The Denver Broncos walked into a buzz saw today in Edward Jones Dome. And to the naked eye, it seemed as if they were not prepared for it. The St. Louis Rams didn't just beat the Broncos today, they dominated them 22-7.
Including playoffs, the lowest point total the Broncos had been held to in the Peyton Manning Era, was 8 points, which was all they could produce vs the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII. But today, the Rams held them to an even lower scoring total; 7 points, an ignominious mark for the Broncos.
We've been saying all week that the Rams are better than their 4-6 record reflects. Had Jeff Fisher gone back to Shaun Hill, once he became healthy, instead of sticking with Austin Davis, they could be over .500, instead of under.
For the Broncos, they faltered today, in their effort to keep pace with the New England Patriots, who currently hold the AFC's No. 1 seed, if the season ended today. At 7-3, the Broncos are now 1.5 games behind New England. However, the Patriots face a stiff challenge themselves tonight, as they will do battle with Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts.
How It Went Down
The Broncos biggest weakness was exploited today by the Rams; namely, the offensive line. Manning was under duress from the drop. The Rams front seven didn't let off the gas all game long. They only notched 3 sacks on Manning, but they were in his face consistently, never letting him settle in and find a groove.
Rams defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams, struck the perfect balance, getting pressure with just 4 rushers, and also timing the A-gap blitz and stunts like an artist. The Broncos have struggled all season long to defend the A-gap blitz, and the Rams were able to exploit the collective inexperience of the Broncos new-look offensive line and their inability to communicate.
Today marked yet another game marred by sloppy execution and mental miscues on the Broncos offensive line. They were outmatched by a physical and explosive Rams front seven. Head coach, John Fox, went with the same lineup from last week, with LT Ryan Clady, LG Orlando Franklin, C Will Montgomery, RG Manuel Ramirez and RT Louis Vasquez, unable to find cohesion as a unit.
The Broncos made some controversial waves last week by bringing in troubled free agent offensive lineman, Richie Incognito, for a workout. They kicked the tires, but ultimately chose not to sign him. This game might be the straw that broke the camel's back, because if the Broncos don't find a way to right the ship on the offensive line, their Super Bowl aspirations could come crashing down around their ears.
Incognito hasn't played a meaningful snap in more than a year, but provided he's in shape, he really could impact this Broncos offensive line unit, and perhaps even be the catalyst to turning the ship around. Many would disagree with me on this issue, but at this point, the Broncos have seemingly run out of options in-house.
They need to get guys like Orlando Franklin and Louis Vasquez back to their natural positions. Signing Incognito would provide them the option of moving Franklin back to right tackle and Vasquez back to right guard. The bottom line is that what the Broncos are doing now simply isn't working. It's time for drastic measures.
Compounding this issue is the failure of Michael Schofield, the Broncos 2014 3rd round pick. He was a healthy scratch today, yet again. The Broncos drafted him to be their RT of the future and at the very least, be a capable depth option. Well, the future is now and Schofield is nowhere to be found. Fox is unwilling to even dress him. It's that bad.
Today, not only were the Broncos unable to protect Manning and provide him with the time to make his reads, but they also failed in opening up holes in the running game. On the day, C.J. Anderson was held to just 29 yards rushing on 9 carries. That's only 3.2 yards per carry, coming from an explosive player who makes guys miss when he has the ball in his hands.
When this season began, offensive coordinator, Adam Gase, hammered home the point that he wanted to strive for more balance on offense. The Broncos only had 9 planned rushing plays today, out of 64. That is the antithesis of balance. The Rams never doubted what the Broncos were trying to do and thus, they were able to scheme accordingly. The running game is simply not a threat the opposition takes seriously.
For the second time in the last three weeks, Manning had more than 50 passing attempts. This glaring stat makes it seem as if the Broncos were down big all game long. They weren't, although they trailed from the 9:24 mark in the 1st quarter. At any point in the game, the Broncos were never down more than two scores. And yet, they stuck with the pass relentlessly, even when it would behoove them to run the ball.
This is telling. Gase and Fox have obviously lost their faith in the offensive line. They've reached the point of no return. I wouldn't be surprised to see Incognito in orange and blue by this time next week because if they can't figure out a way to get more out of this unit, they could not only see their hopes for the AFC No. 1 seed fade away, but also the AFC West division crown.
With a big win today over the Seahawks, the Kansas City Chiefs now sit at 7-3 and only sit a half game behind the Broncos, because of the head-to-head tiebreaker the Broncos own. The Broncos still have to travel to Arrowhead Stadium in week 13, in what could be their biggest game of the year. As a Bronco, Manning has never lost to the Chiefs. That streak could be in jeopardy, because the Chiefs are playing excellent, complimentary football right now.
