Denver Broncos vs. Atlanta Falcons: 6 Things We Learned from Denver's Loss
Quite simply put, the Denver Broncos put themselves in a large hole from the very beginning, though it was nice to actually see them make the score look respectable by the end of the game, in losing 27-21 to the Atlanta Falcons in front of a raucous crowd at the Georgia Dome.
The Broncos turned the ball over four times in the first quarter alone, becoming the first NFL team since 2002 to accomplish such an unwanted feat. Peyton Manning threw three interceptions in the first quarter on Denver's first three drives, all three pass attempts were downfield over the seam.
The Broncos struggled all night against Mike Nolan's Atlanta defense and just couldn't muster up enough to overcome an early 20-point deficit that they put themselves in during the first half.
What did we learn about the Denver Broncos on Monday night? We learned many things.
Peyton Manning Is Human
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Manning threw three interceptions on Denver's first three drives, all of which occurred in the first quarter alone.
At one point in time, Peyton was 6-of-10 for 45 yards and three interceptions.
Here was the problem with Peyton's performance. Manning—in playing in his first away game in nearly two full years—looked anxious, nervous and out of his element.
He forced throws. From the onset, he was too eager to move the Broncos down the field. He just did not look like the usual Peyton.
From the opening whistle of the game, Manning looked as if he was on a mission to prove to himself and everybody out there that the old Peyton was indeed back. He looked as if he was in a game against not only the Falcons defense but the loud Georgia Dome crowd.
The three interceptions that Manning threw were all eerily similar. They were over the seam, at least 20-30 yards down the field and tended to be picked off by safeties playing in deep zone coverage.
I talked about Manning not showing off his deep passes in the victory over Pittsburgh last week and that being a little bit of a concern.
Manning should have stuck to the game plan of last week and moved the Broncos down the field with what the defense gave him.
He did not start doing that until late in the second quarter, and what do you know? For the rest of the game, he didn't turn the ball over, leading the Broncos to three touchdown drives.
This was a learning experience in Manning's return to the NFL. When the Broncos face the Texans next week, Manning won't make the same mistakes that he made tonight in Atlanta.
The Broncos Run Defense Just Might Be for Real
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It kind of shocks me to say this, as in my opinion, the Broncos' run defense was the biggest concern of mine entering the season with the loss of Brodrick Bunkley through free agency.
Well, here's the good news—the Broncos' run defense has actually been one of the brightest spots of this team through two weeks of the season.
They held the Steelers' rushing attack to under three yards a carry last week. Tonight, the Broncos held the Falcons to 2.4 yards per carry, despite Atlanta repeatedly making an effort to establish the running game. The Falcons ran the football 28 times for a collective total of 67 rushing yards.
Michael Turner had 17 carries for 42 yards.
Even with DT Ty Warren now out for the season, Kevin Vickerson filled in for him, and the Broncos didn't lose a beat.
The Broncos face their toughest test yet with Arian Foster next week, so we'll see how Vickerson, Justin Bannah and the rest of the Broncos D holds up against 2010's rushing leader.
Knowshon Moreno Was a No-Show
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Yes, the Broncos had much bigger problems than Knowshon Moreno tonight.
But, I couldn't help but notice that every time Moreno took a step on the field on running plays, the Broncos offense got stagnant—every time.
Moreno only ran the ball three times for two yards, but he had a costly fumble on a run that was going nowhere. He was trying to gain extra yardage as he was nailed from behind, and the ball came out with two seconds remaining in the first quarter.
This was a costly fumble because the Broncos were inside the Atlanta 40-yard line threatening to score for the first time.
I've said this countless times before, and I'll say it again—Moreno simply stagnates the offense when he runs the football. He is a good threat when it pertains to receiving the football, and he's solid in pass protection.
But when it comes to running the football, he simply doesn't offer the Broncos anything positive.
The Broncos Offense Is Still Growing
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The Broncos, as a team, had 10 penalties for 97 yards on Monday night.
A lot of those penalties came as a result of false-start or holding penalties by the offense.
It's been said before, and it was said again numerous times by commentator Jon Gruden on Monday night—the Broncos offense is still learning the signals and terms that Manning has incorporated into the offense.
The lack of experience playing together showed in the away game in Atlanta tonight.
