It was a hard-fought game. Towards the end, it felt like neither team wanted to win the game. But the Broncos came out on top in overtime, when Brandon McManus sailed 34-yard field goal through the uprights to seal the victory in overtime.
The Broncos now enter their Week 7 bye undefeated and in total control of the AFC West. Let's get to the key takeaways from the game.
T.J. Ward Overcoming His Weakness In Cleveland
T.J. Ward is considered to be one of the league's most complete safeties. As a strong safety, he's about as complete as they come, with one exception—he struggles covering big, athletic pass-catchers one-on-one.
But he must have been fired up for his homecoming, because he played one of his best games as a Bronco in coverage. It wasn't perfect. He and David Bruton had a miscommunication on tight end Gary Barnidge's second touchdown, but the snafu was more on Bruton.
Ward was targeted six times in coverage, relinquishing three catches for just 19 yards. His biggest pass breakups came on third down, when the Broncos needed them most. For a guy who has traditionally struggled in coverage against athletic tight ends, it was a big step forward and played a big role in the Denver defense's third down success.
“First and foremost it just feels good to get a win," Ward said after the game. "We are 6-0 now and we have a bye week coming up. Playing against Cleveland, where I started my career. It was wonderful. I had a great time, played a great game. It was a great atmosphere to play in.”
Running Game Shows First Real Signs Of Progress
For just the second time this season, the Broncos rushed for more than 100 yards as a team. It was their season high—152 yards. As a team, they rushed for 144 yards in Week 4 vs. Minnesota, but more than half of those yards came on Ronnie Hillman's big 75-yard touchdown run.
Take away that big run, and they only averaged 3.0 yards per carry. However, in Week 6, the Broncos were able to run the ball consistently throughout the game, led by Hillman's 111 yards. As a team, the Broncos averaged 4.6 YPC in Cleveland—a very healthy margin.
In my 3 Keys To Victory last Friday, I said that if the Broncos couldn't run the ball against one of the worst rushing defenses in the NFL, there wouldn't be much hope of them ever turning it around. The Broncos O-line was far from perfect, but as a unit, they were cohesive.
And they didn't allow a sack on Peyton Manning for the first time all year. Gary Kubiak stuck to his plan of rotating Ryan Harris and Tyler Polumbus at left tackle—sort of. It was more like Polumbus spelled Harris. Harris played 78 snaps, while Polumbus saw six.
While Ty Sambrailo has been out, the O-line has played their best ball with Harris at LT and Michael Schofield at RT. The bye should bring the opportunity for Sambrailo to get fully healthy with his shoulder. It'll be interesting to see what starting lineup they roll out in Week 8 at home vs. the Packers.
As for the running back position, Hillman is the clear No. 1. Anderson played his best game of the season mostly spelling Hillman in Cleveland. Hillman's patience, speed and burst are getting the Broncos yards that Anderson simply can't, with the way the O-line is blocking. Overall, the rushing attack showed signs of progress in Week 6.
What's Eating Demaryius Thomas?
On paper, the $16 million man had a great game in Cleveland. He caught 10 balls for 111 yards. But he was targeted 17 times. And he dropped two passes in crucial situations when the Broncos needed them most.
Thomas has only failed to go over 90 yards receiving in a game twice this year. But between Peyton Manning's struggles and the overall ineptitude of the Bronco passing game, Thomas has yet to really blow the doors down. His biggest play came in Week 3 in Detroit, when he caught a 45-yard touchdown from Manning.
It was Thomas' only score of the season. Something has seemed to be missing from Thomas in 2015—something mental, perhaps. He's not necessarily dropping passes at an alarming rate, it's more about when he's dropping them. Could it have something to do with the hangover that comes from getting paid?
After a lengthy holdout, Thomas inked a five-year, $70 million deal this summer, with $43.5 million guaranteed. His struggles in 2015 could have something to do with being absent from all of the Broncos offseason training activities and most of training camp—all while the Broncos were installing their new offense.
Whatever the root cause is, Thomas is being paid like an elite receiver. And elite receivers don't drop balls that hit them in the numbers in the clutch. I'm not going to sell him short, because last year he got off to a slow start, before going on a seven-game streak of at least 100 yards receiving—a franchise record.
When asked point blank about his dropped passes in Cleveland, Thomas could offer no insight.
“I have no idea," Thomas said. "I have to figure something out. I’m not playing my best right now. I take the blame for that. The first one I took my eyes off of the ball, knowing I have to keep my eyes on the ball as a receiver. It happens but they were too easy of a pass to drop. I take the blame. I have to be better.”
Thomas will get two weeks to figure out what's gone wrong and fix it.
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