Today, the Rams were a ferocious, physical opponent, knocking three key Broncos out of the game. Julius Thomas left with an ankle injury early, never to return. Emmanuel Sanders was knocked out of the game with concussion-like symptoms, after suffering a brutal hit by safety, Rodney McCleod, on the Broncos first possession of the second half. McLeod was flagged on the play for unnecessary roughness.
But that hit took away the Broncos most effective weapon on the day. Sanders had 5 receptions for 102 yards and the team's only touchdown. Montee Ball dressed today, after he missed the last 5 games with a groin injury. He must not have been fully healed, because he aggravated it early in the game and never returned.
With Ronnie Hillman out with a foot injury and Kapri Bibbs inactive, that left only Juwan Thompson behind Anderson. But that wasn't the only position group the Broncos were short-handed. With Thomas' injury, the Broncos had only Jacob Tamme available at TE, as Virgil Green was also inactive today. The Broncos chose to release their other "blocking" TE, Joel Dreessen, when the team trimmed their roster to the final 53 players.
And it's coming back to haunt them. The Broncos have been the most effective at running the ball when they have two TEs on the field. Thomas will always be one of them, but they've been without the other (Green) since week 8. As a result, they've only averaged 63 yards rushing per game sans Green.
The Rams rendered them one-dimensional today and were thus able to key in on the passing game, pin their ears back, and get after the QB. Manning was handcuffed somewhat, as he tried to find a rhythm without two of his most explosive weapons.
Of all the days to keep Cody Latimer on the sidelines inactive, John Fox chose poorly. With both Sanders and Julius Thomas knocked out of the game, Manning could have used the explosive rookie out of Indiana. It's yet another aspect of Fox's coaching that the fans will justifiably question.
Demaryius Thomas extended his streak of consecutive 100-yard receiving games today to seven, joining Michael Irvin (1995), Bill Groman (1961) and Charley Hennigan (1961) for the second-most consecutive 100-yard games. Calvin Johnson holds the record with eight (2012).
For the third-straight game, Manning tossed two interceptions. He was pressing and under constant duress, so it follows that the turnovers would come. But Manning has to be smarter with the ball in such situations, because in two of those three games, it has cost his team their hopes of a comeback.
All three of the Broncos losses in 2014 have come on the road. With six games left to go, the Broncos will play half of them on the road; at Kansas City, at the San Diego Chargers and at the Cincinnati Bengals. Unfortunately, it's on the road, when it's the loudest, that communication breaks down, which has been a key issue on offense.
Defensively, the Broncos played a pretty stout game, allowing only one touchdown-scoring drive. But they got zero help from the offense. The Rams won the time of possession battle 35:50 to 24:10, and did a great job of working the clock on the drives that only netted a field goal.
Choosing to start Shaun Hill today paid of bigtime for the Rams. The Broncos didn't really have any film on him, as he hadn't seen the field since the first half of week 1. As a result, Hill had success targeting Kenny Britt, including a 63-yard touchdown in the 1st quarter.
Surprisingly, the Rams were able to run on the the NFL's No. 1 rush defense, to the tune of 131 yards. Tre Mason, the rookie, led the way with 113 yards on the ground. He ran with power and explosion. All year long, the Broncos have been able to render the opposition one-dimensional with their stellar play in defending the run. Today, they failed in that respect, and how it hurt the Broncos most was by keeping Peyton Manning on the sideline, hamstringing their ability to come back.
Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware each notched a sack today. Miller's sack put him at 10 on the season, marking the third time in his four-year career he's reached double digit sack totals. Unfortunately, the Broncos were unable to put consistent pressure on Hill, which afforded him the opportunity to find his receivers down-field.
Brandon Marshall was a tackling machine, as usual, leading the team with 15 combined tackles, a career high. I shudder to think what this defense would look like without him. He has been a savior, filling in for the injured Danny Trevathan. Alas, today, it simply wasn't enough.
On the day, Shaun Hill went 20/29 for 220 yards and 1 TD. He ended the day with a QB rating of 102.7 and executed his role within the offense perfectly. The Broncos safeties struggled today, between biting on play-fakes and missing tackles. They have to get better.
Next up, the Broncos will host the 6-4 Miami Dolphins. The game will be played in Denver. The Dolphins are a team on the rise and like the Rams, play physical defense. The Broncos have to take this week to dam their leaks and right this ship's course. Because Miami is hungry and are not only in the hunt for a Wildcard berth, but also for the AFC East division crown.
Check out Brandon Perna's poignant post-game rant, as he reflects on the brutal loss.