By Landon Jones, Latin Life Denver, Photos courtesy Denver Broncos Eric Lars Bakke
It used to be that to determine if someone’s personality was positive or negative one would simply look at a glass containing 50 percent water and air. If the glass was half full, they were a positive person — half empty, one tended to harbor more negative thoughts.
The 2015 Denver Broncos are replacing the age-old glass of water test. If anybody argues this team is rock solid and will contend for a Super Bowl, they are correct. Yet a contrarian could also say that fortunate breaks and playing a weaker schedule (1-7 opponents record) have resulted in their 3-0 start and a Super Bowl title still is not a realistic goal.
In actuality, both are correct.
Sunday night’s game against the hapless (0-3) Detroit Lions perfectly exemplified these extremes. With no running game at all, Denver had to rely on another “schoolyard recess” from Peyton Manning playing catch with his receivers to gain a tough-fought 24-12 victory. Manning completed 31 for 42 passes for 324 passing yards and two touchdowns and the offense did just enough to keep a one game lead over the Oakland Raiders (2-1) in the AFC West.
Denver comes home Sunday to play the suddenly hot 2-1 Minnesota Vikings who walloped the San Diego Chargers 31-14 behind running back Adrian Peterson’s 126 rushing yards. The defense harassed Lions quarterback Matt Stafford all night, forcing two interceptions and a critical, yet controversial, fourth quarter fumble. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has “Von’s Vaders” playing as well as any defense in the league with pressing man-to-man cornerbacks allowing the pass rush to take multiple shots on opposing quarterbacks.
At times it looks like there are 13 or 14 Broncos defenders on the field. Phillips has defenders blitzing from every position while the secondary understands they can press forward only having to cover receivers for a few seconds. Through three games, the defense has yielded just 35 points and a league-best 4.25 yards per snap. And no team has more combined takeaways (10) and sacks (11).
“We’re going to challenge all throws. We’re not going to hide what we’re doing,” said cornerback Chris Harris Jr. “We’re going to play the bully. That’s our motto: ‘Be the bully.'”
The result has been timely turnovers and great field possession helping Denver’s anemic offense, which seems to gain traction late in fourth quarters during their three squeaker victories. In Detroit, like the first two games against Baltimore and Kansas City, quarterback Peyton Manning and crew saved the best for their last drive.
After a spectacular interception by safety David Burton Jr. with five minutes left in the fourth quarter, Denver marched down the field and scored an 11-yard touchdown on a good pass by Manning and even better catch by Broncos tight end Owens Daniels. The key was an inexperienced offensive line finally giving Manning more time to survey the field.
“I thought they (offensive line) really did a good job all night,” said Manning. “We had good communication all night, as well — two games in a row dealing with the crowd noise, five guys playing together for the first time. I thought we were on the same page from a communication standpoint—those are two real positives.”
But for all the positives by the defense — four sacks, three turnovers and stuffing Detroit to 29 yards on 18 carries, Denver still had to be fortunate at the end. Manning abandoned any notion of going under center with a beefed-up run game to protect him and had to fling it to win it — exposing his 39-year-old body. Luckily, they were playing the sad sack Lions.
The Broncos didn’t put Manning under center for a single snap in the first three quarters and they still couldn’t crank up the run game against the Lions’ 29th-ranked run defense. The Broncos had 18 yards rushing at halftime, just 29 yards rushing by the end of the third quarter and finished with just 42 on 19 carries.
But the great Manning is still a force to be reckoned with by identifying secondary coverages and blitzes and having good enough accuracy with his great decision making. It appears Manning has taken the offense on his shoulders and Kubiak’s strategy of a balanced offense is quickly disappearing.
The contrarian will note: ‘That’s fine when games are played in nice temperatures and with no wind, but the usual playoff haunts such as New England are not ideal settings to win games solely through the air.’ And all Broncos fans know how twice in three seasons the team has crashed and burned during the playoffs even on their home turf.
So far Manning has utilized his receiving talent of Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, Jordan Norwood and Owens Daniels to just chuck it and watch tremendous athletes make plays. The key is giving Manning the necessary time.
The margin of error has been razor thin, and as with all Broncos games so far this year, there were two pivotal plays in the Detroit game.
With 10 minutes remaining and Detroit driving at midfield down by only two points, Stafford scrambled out of the pocket and was crushed by Broncos linebacker Shaquil Barrett as he was trying to throw the ball. Whether Stafford’s arm was moving forward was very close, but fortunately for Denver, the ruling on the field was a fumble and the replay official did not overturn the call.
