5 Pressing Issues: The Denver Broncos' Second Half
Although they won't admit it, the Denver Broncos must be feeling grateful their bye week came when it did.
An emotionally bruising loss to Indianapolis, followed by a disjointed—at times sloppy—victory against the Redskins, finds the Broncos entering into the second half of the season at 7-1. They are tied with the Seattle Seahawks for the second-best record in the league. It's too bad the only team with a better record resides in their division.
Unlike last year, it will be the final half of the season that will be the Broncos' toughest. In order to secure home-field advantage until the Super Bowl, here are five issues that the team must remedy.
Here are a few observations gleaned from the last two games.
Ryan Clady was the third-most important player on the roster before being lost for the year.
Chris Clark is doing an admirable job filling in, but he struggles to contend with one-on-one speed rushers like Robert Mathis and Brian Orakpo.
Julius Thomas is a blocking liability.
Joel Dreessen will be vital for the rest of the year as a blocker.
For the past 25 games, the Broncos have preferred running out of a three- or four-wide receiver set. This typically leaves three or four spots on the field to be divided up between tight ends and running backs.
One of those spots has been reserved for Julius Thomas for the majority of plays. This season, Thomas has an unnerving matchup for defenses, but his blocking is so abysmal that it is coming close to negating his value as a pass-catcher.
The Broncos made the mistake of leaving Thomas on an island against the Colts' Robert Mathis a few times, and each and every time Mathis abused him.
It's necessary that the Broncos begin to incorporate Dreessen into a more integral role, particularly in mid-to-long second downs where he'll be able to chip block linebackers and defensive ends before breaking into the flat. He can run precise short routes, but his ability to block will be essential against the Chiefs.
Although Week 8's 45-21 scoreline was flattering in a number of ways, it was most deceptive in masking the Broncos' mediocre day concerning turnovers. They finished the day +1 but still surrendered the ball to the Redskins four times.
The Redskins are hardly the most opportunistic defense in the NFL; they entered the game with 11 turnovers, which ranked them near the bottom of the NFC at kickoff. Shoddy protection and some forced throws by Manning had the Redskins looking like the Monsters of the Beltway during the first half.
Deangelo Hall's interception and subsequent touchdown return was Manning's worst throw of the day.
Although Demaryius Thomas was knocked over on the play, Hall had position on him from the snap of the ball.
Hall jammed Thomas well, preventing the larger wide receiver from boxing Hall out on the slant. It's a throw Manning should have held back, but the shaky protection the offensive line afforded him had the Broncos quarterback dialing up more quick throws and three-step drops than the offense normally prefers. It also compelled Manning to force a number of throws that he was able to avoid the first few weeks of the season.
Manning is by no means the only culprit.
The Broncos currently lead the league in fumbles with 11. The trio of running backs—Knowshon Moreno, Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman—have endured some horrible fumbles so far through the season. Hillman gave the ball away late in the fourth quarter the previous week to the Colts, a gaffe that may have contributed to his inactive status this past Sunday.
Eric Decker and Trindon Holliday have also been guilty of killer giveaways.
The Chiefs have the highest turnover margin in the league. There will be a point in both of the Broncos' two games with Kansas City that the Chiefs will force the Broncos offense into a mistake. It's vital that the Broncos turnover the ball less than twice in both of these games or they will be a Wild Card.
Keep to the Routine
John Fox is the closest thing that the NFL has to Marty Schottenheimer right now. He is needlessly conservative and often makes poor decisions with the challenge flag. There is no doubting Fox's ability to coach his players and command their loyalty, but the dilemmas that often arise in the middle of games often get the better of him.
The most successful teams are adept at forging a cloistered, fraternal identity. They gain trust in one another by following a rigid routine that gradually burnishes them into a calibrated collective. As head coach, Fox is the curator of this routine, the guy who must watch over the team's equilibrium and ensure that it isn't fatally disturbed by outside events.
Fox is the face that the players see every day on the practice field. It's his voice they hear during the team meetings and meals.
When Elvis Dumervil was lost amidst a comical series of events, Fox could supply confidence for the defense as they began to compensate for his absence. When left tackle Ryan Clady was lost for the season, Fox could build up backup Chris Clark while ensuring he received the help he needed from running backs and tight ends in blocking. When Von Miller was reintroduced to the team, Fox made the transition as seamless as possible.
Without Fox, the Broncos will need to stick more stringently than ever to that routine. The remaining coaches, led by Jack Del Rio, will have to keep the locker room, film room and practice field as tranquil as possible. Any sign that the routine is imbalanced could affect the team's confidence.
Let Knowshon Work
The first overall pick of the John McDaniel era may not have been such a dud after all.
Their was a time when people were thinking that Tim Tebow—one of McDaniels' first round picks—was going to have the better NFL career than his fellow SEC alum.
Moreno's atrocious play through the first four years of his career—he has never rushed for more than 1,000 yards in a season and was benched for eight games last season—did little to discourage pessimists about him.
Montee Ball was considered by many people to be the clear favorite for the starting job this year, but Moreno's confidence in pass-protection and ease in catching out of the backfield have provided him with the platform he needs to become a solid running back in the league.
With an immobile and fragile quarterback to protect, Ball and Hillman proved to be too big of liabilities to have in as every down backs. Moreno has exploited the opportunity beautifully, transforming into a complete back that is slowly justifying the high draft pick spent on him.
After beginning training camp third on the depth chart, he's now tied with Wes Welker at nine for second in the league in touchdowns.
As the weather turns cold and the physical strain on Manning becomes more serious, the Broncos will need to maximize Moreno's ability. He will need to repeat performances like the one he turned in against the Cowboys, where he posted 93 rushing yards and 57 yards receiving with one touchdown. He fumbled in that game, but it remains his only turnover of the year.
Moreno will be vital in Week 13, when the Broncos travel to Arrowhead on what will likely be a cold and uncomfortable day in Kansas City.
Unleash Von Miller
Von Miller returned from his substance-abuse suspension in Week 7 against the Colts.
Most observers thought that weeks of rest and impatience would spur him to unleash havoc on Colts quarterback Andrew Luck. Instead, he looked predictable and rusty while recording two tackles and creating little pressure. His performance against the Redskins was better—five tackles and one sack—but he's hardly looked like the world-beater he consistently was last season.
The interesting fact about the Colts game was how little the Broncos moved Miller around during defensive snaps. He rushed primarily from the right side, and the Broncos rarely tried to free him up using stunts or shifting his position across the line.
If the Broncos want to exploit Miller as well as they can, they need to be creative with how they position him on the field. Although he should never drop into coverage, moving Miller around or allowing him to roam above the offensive lineman would create confusion for the opposing offense.
The Broncos need to audible again to substitute a weapon for an extra blocker in order to protect the pocket.
Here's hoping that Jack Del Rio, in the middle of transitioning to the interim head coach role, saved some time during the bye week to figure out some devious ways to help Miller slingshot into the backfield.
Even if he doesn't get to the quarterback every series, making Miller's movements unpredictable provides more opportunity for Shaun Phillips, Robert Ayers and Derek Wolfe to break through the offensive line. Miller's ability to break into the backfield also will ease the burden on an embattled secondary, which despite being home to a flock of ball hawks, is still 30th defending the pass.