There's a lot of doom and gloom in Broncos Country today, which is understandable. The Denver Broncos have not suffered this caliber of a defeat in the Peyton Manning era, at least, not in the regular season.
The Super Bowl loss to the Seattle Seahawks was brutal, but they were an excellent team, who had earned their Conference's top spot. The St. Louis Rams? Not so much. Don't get me wrong, I said all week "beware the Rams" and that they're a better team than their record reflects. But going into yesterday's game at 3-6, nobody expected the Rams to physically abuse the Broncos like they did.
And they deserve all the credit in the world for it. It was an impressive performance. Jeff Fisher is wishing he would have gone back to Shaun Hill much earlier in the season. The upside for St. Louis, is with only 6 losses, they have yet to be mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. It is conceivable that they could win a Wildcard. With Seattle and the San Francisco 49ers both with 4 losses, the Rams could leapfrog both teams, if they can continue to play like they did yesterday.
As for the Broncos, the question on many fans' minds is, where do we go from here? It's important to keep things in perspective. At 7-3, the Broncos are still in first place in the AFC West, and if the playoffs started next week, they'd be the No. 2 seed in the AFC.
The (8-2) New England Patriots may have soundly defeated the Indianapolis Colts last night, but they still have a long road ahead of them, with the Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, San Diego Chargers and Miami Dolphins left on the schedule.
Next up, the Broncos will host Miami. At home, the Broncos haven't lost all season, and will likely be out for blood, as they seek to atone for their embarrassing loss in week 11. The Dolphins are good, but it takes a perfect game to defeat the Broncos.
Arguably, the most daunting game left on the schedule is the Broncos week 13 trip to Arrowhead Stadium, where the AFC West crown will be up for grabs. At 7-3, the Chiefs trail the Broncos by a half game, due to the head-to-head tiebreaker the Broncos own. Manning has yet to lose to the Chiefs as a Bronco, and it bears mentioning that the Chiefs do not matchup well, from a personnel perspective, with the Broncos.
With the way the Patriots are playing, they look impossible to beat. But just remember, this is the team who got blown out 41-14 by the Chiefs and lost by two touchdowns to the Dolphins. Anything could happen.
But if they don't falter, and the Broncos have to travel to take them on in the postseason, the odds of bringing the Lombardi Trophy back to Dove Valley diminish. Manning and Fox's track record at Foxboro is terrible.
But there's a lot of football left to be played, so take heart. And even though the Broncos are not playing their best football, there's room and time for improvement. Remember, it looked like New England would win the 1-seed in 2012 and 2013, but they faltered down the stretch, relinquishing it to the Broncos.
Let's get to the takeaways from week 11.
Big Trouble In Little Denver
Simply put, the biggest obstacle to the Broncos winning the Super Bowl is their offensive line. The shuffling the coaches have made up front of late has yet to improve the unit. In fact, it may have exasperated the problem.
At center, Will Montgomery might be an upgrade to Manuel Ramirez (Manny), but Ramirez is a definite downgrade at right guard, to Louis Vasquez. Vasquez is playing out of position at right tackle, and it's high time the Broncos fix it. Part of being an effective coach is playing to your players' strengths.
Vasquez's strength is inside, at right guard. Put him back there, even if it means re-installing Chris Clark at RT, or rolling with Paul Cornick. Cornick is young and inexperienced, but he does have potential. He's a road-grader in the run game and could likely be taught better technique and foot-work in pass protection.
The idea of choosing not to sign Richie Incognito, possibly because the next two opponents on the schedule were his old teams, was the wrong one. No self-respecting team wants to look outside of their roster for help on the offensive line mid-season, but the Broncos have little choice left.
Speaking to the idea of playing to your players' strengths, the "Orlando Franklin at left guard experiment" has been an abject failure. With a +14.5 cumulative grade via ProFootballFocus, Franklin was the NFL's 4th highest rated RT in 2013. Maybe that's where he belongs. Signing Incognito would afford the Broncos the prerogative of moving both Franklin and Vasquez back where they are comfortable.
Find Another Tight End, Fast
The coaching staff made another error in personnel when they decided to cut tight end, Joel Dreessen, as they trimmed the roster to the final 53 players. Not necessarily because they parted ways with him, but because they didn't replace his abilities as the team's second blocking TE on the roster.
John Fox chose to roll the dice with only 3 TEs in 2014, knowing that one of them (Julius Thomas) had an extensive injury jacket. Now, with Virgil Green having missed the last 3 games, and Thomas' ankle injury, the Broncos are down to just one TE; Jacob Tamme.
