As the Broncos head in to part two of their extremely difficult three-game stretch, we head in to part two of our ‘players who must step up’ series. Obviously the New England Patriots are a whole new team who present a whole new set of challenges for the orange and blue, which means three new players will have to take their game to the next level if they want to leave Foxboro with a 10-1 record.
Before we jump in to this week’s musts, lets quickly revisit last week’s players and how they did.
Knowshon Moreno had a workman-like 79 yards on 27 carries. Although his partner in crime, Montee Ball, saw the fruits of the labor with two rushing touchdowns, Moreno did what he needed to do and that was secure the ball, and take a bit of the load off of the hobbled Peyton Manning.
Eric Decker was also in the 70-yard range, with 5 catches for 71 yards, but it was one big play that made his night. With just under five minutes remaining and the Broncos up by just 10, Decker took a short pass from Manning on third-and-four, as he went towards the sideline. Decker alertly stuck the ball out in an attempt to cross the first down barrier. He was originally ruled down short of the mark, but instant replay revealed that his last gasp effort to stretch the ball earned him the first down. The Broncos were able to run three more plays, and take another minute off of the clock.
Chris Clark, arguably the most important going into the game, may have had the game of his life. The fill-in for the injured Pro Bowl left tackle Ryan Clady looked like a Pro Bowler himself on Sunday as he ate sack specialist Tamba Hali for dinner. Clark and his fellow lineman not only kept Manning from being sacked, but kept him from even being knocked down. Clark was the MVP of the game.
So who’s going to have to step up against the Pats?
1) Von Miller
In his four games since returning from suspension, Von Miller has not been the quarterback-eating monster that Broncos fans know and love. Miller has notched just two sacks and 14 tackles since his return, and has been in no way the dominating force that he was last season.
Similar to Peyton Manning, the best way to slow down Tom Brady is to get pressure on him, if you let him sit in the pocket all day he will carve your defense like a Thanksgiving turkey. It is imperative for Miller to hit his stride in this game and win his matchup with former Colorado Buffalo Nate Solder on the outside.
In his fifth game back, there should be no excuses in terms of adjusting to real games or anything of that sort. It’s time for Von to be Von and start dominating the game.
2) Peyton Manning
This seems really obvious, but Manning had to be here for more than just the fact that he had his worst outing of the season on Sunday, and the reason is more for Manning personally than the Broncos as a whole.
Peyton Manning needs this victory over Tom Brady, just as much as the Broncos need this victory over the Patriots. The fact is, in the matchup of the two greatest quarterbacks of this generation Brady has owned Manning, holding a 9-and-4 record over the Broncos QB.
You look at the head-to-head record, then you look at the respective playoff records, and finally the amount of Super Bowl wins, and there isn’t much Peyton can hold over Brady in this matchup. That is why it is so important for Manning to throw out a dominating performance over Brady in a year where Brady seems to be declining a bit.
3) Chris Harris
If the past is any indication, Harris is likely to lineup across from super tight end Rob Gronkowski quite a few times this weekend. “Gronk” has seemingly become Brady’s only reliable receiving option this year, and Brady is feeding him accordingly. In just four games the two have connected for 24 catches and 343 yards, already good enough for fourth on the team in receiving yards. Gronk has been targeted 40 times in that period.
The last time Harris matched up on Gronk he shut him down, holding him to just 4 catches for 35 yards, but the time before that was ugly. In the 2011 playoffs, Gronkowski went for a ridiculous 10 catches, 145 yards, and three touchdowns. It’s important to remember that in that game Brady had a full arsenal of weapons including Aaron Hernandez, but needless to say, the Broncos will be hoping for a game more like the 2012 matchup when it comes to production out of Gronk.
If the Broncos can shut down Gronkowski they will win this game, and Chris Harris looks to play a big role in that.
Can this week’s three step up like last week’s three?
Follow Ryan on Twitter (@RyanKoenigsberg).