When he was signed following the lockout, many team insiders expected RB Willis McGahee to be the Broncos' change-of-pace back, a power complement to starter Knowshon Moreno's speed style of running. At age 30 and with a history of knee issues, it was expected McGahee's carries would be limited and the team would use him in stretches instead of being the every-down runner he was earlier in his career. Head coach John Fox used two primary runners with the Panthers, but the approach in Denver was to have Moreno be the featured runner with McGahee playing in certain situations.
All of that has changed. McGahee took the top spot on the depth chart early in the season after Moreno struggled and hasn't looked back, keying a Broncos rushing attack that is fifth in the NFL with 147.5 yards per game. The veteran runner is gaining the most yards per game of his entire career this season, and is looking like a young player in the team's read-option offense.McGahee, who played the past four seasons with the Ravens before coming to Denver, was thought to have lost his breakaway running ability after a tough 2010 season. A year ago in Baltimore he gained 3.8 yards per carry and never had a run longer than 30 yards, but he said his speed "never went anywhere; I just needed the opportunity." He has received that with the Broncos, where his 17.6 carries per game are the most since 2007.
Playing alongside QB Tim Tebow has been mutually beneficial to both McGahee and the second-year signalcaller. McGahee said that because of the respect defenses have for Tebow's running ability, he has had more chances to break big plays. He already has five runs of 20 yards or more, including a 60-yard TD run in Week Nine against the Raiders on an option-read play that saw several Oakland linebackers follow Tebow instead of McGahee.Tebow agreed that the partnership has made the offense run smoothly, saying about McGahee, "He's someone that comes in every day and works extremely hard. He's such a competitor in the games, and it's huge having him on our team. He's a great asset."
Although a broken hand kept him out of one game this season, McGahee is in relatively good health given his age. Considered to be only a complementary piece at the start of the season, he has shown he will be a key if the Broncos are to make a run at the playoffs in the second half of the season.
Scouting the Broncos
A not-so-early look at the Broncos, whom the Jets face Thursday night in Denver:
1. The Broncos are 4-5, including 3-1 since Tim Tebow replaced Kyle Orton at quarterback. In the underwhelming AFC West, they're only one game behind the Raiders.
2. If the Jets are Ground & Pound, the Broncos are Ground & Pound & Pound & Pound. They ran it 55 times in last week's 17-10 win over the Chiefs. In fact, they opened with 14 straight runs.
3. Tebow, the QB that can't shoot straight, completed only two of eight for 69 yards and a TD in the game. He ran nine times for 43 yards and a TD. He became the first QB with more rushes than passes in a game in which he threw every pass for his team since 1974, according to Elias. That's when the Bills' Joe Ferguson had 10 rushes and two passes on a windy day aganst the Jets.
4. The Broncos became the third team in the last 25 years to win with two or fewer completions, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
5. They've done a nice job of tailoring their offense around Tebow's skill set -- a kind way of saying they're not a passing team. They put him in shotgun a lot, employing the read-option system you see in college. Against the Chiefs, they used the triple option: Tebow fakes to a back, breaks outside and pitches to a wide receiver. They also like to use bunch formations, which caused problems for the Jets against the Patriots.
6. Denver's running game took a big hit, though, because RB Knowshon Moreno suffered a season-ending knee injury. Willis McGahee tweaked a hamstring, but it appears that he'll be ready to play. If not, they have a capable inside runner in Lance Ball.
7. John Fox runs an aggressive, pass-rushing defense. The Broncos are rushing five or more players at the third-highest rate in the league, according to ESPN Stats. The leader is rookie sensation Von Miller, an edge rushing outside linebacker with eight sacks. He's a favorite for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
The Broncos are 3-1 this season with quarterback Tim Tebow in the lineup.The New York Jets have Pro Bowlers on both sides of the football. This week, they play a Denver Broncos team with a losing record and a quarterback who completed just two passes last week.
There's no reason to worry, right ?
Not so fast.
Thursday's meeting with the underdog Broncos (4-5) is a classic trap game for the Jets (5-4). Nothing has been easy all season for New York, which lost an emotional game just a few days ago to the New England Patriots.As the Jets try to move on from that loss, here are five reasons they should be wary of the upstart Broncos:
Reason No. 1: Tim Tebow is a winner
There are plenty of reasons to criticize Tebow. His throwing motion is as bad as there is in the NFL. His accuracy is spotty, and his footwork and pocket presence leave a lot to be desired.But no one can deny that Tebow is a winner. Since putting Tebow into the starting lineup, the Broncos are 3-1 and are within just one game of first place in the AFC West. Despite the many holes in his game, Tebow is a natural leader who finds ways to win.The Broncos have altered their offense to fit Tebow's strengths as an athletic, running quarterback. Denver is using a read-option offense similar to what Tebow thrived in at the University of Florida. Last week the Broncos ran the ball 55 times and had just eight pass attempts in a win over the Kansas City Chiefs.
