DENVER – Last time the Raiders played the Denver Broncos, they didn’t allow an offensive touchdown. That Week 5 contest was a weird one, with notorious Raider killer Peyton Manning struggling to generate yards and points alike.
The Broncos eventually won on defense, with a fourth-quarter pick six by Chris Harris Jr. Takeaways from that game were two-pronged: Denver’s defense is excellent, and Manning was losing traction on a steep decline.
Manning’s struggles were hastened by injury, which caused him to bow a month back. Enter backup Brock Osweiler, who is 3-0 as a starter entering Sunday’s game against the Raiders at Sports Authority Field.
The young quarterback has benefited from time as an apprentice, and is comfortable operating a top contender with high expectations each week.
“I think he’s had the fortune of watching a great one,” Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak said. “I think he’s really taken advantage of his time to watch and see what’s going on. He’s just calm, a little bit calm beyond his years from that standpoint, as far as he’s had three starts in his career. Yet he’s a fourth-year player, so there’s a little difference there.”
That difference has helped Osweiler start fast. He has benefitted from an improved running game, but has been efficient and effective in the clutch. The Arizona State alum has completed 61 percent of his passes for 832 yards, five touchdowns, three interceptions and an 85.8 passer rating.
Broncos quarterback coach Greg Knapp, the Raiders offensive coordinator in 2012, worked with Osweiler on the side to steady his progress without regular practice snaps. That’s something Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio noticed when he was Denver’s defensive coordinator the past few seasons.
“I know they worked hard with his throwing motion,” Del Rio said. “I know that was a point of emphasis when he first got there. Obviously, he was preparing for that day when he might get his opportunity and he’s done a great job filling in as Peyton has been down the last three weeks, playing good football for him.”
Osweiler is a prototypical pocket passer who is a better steward of Kubiak’s new offensive scheme. Manning is unique, using in effective methods all his own.
Osweiler gives this Broncos offense a different look than over a few weeks ago.
“We’re expecting the unexpected,” Raiders defensive back TJ Carrie said. “We’ve played them once before, but they have a different quarterback who does different things well. There will be things we haven’t seen, and we have to adjust.”
They must adjust to a player spending more time under center. That improves the stylized running game, which has kick-started C.J. Anderson’s season. Osweiler also has a stronger arm than Manning at this stage.
Osweiler has a penchant for sticking with a play too long, which has led to some big hits. He has been sacked seven times and hit five more time, punishment he’s willing to exchange for completing important passes.
“You want to protect the ball as a quarterback, but at the same time you don’t want to take negative plays and you don’t want to take hits that you don’t have to take, Osweiler said. “It’s a learning process. We’ve looked at all the sacks, throwaways and things like that and just trying to learn which ones were good, which ones were bad, when should you try to find a receiver and throw it at his feet.
“…In the moment, you feel when the pocket is collapsing around you. You feel when someone is close to you. It is a split-second decision. At the end of the day, like I said, I want to protect my body as well, but I’m not going to put the football in harm’s way just to protect myself from a hit.”
That logic works fine for a Raiders pass rush finding its form, especially considering Osweiler's 45.8 passer rating under pressure. The Raiders have 14 sacks in their last four games, with Khalil Mack and Mario Edwards Jr. leading the charge. Any extra time in the pocket could be enough for those guys to make a game-changing play, in a difficult road game.
“We’re always licking our chops, hoping we can get to the quarterback,” Edwards said. “That’ll be the case this week as we try to generate pressure and help the guys in the secondary and disrupt their passing game. That will be key for us in trying to get this win.”