I'm not going to lie to you. The Denver Broncos have their back against the wall this week.
The stakes, just three weeks in, are suddenly high and the implications dire, due to the Broncos limping out to an 0-2 start. You don't need me to list a historical precedent to know intuitively that NFL teams who start 0-3 face long, long odds at making the playoffs.
Vic Fangio and the Broncos have all the excuses in the world. But excuses don't pay the bills and they certainly won't satisfy a fanbase that is fed up with losing and at wits end over the loss of star player after star player to injury.
Adding to the pressure of Week 3 is the opponent itself. Tom Brady, transplanted to Florida, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers roll into town at 1-1 in the NFC South.
Brady might be 43 years old but the supporting cast around him is teeming with talent. The future Hall-of-Famer also brought with him a familiar face in tight end Rob Gronkowski.
The Broncos are 6-point underdogs, according to SportsBetting.com, and in the wake of all the injuries, not many NFL analysts are picking the home team to win. With the odds stacked against them and the pressure mounting, how can the Broncos play the spoiler and send Brady home with an even worse losing record at Mile High?
If Denver unlocks these three keys, victory awaits. It's always easier said than done but at the same time, the Broncos don't have to make it more complex than it has to be.
Melvin Gordon, Sing for Your Supper
The Broncos are likely to be without back-to-back 1,000-yard rusher Phillip Lindsay again this week which puts the onus squarely on Gordon to carry the load. Sure, Royce Freeman will chip in as a supplement but this is a game in which Gordon has to be the man.
The Broncos paid top-dollar to sign Gordon this past spring, selling the move as an acquisition that provided the team with a true bell-cow running back and one with some receiving chops to boot. We saw those receiving chops pay dividends last week when Gordon hauled in an over-the-shoulder touchdown catch on a wheel route but we're yet to really see him take over a game as a rusher.
A young quarterback's best friend is a reliable running game and it's even more crucial for a young backup like Jeff Driskel. Driskel showed some mettle in Pittsburgh last week and made some impressive throws but the Steelers were able to T-off on him, sacking him multiple times and finishing with 18 QB hits on the day.
The only way to mitigate the Bucs pass rush and keep those edge rushers on their heels is to establish the running game — with authority. At Mile High, the Bucs front seven will have traveled from the dense, oxygen-rich air of Florida to the thin air of 5,280 feet.
Getting Gordon going on the ground is a great way to exploit that advantage. The charge to get the running game going falls on Gordon but also the Broncos offensive line, which up to this point, has been lackluster. Now's the time for the starting five to come together and play inspired football and look the part of a unit that is led by one of the most venerated O-line coaches in the NFL in Mike Munchak.
Help Ojemudia and Wilkinson
Rookie third-round cornerback Michael Ojemudia gave up 100-plus yards receiving last week and a couple of touchdowns while also missing a big tackle and dropping an interception in the end zone. It was absolutely a 'Hey, rookie, welcome to the NFL' type of game.
Fangio has placed a surprising amount of trust in Ojemudia, starting him last week on the boundary opposite of Bryce Callahan but the coach wasn't rewarded for his faith. It's one thing to have faith in a young player, and the Broncos should cultivate it in their rookie class, but like Ronald Reagan used to say with regard to the USSR: Trust but verify.
In Fangio's case, faith is one thing but he has to hedge against it with a contingency plan. Like Ben Roethlisberger last week, Brady will look to prey on the inexperienced and beleaguered rookie corner and with Tampa Bay's talented wideout duo of Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, the veteran QB is going to have the tools to do just that.
Shading some safety help Ojemudia's way, and mixing in some press off the line to go along with Fangio's beloved off-coverage, can help take some of the pressure off of the rookie. Let the kid use his physical nature and 6-foot-1 frame to bump-and-run with his assignments instead of allowing 8-to-12-yard cushions off the line of scrimmage. That's easy money for Brady.
On the other side of the ball, the Bucs are going to look to exploit right tackle Elijah Wilkinson, who, to put it mildly, as struggled to open the season. Ex-Bronco Shaquil Barrett, the reigning sack champion, as well as Jason Pierre-Paul, will try to test Wilkinson's pass sets on obvious passing downs and if the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, we can anticipate more negative plays for the Broncos offense.
The coaches can't leave Wilkinson on an island like they did last week in Pittsbugh where TJ Watt feasted on him. The Broncos have to utilize more tight end/running back chips to slow the momentum of those rushers off the right side, as well as some draws, screens, and play-action.
It might keep one less player in the passing concept on a given play, but hey, what has Nick Vannett done to earn more than a blocking role at this point? Nothing.
I like left tackle Garett Bolles' prospects of holding his own against the Bucs edge rushers but who could trust Wilkinson at this point? If the Broncos aren't going to make a personnel change at right tackle, the absolute least offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur could do is scheme some help Wilkinson's way.
It's either that, or watch the Bucs decimate Driskel and crush Denver's game-plan.
Win the Margin for Error
In the NFL, one of the lessons rookies have to take home in a hurry is that the margin for error, compared to the college game, is razor-thin. That football truth holds true at the individual level as well as that of the team.
Going against a quality opponent that features one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time whittles that margin even thinner. Bottom line, the Broncos won't have the privilege of making a big mistake and living to fight another down. Brady will make them pay.
The Broncos have to win the margin for error battle. It starts with the turnover differential but it doesn't end there. The Broncos have to execute and the coaches can't add to the players' burden by making mistakes in critical moments.
Third down, red zone, special teams — games are won and lost based on how teams perform in these crucible situations. If the Broncos play smart, heads-up football, they can put it to the Bucs because there's nothing particularly scary about Tampa Bay's defense.
Offensively, even though it's Brady, he's in new football environs, playing with new guys, and the communication through two games, naturally, hasn't been perfectly on-point. The Broncos can expect there to be at least a few lapses on Tampa Bay's part and when those moments come, they have to be exploited.
Winning the margin for error also comes down to crunch time. The good news is, in each of Denver's first two games, this team has had the opportunity to win in the closing moments. The bad news? The execution and coaching simply weren't there and defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory.
We can point the finger or just hope the Broncos learned something about themselves in these 'almost' moments. Odds are, even if Driskel and the offense struggle to find consistency, Fangio's disciplined and stingy defense will keep this game manageable and within striking distance in the fourth quarter.
This time, though, the Broncos have to be the ones to "put their foot down", to quote Melvin Gordon, and show the stronger will to win. It sounds oh-so-simple but if the Broncos don't have the intestinal fortitude to find a way to play their best ball in these key moments, and start doing it now, this season could go off the rails in a hurry — starting on Sunday.
What are your keys to the game? Sound off in the comment section below!