The Broncos, as an offense and as a team, are still growing. The Broncos may not be a Super Bowl team right now, but as evidenced by their victory last week over Pittsburgh and their resiliency in nearly coming back to defeat the Falcons, the Broncos have a lot of time to fulfill their potential of being legit Super Bowl contenders.
The Broncos' Nickel Defense Was Abused
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The Broncos played in the nickel 3-3-5 defense for much of Monday night, meaning they played with three down lineman, three linebackers, and five defensive backs.
Normal nickel corner back Chris Harris did not play, taking his place was Tony Carter.
The Broncos played with the extra defensive back for nearly the entire night, as Atlanta's passing game—not it's running game—continued to set the tempo and put the Broncos on their heels. Atlanta frequently lined up in three receiver sets with Roddy White, Julio Jones and Harry Douglas—not to mention tight end Tony Gonzalez.
Because of the four legit receiving threats that Atlanta had, the Broncos saw that their only chance of stopping the Falcons would be to line up in the nickel defense formation with an extra defensive back to offset Atlanta's plethora of talent.
It didn't work for many reasons.
The Broncos couldn't generate a serious pass rush. Von Miller did get an important sack in the fourth quarter to force Atlanta to punt for the last time, and Miller did frequently get close to Ryan. Outside of Miller, however, none of the other Broncos were to be found as far as generating a pass rush on Ryan.
Elvis Dumervil got shut down by left tackle Sam Baker. Dumervil was never a factor in this game. Because the Broncos were constantly on their heels not only because of Manning's turnovers but because of Ryan's passing prowess, Joe Mays and Wesley Woodyard didn't do anything.
They didn't generate pressure on Ryan on the pass rush, and they were repeatedly beat over the middle of the field for important first downs.
If there ever was a game exposing Mays' and Woodyards' weaknesses as linebackers, it was this game.
As good as the run defense was, the pass defense simply could not stop Ryan and his quartet of receivers.
Do I believe this game was indicative of Denver's defense? Not necessarily. Do I believe Denver's defense is better than what we saw on Monday night? Yes. Do I believe that this game was indicative of Denver's defensive level at the moment against top-tier passing attacks? Yes.
The Broncos struggled against Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady last year. They struggled against Matt Ryan, and perhaps, the best receiving core in the NFL. This defense struggles against elite passing attacks, and until they prove they can show resistance in winning efforts against top-tier quarterbacks, the Broncos will never go far in the postseason.
Thankfully, the Broncos still have 14 games left to solve this problem.
The Denver Broncos Lacked Poise
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Peyton Manning lacked poise. Denver's offensive line lacked poise. Hell, John Fox lacked poise.
In the NFL, you're given two challenges per game. The Broncos had already burned both of their challenges before the end of the first half.
The first challenge was a good challenge because the Broncos were challenging the pass-interference call on Tony Carter. Mike Adams had tipped the ball as Carter was making contact with the receiver whom he was covering. The Broncos ended up winning this challenge.
The second one was a little ridiculous. The Broncos were challenging a "12 Men on the Field" call. Not only was Fox wrong, because the Broncos did have 12 men on the field, but it was a ridiculous challenge because had the Broncos won the challenge, the Falcons would have only moved back five yards, having already been in the red zone.
What does this mean? It means it would have been 1st-and-10 instead of 1st-and-5.
Did this challenge really end up costing the Broncos at the end of the game? Not really. The Broncos should have lost this game, despite bad officiating by the referees for much of the game, purely based upon the way that they played from the onset.
The reason I bring up Fox's second challenge is because it showed the Broncos' frustration. It was indicative of Denver's performance seemingly the entire night. It was indicative of Denver's lack of poise.
The Broncos were eager and anxious to win this big Monday night matchup with the Falcons in Atlanta. The problem was they were so eager, and they started playing out of their element.
Whether that was Manning forcing throws that he never forces, whether that was Moreno trying to gain an extra yard on a dead running play that resulted in a fumble, whether that was the offensive line and the receivers repeatedly committing false-start penalties or whether that was John Fox wasting a challenge in challenging a penalty in which he believed he was right.
He was frustrated at his team's performance and the replacement referees' inability to properly officiate the game on a penalty call that was the difference between a pointless first-and-ten and a first-and-five.
The Denver Broncos simply lacked poise as a team on Monday night.
That is what cost them the game.