The Denver Broncos lost for the first time this year, 39-33 to the Indianapolis Colts in Week 7. Their regular-season winning streak (and franchise record) ends at 17 straight, and their road streak (also a franchise record) ends at eight.
The Broncos are now left to pick up the pieces, learn from their mistakes and go back to the drawing board.
Denver's struggles were in all three phases of the game (offense, defense, special teams). There’s plenty to work on and one more week to go before the team gets some time off during its Week 9 bye.
The offense struggled to find a rhythm, and seven drives ended with a punt. This ties a season high, matched only in the Week 1 game against the Ravens.
Peyton Manning was under what seemed like constant pressure. He still finished the game with 386 yards passing, three passing touchdowns and one interception. This performance against the Colts marked Manning’s 78th career game with 300 yards passing.
Knowshon Moreno was once again the leading rusher, but he could only muster 40 yards on 15 carries. His 2.7 yards per carry represents a season low for Moreno. This was also the second time in a row Moreno averaged less than three yards per carry.
Ronnie Hillman worked again as the change of pace back, and he had a couple of explosive carries. However, his late fourth-quarter fumble proved to be costly and stopped a Broncos drive that got inside the Colts 5-yard line.
The passing game was jump-started early by Eric Decker. His 150 yards receiving against the Colts are a career high for the fourth-year wide receiver. Decker’s 17-yard touchdown in the first quarter was the 25th of his career, tying him with Brandon Marshall for the most receiving scores in Broncos history through a player’s first four seasons.
Wes Welker didn’t score a touchdown for the first time in his brief Broncos career. He still was able to rack up seven catches for 96 yards on 12 targets.
The Broncos defense was put to the test against the Colts, and it failed. Penalties, mistakes and missed opportunities plagued its defensive effort.
The defense is still ranked first against the run, allowing an average of 77.1 yards rushing per game. The Colts were able to play with a lead for most of the game, and as a team, they rushed for 121 yards on 31 carries.
The Colts running backs were held in check for the most part. Trent Richardson had 14 carries for 37 yards, while Donald Brown finished with 11 carries for 23 yards. It was carries by Andrew Luck (four for 29 yards, one rushing touchdown) and Darrius Heyward-Bey (one for 30 yards) that threw the Broncos run defense off.
The Broncos pass defense still ranks as the worst in the league. On average, it allows 319.9 yards passing per game.
Luck ran a balanced offense with the lead, and he didn’t need to go wild through the air. However, his passing was efficient and did enough to move the chains to keep the Broncos defense guessing. Luck finished the game with only 228 yards passing and three passing touchdowns.
Special teams struggled mainly because return man Trindon Holliday fumbled twice against the Colts. His lost fumble was a momentum-shifting play that hurt the Broncos early on.
The Colts had a game plan that included going after the Broncos linebackers in coverage, and it worked. This was a blueprint revealed by Jacksonville, but ran to near-perfection by the Colts.
The Broncos have a chance to get back on the winning track before their Week 9 bye as they play at home this week against the Washington Redskins.
It’s another reunion game this week. This contest marks the first time that former Broncos coach Mike Shanahan will return to the Mile High City to play his old team.
Washington’s offense has some firepower, led by Robert Griffin III. Its defense is suspect, and it lacks the playmakers to slow down the Broncos offense.
Denver may now have a chip on its shoulder after losing to the Colts. Washington will be the first team it gets to take its frustrations out on.
The Broncos no longer are atop the AFC West. The lone undefeated team in the league is the 7-0 Kansas City Chiefs. They were able to hang on in Week 7 against a resilient Texans team. The Chiefs' world-class defense is going to present a challenge for the Broncos later in the year.
In the Super Bowl era, 60 other teams (including seasons where more than one team had the same number of wins before their first loss) have held the distinction of being the league’s last unbeaten team. Out of those teams, 85 percent of them have reached the playoffs, 40 percent of them have reached the Super Bowl, and 20 percent of them have won the Super Bowl.
However, this is the fourth time the Chiefs have been the NFL’s last unbeaten team. They didn’t win a playoff game the previous three times and want to change that this year.
The Broncos are second in the division with a 6-1 record. Denver wants to get back to the top of its division, and it has an important stretch of division games coming up after the bye.
The Chargers are riding high after winning two straight. They were able to easily handle the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 7 and are now 4-3.
The Raiders had a bye in Week 7 and still bring up the rear in the division with a 2-4 record.
Champ Bailey played for the second week in a row after missing the first five games of the season. However, he did not look like his old self either week and left the Colts game early when he aggravated his foot injury.
