A lightning storm delayed the start of the NFL season, as fans were forced to wait 33 extra minutes before they got to see the game begin. It turned out to be quite fitting, because when the game finally kicked off, we saw an electric Broncos offense led by Peyton Manning.
It was a record-setting night for the Broncos, as Manning threw seven touchdowns against the Baltimore Ravens. He was simply on fire in the second half, and the Ravens' defense had no answer for the future Hall of Fame quarterback.
The Ravens' 49-27 loss to the Broncos was the worst by a defending Super Bowl champion in a season opener in NFL history.
We learned quite a bit about what to expect from the Broncos going forward in 2013. We saw an unstoppable passing game, an effective pass rush without Von Miller and a tight end who could be a superstar.
The Broncos also gave us a little more clarity at the running back position, and they also answered some questions about their secondary depth.
It was an incredible game to watch, and we could certainly have more 40-point games in the future for the Broncos.
Here are 10 things we learned from the Denver Bronco's season-opening victory.
We all knew the Broncos' passing game was going to be stronger with the addition of Wes Welker, but nobody was expecting Peyton Manning to throw seven touchdowns on Thursday night.
It was an absolutely stunning performance by Manning, and it was one that proved he's still at the top of his game. The Broncos have so many options in the passing game that it's difficult for a defense to decide which player to focus on.
If teams bracket cover Demaryius Thomas, then Wes Welker and Eric Decker will have single coverage. If defenses choose to bracket Welker, then Thomas and Decker will be open. There's no way for a defense to commit five players to stopping three guys.
Throw in tight end Julius Thomas, who broke out with two touchdowns last night, and you can really see why stopping the Broncos' passing game is so difficult.
Broncos fans know this passing game could be the best in the league, as evidenced by this tweet that I received from a fan this morning:
We'll see the Broncos have a heavy passing ration in 2013. They want to have a bit more balance, but at the end of the day, it's the passing game that makes this offense hum.
This performance only furthers my belief that Manning will throw for over 5,000 yards this season.
Before the start of the game, the Broncos had Ronnie Hillman at the top of the depth chart. However, when the game kicked off, it was Knowshon Moreno in the starting lineup.
Moreno has more experience than either Hillman or rookie Montee Ball, and he is also the best in terms of pass protection out of the three. Facing a fierce Ravens pass rush, the Broncos needed to insure that quarterback Peyton Manning stayed upright.
However, after the game head coach John Fox didn't give us any more clarity on the running back depth chart going forward:
He’s [Moreno] a guy that has a little bit more experience. We have some youth at that position. It does not mean anything as far as where they are on the depth chart or any of that. In our mind we have three starting backs. But Knowshon is a little bit more seasoned, but the other guys played well.
I talked to Moreno after the game, and he seemed humble and focused on the job at hand. This new focus for Moreno has impressed the coaching staff, and he's clearly the back they trust the most.
He could continue to get a majority of snaps at the running back position if Hillman or Ball don't start cleaning up their weaknesses.
In the second-round of the 2013 NFL draft, the Denver Broncos selected Montee Ball out of the University of Wisconsin. At the time, many Broncos fans thought that the team had found their next Terrell Davis, but that's simply not the case.
Ball has struggled to impress as a runner and instead looks more capable than flashy. He looks good as a receiver out of the backfield, but there is one serious flaw to his game: the rookie struggles to understand blitz packages and is not good at pass protection yet. Until he gets that down, we'll continue to see his touches limited.
On Thursday night Ball finished with eight carries for only 24 yards rushing. After the game, he still felt good about his performance, via Broncos.com:
I felt good, I think Coach made a great decision starting a veteran (Knowshon Moreno) who has played against the Ravens before so he understands the speed of the game and what they’re capable of doing. It’s a process, I have watch film and get better and be there for my team.
Ball can be a grinder between the tackles. He's not a big-play back, but he can wear down a defense late in a game to take time off the clock. If Ball proves he can protect Peyton Manning, then his role should increase throughout the season.