“I thought it was coming back, for sure. I thought [Stafford’s] arm was going forward,” Barrett said, smiling.
Again fortune smiled on the Broncos as kicker Brandon McManus’ field goal attempt sailed wide right, but Detroit was flagged for an illegal special team’s formation and Denver was allowed to kick again from five yards closer. McManus was successful on his closer attempt and Denver took a 17-12 lead.
The goat on the play was Lions cornerback Darius Slay who lined up on the wrong side of the formation. Slay had a horrible game with Manning picking on him often and effectively. (More on Slay later.)
Still, Detroit was down only five points and driving again when the second dramatic defensive fourth quarter play occurred. Burton, a safety, was lined up at middle linebacker, then dropped back into pass coverage and anticipated Stafford’s throw making a fantastic juggling interception while keeping his feet in play.
Stafford looked distraught. How could a middle linebacker cover so much ground? Phillips used the quicker Burton instead of a linebacker and the interception thwarted the Lions comeback chance and the offense iced the victory.
Any victories, especially road victories, are important in the NFL, but Denver has enjoyed incredible success feasting on their opponents’ miscues.
The strangest play of the game came just before the first half when facing a fourth-and-1 and with only 13 seconds remaining and Denver just out of field goal range. Detroit decided to blitz Manning and use single coverage against Thomas instead of keeping using a deep safety. Manning simply chucked the ball about as far as he could and Thomas made a spectacular leaping catch over the Lions Slay and then easily spun into the end zone.
“Obviously I knew we had to take a chance and I caught the corner [Darius Slay] squatting a little bit, which is what that blitz and that coverage, what the corner is required to do is to squat a little bit, and DT was able to get behind him,” said Manning. “But I was looking to Emmanuel first so I was kind of late going to DT because I wanted just to get the first down and DT made a great play and was able to get into the end zone.”
The play epitomized Denver’s first three games. Why such a knucklehead coverage on probably the last play of the half by Detroit’s coaches? Why did Kansas City throw an interception a week earlier just before the half and why did Baltimore’s Joe Flacco throw a terrible pick six pass in the opener when momentum was clearly on the Ravens side?
Some could say it is uncommonly dumb luck. Others would say Denver’s defensive pressure and the mental acumen of Manning have contributed to the opponents gaffes.
Glass half empty or half full?
During the week Slay told reporters he was going to pick off a Manning pass and taunt him with it. Time and again Slay went for interceptions only to lose the leaping battles against the taller, stronger Broncos receivers.
Though the news has been mostly good for the undefeated Broncos, there are still lingering doubts nipping at their heels.
Kubiak wanted Manning to work under center for most of the season and balance the offensive attack by being able to run the football. Clearly, the rebuilt offensive line is not ready for such an assignment and Manning has grabbed the Broncos offensive reigns back from Kubiak, putting the balanced attack back on mothballs.
Trying to get Manning more comfortable and allowing him to avoid the hits he suffered the first two weeks, coaches put Peyton in the shotgun or in the pistol with three wide receivers in the formation and let Manning wing it around to see if that could help jump-start their offense as they continue to ride their defense’s efforts.
This development could haunt Denver when it plays better teams and the weather gets colder. Denver is only averaging 57 yards rushing a game and has just three more first downs than their opponents. In other words, they are not exactly killing it on offense.
Yet the Broncos defense is certainly prime-time worthy. By the end of the third quarter, the Lions had gained just 177 total yards, a total that included just 25 yards rushing and they were battering an already injured Stafford (who hurt his ribs the previous week).
Even the defense can improve, however. Denver walks a fine line — to maintain their fury and intensity while eliminating terrible penalties. The Broncos lead the league in rougher the passer, unnecessary roughness, defensive pass interference and illegal contact calls.
“Penalties are going to happen, but I think the timing of the penalties is absolutely a must-fix for us on defense,” added Von Miller, who didn’t sack Stafford but pressured him constantly and hit him once.
“There’s a lot of stuff we can fix, but that’s definitely at the top of the priority list. We’ve got to get those 15-yarders out of there. We’ve got to be smarter. We can’t put ourselves in that situation. It’s been three weeks straight, honestly, and we’re going to get that fixed up.”
So there you have it sports fans — plenty of positives with some important negatives.
Are you a Broncos Super Bowl believer, or is your glass still half empty and need a few more games to decide the question?