The Denver Broncos were given the unenviable task of starting the season against three highly talented defenses. Each week, they found a way to win. It was no different when the Minnesota Vikings came to town yesterday.
The Vikings defense features multiple players with an abundance of youth and ability. Harrison Smith, Pro Football Focus' top-rated safety, Everson Griffen, one of the league's top pass rushers, and Anthony Barr, a multi-tool linebacker with elite ability, make up their core group of young producers.
And that's only scratching the surface.
And yet, the Broncos found a way to put up 344 total yards and 23 points on them. It wasn't easy. The Broncos had to fight for every yard and every point. But again, they emerged victorious with the franchise's eighth 4-0 start. Here are the key insights I took away from the game.
Michael Schofield Deserves To Start
When you're wrong, you're wrong. I've been highly critical of the Broncos for their selection of offensive tackle Michael Schofield. And I've been critical of the player himself.
Former head coach John Fox didn't utilize Schofield as a rookie in 2014. The former Michigan Wolverine didn't dress for a single game. Not playing/developing rookies was a point of contention between Fox and General Manager John Elway and played a role in the decision to send Fox packing.
From the time Gary Kubiak was hired in January, however, we heard nothing but good things about Schofield.
But the former third round pick couldn't crack the first-team offensive line in training camp and was again on the sidelines for the Broncos first three games of the year. But when starting left tackle Ty Sambrailo was held out of the Broncos Week 4 game vs. the Vikings with a shoulder injury, it forced the Broncos hand.
They had to give Schofield a shot. Either that, or start a guy (Tyler Polumbus) who'd only been with the team for two days. Kubiak made the right decision. Schofield started at right tackle, and Ryan Harris moved over to the left side.
Schofield started his first NFL game and he made a difference in the outcome. And last night, I happily ate crow for supper. The Broncos had notoriously failed to run the ball through the first three games of the year, becoming the first team in NFL history to reach 3-0 with out breaking 70 yards rushing.
They needed a spark to get the ground game going. And although Ronnie Hillman should definitely be considered the fire-starter in that regard, Schofield's effort also contributed in a big way.
Schofield finished the game with a +1.3 grade in run blocking via PFF. His -0.6 grade in pass blocking and his penalty are what kept him from grading out positively, as he finished with a cumulative grade of -0.1.
He allowed one of the two sacks on Peyton Manning, but overall, I was impressed with his performance, especially considering that it was not only his first start, but the first regular season snaps of his career.
The Broncos rushed for 144 yards. led by Hillman's 103. They finally got some traction on the ground and they'd be remiss to ignore Schofield's impact. Sambrailo and Harris have each struggled in 2015, though the latter has played more consistently.
When Sambrailo returns from his injury, which could be this week, the Broncos should figure out a way to keep Schofield at right tackle and see if the rushing attack can duplicate their Week 4 results, even if that means sitting Sambrailo, or Harris—probably Harris.
About Ronnie Hillman...
After the game last night, Gary Kubiak made it clear that the Broncos were not going to sit C.J. Anderson and give the lion's share of the rushing workload to Ronnie Hillman. Perhaps he should rethink that approach.
You can explain away Hillman's impact thus far by relating it to being a "change-of-pace" back. But it doesn't hold up. The arguement that Anderson is wearing down the defense, lulling them to sleep in a way, which opens the door to Hillman's speed and quickness, is a flawed one.
With the exception of the road game in Detroit, whenever Hillman has been on the field, the offense, and the rushing attack, have been more explosive. Period. End of story.
That doesn't mean you give up on Anderson, who had a couple of nice runs yesterday. But he could have and should have racked up even more yards. The big boys up front opened up some holes for the 2014 Pro Bowler, but whether it's his vision, or lack of burst, he's just not picking them up.
Hillman is. He's seeing the field, running with patience and when he makes his cut, he explodes dowhill with tremendous burst. It's literally night and day.
It's hard to say what's holding back Anderson. The pressure of success, learning a new system, being banged up, O-line foibles—whatever it is, until he shakes it off, the Broncos are only hurting themselves by not giving the ball to Hillman, who is averaging five yards per carry.
Best Safety Duo In The AFC?
It's hard to argue against Seattle's Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor being the best safety duo in the NFL. I can, however, say with authority that T.J. Ward and Darian Stewart have played like the best safety tandem in the AFC thus far.
Stewart was only targeted once yesterday by Teddy Bridgewater, but he did not relinquish a completion. He finished with 3 combined tackles and a forced fumble. Ward's day was prolific on the stat sheet and on the grid-iron.
He notched two QB takedowns, including the strip-sack that sealed the victory for the Broncos in the clutch. He also contributed 9 combined tackles, two tackles for a loss, a QB hit and a pass defensed.
For their efforts, Ward earned a +1.8 cumulative grade via PFF, while Stewart netted a +2.3. Stewart currently ranks as the No. 3 safety in the NFL, with Ward checking in at 12th place. It should be noted, however, that Stewart has one game on Ward, who was suspended for the opening contest.
These two safeties are making an impact in multiple ways, but the one that jumps out to me most is tackling. These guys not only can tackle in the open field, but they do it with violence and authority. And they're getting their hands on the ball.
Stewart sealed the victory in Week 1 by picking off Joe Flacco in the endzone, in the clutch. Combined, they've gotten their hands on the ball four times through four games.
It's amazing to see how much better Ward plays with a guy like Stewart complimenting him. John Elway is again looking savvy for signing Stewart on the relative cheap. Rahim who?
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