to take care of.”
The Bills’ offense simply runs through McCoy. When he is on, the offense finds success. When he struggles, as he did in Week 2, the rest of the offense doesn't have success. With the Broncos’ “No Fly Zone” in the secondary, the game won’t be won by Buffalo in the air.
“Shady is probably one of the more electrifying backs going back to Barry Sanders,” Broncos’ defensive coordinator Joe Woods said as he caught the attention of every media member in his presence. “He’s a special player. Very similar to Ezekiel. We’re going to have our hands full with him.”
If Buffalo stands any chance against the Broncos, it will be on the ground, where Denver has looked nothing short of amazing.
The fourth quarter has been Denver’s worst quarter so far on the season, being outscored 21-7. In comparison, Denver has outscored their opponents 59-17 in the first three quarters. While the Broncos have had sizable leads entering the final period, they need to find a way to close out games without giving their opponents hope.
In 2016 and the first two games of 2017, the Bills went 7-2 when McCoy eclipsed five yards per carry. When he didn’t get to five, the Bills went 1-7. If the outcome of the game will be as simple as this, the game will ride on McCoy’s consistent success on the ground.
Through the first two games of the season, Buffalo has only scored three touchdowns—compared to Denver’s nine—yet they’ve only given up a single touchdown. Joseph called Buffalo’s defense “a strong group” and rightfully so as they sacked Cam Newton six times in Week 2 and have the third-best opponent passer rating.
While scoring touchdowns instead of settling for field goals is important every week, it will be more crucial against the Bills.
What to keep an eye out for
After Bennie Fowler left Sunday’s game with a concussion, McKenzie stepped in as Denver’s third receiver. Although he didn’t touch the ball on offense—and has yet to this season—he played in 30 offensive snaps.
If Fowler is unable to go, expect big-play-threat McKenzie to get more opportunities than he has in the first two games, with certain plays actually drawn up for him to get the ball.
Entering 2017, McManus was the most accurate kicker in Broncos’ history, coming off two consecutive seasons making over 85 percent of his field goal attempts. In the first two games of 2017, however, he has struggled mightily, missing two of his three attempts.
Against a quality defense, only allowing 10.5 points per game, McManus could be called on early and often to put points on the board for Denver. His success could directly reflect Denver’s.
As a seventh-round pick in 2013, Poyer has had an incredible start to the season for the Bills, having his impact felt all over the field from the safety position. Currently listed as the No. 1 safety in the entire league by Pro Football Focus, Poyer has shown an ability to get after the quarterback, stop the run and shut down receivers in the passing game in the first two games of the season.
The Broncos catch a major break with the injury report. Not only are Bolles and Fowler questionable—an encouraging sign for both—the Bills will be without two key players: starting left tackle Corey Glenn and starting defensive tackle—and third-overall pick behind Von Miller—Marcell Dareus.
On Friday, Joseph said Bolles is feeling "Okay" after practicing Thursday, adding: "He's obviously getting better fast." Joseph wouldn't tip his cap either way on if he will play, although practicing for the final two days of the week is encouraging for him being able to go on Sunday.
The Westgate Superbook likes the Broncos to stay undefeated on the season in their first road test. Even with Denver coming off a 25-point victory and Buffalo a six-point loss, Vegas projects it to be a close game for the Broncos’ first early game of the year.
For a second-straight week, the oddsmakers believe Denver will be in a low-scoring contest as this game has the fourth-lowest over/under on the week. However, last week the Broncos-Cowboys over/under was set at 42.5 and Denver nearly covered that by themselves, putting up 42 on the Dallas.
What to read
How it Will Boil Down
As the teams are trending in drastically different directions, many factors would need to go right for the Bills to pull off the upset. Coming off a dismal offensive performance in Week 2—in which the Bills had 176 total yards of offense, zero red zone trips and lost the time of possession battle 21:07 to 38:53—the matchup doesn’t get any easier against the Broncos.
While Buffalo’s defense could keep it a close game with their stout front-seven, Siemian and the Broncos passing attack get it done through the air. On the other side of the ball, Denver’s defense finds another way to contain another elite back and the “No Fly Zone” doesn’t allow Taylor to find success through the air, leading the Broncos to walk away with their first road victory and stay undefeated on the season.
Zac Stevens: Broncos 23, Bills 13
Ryan Koenigsberg: Broncos 24, Bills 7
Not subscribed yet? Click below to for full access: