Duke Ihenacho showed why the Broncos made him one of the starting safeties.
Lost in quarterback Peyton Manning's incredible seven-touchdown performance on Thursday night in Denver was the stellar play of the defense—especially the secondary minus Champ Bailey. It was also a defense without linebacker Von Miller.
Subtract the touchdown that was basically the result of wide receiver Wes Welker's muffed punt inside the 5-yard line, 10 garbage-time points and linebacker Danny Trevathan's touchback that should have been a touchdown if he didn't drop it before crossing the goal line and Denver's defense was just minus-three on the night.
Early on, it appeared as though the Broncos would miss Miller as a pass-rusher as Joe Flacco had all kinds of time in the pocket. Flacco marched the Ravens down the field for a touchdown on their second drive of the game, and it looked like the Broncos could be in trouble, but the defense clamped down.
The only reason Manning had enough opportunities to throw seven touchdown passes was because the defense was continually putting the ball back into his hands. Give Manning enough opportunities and he will make plays, just as he did on Thursday night.
Cornerback Chris Harris—starting for the injured Bailey—sparked the defensive turnaround in the second quarter. The Ravens were up, 7-0, with the ball and facing a 3rd-and-9 when Harris intercepted a pass intended for Brandon Stokley. Manning hit tight end Julius Thomas for a 24-yard touchdown on the very next play to tie the game.
The play of linebacker Wesley Woodyard and safety Duke Ihenacho helped the Broncos stall the next Ravens drive, but Welker's muffed punt and a nicely executed one-yard power run by the Ravens put them up, 14-7.
After Manning and the offense responded with another touchdown drive, the Broncos forced a three-and-out before yielding a field goal at the the end of the half. Ihenacho and defensive end Derek Wolfe ensured the Ravens didn't get a touchdown, and rookie cornerback Kayvon Webster filled in admirably for Harris on the drive.
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie locked down wide receiver Torrey Smith, who, by this point, was the only credible receiver the Ravens had on the field. Linebacker Danny Trevathan also made his presence felt, but the pass rush didn't join the party in the second half.
The front seven was, perhaps, more focused on shutting down the Ravens' ground game while the game was close. Rice and Bernard Pierce couldn't get anything going and finished with just 58 yards rushing on 21 carries, which is just 2.8 yards per attempt. Most of those attempts came in the first half.
Manning led the Broncos to another touchdown to start the second half to put the Broncos ahead for good. From there, the pass rush started to come alive. Nate Irving stuffed a run for a short loss on first down, and after an incomplete pass on second down, Shaun Phillips got the first of his 2.5 sacks.
As I had called on Twitter earlier in the game, Ravens' punter Sam Koch had his punt blocked by the Broncos. Koch's approach was so slow that a block was inevitable.
Koch's release is so slow the Broncos should have a chance to block it at some point.— Christopher Hansen (@ChrisHansenNFL) September 6, 2013
Manning capitalized with another touchdown pass, his fourth of the night to put the Broncos up, 28-17. With a two-score lead, the pass rush got going, and the linebackers started sitting on Flacco's short passes.
The Broncos forced three-and-outs on the next two drives with Manning's fifth touchdown pass sandwiched in-between. A handful of defenders contributed, including Woodyard, Ihenacho, Wolfe and Terrance Knighton. Rodgers-Cromartie continued to shut down Smith, and Flacco had no choice but to target his other receivers, who couldn't catch a cold if they were sneezed on at a preschool.
After the defense forced another three-and-out after Manning's sixth touchdown pass, Trevathan jumped a Flacco pass for and returned it for a the would-be touchdown, expect he made the mistake of dropping the ball before going into the end zone.
It was a good defensive play that went horribly wrong, and Trevathan will learn from it. It's a play that stings a lot less in a blowout win.
After that, the Broncos allowed 10 points on two drives in the fourth quarter. Coaches probably won't be too concerned with those lapses because it's pretty natural to let up and play more conservatively with a huge lead.
Just to make sure the Ravens couldn't make a comeback, Manning hit wide receiver Demaryius Thomas for 78 yards for his seventh, and record-tying, touchdown pass of the game. Manning was magnificent on the night, but he couldn't have done it without a great defensive effort.
The secondary was strong from start to finish, and the rest of the defense got into it as the game progressed. A team with the weapons to exploit the lack of pass rush might give the Broncos some trouble in the future, but I'm sure the Broncos will try to address that in the coming weeks.
It can't hurt to get Bailey back from injury, which would create more blitz opportunities. The Broncos only have to survive five more games without Miller, who is one of the best pass-rushers in the league.
It's certainly a lot easier to defend when Manning plays like he did on Thursday night. Manning is the big story, but it was the defense that made his performance possible—and the Broncos did it without their two biggest stars.