Wes Welker came out against the Ravens and looked great, as he hauled in nine catches for 67 yards and two touchdowns on 11 targets.
He is on pace to catch 144 passes this season. Obviously, Welker would be hard pressed to reach that number, but 100 catches is certainly not out of the question.
To reach 100 catches this season, Welker would have to average around six grabs per game, and that number is certainly doable.
Peyton Manning had nothing but great things to say about Welker after the game and gave us some insight into what makes the All-Pro receiver tick:
I’m glad he’s on our team. He’s put a lot of time in this offseason and thought it was a great job of him kind of putting that tough play behind him. There’s nobody more competitive than Wes. He was disappointed, but that play was over and he did a good job catching two touchdowns after that.
Broncos fans know they're witnessing something special emerge between the two, as evidenced by this tweet from Martyn Richmond:
@cecillammey ..and for the Broncos - PFM - kid in a sweet shop (candy store). Secondary came up big.— Martyn Richmond (@martynrich) September 6, 2013
I originally projected Welker to finish the season with 85 catches. I'm now going to have to amend that number after his week 1 performance.
There's no doubt that Demaryius Thomas is the favorite target for quarterback Peyton Manning. He started off the game slowly but turned in a big second-half performance.
Thomas finished the game with five catches for 161 yards and two touchdowns, as the Ravens found it difficult to stop the superstar receiver on short or deep passes.
Thomas was simply in the zone and his quarterback noticed. After the game Manning commented on what he saw from Thomas:
Demaryius, we caught them in a blitz. Both of those, he caught them in a blitz. If you get it in his hands and he finds a seam, it is night night. It’s a pretty thing to watch as a quarterback, watching him hit that seam there and take that the distance. Any way to get the ball in those guys hands, that’s what Adam’s trying to do. We’re going to need those guys to make plays for us all season long.
Broncos fans love what they have in not only Thomas but the trio of starting wide receivers that Denver has, as noted in this tweet from Jay Skillman:
When Manning is in trouble, he looks for Thomas. Opposing teams are going to be scared to blitz the Broncos due to the fear of a big play from the superstar receiver. Expect the connection between Thomas and Manning to put up big numbers in 2013.
Photo Courtesy Andy Lindahl 850 KOA
A big part of the Broncos' passing game this year is going to be third-year tight end Julius Thomas. He proved to be an emerging playmaker on Thursday night.
Thomas finished the game with five catches for 110 yards and two touchdowns. He was taking advantage of a Ravens defense who failed to adjust to his skill set.
Coming out of Portland State in 2011, Thomas was a raw player with only one year of college football experience. He missed most of the last two years because of an ankle injury and subsequent surgery.
Now that he's finally healthy, we're seeing why some in the scouting community thought he could be the next Antonio Gates.
After the game quarterback Peyton Manning opined on how opponents may begin to pay more attention to Thomas in the future, via Broncos.com:
It would be an interesting question. I am not sure how they will answer it, or if they will, but it will be interesting to see how teams play Julius (Thomas) all season. He is a big guy, he definitely will make teams have a conversation, and that is what you want. You want guys that make teams have a discussion. ‘How are we going to handle this guy?’ He’s a big guy. First play of the game, he ran a seam route, he didn’t do it exactly how he was coached to do it, and that guy put a pretty good hit on him and he got right back up and hung in there did not have to come out and made a couple big plays. And like I said, that out route on the left sideline where he made the guy miss, that was really a huge play. They had some momentum and I think we just had the penalty and we were kind of on our heels a little bit. That was a great job answering with the score there. A lot of credit goes to Julius there.
Fans are incredibly fired up by what they saw from Thomas on Thursday night:
It's pick your poison when facing the Broncos. Defenses can't stop all the weapons on this offense, and Thomas is poised to continue his breakout season.
Peyton Manning stayed well protected on Thursday night. The Ravens defense was getting to him on certain plays, but they did not harass Manning the way some had expected they would.
