Vikings-Broncos game scout

Mistral Raymond (Jonathan Daniel/Getty)

While the Vikings are starting to test younger players, the Broncos are starting to put it all together with their secondary.

Sunday
Tennessee Titans (6-5) at Buffalo Bills (5-6)
Kansas City Chiefs (4-7) at Chicago Bears (7-4)
Atlanta Falcons (7-4) at Houston Texans (8-3)
Oakland Raiders (7-4) at Miami Dolphins (3-8)
Denver Broncos (6-5) at Minnesota Vikings (2-9)
Indianapolis Colts (0-11) at New England Patriots (8-3)
Carolina Panthers (3-8) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-7)
New York Jets (6-5) at Washington Redskins (4-7)
Cincinnati Bengals (7-4) at Pittsburgh Steelers (8-3)
Baltimore Ravens (7-4) at Cleveland Browns (3-8)
Dallas Cowboys (7-4) at Arizona Cardinals (4-7)
Green Bay Packers (11-0) at New York Giants (6-5)
St. Louis Rams (2-9) at San Francisco 49ers (9-2)
Detroit Lions (7-4) at New Orleans Saints (8-3)
Monday
San Diego Chargers (4-7) at Jacksonville Jaguars (3-8)


Denver Broncos (6-5) at Minnesota Vikings (2-9)

KICKOFF: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET
GAMEDATE: 12/4/11
SURFACE: FieldTurf
TV: FOX, Thom Brennaman, Brian Billick, Laura Okmin


KEYS TO THE GAME: The Vikings have the pass rush to spare their secondary, but opposing quarterbacks complete 68.2 percent of their passes with 22 touchdowns and six interceptions in 2011. That's enough to bring even run-first QB Tim Tebow out of his shell. The Broncos have a 249-125 run-to-pass ratio since Tebow's Oct. 16 start at Miami. They won't veer far from RB Willis McGahee and Tebow, but the Vikings are ninth in the NFL against the run. QB Christian Ponder's shortage of playmakers hasn't severely stunted his growth, but RB Toby Gerhart lacks speed through the hole if Adrian Peterson (ankle) is sidelined again and Denver's defense is chewing up third-and-long situations.

FAST FACTS: Ponder has been sacked once per quarter in his last four starts. ... Tebow has zero turnovers in his last four games.

VIKINGS

The Vikings will start the process of evaluating young players to see what their worth is for the 2012 season.

Tuesday, the team placed four key contributors on injured reserve: free safety Husain Abdullah (concussion), backup safety Tyrell Johnson (hamstring), receiver Michael Jenkins (knee) and long-snapper Cullen Loeffler (back).

Replacing them on the roster are: rookie receiver Stephen Burton, safeties Jarrad Page and Andrew Sendejo and long snapper Matt Katula.

Burton, a seventh-round draft pick of the Vikings this year, was horrible in training camp but hung around for the first 10 games, including seven on the practice squad, before being released last week.

Now, with the team decimated at receiver, the Vikings might throw him in and see what he can do in a game.

Page, 27, is in his sixth NFL season, including five starts in Philadelphia earlier this season. Sendejo went undrafted out of Rice in 2010 and ended up playing in the UFL and then two games with the Cowboys. Neither safety is expected to be in the team's plans for 2012, but the safety position is so weak, who knows?

Katula, a seven-year veteran who last played eight games in New England in 2010, is strictly a five-week rent-a-player. The Vikings consider Loeffler the best long-snapper in the league and extended his contract during the season.

The one player to keep an eye on this week is free safety Mistral Raymond. With Abdullah and Johnson out of the picture, Raymond, a promising sixth-round draft pick, will make his NFL starting debut. If Raymond lives up to his promise, it will help a team that has massive holes throughout its roster.

BRONCOS

A Vikings coaching staff that's already used six different combinations of starters in the secondary this season, has four defensive backs on IR and starting cornerback Asher Allen now ailing can tell you the benefits of stability on the back end of the defense.

It's helped explain that team's 29th overall league ranking vs. the pass.

Denver's defensive backfield falls on the other end of the spectrum. Its consistent rotation coupled with increased repetitions in defensive coordinator Dennis Allen's scheme have cut down the number of breakout plays and is operating at its highest level all season heading into Sunday's game in Minneapolis.

"Really, I think it's two-fold. It's a combination of being able to get a consistent group out there that stays together and understands where everybody's going to be on each particular play," Allen said Thursday. "And then obviously, there's nothing that helps pass coverage more than a pass rush and we've been able to do a pretty good job rushing the passer and making it hard for quarterbacks to hold onto the ball and get the ball down the field."

In the first five games, Denver allowed 281.2 passing yards per game on a 68.2 percent completion rate with 12 sacks and three interceptions. Those figures in the last half-dozen contests: 230.2; 59.0; 18 and 4.

Thus, the completion percentage has dipped nearly 10 full points, while the yardage has dropped by 51.2 yards.

Champ Bailey, a 10-time Pro Bowl selection, has been largely assigned opponents' top receivers and done a bang-up job against the likes of Dwayne Bowe, Vincent Jackson, Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall and Santonio Holmes.
But the rest of the group has executed at a high level, too, ironically coinciding with the insertion of two rookies - free safety Quinton Carter and nickel back Chris Harris - into the lineup for good shortly after the Oct. 16 bye.

"I honestly think it's their attitude and approach," Bailey said of the secondary thriving with the two young players growing into their roles. "They respect the game; at the same time, they have a lot of confidence in what they do and they don't shy away fro competition.

"I love that about them."

Denver has allowed only two pass plays of 20 or more yards in each of the last two games. It yielded just one in Miami on Oct. 23, and three in blowout loss to Detroit the next week.

Carson Palmer carved up Denver with eight such plays Nov. 6, but the Raiders QB in throwing for 332 yards also was intercepted three times and sacked twice.

Veteran cornerback Andre Goodman, according to coaches, played his best back-to-back games this season the last two weeks, which included his first-ever interception-return TD vs. the New York Jets and four total pass breakups.

"When he plays 'man,' he's one of the best," Bailey said. "That's his thing."

Carter has been lauded for his ability to make sure tackles that have prevented breakout plays. And Carter's range and coverage ability has allowed Brian Dawkins to play in his comfort zone closer to the line of scrimmage, where he can help in run support and occasionally blitz.

"The more that he continues to develop in the system and understand what we're trying to do, the more versatile we can be with all those guys," Allen said.

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