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Denver Broncos: Peyton Manning and WRs Struggling to Convert in the Red Zone

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Denver Broncos: Peyton Manning and WRs Struggling to Convert in the Red Zone
Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

Outside of a few miscues, a tipped ball here or there that has led to a pick or an airmailed pass, Peyton Manning has shown off his masterful ability to march the offense down the field with ease and authority. In the second game of the preseason, the Denver Broncos were marching on against the Seattle Seahawks in the no-huddle offense with the clock dwindling.

This is why the Broncos gambled on Manning.

Manning is one of the best when it comes to two-minute offense drills, and he has been doing it for years. He can kick it into gear even after the last two drives ended in a fumble, then an interception. Starting from their own 20-yard line, Manning marched the Broncos 70 yards to just inside the Seahawks’ 10-yard line.

Next, the tracks started falling off. Center J.D. Walton made a bonehead mistake, shoving Seattle’s defensive lineman, Alan Branch, giving the Broncos an unnecessary roughness flag and a 1st-and-goal from the 21-yard line. The first pass to Eric Decker was incomplete. A 13-yard reception by Jacob Tamme put the Broncos in a perfect spot to increase the lead going into halftime with about 10 seconds on the clock. The Broncos called timeout to set up for one last play in the second quarter. Tamme was in the end zone wide open and missed the touchdown.

It was another missed opportunity in the red zone for the Broncos in the second straight preseason game.

Against the Chicago Bears, the Broncos had two opportunities to put six on the board in Manning’s only drive in Chicago. Against the Bears, Manning floated the perfect touch pass over coverage into Demaryius Thomas’ range that he couldn’t pick up and went out of the end zone as an incomplete pass. The next pass was to longtime friend Brandon Stokley. While the ball was a bit behind Stokley, he got his hands on the ball and it was tipped up and away into the diving arms of Major Wright for Chicago.

Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

In the two preseason games, the Broncos have had three red-zone scoring opportunities. The Broncos have been moderately successful in turning those chances into points but have definitely left some of those points on the field. The Broncos' lone touchdown in those drives came off of four consecutive Willis McGahee runs starting at the Broncos’ 16-yard line late in the first quarter of the Seahawks game.

While it is unrealistic to think that the Broncos turn every red-zone chance into a touchdown, most of the struggles have been a result of dropped balls or tip drills that landed in the hands of opponents. Manning has been playing at a great level despite having three interceptions in two games. He has made a couple bad passes and had some bad luck as well. In the red zone, however, he has put the ball on the money.

After the game, Manning was upset that the team couldn’t finish off the drive right before the end of the half.

"You just want to finish. It's frustrating not to be able to finish," Manning said via Lindsay Jones, The Denver Post. "You've just got to be able to protect the ball better. I don't make any excuses."

Tamme was also frustrated with the outcome at the end of the half. He knows he needs to have those receptions and it is prompting him to continue to work and get the rhythm and timing down.

"It's not acceptable," Tamme said, via The Denver Post article. "Something I really pride myself a lot in is catching everything near me. So, it's just very upsetting to me. It's something I can learn from. I'll go back to work. It's disappointing because it hurt our team."

The wide receivers and tight ends around Manning have to do better. They have to make the catches, especially in the end zone when a ball is delivered where only they can get it.

Dropped balls have been a problem in recent history no matter who has been in at quarterback. The Broncos were third worst in the league last season with 28 dropped balls in 429 passing attempts. That is 6.5 percent of passes that were “dropped” by receivers; not errant quarterback passes, but rather drops by receivers that were considered catchable.

Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

Having Manning under center does immediately improve everyone on the offense, especially receivers. But outside of slot receivers Stokley and Andre Caldwell, who seem to be like secondary or tertiary targets for Manning, and tight ends that will see lots of looks in the short game, most of Denver’s receivers remain unchanged from 2011.

The Broncos’ top two targets, Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas, both were near the top of the list put together by ProFootballFocus.com as some of the receivers with the most drops in the league in 2011. The site has Decker as eighth worst with 53 catchable passes and only 44 receptions and nine drops for a drop rate of 16.98 percent. Thomas isn’t far behind at 15th worst with 37 catchable passes, 32 receptions and five drops for a drop rate of 13.51 percent.

Tim Tebow’s struggles last year may have hid some of Decker's and Thomas’ flaws in 2011. However, having a time-tested veteran like Manning gunning the football in 2012 will be a different story. The duo must improve at turning catchable passes into receptions or else the Broncos will be settling for field goals a lot in 2012.

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