The Denver Broncos got off to an excruciating start on Sunday vs the Oakland Raiders. They were on the road and coming off of a blow-out loss the previous week, so maybe it should come as no surprise that they weren't firing on all cylinders early.
In two consecutive weeks, Peyton Manning turned the ball over twice. Both times, it resulted in points for the Raiders. Had the Broncos not turned the ball over, the Raiders wouldn't likely have scored any points until their garbage time touchdown.
You can divine many things about a man, when he get's punched in the mouth and knocked down. The same can be said for a team, as the Broncos were in week 9. The Broncos may have started off slow in week 10, but they finished strong and ended up blowing out the Raiders 41-17.
So, what did we learn about the Broncos from their week 10 performance? Let's examine.
Brandon Marshall Has Been A Defensive Savior
Some might suggest that using the word "savior" when describing Marshall might be a small exercise in hyperbole, but I'd beg to differ. In fact, imagine where this defense would be without him.
When the team's starting weakside linebacker, and defensive leader, Danny Trevathan, went down with a leg injury in the preseason, it left a gaping hole in the defense.
But the former 2012 5th round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars and former practice-squader, against long odds, stopped the gap. When the Broncos needed a difference maker most, Marshall stepped up to the plate.
He currently ranks 11th in the league in combined tackles (75) and 4th in solo tackles (58). Against the Raiders, he notched 13 combined tackles, a season high, and overall was a run-stuffing force.
In Trevathan's only full game of the season (week 5), defensive coordinator, Jack Del Rio, found a way to keep Marshall on the field. Trevathan saw 56 snaps vs the Arizona Cardinals, Marshall saw 38. When Trevathan returns for the last quarter of the season and playoffs, expect to see these two tackle machines shoulder-to-shoulder on the field.
Going strictly off of his snaps at WLB, he has earned a +7.2 cumulative grade, good for 8th best for a 4-3 OLB. His name is up there with the likes of DeAndre Levy and Lavonte David, two of the best "Will" LBs in the game. Conspicuously, he's graded significantly higher than Seattle Seahawks LB, K.J. Wright.
Will Montgomery Could Be The Answer At Center
Manuel Ramirez (Manny) knows how to play the center position. He was PFF's 5th rated center in 2013. But something changed for Ramirez in 2014 and he hasn't been the same player that he was last season.
Enter Montgomery. The Broncos signed him this past off-season to a 1-year, $1.325M deal, to come in and back up Ramirez. He's was basically a depth signing. He spent all of training camp and the preseason as the second-team offense's center.
As a starter, he's played the position at a high level before. In 2012, it was Montgomery who was PFF's 5th highest rated center, when he was with the Washington Redskins. He was able to carry that over into 2013, finishing the season with a +7.5 cumulative grade.
After 8 weeks of middling, to bad center play on the part of Ramirez, the Broncos finally decided to make a switch. Last week, Montgomery was inserted as Peyton Manning's center and Ramirez was moved to right guard. Louis Vasquez, a first-team All-Pro in 2013, slid over to right tackle.
The result was a mixed bag. Ramirez and Vasquez had their troubles, but overall, Vasquez was solid. Montgomery, on the other hand, was excellent. In run blocking, he was a major upgrade over Ramirez. The Broncos rushed for 118 yards vs the Raiders.
Montgomery's performance earned him a +2.3 overall grade via PFF, including a +1.3 grade in pass blocking. I'm not certain that Ramirez is the answer at RG, but it early results indicate that the Broncos could have stability at the center position.
C.J. Anderson, What Just Happened?
When the season began, Montee Ball was the Broncos starting running back, with Anderson listed as the #2. For whatever reason, however, when Ball went down with a groin injury, the team went with Ronnie Hillman as the primary RB, instead of Anderson.
Hillman did an excellent job in Ball's absence, accounting for more than 400 total yards from scrimmage and 4 touchdowns. During that 5-game span, Juwan Thompson, the team's 4th running back, saw 63 snaps, to Anderson's 30.
Thompson was productive in his limited opportunities, averaging 4.24 yards per carry and scoring 3 touchdowns. But when Hillman sprained his foot vs the Raiders, it was Anderson, not Thompson, who was inserted as the primary guy.
Anderson proceeded to rush for 90 yards (6.9 YPC) and caught 4 balls, for 73 yards, including his electric 51-yard touchdown reception. He ran with great decisiveness and power between the tackles, punishing his would be tacklers and getting to the second level.
With Ball likely to return to the lineup this week, the Broncos backfield rotation is unclear. Hillman's foot sprain could keep him out for a week or two. So it'll likely come down to Ball and Anderson to carry the burden.
John Fox likes to go with the hot hand, which implies that Anderson will get another opportunity this week vs the St. Louis Rams. But that small sliver of daylight that Ball needed to get his starting job back, just got kicked in and is now a gaping hole. You have to feel for Hillman a little bit.
Manning's Skittishness A Result Of Transient Offensive Line
Manning has looked skittish over the last two games. Against the New England Patriots, he never could settle into a rhythm, throwing 2 interceptions and earning a 80.9 rating (QBR), his lowest of the season.
That carried over into the first half vs the Raiders, as Manning again looked very uncomfortable, tossing 2 interceptions. He eventually settled in and went on to throw for 340 yards and 5 touchdowns. But after playing at a high level for 7 games, and only throwing 3 interceptions, what has been the cause of his backsliding?
The offensive line. On paper, the Broncos seemed to have one of the league's best units when the season began. But with left tackle, Ryan Clady, working back from his lisfranc injury and Orlando Franklin moving from right tackle to left guard, the Broncos struggled offensively in the trenches.
This led to starting right tackle, Chris Clark, being demoted for Paul Cornick. Cornick started a few games and improved the unit's run blocking, but he doesn't have quick enough feet to kick out and stay in front of would-be pass rushers. Pass protection suffered.
Against the Patriots, Manning was under duress constantly. Cornick injured his shoulder and the Broncos reshuffled the line again the next week, as mentioned above. This game of musical chairs, for a guy like Peyton Manning, who is the quintessential creature of habit, has resulted in the 38 year old QB being unsettled in the pocket.
Which is why it's no surprise to see him rush a few of his throws and not make good decisions as consistently. The biggest thing is continuity. If this offensive lineup in the trenches is what the coaches think is best, then they have to stick to it and give Manning the experience working with them.
Communication and trust are key. The big boys up front will get there, but only if Fox and Adam Gase stick to their guns and stop the carousel. Manning is on pace to throw for 50+ TDs again, but he needs that continuity up front to do so.
In the Nickel, The Broncos Went With 3 Safeties
Last week, the Broncos lost starting middle linebacker, Nate Irving, to a MCL sprain. The next man up on the depth chart was Steven Johnson, so naturally, most people expected to see a healthy dose of him vs the Raiders.
That's not what happened. Johnson played only 19 defensive snaps, as the Broncos ran mostly out of the nickel. What was interesting though, was that instead of bringing in Corey Nelson as the 2nd coverage LB, Jack Del Rio dropped T.J. Ward (+0.8) down into the box and Quinton Carter (+1.2) came in at strong safety.
It was a good move. Ward excels in the box, where he can pursue and cover short areas. The Broncos held the Raiders to just 10 first downs and 222 total yards. With how well the defensive line is doing at stopping the run, it has afforded Del Rio the option to bring in an extra safety, making it more difficult for the opposition to complete a pass.
Irving will be out a few more weeks and the Broncos don't expect Trevathan to return until December. In the meantime, Del Rio's creativity could continue to confound opposing offenses.