Following a vicious beatdown in the Super Bowl at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks, the toughness of the Denver Broncos was in question by many. Vice President of Football Operations and General Manager, John Elway, was very deliberate in his free agent acquisitions and draft picks, targeting players who would bring physicality to the team.
With two of the four NFC West matchups on the Broncos 2014 schedule in the books, there is now empirical evidence proving that he was successful in that objective. In the Broncos week 3 overtime loss to the Seahawks, the team went blow-for-blow with the reigning league champions, narrowly losing the game on the road. Emerging from that loss, it was obvious that there is a new identity in Denver.
Yesterday, the Broncos as a team continued that trend of physicality vs the Arizona Cardinals. Let's take a look at some of key takeaways from the Broncos 41-20 victory.
Kicking Game On Shaky Ground
This might not be the sexiest subject, but the Broncos made some waves last Friday when they released All-Pro kicker, Matt Prater. The 7-year veteran had been serving the last week of his 4 game suspension for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy. He is one more infraction away from being suspended for an entire season and was due to earn $2.117M for the remainder of this season. The combination of his off-the-field conduct and salary cap number, led to the Broncos deciding to part ways with him.
In his place, the Broncos have gone all-in on Brandon McManus. He's young, inexperienced and is scheduled to earn $296,470 this season. In yesterday's win, he was 2/3 on field goals, missing a 53-yarder wide left. He connected on all of his extra points, but doinked one of them off the left upright. He looked a little shaky. But it's hard to find fault in a kicker who is 5/6 on the season on field goal attempts, with his only miss coming from 50+ yards.
There's no question that McManus has a big leg. Whether or not he can make a kick when all of the chips are down, remains to be seen. Such situations were almost automatic for Prater. With a proven track record in the clutch, many in Broncos Country are dubious about the Broncos decision to move on from him.
There's no use crying over spilled milk. McManus is the kicker moving forward. With the high-flying Peyton Manning offense, the team hopes that not many games will come down to a game-deciding kick. But in the NFL, eventually McManus will be called upon to close out a game. Until then, he'll get plenty of practice cleaning up for Manning.
Pass Rush In Full Swing
In 2013, the Broncos defense struggled to put consistent pressure on the quarterback. Between Von Miller's 6-game suspension, and the departure of Elvis Dumervil, it was slow going at times. To improve in this area, the Broncos signed the Dallas Cowboys all-time leader in sacks, DeMarcus Ware. So far in the young season, Ware has 3.5 sacks and a forced fumble. He has been everything the team hoped he'd be when they gave him a 3-year, $30M deal in March.
The pass rush has been much improved in 2014, and the biggest reason why, however, is Von Miller. Even though he has been working back from an ACL tear he suffered in week 16 of 2013, he has been absolutely dominant. Like Ware, he has 3.5 sacks on the season, which puts the pass rushing duo on pace for 24 combined sacks.
Against the Cardinals, the Broncos notched 3 sacks in 37 pass plays. They hit the quarterback on 10 drop backs. That means that Arizona quarterbacks were under duress on a whopping 35% of their dropbacks. This is the type of production John Fox and Jack Del Rio envisioned for their front seven. And I have a sneaking suspicion that they're only going to get better.
Chris Harris Is Dominating
Like Miller, Harris is coming off of a late season knee injury. In the Broncos playoff win over the San Diego Chargers, he partially tore his ACL. That was in January. However, watching him out on the field, you'd never know it.
In yesterday's win, he was targeted 7 times and relinquished zero completions. Think about that. Not even one. Harris is playing at an All-Pro level in a contract year. The Broncos gave big money to Aqib Talib, making it unlikely that they'll be able to pay Harris what the free agent market will demand.
Anything is possible, but with contract extensions due soon for many stars like Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, Von Miller and Terrance Knighton, the Broncos cap wizard, Mike Sullivan, has his work cut out for him, if they hope to find room for Harris. In the meantime, the only area I'd say Harris could improve in, is interceptions. Yesterday, he dropped what would have been 2. He's got to find a way to corral those.
The Demise Of Demaryius Thomas Has Been Greatly Exaggerated
After struggling with a lingering foot injury through the first 3 games of the season, Thomas went into the bye in need of some rest. Whatever the medicine was the Broncos prescribed him, it worked. Thomas set a new franchise record for receiving yards with 226 yesterday. He also nabbed 2 touchdowns, but it could have been 3. He had a 77-yard score called back on a controversial chop block penalty on Julius Thomas. The negated touchdown would have put him over 300 yards on the day. It was a career outing.
Thomas exhibits the rarest size/speed combination. He's not just a possession receiver. He can gash the opposition with his explosive straight-line speed and short-area burst. He showcased this on his 86-yard touchdown reception in the 2nd quarter and reminded people why he is roundly considered to be a top 5 receiver in the NFL, and the primary weapon of Peyton Manning.
Offensive Line Improving
This much maligned unit needed a day like yesterday. They only allowed a single shoe-string sack on Manning and overall made it possible for him to have a career day himself. With 479 yards passing, Manning set a new career high and only fell 21 yards short of breaking Jake Plummer's franchise record for passing yards in a game (499).
But pass protection wasn't where the offensive line needed to improve. They've been protecting Manning effectively all season long. It was the running game that needed some work. Although they struggled to open running lanes in the first half, they made up for it in the second, plowing the way for 80 yards rushing and a touchdown between Ronnie Hillman and Juwan Thompson. This opened the door for some significant play-action strikes.
The only player to grade in the negative via ProFootballFocus was center, Manny Ramirez, with an overall grade of -1.3. He was slow to beat his blocking assignment to the point of attack. The team needs better production from the guy who finished 2013 as the 5th highest rated center in the league.
The Broncos have faced some fierce defensive competition thus far. And it doesn't get any easier in the immediate future. With the ferocious defensive line of the New York Jets up next, the offensive line needs to use Sunday's performance as a launching pad to take them to the next level.