Overall, Tebow's numbers are pretty good. He's thrown for 605 yards, seven touchdowns and one interception. Tebow also has rushed for 320 yards and averages 6.7 yards per carry. These stats shouldn't be overlooked."I think every week we're trying to come up with something different and it's not necessarily the same thing," Tebow said in a conference call this week. "We're trying to just keep defenses off balance and however we can do that, we’re going to try to do that. I think that’s the name of the game, and then make good decisions, and I think that's kind of our plan."The Jets will try to be the first defense to shut down Denver's "T-bone" offense. Otherwise, Tebow could improve to 4-1 this season at New York's expense.
Reason No. 2: Patriots hangover, short week
The Jets put a lot of stock into last week’s game against New England. New York’s players were describing it as the AFC East championship. The Jets had a chance to take control of the division but were trounced by the Patriots, 37-16, which was a big emotional blow to the Jets.
Can New York recover in four days ?
The Jets have been inconsistent after playing the Patriots in the past. Including playoffs, New York is just 10-12 in games since 2001 after facing New England. There is an emotional and physical toll New York pays every time it plays its biggest rival."They definitely did it on purpose to mess with the Jets," Ryan said jokingly. "No, that’s not what happened. It’s just the way it is. These are games that if you win, you feel great that they’re on your schedule. If you lose, then it was terrible."In addition, the Jets have a big AFC East rematch next week against the Buffalo Bills (5-4). Both are battling for the wild card and have similar records.Tiebreakers will be on the line and it could be a playoff elimination game for one of these teams. But the Jets need to win Thursday to set up that scenario.
Reason No. 3 : Jets are a bad road team
The Jets are an impressive 4-1 at home. But they have not been the same team this season on the road, where New York is 1-3.Rex Ryan usually has his teams ready to play away from MetLife Stadium. But surprisingly this year that hasn’t been the case. The Jets beat the Bills on the road this year and suffered road losses to the Patriots, Baltimore Ravens and Oakland Raiders. New York has been outscored 109-89 in those four games.This year it's hard to predict which Jets team will show up on the road. Will we see the physical and efficient Jets team from two weeks ago in Buffalo? Or will we see the sloppy, turnover-prone road team during New York's three-game losing streak?
:( Reason No. 4 : Mark Sanchez is struggling
Mark Sanchez is on track to set career highs in yards and TD passes, but he's also thrown nine picks and lost three fumbles.Sanchez is on pace to set career highs for yards, touchdowns and completion percentage. But he hasn't made the kind of strides the Jets expected in Sanchez's third season.Like New York's offense, Sanchez has been inconsistent. Denver's defense is in the middle of the pack at No. 18. But last week Sanchez struggled against New England, which is the league’s worst defense. He had two costly interceptions, including a pick-six in the fourth quarter to seal the game for the Patriots.
Sanchez, who is facing a lot of heat in New York, was asked to rate himself this week."At this point we're 5-4. So, that's how I grade myself," Sanchez said. "I think, if anything, everybody in this locker room, we're all just a little frustrated, and a little upset at this last loss, because we thought we could've put ourselves in a good position, but I grade myself at 5-4 and we'll see how this season turns out."If Sanchez can struggle against New England's defense at home, it's not beyond the realm of possibility he could struggle against Denver on the road with little preparation time. Sanchez needs to be at his best Thursday night.
This season, the Jets' defense already has allowed 30 points or more in four games, doubling their total from last year.New York's defense has shown flashes. But overall, its not the same dominant group that it was last year. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady dropped 37 points on the Jets last week.The Jets' defense also doesn't travel well. The Oakland Raiders, Baltimore Ravens and Patriots all scored at least 30 points against the visiting Jets in three consecutive weeks from Sept. 25-Oct. 9.Despite their inconsistencies, the Jets are eighth in total defense. Denver is No. 22 in total offense."Just matching them up on paper, I think the Jets match up great against Denver’s offense," said Matt Williamson from Scouts Inc. "The Jets can play so much man that I think they can put a lot of defenders around the line of scrimmage. I could see Ryan doing some very unique things."
New York is expected to win this game. But if the Jets aren't focused, Tebow and the Broncos could put a surprising dent in New York's postseason hopes.