The further I get from the Denver Broncos 26-20 loss to the Seattle Seahawks in overtime, the more exasperated I feel about how it went down. The Broncos shot themselves in the foot with their two turnovers, no doubt, but they also were on the losing end of several non-calls and overall poor officiating.
The defense really stepped up big time yesterday, despite them allowing Russell Wilson and company to drive 80 yards for the game clinching touchdown in overtime. It was a tough loss. But there were many positives to takeaway from the Broncos overall performance. Let's get to it.
1. THE RUNNING GAME IS IN SHAMBLES
Everyone has had high hopes for second year running back, Montee Ball, to take over as the Broncos' featured running back in 2014. With the departure of Knowshon Moreno, the team has essentially handed the job over to Ball. And for good reason.
Not only was he a 2nd round pick in last year's draft, but he also displayed flashes of dominance down the stretch last season, and into the playoffs. Over the last 6 games of the 2013 season, Ball averaged a whopping 6.4 yards per carry. It was impressive and it gave Johns Elway and Fox the confidence to move on from the Moreno show and hand the reigns to Ball for 2014.
However, on the season, Ball is only averaging a paltry 3.4 YPC, over 3 games. In 2 of those games, he has failed to get over 3 YPC. Now, it must be stated that the Broncos offensive line has done Ball no favors. In yesterday's matchup vs the vaunted Legion of Boom, the Broncos got dominated in the running game at the point of attack. They could get no push. As a unit, they got physically dominated. And it shows in that they could only average 1.8 YPC for the entire game. The Seahawks made first contact on a Broncos ball carrier in the backfield on almost every play. That is not how you establish the run.
Fortunately for the Broncos, they get their bye this week, which should give them plenty of time to reevaluate what they're doing in the trenches and adjust, because as it stands, it is pitiful, and absolutely unacceptable with two All-Pros up front in Ryan Clady and Louis Vasquez. For what it's worth, every offensive lineman graded out in the negative via ProFootballFocus.com, with the exception of left guard, Orlando Franklin, who earned a +0.1 overall grade. All of them, however, graded out in the negative in run blocking.
I've been hearing from some members of Broncos Country that the team should turn to undrafted rookie free agent, Juwan Thompson, to see if they can turn the ship around. Unless there is an injury, that's simply not going to happen. The Broncos believe in Montee Ball, and for good reason. He's a great talent and has run with great toughness thus far. The issue is in the blocking, not the running.
2. THE PROTECTION OF PEYTON MANNING WAS MUCH IMPROVED
It's no secret that the Broncos failed to protect Peyton Manning in the Super Bowl. He was constantly under duress, both from the interior and from the edges. He was only sacked once in that fateful game, but was hit and pressured constantly. But remember, Ryan Clady, a 3-time All-Pro, did not play that day.
He did play yesterday, however. And he did a mostly good job of keeping the Seattle edge rushers off of Manning's back, as he surrendered zero sacks. In the Super Bowl, the Seahawks were able to hit Manning 5 times and hurry him a whopping 17 times. Yesterday, they managed 8 QB hits, and 10 hurries.
Clady was responsible for 2 hits on Manning and 2 hurries, per PFF. Not perfect, by any stretch of the imagination, but a definite improvement over Chris Clark's performance in the Super Bowl. Holding the Legion of Boom to zero sacks is no easy task. The box score claims that O'Brien Schofield notched a sack, but it wasn't. It was a botched draw play to Ball and Manning just hit the deck voluntarily, when it went south. It was basically a failed rushing attempt. Manning's lightning-quick release deserves much of the credit, but overall, I'd say in pass protection, the Broncos offensive line performed admirably in the belly of the beast, against the most ferocious front seven in the NFL.
3. THAT WAS SOME TERRIBLE OFFICIATING
Listen. I'm not one to hang my hat on bad officiating when a game doesn't go my way. But yesterday's performance by Bill Vinovich and company was criminally negligent. There were several key non-calls and one blatant error. The error came in the form of the officiating crew throwing a flag on a key 3rd down halfway through the 3rd quarter. On a 3rd-and-1, the Seahawks clearly jumped offsides and stopped Ronnie Hillman for no gain. One side judge threw the flag, but the other vehemently disagreed and the flag was picked up. It would have given the Broncos a key first down at midfield. Instead, they had to punt. The replay tells the story. Egregious.
