It wasn't always pretty, but the Denver Broncos pulled out a 19-13 win at home over the Baltimore Ravens yesterday. The hue and cry of the fans, reacting to Peyton Manning and the offense's struggles, echoes across the Rocky Mountains, even whilst I type this.
But guess what? In the NFL, a win's a win. Fans are so used to 38 points from Manning and company that hanging on to beat one of the NFL's best teams by six points must mean that the sky is falling.
Not so fast. Here's what I took away from yesterday's game and why you shouldn't be worried about the Broncos.
The New Offense Looks A Lot Like The Manning Offense
All through the offseason, the message out of Dove Valley was that new head coach Gary Kubiak was going to bring a new brand of offense to the Broncos. He and Manning would work together to iron out the wrinkles, but bottom line, Manning would be learning a new system.
What we saw yesterday, however, looked almost exactly like the Manning offense we've seen in Denver since 2012. He ran 44-of-65 plays out of the shotgun. We saw a lot of 3 and 4-WR sets. And yet, after the game, Manning stuck to the 'new' talking point, in response to him looking uncomfortable yesterday.
“I'd expect that to be the case," he said. "It's kind of a new.”
Likely, one of the biggest things to overcome for Manning are the new protection schemes for the offensive line. Pre-snap, he is the most cerebral quarterback in the NFL, and yet, on more than one occasion yesterday, a delayed blitzer got to him.
Both he and the O-line failed to recognize the pressure, before the snap. That's definitely something that offensive coordinator Rick Dennison and O-line coach Clancy Barone will have to improve on in a hurry. And it's easily fixable.
At the end of the day, it was the first game of the season, following many long months of coaching changes, personnel changes and scheme changes. Give Manning some credit and the benefit of the doubt. If he's still struggling in October or November, sound the alarm.
A Work In Progress? No doubt About It
We knew going into the season that the Broncos were set to field an O-line that featured two players who had never started a regular season game in the NFL—LT Ty Sambrailo and C Matt Paradis. With the 11th hour signing of LG Evan Mathis, perhaps the expectation was that he would step in and elevate the unit to more solid ground.
It doesn't work that way in the NFL, especially when Mathis missed all of training camp and didn't play football for a good six months. He struggled yesterday. He was flagged for a false start and overall, looked a little in over his head. Give him time.
Yesterday was the first time this unit played together in a meaningful game. They went toe-to-toe with one of the best front sevens in the NFL. And they won the game. The positive to take away is that the unit improved in the fourth quarter, when the chips were down.
Protecting a three-point lead with 13:51 left to go in the game, the Broncos started a drive on their own 4-yard line. They were in the clutch and had performed badly all game long. They needed to milk the clock and get some points.
What followed was an impressive 17-play, 81-yard drive that chewed up 11 minutes on the clock. They were finally able to run the ball, with Ronnie Hillman showing excellent burst and patience.
It only led to three more points, but it put the Ravens in a position where they had to get a touchdown to win the game. With 2:55 left on the clock, Joe Flacco would have to drive down the field and get a touchdown—something that had eluded he and the Ravens offense all day. He failed.
The Broncos O-line is obviously a work in progress. They're playing catch-up, behind the 8-ball. However, with the Kansas City Chiefs next up on the schedule, on a short week, they don't have a lot of time to improve.
Their failure in run blocking and blitz recognition will be addressed early this week. On the road, in a hostile Arrowhead environment, we'll see if this unit can move past the foibles of their first full game together and do a better job of protecting Manning and opening up holes for C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman.
Best In The NFL? You Bet
The Broncos defense played out of their minds yesterday. And it was no fluke. This unit is the best and deepest in the NFL. They held Joe Flacco and the Ravens to just 173 total yards, and just six points. Manning's pick-6 accounted for the other seven.
The pass rush was ferocious and consistent. Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware combined for 17 total QB pressures. Ware finished with a sack, 3 QB hits and 7 hurries, while Miller had 2 hits and 4 hurries. They were relentless.
Pro Football Focus graded Ware out at a ridiculous +10.9, while Miller received a +6.5 cumulative grade. They were both easily the highest rated outside linebackers for Week 1. They looked like new men, and that's saying something, as both players earned a Pro Bowl berth in 2014.
Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan wrecked shop all day long. The Broncos inside linebacker duo accounted for 16 total tackles. They were instrumental in holding the Ravens to just 73 yards rushing. Marshall was his usual play-making self in defending the pass.
Aqib Talib and Chris Harris, Jr. picked up where they left off last year and figure to be the biggest benefactors of the Broncos relentless pass rush. Talib swung the game in Denver's favor with his pick-6 in the second half. Combined they allowed just 38 passing yards in their coverage. Think about that.
David Bruton played well in T.J. Ward's absence. He made two big plays—one on a third down pass deflection and the other on the Ravens last play of the game, where he tipped the ball into the waiting hands of Darian Stewart, who made the game-sealing interception in the endzone.
At every level of the defense, this unit played lights out. They were the deciding factor in the game yesterday. This won't be the last time that the Broncos defense makes game-changing plays that notch a 'W' in the standings.
When the offense sputters, the defense will be there to pick up the slack. And that should put a big smile on the face of every person in Broncos country. Peyton Manning doesn't have to carry this team anymore.
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