Broncos Hang On To Beat Vikings 23-20

The Broncos ground game finally came alive, leading the way to a 23-20 victory over the Vikings. MHH Publisher Chad Jensen reports.

Two NFC North teams up, two down. On a gorgeous fall afteroon in the Rocky Mountains, the Denver Broncos defeated the Minnesota Vikings 23-20. After earning the ignoble designation of becoming the first team in NFL history to start 3-0, while failing to rush for at least 70 yards in a game, the Broncos running game finally came to life. 

Sparked by a Ronnie Hillman 72-yard touchdown run, the league's longest rushing score of the young 2015 season, the Broncos finally found their groove on the ground. They would finish the day with 144 yards rushing as a team. Every inch was well-earned against a stout Vikings defense. 

Although C.J. Anderson again started the game, it was Hillman who breathed life into the Broncos rushing attack. In three out of the four games thus far, Hillman has been the runner to provide a spark on the ground. Even today, after Hillman scored the Broncos first touchdown of the day, head coach Gary Kubiak stuck with Anderson. 

Can we expect HIllman to take on the lead-back role next week?

"No, we'll keep going," Kubiak said after the game. "We're going to play them both. I think they were pretty much split down the middle carrying the football. Obviously, Ronnie's big play is a huge play. I think they both improved over the course of this past week.."

Anderson would finish the game with 11 carries for 43 yards—easily his best performance of the season. Compared to HIllman's stat-line—11 carries for 103 yards and a score—it was pedestrian. They both carried the ball 11 times, but Hillman came out ahead with the third 100-yard rushing game of his career. 

What is separating these two runners? In a word—vision. 

Hillman is seeing the field better. He's showing better patience and burst to hit the hole. Anderson had a couple opportunities to gain some big yards today, after the Broncos offensive line opened up a hole, but he didn't see it in time—and if he had, he hasn't shown the burst to break through it before it closes. 

The Broncos O-line faced a daunting shake up to their starting lineup today, as left tackle Ty Sambrailo was inactive with a shoulder injury. But they overcame it and paved the way for a nice day on the ground. Ryan Harris slid over from the right side to start in his place, while Michael Schofield held down the fort at right tackle. Schofield played well and contributed key blocks on a couple of nice runs.

“I felt like we really responded," Harris said after the game. "We accepted the challenge. We got running the ball today. We ran the ball in key situations. We had a rushing touchdown of over 50 yards. So, anytime you do those things, it’s great to be able to do those against a very good team like Minnesota.”

Because of the shakeup, it's hard to say whether the improvements we saw today from the O-line will be lasting. Peyton Manning was sacked twice and the Vikings were able to put consitent pressure on him. Considering that they were under the gun, however, the Broncos are likely satisfied with the O-line's performance. 

An effective running game led to a few nice plays for Manning downfield. In my 3 Keys To Victory piece on Friday, I talked about capitalizing on shots downfield. Although the Broncos didn't have any scoring plays deep, Manning was successful in hitting Demaryius Thomas on a few downfield plays, and Emmanuel Sanders got in on the action with a 43-yard catch-and-run in the third quarter. 

It loosened up the Vikings front seven, allowing the Broncos more room to run in the trenches. That's why Kubiak is so focused on getting the ground game going. It's symbiotic with the passing game. Both phases rely on the other in order to be a truly effective offense.

Manning did struggle some today. He finished 17-of-27 for 213 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. Both of his picks were bad—just terrible throws/decisions. His first was a throw to Andre Caldwell in the left flat, where he completely failed to see linebacker Anthony Barr. Manning is lucky it wasn't a pick-6. 

His second interception was a badly overthrown ball to Thomas that floated over his target's head and directly into the waiting arms of safety Harrison Smith. The second interception was a back-breaker though. The Broncos defense, who had played well for most of the game, just came off the field, after allowing a nine-play, 97-yard touchdown drive. They were tired, but still had a three-point lead. 

Manning promptly threw the pick to Harrison on the ensuing drive, giving Teddy Bridgewater the ball on the Vikings 47-yard line. The Broncos defense came back out on the field when it needed a breather most. At home, in nice conditions, and with an effecitve running game, Manning has to be better than that. 

For most of the game, the Broncos bottled up Adrian Peterson, keeping him below 50 yards rushing. But on that 97-yard fourth quarter scoring drive, the Vikings had a fourth-and-1 from the Broncos 48-yard line. The give was to Peterson, who found a backside crease and took it to the house. 

Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips stacked the box and the Vikings blocked it well. Peterson ultimately broke loose, but the Broncos put a big kink in the VIkings game-plan by bottling him up for three quarters. Again the Broncos terrorized and harrassed the quarterback, notching another seven sacks. 

Safety T.J. Ward led the way with two sacks, including the play that sealed the win for the Broncos, stripping Bridgewater of the ball, which was recovered by Von Miller. Protecting a three-point lead with just under two minutes to play, the defense not only needed to make a stop, they needed to make a big play. 

“They had a stack alignment," Ward said. "We had been playing a lot of man coverage so I tried to show that to [TE Kyle] Rudolph and at the last minute I tried to move outside and came around the edge and the tackle missed me, so I snuck up under there an got to [QB Teddy] Bridgewater.”

For the first time this season, they had failed to force a turnover through more than 59 minutes. But truly special defenses rise to the occasion when the chips are down and the Broncos certainly did that today. It wasn't their best game as a unit. Bridgewater had success targeting all three of the Broncos corners. 

Chris Harris, Jr., in particular, had a rough game, matched up against Mike Wallace. Nevertheless, the Broncos, as a team, found a way to win this one. That's been the theme of the Broncos season thus far. Each and every game has been a team win. All three phases contributed today. That's the mark of a team built to last. 

The Denver Broncos are 4-0. Next up, they'll travel to take on Jack Del Rio's Oakland Raiders, who are coming off a road loss to the Chicago Bears.

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Chad Jensen is the Publisher of Mile High Huddle. You can find him on Twitter @ChadNJensen and on Google+

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