Here are five keys to the game heading into Sunday's match between the Denver Broncos and Los Angeles Chargers.
1. Keep Rivers Clean – The offensive line has done a masterful job protecting Philip Rivers all season long, but they are in for their toughest test yet on Sunday. The Denver Broncos feature perhaps the best one-two punch of edge rushers on the year in perennial All-Pro Von Miller and rookie sensation Bradley Chubb. Miller ranks fourth in the NFL with 9.0 sacks while Chubb is right on his heels with 8.0. However, they're not the only lethal pass rushers in Denver as the Bolts also must account for the likes of Shane Ray and Shaquil Barrett. Overall, Denver's ability to get to the quarterback is a main reason they rank 10th overall against the pass. As Offensive Coordinator Ken Whisenhunt explained, the Chargers will make adjustments heading into the game in order to account for not only Miller and Chubb, but their entire pass rush:
"Your plan has to change a little bit when you face a team like this because they do have four (pass rushers). There are times when they have all four of them on the field at once — but it's not like you're getting a break if either Chubb or Miller has to take a break. So, I think you have to be aware of those kind of things, whether you can get help from a back or help from a tight end. It certainly changes your approach a little bit in how you do it. It's a credit to them. They're good football players. They run a good scheme. They're a well-coached team."
Philip Rivers agreed with that assessment:
"Von gets a lot of the attention, as he should, but they've always had, you know, somebody on the other side. I don't like to call them that other guy, but they've always had somebody, whether it was (former OLB DeMarcus) Ware who was there with him for a while, and really now with Chubb as a high pick, a heck of a player. You look at Ray and Barrett, who I'm sure many teams would love to have them be their every down guys, too. So those are four really good pass-rushers on the outside. Not to mention some of the guys they have inside doing a nice job as well."
2. Lock Down Lindsay – One of the biggest surprises of the 2018 NFL season has been the play of undrafted running back Phillip Lindsay. The Colorado product has taken the league by storm, pounding the rock 110 times for 591 yards and three touchdowns. He's averaging a gaudy 5.4 yards per carry, which is tied with Melvin Gordon for the second-highest in the NFL among players with at least 110 carries. Basically, Lindsay is this year's version of Austin Ekeler – a totally unknown running back who burst onto the scene in resounding fashion. Earlier this week, Defensive Coordinator Gus Bradley broke down what makes the Broncos' lead back so dangerous:
"Very fast. (He's a) guy that you would think would just attack the perimeter in their run schemes, but he'll run inside the tackles. So, it just happens so much faster with him, just a normal stretch play, by the time he gets the hand off and gets to the second level, there is a different speed than maybe what we've seen up until this point."
3. …But also the Three-Headed Monster – As good as Lindsay's been, he's only one part of Denver's three-headed monster. The Broncos are expected to get back third-round pick Royce Freeman, who missed the past two games due to injury. Freeman has carried the ball 71 times thus far for 309 yards and four touchdowns, averaging 4.4 yards per carry. Meanwhile, Devontae Booker has been a dual treat out of the backfield. He's toted the rock 25 times for 144 yards (5.8 ypc) while hauling in 22 passes for 158 yards. Thus, you can understand why Defensive Coordinator Gus Bradley noted how the team has to key in on all three backs come Sunday:
"Looking at the Broncos offensively, I think you start off with the run game. The three backs they utilize, the three back they have in the game, they all have unique styles, but they all jump out. They're a team that's second average per rush in the league. So here we go again, another really, really talented running team."
4. Grind it with Gordon – Sunday's game is also shaping up as one in which the Bolts may grind it out with Melvin Gordon. The running back has been on a tear, becoming only the second player in the past 10 years to amass at least 120 yards from scrimmage and one touchdown. Facing a topnotch pass rush this week, the Chargers will likely look to keep them off balance by having number 28 pound it over and over again. Denver has actually struggled against the run this year, ranking 26th in the league as they've allowed 131.6 yards per game on the ground. Von Miller has played against some elite talent over his career, and he couldn't help but point out how dominant Gordon has been this season. Combine that with what Philip Rivers brings to the table and the Pro Bowl edge rusher knows the Broncos are in for a challenge:
"He's playing lights out, and the crazy thing is, he's kind of similar with Philip. He's always played great. Melvin Gordon and Philip Rivers, they've always played great, they've always won games (and) they just look dominant as hell this year."
5. Hit the Reset Button – The Bolts have been a hot team in the NFL, winning six in a row to improve their record to 7-2. However, for some, success can breed complacency. The Chargers cannot afford to let that happen. The good news is they're well aware of that fact. There is so much to be said about this, and Philip Rivers explained it at length to the media:
"It's making yourself begin again, and remind(ing) yourself to begin again because that's when you tend to relax sometimes. So, I don't sense that being an issue with this group, but there is no question. Again, it's that reset button. It's to begin again this week. This practice, this Wednesday. Not falling into that trap that, 'Oh, we're pretty good now,' because we know how quick it can turn. We've got to make sure we stay on it. … I just think we know the road ahead. We know each week in this league how hard it is, and I think we've seen the different ways we've won and how many guys have contributed that we understand how much the preparation part of it, the process part of it is impacting, and how we're getting it done on Sunday. We know we're not just trotting out there and winning games easily. We know how hard it is. And I think guys appreciate that, so then that makes them even more eager and focused on the new week. … I think that's more than anything, just be where you are. Just being in the present moment. We've got a Wednesday walk through, let's be right there and not worry about the chatter on the outside or what's to come or who is doing what. You just become so caught up in that routine, that you look up and it's Week 11. I feel like it was just the other day we were talking about preseason getting started and how excited we were and here we are now more than halfway through the year. So just kind of the boring, keep your head down, and one day at a time."