By Landon Jones, Latin Life Denver
The new Star Wars movie may be coming out soon, but the Denver Broncos are no longer the NFL’s space adventure action heroes of old.
Instead of Luke Skywalker (aka Peyton Manning) zooming around in his Jedi fighter easily taking out Empire opponents, think of this Broncos rendition as Luke and company trapped in the garbage unit, using their brains and brawn to escape harrowing conditions. Might not look quite as sexy or be as easy on the heart to Broncos fans, but it is very effective and what coach Gary Kubiak wants.
Simply put: The Denver Broncos are 4-0, and though they do not always know their weekly script, they will be victorious in the end.
Against the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday, the game resembled more of a grimy old-fashioned western than a sleek science fiction thriller, but still the good guys prevailed once again 23-20, and that’s all that matters to Kubiak.
“I think the thing that I love about the football team is that they have a belief that they it’s going to find a way to make a play to win the football game,” he said. “That is the NFL. You are going to play in a lot of close football games and you better know how to win those. I think right now we think we can win all kind of ways, but we’re also very humble and understand we have a long way to go and a lot to improve upon.”
This week’s episode of Denver’s last-minute rally concluded with the offense driving down the field for the go-ahead 39-yard field goal by Brandon McManus and the defense forcing a fumble and recovery in the waning moments to allow the Broncos to escape with the victory.
This performance, like the others this season, has been like clockwork with third and early fourth quarter setbacks followed by a suddenly inspired offense finding its groove and a defense making a big turnover to seal the win.
The Broncos new director, Kubiak, would have it no other way.
During the last three seasons under head coach John Fox, Manning was allowed to sling the football all over the field. The result created mind-boggling numbers (thus the name Star Wars or fantasy-like statistics), but that strategy cost Denver in the playoffs when they faced better teams.
When Elway brought in Kubiak this year the objective was clear. Win the Super Bowl, no matter how ugly or what kind of strategy or means necessary.
Kubiak wanted to put the brakes on Manning and create a balanced run-and-pass offense which would give the defense time to rest and create more uncertainty from opponents’ defenses in the defining closing minutes. The result has not exactly worked — except when one looks at the standings where Denver is already two games ahead in the AFC West and remains one of the league’s five undefeated teams.
Even having played three patsies prior to Minnesota, Denver was last in the league rushing the football at under 70 yards a game. The onus had been thrust upon Manning’s 39-year-old arm to eke out victories, not a formula a run-oriented coach would like to continue.
In Sunday’s game, Denver rushed for 144 yards, including a 72-yard touchdown scamper by running back Ronnie Hillman, and gave Kubiak a brief reprieve from his team’s glaring weakness.
“I think we’re responding in the right situations, but we need to respond consistently through the course of the football game,” said Kubiak.
“We had a six minute drive to put the game away (similar to winning drives the previous three games). There are some areas we still need to improve, but we are improving offensively running the ball. We had a new lineup up front (with a reshuffled offensive line) so I’m proud of the way those guys played and we are putting together some big drives at the right time. We are finding the way as a team, but yes, you’re right, there are a lot of things that need to improve.”
But are the Broncos properly built to make a Super Bowl run and defeat the league’s elites?
The positives are easy to highlight. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has turned “Vonn’s Vaders” into a pack of mad dogs attacking opponents’ quarterbacks with veracity, creating timely turnovers and forcing teams into many three and outs.
Defensive end, DeMarcus Ware, who Phillips coached for years in Dallas, has drunk from the Fountain of Youth and leads the league with 4.5 sacks and numerous quarterback hits and hurries. With shutdown corners Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib, Phillips can blitz and dictate unbelievable pressure on opposing quarterbacks and the result has created “Star Wars” type numbers on defense.
— A league high 18 sacks.
— First in the league giving up only 275 yards per game.
— First in allowing teams only 25 percent third down conversions.
— Second in the league in scoring defense at 69 points over four games.
— Second in the league with 11 turnovers.
Still, despite the defense earning league-wide praise and receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders having pro-bowl like seasons, things have not perfect on offense. Manning has thrown several uncharacteristic interceptions and the running game for the most part has been ineffective — that is until the game is suddenly on the line.
“We play really good fourth-quarter football,” Manning said. “We talk about in our goal sheet that we have about winning the fourth quarter and we have done that each week.
“We’ve done some good things on both sides of the ball in the fourth quarter. Defensively, obviously, we come up with some big plays or big turnovers or sacks or whatnot, but offensively we put some drives together at the right time and we had a setback today with a turnover and we were able to overcome that.”
Sunday was no exception when an interception by Manning gave the Vikings the momentum in the fourth quarter until the defense stopped Minnesota in its tracks and the offense suddenly came alive. A 50-yard drive late in the fourth quarter used all of Denver’s weapons and ate time off the clock.
When Minnesota went on offense, they had less than two minutes with no time outs to try and tie or win the game. Denver’s defense refused to let that happen and sacked Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and Miller recovered the fumble to ice the game.
The biggest concern for Denver all season has been its anemic running game. Kubiak inserted Hillman ahead of C.J. Anderson and the running game seemed to get on track.
“We all know that when Ronnie gets into the open field he has that breakaway speed,” said Manning. “So it’s nice to get him into the open field and give him a chance to break away and take it down the field for a long touchdown. That can definitely be a deflating play for a defense.”
Hillman and the linemen also were able to pound out yardage with the game on the line, instead of only relying on the passing game late, the Broncos were able to churn out critical yards and get the lead late.
Denver’s upcoming two road games against Oakland (this Sunday) and the Cleveland Browns (Oct. 16) doesn’t exactly instill fear among the Broncos faithful. But if the previous four games indicate anything, they will be hard-fought defensive struggles that will continue to answer questions Denver has about them.
Getting the running game to be dynamic may not be as important now, but future contests against New England, Green Bay and Cincinnati will require total team efforts.
“I think the more balanced we can be, I think the more pressure you can keep on a defense,” Manning said. “I think for them not to know what you’re going to be doing on any first or second down – that’s what you’re looking for.
“You’re looking for them to be on their heels, are they going to run it here? Drop back and pass? Are they going to run play-action? … But you’ve got to have productivity in each phase, so we’re always looking to do that whether it’s the passing game or the running game.”
Let’s see if the running game continues to gain ground Sunday against the “Darth Vader” Raiders.