On Monday, Broncos coach John Fox talked about the team’s injuries. “As I mentioned last night, [CB] Champ Bailey did leave the game, did not return. He’s had a barrage of testing and right now it looks like he’s going to be in a week-to-week type of mode. With this week, his availability—we’ll look at it on Wednesday. Obviously, the bye is after the Washington game. Right now, the best way to describe him is week-to-week.”
It may be some time before we see Bailey back on the field for the Broncos.
The team played without Orlando Franklin in Week 7 due to an ankle sprain. Depending on his practice status this week, we could see Franklin shelved again to give him time to heal through the bye week.
Linebacker Wesley Woodyard missed the Colts game with a neck injury and was sorely missed. Most expected him back after he was a limited participant in practice all week. We’ll see if he can practice on a full-time basis this week.
Fox talked about Woodyard’s status on Monday. “He’s very close and he’ll be day-to-day Wednesday.”
It looks like the Broncos could get their defensive leader back this week.
What Must Improve
Last week I wrote about how the Broncos’ high-powered offense could be stopped. The Colts were able to exploit most of the weaknesses the Broncos have on both sides of the ball.
First and foremost, this team has to do a better job of protecting Peyton Manning. The game against the Colts was the first contest where All-Pro left tackle Ryan Clady was really missed.
Chris Clark had been a fine replacement this year, allowing only one sack since Week 3. But against the Colts, he struggled mightily with Robert Mathis.
In the picture below we see Manning under duress from Mathis. This play resulted in a safety, and it was a big momentum shift in the Colts game.
The Broncos need to keep tight ends in to help block or chip a pass-rusher with a running back from the backfield.
Because of these pass-protection issues, we could see Denver use more “12 personnel” going forward.
Ball security continues to be an issue for this team. Fumbling the football is unacceptable, and Denver needs to clean this problem up quickly.
Ronnie Hillman fumbled last week against the Jaguars, but that was recovered by Decker. This week he fumbled at a crucial time in the fourth quarter, and it was lost to the Colts.
Fox discussed this on Monday and seemed to defend Hillman’s performance against the Colts. “If you follow the game and look around the league, most of your top backs have two or three fumbles. It’s not anything you like; it’s not anything we’re happy about. I’m sure if you ask him, he’d probably reply the same. But it’s no different than I feel comfortable having [WR Andre Caldwell] be out there catching the ball. [Hillman] is part of our running back corps—he actually had some very nice runs in the game.”
The last time Hillman lost a fumble (twice in the preseason), he lost his spot atop the depth chart. He has been working hard to regain the trust of the coaching staff since then. This latest fumble could prevent him from seeing the field much in the future.
In fact, it could open the door for rookie running backs Montee Ball or C.J. Anderson.
The Broncos also need to cut down on penalties. Against the Colts, they were penalized 12 times for 103 yards.
They especially need to clean up their discipline on defense to prevent unnecessary penalties. Getting flagged for a late hit on a quarterback is not “being the bully” defensively. In fact, it can cause a momentum shift the other way.
Denver has two weeks before it begins the last half of its schedule. Remaining on that schedule are five divisional games. It is paramount the Broncos fix their problems now so they can regain their position at the top of the AFC West.
The Redskins are coming off a huge 45-41 win over the Chicago Bears at home. This game is going to mean a little extra for Shanahan, as he returns to the place where he won two Super Bowls.
Washington currently has the fourth-best rushing offense in the league. On average, it gains 141.5 yards on the ground per game. That number will be put to the test against the Broncos' tough run defense.
The Redskins also have a high-powered passing game, ranking seventh in the NFL and averaging 274.3 yards per game.
The Broncos defense struggled to stop Luck when he took off to run. It may really have problems stopping Robert Griffin III when he decides to scramble.
Defensively, the Redskins are bad. They rank 22nd against the pass, allowing an average of 262.8 yards per game.
Their run defense is even worse. Washington’s defense ranks 29th against the run, allowing an average of 126.2 yards rushing per game.
Denver’s offense should be able to have a strong day both on the ground and through the air. This should be a good game for the Broncos to bounce back in before their Week 9 bye.
They need to protect Peyton Manning better in order to give their quarterback time to throw. Denver needs to hang onto the rock and prevent momentum shifting plays for the opposition. It also needs better attention to detail defensively and cut down on stupid penalties.
The Broncos have a sour taste after losing their first game of the year. Coming home and facing an inferior opponent should help them get back on the right track.
All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record information provided via email from the Denver Broncos.