If Dreessen's knee is healthy, the Broncos would be remiss in not signing him. He's still in Denver. In fact, he often makes an appearance on 104.3 the FAN, where he'll talk Broncos with the hosts.
Even if the Broncos expect Green back soon, they still need to sign another TE, even if the player isn't a proficient blocker. Gerrell Robinson, who has had two stints with the Broncos, is currently on the Dolphins practice squad. Like Dreessen, Robinson knows the system. The situation demands that the Broncos do something here.
No Faith In The Kicking Game
The coaches have seemingly zero faith in their place kicker, Brandon McManus. The team made big waves when they jettisoned Matt Prater, right before he was due to return from suspension.
By doing so, they went all-in on McManus. On the season, McManus is 8/11 on field goal attempts, with one miss coming from 40+ yards out and two from 50+. Yesterday, the Broncos went for it on 4th down three times, converting none of them.
The first 4th down attempt came at the St. Louis 37-yard line. With Prater, that would have been an automatic FG attempt, especially indoors. The second 4th down attempt came in the 4th quarter, at the St. Louis 28-yard line, down 12 points, with just under 10 minutes to go. Choosing to go for it could have been more of a reflection of the game situation, because even if they converted the FG, the Broncos would have still been down two scores (19-7).
The last 4th down attempt came at a point where the Broncos were down 15, with 2:30 left to go. They had no choice but to go for it there. But regardless, the Broncos are sending a clear message to McManus; we don't trust you.
And if that's the case, fine. Then they need to go out and find a replacement they can trust. David Akers, Ryan Lindell and Lawrence Tynes are all available, although Tynes might still have an issue with his foot (bacterial infection). None of these free agent kickers would be optimal, but at the very least, they are experienced and might give the team more stability and confidence in special teams. Akers went 19/24 last season with the Lions.
But if the Broncos stick with McManus, they have to give him opportunities. Because nothing is more fragile than a place kicker's confidence.
The Broncos Big Dime Package Failed Miserably
By "big dime", I mean 1 linebacker, 3 safeties and 3 cornerbacks, rather than a traditional "dime", which features 1 linebacker, 2 safties, and 4 cornerbacks. In the Broncos "big dime", they deploy T.J. Ward down into the box, as essentially the 2nd LB, and bring in Quinton Carer to replace him at strong safety. Rahim Moore stays put at free safety.
Up until yesterday, the results of this look have been relatively successful. But against the Rams, it was a disaster, mainly due to Carter. On the Rams 63-yard TD strike to Kenny Britt, Bradley Roby had the one-on-one coverage. On tape, it looked like he was playing with outside technique, expecting help over the top.
It didn't come, because Carter bit hard on a crossing route underneath, leaving Britt open on the post, which quarterback, Shaun Hill, diagnosed, delivering a perfect ball.
Ward and Moore were solid on the day, each earning a +0.5 overall grade via PFF. Ward was targeted in coverage 3 times, but he only allowed 1 reception, for 9 yards. Carter was a liability in coverage, but he also failed miserably in wrapping up and tackling the ball carrier.
This earned him a -2.6 overall grade via PFF. It could be an anomaly, but against a team like the Rams, who want to pound the rock and shorten the game, it might have been wiser to keep Steven Johnson in the game at LB and Carter on the sideline.
The Broncos May Have Found Their Running Back
On paper, it doesn't look like C.J. Anderson was very effective as the Broncos lead running back yesterday. He only rushed for 29 yards on 9 carries. But that result lies more at the feet of the coaching staff and the offensive line, than Anderson.
With only 9 planned rushing plays on the day, Anderson and the line, to be frank, were unable to get into any kind of rhythm. Adam Gase must be more committed to that aspect of the team's offensive attack. Once Manning is rendered one-dimensional, the opposition can tee-off on him, pin their ears back, and play physical coverage with the Broncos receivers.
Where Anderson made the biggest difference was in the passing game. As an outlet receiver, he caught 8 balls, for 86 yards. That marks the second consecutive week with more than 100 total yards from scrimmage for the second-year back.
Regardless, Anderson has shown that he can run with power and that he can be counted on in the passing game to not only secure the catch, but make something out of nothing, an attribute he shares with Knowshon Moreno.
The Broncos running back stable has been a circus this year because of injuries, but fortunately, Anderson has risen to the occasion. If only the team could get their offensive line figured out, they'd have something special behind Manning.