Hostile Oakland will test young Broncos |

Hostile Oakland will test young Broncos

Jeff Legwold and Lee Rasizer
Rocky Mountain News
Vail, CO Colorado

OAKLAND, Calif. ” One of the perils of youth is that there’s no telling how they’ll respond to new situations. The Broncos, with first- and second-year players dotting the active roster, began getting a feel for that Monday night in the opener in a hostile road environment, the type of venue that holds one of the keys to Denver’s season as a whole.

The franchise finished just 2-6 last season away from Denver, which tied the 1995 and 2001 teams for the worst records by a Mike Shanahan team.

“It’s always a concern when you have young guys. It’s a lot more difficult to play on the road,” veteran receiver Brandon Stokley said last week. “But for some guys it’s easier. There’s less distractions than at home, with family coming in and things of that nature. We’ll just have to wait and see how this year plays out.”

Getting a leg up

Kicker Matt Prater’s feeling settled these days, following a full off-season with Denver.

It’s a 180-degree turn from last year at this time, when he went from handling kickoffs for Miami, was released, picked up three days later by the Atlanta Falcons, given field-goal chores and then cut, all within a three-week span.

“I’ve kind of seen the ups and downs and how everything can change,” he said.

It was with that backdrop that Prater entered Monday night’s game with Oakland. The game was his first chance to wipe out the 1-for-4 start on field goals that torpedoed his ’07 season and finally put himself on solid footing in his career.

“It’s really important to have a first game, mainly, and make every kick that I can,” Prater said before the Oakland game. “… I think it’s big for the team, as well as the organization, to see that I did well in pre-season but that I can do well in the regular season, too. I have to prove myself against and just keep doing it the whole year.”

More than a game

According to Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey, the Broncos’ appearance on national TV to open the year presented an opportunity to demonstrate to the rest of the NFL that the team was serious contenders for a playoff spot after two straight post-season misses.

“People look at this organization and we’ve been in the playoffs a lot the last few years. It’s not like us to miss them two years and a row,” he said. “So we need to go out and prove ourselves and show everybody exactly who we are.”

From Broncos 24/7

How will the West be won – or lost?

For the Broncos the answer may lie in the first month of the season, beginning with tonight’s game in Oakland.

Three of the first four games are against division opponents. And even if San Diego proved last year that stumbling out of the gate isn’t a season death knell, believe ex-Chargers safety and current Broncos player Marlon McCree when he says early success is the much-preferred path to any potential run to the Super Bowl.

“We were scared as hell last year in San Diego,” McCree admitted candidly. “We did not expect to be in the AFC Championship Game. So we definitely want to get off to a good start. Three out of the first four games are in the division and those games count for two.”

Keep in mind, also, that the difference between a slow start for San Diego last year and Denver’s early schedule this year is that only one of the Chargers’ contests in 2007’s first month was an AFC West game. It allowed them to gain their equilibrium for a finish that eventually included win streaks of three and eight games.

The Broncos won’t have that luxury.

“If you start off 0-3 in the division, I mean, what are you playing for, honestly?,” McCree said.

The heat’s on even more Monday night after what happened to the Chargers on Sunday.

Their last-second loss to the Carolina Panthers on Sunday puts the Chargers, visitors to Invesco Field next Sunday, in exactly the same desperate mind-set they were in the last time they were in the Mile High City. A 41-3 Chargers victory last October 7 was Denver’s worst home loss since 1966 and ended up changing the entire path of San Diego’s season in 2007.

Denver having to rebound off a slow start would be even more difficult given a schedule that includes five out of eight games on the road to end the season.

“There’s always a sense of urgency but there’s a little more added on to it when you have division games,” linebacker Jamie Winborn said. “And having three and a row like it, it’s something that makes you get ready for.”

Five keys to the game

1 Get another guy. Receiver Brandon Marshall won’t play in this one because of his suspension, so some other receivers have to find some open spaces against the Raiders’ aggressive secondary. All in all, Marshall’s absence even could prepare them for Week 2 and beyond, when Marshall figures to get plenty of attention from defensive backs who want to make someone else beat them.

2 Protect and serve. The Broncos’ youthful offensive line likely will get tested early with some blitzes to see how it reacts. The Raiders certainly have the cornerbacks to play singled up on the outside, so the pressure likely is coming up front.

3 Pound it. No Marshall and plenty of youth in the offensive line, now there is the recipe for running the ball plenty early to calm down things some. The Broncos need some production out of their two-back and two- tight end looks to give the Raiders something else to think about.

4 Here he comes. The Raiders are chomping at the shield to unleash rookie running back Darren McFadden on somebody. They steamrolled the Broncos defense in two meetings last season, and the Broncos will start the season with a loss if Oakland turns the trick again. If the Broncos let McFadden have a crease, it’s a touchdown.

5 Lift the lid. It is indeed just one game on a 16-game list, but the Broncos’ opener in Buffalo last season, and all the struggles they had before squeaking out a win, set the tone for what became a 7-9 limp to the finish. The Broncos have a chance to give a young roster confidence heading into the Week 2 game.

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