The injury bug is no respecter of persons. It will strike without warning and exact it's merciless toll. No NFL team is exempt from it's scourge, including the Denver Broncos.
Where the Broncos have been hit hardest has been in their linebacking corps. Starting weakside linebacker, and defensive leader, Danny Trevathan, is now on injured reserve. Starting middle linebacker, Nate Irving, is also done for the season, on I.R.
Fortunately for the 2014 Broncos, Brandon Marshall was waiting in the wings and took over for Trevathan at the "Will" position. He has been nothing short of spectacular, playing at a Pro Bowl level all season long.
His 113 total tackles leads the team, but he's also notched one forced fumble, an interception and two sacks.
But in week 15, Marshall went down with a foot sprain that forced him to miss last week's game vs. the Cincinnati Bengals. There's a small chance he could return this week vs. the Oakland Raiders, but its more likely that the coaches will hold him out, in hopes of getting him to 100% come the playoffs.
His absence on the field was acutely felt on Monday night. For only the second time this season, the Broncos allowed an individual an 100-yard day (Jeremy Hill), and surrendered a season-high 207 yards on the ground.
It was a dismal showing for a unit who entered the game as the league's No. 2 rush defense. The performance on Monday night was replete with mental errors and missed tackles. It was the sort of performance that comes on the heels of inexperience at the linebacker position.
Todd Davis (Will), who was claimed off of waivers earlier this year, and Steven Johnson (Mike), started the game at linebacker. Both young players struggled immensely, both in defending the run and in covering the field underneath, and down the seams.
Davis finished the game with a -1.2 cumulative grade via ProFootballFocus, while Johnson earned a -6.1 grade, respectively.
However, when asked how he felt these two young LBs performed, head coach, John Fox, was supportive.
“We’ve had some good performances out of them," Fox said via the team. "Last night wasn’t as good as we’ve done. There are ways we can help them as coaches. This is about players getting used to coaches and coaches getting used to players in that position. We’ve got some guys rotating through, but we have confidence in them. There are a lot of young linebackers involved in some of those coverage units that we’re talking about. So I think when you play young players that kind of thing happens. It’s a learning experience every week.”
Fox is also referring to the special teams coverage units who gave up a whopping 206 kick and punt return yards, which killed the Broncos battle for field position and gave the Bengals short fields. The breakdown was a momentum killer and was likely the biggest reason the Bengals were able to go blow-for-blow with the Broncos.
Whether it was on defense or special teams, the Broncos put out on the field a comedy of errors of missed tackles and bad angles to the ball. But Fox doesn't see it that way. When asked if there were more missed tackles than usual against the Bengals, he was oddly complimentary.
“Not really," Fox said. "I thought at times we tackled very well. I think our red zone defense was outstanding—they helped keep us in the game. I thought our red zone offense was outstanding. Our third down defense was outstanding. Like I said, we gave up explosives [plays]. We had two takeaways: we had a key fumble recovery and we had an interception, pick-6. So it wasn’t all horrible. The sky is not falling. We’re not getting ready to give up our quarterback, he’s fine. We’re all going to get better.”
The sky is not falling. And it wasn't all bad. On those points, I would agree with coach Fox. But maybe he hadn't spent much time watching the film, when he said this, because the Broncos uncharacteristically did miss a lot of tackles.
And from a technique perspective, they were undisciplined. Von Miller, for example, who is one of the best run-defending outside linebackers in the NFL, who excels at setting the edge, got taken out of the play on Hill's 85-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, allowing him to turn the corner.
Of course, he wasn't the only player who under-performed on the play, as Davis and safety, Rahim Moore, both missed one-on-one tackles. Had Davis made his tackle, it would have been for a short loss. Had Moore taken a better angle and been more physical, the run would have only gone for a few yards.
But that 85-yard scamper gave the Bengals momentum and ignited their belief that they could upset the Broncos, who were favored to win the game by 3.5-to-4 points. It was a major tipping point in the game.
The only thing Fox and the Broncos can do now is learn from their mistakes and move on. They can still clinch the AFC's No. 2 seed and a much-needed playoff bye, if they take care of business this week and take down the Raiders at home.
“I think you’re always working to increase your position, so to speak," Fox said when asked if the Broncos are focused on securing the No. 2 seed. "But the reality is we’re going to get an opportunity to compete for the Lombardi Trophy—we’re in the playoffs. We’d like to win out; we’d like to have won last night. That was the plan. We’re going to turn it over really quickly because we’re in a short week. We’ve got a division opponent coming to our place and there are some things at stake. We’ll see how hard we work to make those happen.”
As for Davis and Johnson, they too must learn from Monday night's harsh lesson. They are young players, full of potential, and they'll likely be asked to stop the gap at linebacker for at least one more week. They have a favorable matchup this week, with Oakland's rushing offense ranked dead last in the league (78.2).