The Broncos allowed three sacks on the night, but one of those was because of a missed block by tight end Julius Thomas. Manning was also hit seven times.
Ryan Clady was his usual self, but he did allow a rare sack early in the game. Zane Beadles did a good job of stuffing his man, but he had trouble sustaining a block at times.
Manny Ramirez is the much maligned center for the Broncos, but I thought he had a decent performance against a stout defensive line. He was helped out on the interior by Louis Vasquez. Right tackle Orlando Franklin held up well for the most part as well.
In the end, this was a good sign for the Broncos, especially the play of Ramirez. Protecting Peyton Manning is the most important factor for the Denver Broncos. If they do that properly, then we could see this team win at least 10 games in 2013.
The Broncos' pass rush was more productive than some expected on Thursday night. Without Von Miller in the lineup, many were doubting if the Broncos could generate a solid pass rush.
The Broncos had four sacks on Thursday night without Miller. They had just one sack in 100 snaps last season with Miller off the field.
We saw Shaun Phillips end the contest with 2.5 sacks, and he seemed to be a constant thorn in the side of Joe Flacco in the second half. After the game Phillips explained why he was so fired up, via Broncos.com:
First, I want to thank the secondary, those guys get out there and do a good job which allowed me the opportunity to get some sacks. Another thing was, I took it personal that everyone was like, ‘Oh what are we going to do about the pass rush,’ but I’ve had like 70 sacks in my career. What am I some bum or something like that? I took it a little personal, but again, it’s one game and I’m going to enjoy it. I’m going to thank my teammates first because without them I wouldn’t make a play at all.
Robert Ayers and Wesley Woodyard also contributed to the pass rush on Thursday night. When the Ravens had to play from behind, we really saw the Broncos defense take advantage.
Head coach John Fox seemed pleased with the results. After the game he answered a question about the team's pass rush, via Broncos.com:
Again, without watching the tape, I thought it was good at times. It’s never good enough – that’s just how it is. But I thought they responded pretty well. I think we’ll just improve as we go with the people that played tonight.
After the game, I asked Broncos fans on Twitter about their thoughts on the game, and received these tweets from Timothy Horne and Matt Meyer:
Clearly, Broncos fans are excited about the pass-rushers not named Von Miller. This team looks like they're going to be fine without Miller in the lineup.
The Broncos have an emerging star with second-year strong safety Duke Ihenacho. He had a fantastic performance in what was his first career start.
I was able to interview Ihenacho after the game and he told me about his emotions on the night: "I feel like I worked hard to deserve a chance to start."
Ihenacho is always looking for the big hit. He plays close to the line of scrimmage and examines the offense, looking to make an impact play.
Most big hitters aren't wrap-up tacklers, but that's not the case with Ihenacho. He is a disciplined player who does a good job at wrapping up an opponent and bringing them to the ground.
His big hits get noticed by the opposition. In fact, players will start to hear footsteps once they've been pummeled by Ihenacho. This leads to dropped passes, tipped passes or interceptions.
Ihenacho finished the night with 12 total tackles, 11 solo tackles, three passes defended and one tackle for a loss. It was a great start for the young defender.
Champ Bailey missed the season opener against the Baltimore Ravens due to a foot injury, and many were wondering how the team would respond without their leader in the secondary.
The Broncos made a statement by handling what the Ravens' passing game threw at them. Flacco had gone 210 passing attempts since throwing an interception in December 2012 against the Broncos. On Thursday, night Flacco was picked off twice.
The Ravens also failed to have a 100-yard receiver on the night. Torrey Smith was the team's leading receiver with four catches for 92 yards and zero touchdowns.
Fans were excited and encouraged by what they saw from the secondary, particularly Charles Tolen:
— Charles Tolen (@CharlesTolen) September 6, 2013
Most expect Bailey to come back for the Week 2 game against the New York Giants. We know the Broncos will have no need to rush him back from his foot injury with the way this secondary played in the opener.