Overall, the Seahawks were their typical selves. They pulled, grabbed, pushed and overall interfered with the Broncos receivers. On the Kam Chancellor interception in the 4th quarter, Earl Thomas straight up almost decapitated a defenseless Wes Welker. No call. And the NFL's new "point of emphasis" on defensive holding and pass interference, a new focus supposedly in response to the Legion of Boom's perpetration, was essentially ignored yesterday. And it irks me.
What about protecting the quarterback from blows to the head? Manning was straight roughed by the Seahawks on a play where he had one player shoot into his knees, and the other launch straight into his head. I think it was Michael Bennett to the head. No call. That officiating crew owes the Denver Broncos, and their fans, an apology.
4. DEMARYIUS THOMAS Is Not Himself
Since the regular season began, Demaryius Thomas has not looked like himself. In the Broncos week 1 victory over the Indianapolis Colts, he dropped several passes. He somewhat bounced back in week 2. But yesterday, he was virtually a non-factor vs the Seahawks, with the exception of his clutch catch on the Broncos 2-point conversion that sent the game to overtime, where he beat Richard Sherman, despite carrying him on his back.
In 3 weeks of play, Thomas has been targeted 27 times by Peyton Manning. He's only managed to bring in 13 of them, for 141 yards and 1 touchdown. Some people have surmised that he must be worried about his new contract, or lack thereof. But I don't think it's that. He's been fighting a lingering foot injury that has handicapped him. Thomas is an explosive player who can not only beat you with his speed, but can use his size (6'3, 229lbs) to make plays down the field. Those elements of his game have been lacking thus far. His seeming lack of focus, as it pertains to drops, could simply be a result of him fighting through significant pain.
The bye couldn't have come at a better time for Thomas. He needs some time to rest his foot. Hopefully he'll come out in week 5 and remind the world why he's a 2-time Pro Bowler.
5. Orange Crush Reborn?
Don't be too hard on the Broncos defense for allowing Russell Wilson to lead the Seahawks on an 80-yard touchdown drive to seal the victory in overtime. They played like animals that game. I chalk that overtime drive up to one simple issue; coaching. Defensive coordinator, Jack Del Rio, chose to make his worst calls in the most important and clutch stretch of the game. Not putting a spy on Wilson is an error in judgment that cost the Broncos a tough win.
The defense played their hearts out on Sunday. They sacked one of the most elusive quarterbacks in the NFL 3 times and hurried him 13 times. At home. Although Aqib Talib got beat deep by Ricardo Lockette for a touchdown, he also tipped an interception into the hands of Chris Harris, Jr. And he would have had an INT himself, had Lockette not interfered with him. A smart play by the Seahawks receiver.
T.J. Ward was a beast. As was Von Miller, who was the defensive MVP, in my opinion. On the day, Miller had 8 QB hurries, 1 sack and 5 stops. He was all over the field. Anyone who says that he's not the Von of old, isn't watching closely enough. He was straight up dominant and literally wrecked what the Seahawks tried to do on offense.
DeMarcus Ware also came to play yesterday. He sacked Russell Wilson on the Seattle goal line, and also contributed to the Broncos getting a safety in the 4th quarter, which swung the momentum in the Broncos favor and ignited the comeback.
Chris Harris kept Percy Harvin in check, which was one of the Broncos keys to victory. Harvin was limited to 42 yards receiving and he didn't score. When Harris is in the game, the Broncos defense is a different animal. Nate Irving had a strong game, too. With 7 tackles on the day, he earned a +1.4 overall grade from PFF. He has really cemented his role in the middle of that defense. With Terrance Knighton and Sylvester Williams up front, in the trenches, and Irving pursuing downhill, teams will have a difficult time running the ball vs the Broncos.
This defense went toe-to-toe with the league champs, in their house, and made it clear that the 2014 Denver Broncos are not the same team who lost the Super Bowl by 35 points. For this reason, yesterday was a moral victory and it will serve as a launching pad that this team can build on moving forward.