[Editor’s note:  Former Broncos G.M. Ted Sundquist looks at three games per week.  This week, his first offering is Sunday’s contest between two teams with one loss each, the Bucs and the Broncos.] 
They say you can never go home again, but Brian Griese returns to the city that drafted him as the heir to John Elway when Tampa Bay takes on Denver in Week 5. Both teams stand at 3-1, not necessarily a testament to how they’ve played as much as a reflection of survival in the National Football League. This could easily be a battle of 1-3 teams, but “you are what you are” and Tampa comes to Denver on a three-game win streak, the Broncos off their first loss of the season to division rival K.C.The Denver offense has been nothing short of spectacular. This team has so many weapons to choose from and has done a great job spreading around the workload. Jay Cutler is on the verge of becoming one of a hand full of elite QB’s in this League. With every game you can see his confidence and skill come to the forefront. WRs Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal present a quandary for opposing secondaries. Marshall uses his tremendous size and strength, Royal does it with speed and quickness. TE Tony Scheffler displays the hands and route ability of a WR, but creates a mismatch on LB’s and safeties. The running game has taken a backseat to the downfield pass, but has still been fairly efficient on the legs of Selvin Young, Andre Hall, and Michael Pittman.However, for as talented and explosive a unit as they are this is still a young football team. With youth comes a penchant for mistakes, and the Broncos found a way in Week 4 to lose in spite of talented personnel. Cutler forced too many passes into coverage (creating two interceptions), Marshall and Royal both fumbled after the catch, and for the first time pressure appeared to shake the offensive line. Despite the big numbers and high rankings across most categories, offensive production has been on a steady decline the last three weeks; completion percentage, QB rating, TD passes, rushing yards, and average per rush, while the defense has given up 38, 32, and 33 points. Have opponents figured them out, or is this the tell-tale sign of youth? KEY #1 will be how well Cutler bounces back from last week’s loss and takes on the dangerous secondary of the Bucs, specifically safeties Tanard Jackson and Jermaine Phillips. The Broncos love to attack the seams and hit the crossing routes, giving their explosive receivers an opportunity to create some extra yardage on their own. Cutler will need to be aware of the safeties and the drop of the LB’s. The Buccaneers will fall back to box in the routes underneath and then come down hard on the receivers to force the drop or fumble. Both Jackson and Phillips are very adept at pass coverage and will be looking to make plays on the ball as often as possible. At this point, the only thing that has slowed the Broncos offense has been itself. Tampa’s defense will be more than obliged to help them do just that.
I hate to be “master of the obvious” but Denver must get some pressure from its defensive ends. KEY #2 will be the ability to create some heat off the edge. Griese was sacked twice in Week 2, but kept his pants clean versus Chicago and Green Bay. Sack specialist Elvis Dumervil has only one after four games. Backup DT Kenny Peterson leads the team with two. The knock on Griese over the years has been his tendency to panic in the face of pressure and force the mistake. Tampa is dead last in passing efficiency when facing the blitz. Denver would rather put some pressure on the Bucs with a four-man rush, but look for Bob Slowik to bring the extra man to create what they haven’t been able to produce with the one-on-one matchups. The only problem with that strategy is that Denver is one of the worst teams in the NFL disrupting the pass off the blitz. Former 1st round pick Jarvis Moss was activated Weeks 3 and 4, having sat out against Oakland and San Diego. Critics see Moss as lacking the necessary strength off the edge, but he has a long/quick first step and excellent length that needs to be employed to his advantage. If the Broncos can collapse the edges and force Griese to step up, move around, or run, they’ll create some miscues by Tampa’s QB (6 ints in the last 2 games). If not, the Bucs have their own set of weapons that has produced the third most big plays (57 of 10+ yards) in the League, leading to late scoring surges the past two weeks. Denver’s defense has surrendered 48 fourth-quarter points, not the way you like to finish.
Tampa would like to come into Invesco Field and quiet the hometown crowd with a ball-control offense behind Earnest Graham and Warrick Dunn. This tandem has just about blitzed every opponent (sans the Bears) with the ground attack. Graham is averaging some 5.9 yards per carry, Dunn is complementing with his own 4.7. The Bucs like to take it to the defense straight up the middle behind OC Jeff Faine and OGs Arron Sears & Davin Joseph. Graham is dangerous in the open field and ripped off long runs of 46, 47 and 68 yards. KEY #3 is the downhill collision of Graham and Dunn against the Bronco LBs. The Bucs will look to balance first down with their running game and create more 2nd downs, medium to short, where they’ve been efficiently productive in converting to 1st down. Denver’s defense tends to step up in 3rd and short situations, but struggles more when playing off versus stacking the LOS. Tampa will want to stay out of multiple 3rd downs and keep the chains moving off 1st and 2nd. This offense is one of the very best producing the long drive and eating up the clock. Against the Broncos on the road there is no better formula. Denver couldn’t stop KC’s Larry Johnson and Tampa will force them to prove they can stop Graham and Dunn.
I’ve watched the Bucs the past few weeks and their defense has been paced by the interior play of DTs Chris Hovan and Jovan Haye. They can create disruption with both power and strength and their ability to occupy blocking schemes opens up one-on-one situations for DEs Gaines Adams, Kevin Carter and Greg White. Adams has the length and athleticism to challenge rookie OT Ryan Clady and appears to be developing into a playmaking force for the Bucs. The veterans Carter and White will be faced up on 2nd year OT Ryan Harris. The two would be best served to pull out all their tricks in taking on the talented Harris. Clady and Harris have been a pleasant surprise as young bookends for the Broncos. But youth can be exploited and last week the Chiefs had them both off balance a bit. Look for KEY #4 to be the ability of Monte Kiffin’s front four to pressure Cutler on their own. Cutler has been solid in the face of the blitz and Tampa will be looking to clog the passing lanes with as many defenders as they can. “Four on five” will determine the probability of success in stopping the Broncos potent offense.
KEY #5 will be the opportunity presented to Bronco KR Andre Hall. Tampa’s Matt Bryant is not one to create a lot of touchbacks, even with the advantage of the Colorado altitude. Look for Hall to have a few chances at cracking the stingy Buccaneer coverage unit that is ranked in the top 10 after the first quarter of the season. Nothing swings the momentum like an explosive return.