The Denver Broncos have reached the halfway point in the 2013 regular season. Even though they are no longer undefeated, I still consider them the team to beat in the AFC West. Taking that even further, most consider the Broncos the team to beat in the entire league.
Through eight games the team has a 7-1 record. This is good for second place in the AFC West at this time. The Kansas City Chiefs remain as the league’s only undefeated team with an 8-0 record.
After the team’s Week 8 win over the Washington Redskins, Eric Decker commented on getting back on the winning track. “We would like to be 8-0, but we have played some tough teams. This win is especially big going into our bye week. We have to stay with Kansas City [Chiefs] because we have them coming back from the bye. It was a big momentum win for us.”
The Broncos have the league’s best offense. They have the top passing offense in the NFL, averaging 361.3 passing yards per game. Denver also leads the NFL with an average of 42.8 points scored per game.
Denver’s run defense is the best in the league as well. They only allow an average of 77.1 rushing yards per game through eight games.
However, their pass defense ranks as the worst in the NFL. They allow an average of 319.9 yards passing per game. Those numbers are a bit skewed as opponents are forced to abandon balance when playing Denver. Teams will go into a pass-happy mode (sometimes early) in order to try and catch up to the Broncos.
The Broncos special teams rates as one of the best in the league as well. This gives them a well-rounded team, with strength in all three facets of the game.
Let’s take a look at each position on the roster and hand out grades for their performance so far.
All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record information provided via email from the Denver Broncos.
This continues to be the easiest grade to hand out on the Broncos' roster.
Peyton Manning is on pace to throw for almost 6,000 yards this year. He’s also on pace to throw for 58 touchdowns, a number that would shatter the current record of 50 by Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady (2007).
He did double the number of interceptions he’s thrown this season during the game against the Redskins in Week 8. Manning has 29 touchdown passes after eight games, and he has thrown six interceptions so far this year.
Manning is battling through dual ankle injuries this year, and the bye week should help him get healthier. After the Redskins game, Manning talked about his health. “Actually, I felt pretty good out there today. I felt like I was moving around and I was able to move in the pocket a little bit. Felt good out there. The bye week is coming at a good time for a lot of people physically, for me as well to get some rest. I think I’ll do it and be good to go. Expect a full practice and participation and all that starting after the bye week.”
The Broncos are currently a game behind the Chiefs in the standings. They need to play catch up the rest of the season, so Manning may continue to play on this record pace.
Backup quarterback Brock Osweiler has played sparingly this year in blowout victories. He may get a little bit more playing time if the Broncos continue to roll through weaker teams.
Position Grade: A+
The Broncos rank just below the middle of the pack when it comes to rushing the football. Currently they rank 16th in the NFL with an average of 108.0 rushing yards per game. This is a slight dip from the per game average of 119.3 rushing yards they had after four games.
They use multiple backs in order to stay fresh as games go on.
The lead back is Knowshon Moreno. The team trusts him more than any other back on the roster. He can make plays as a runner or receiver out of the backfield. Moreno is also the best running back in terms of pass protection.
Montee Ball is now the primary backup behind Moreno. He did not play much from Week 5 to Week 7 after two fumbles earlier this year put him in the staff’s dog house. Ball finally scored the first touchdown of his pro career in the Week 8 game against the Redskins.
After the game, Ball talked about scoring for the first time as a pro. “It felt good, it felt great. I saw a little crease and I trusted in the scheme of the entire play. The offensive line did a great job getting a push and pushing me forward to fall in the end zone.”
Behind Ball we now see undrafted rookie C.J. Anderson as the third back on the depth chart. Anderson has the strongest lower body in the running back corps, and he runs with great power between the tackles.
Ronnie Hillman was second on the depth chart for most of the season. However, a lost fumble against the Colts cost him that spot. He was inactive for the first time this year against the Redskins. We’ll see if Hillman can regain the trust of the coaching staff and get back on the field later in the year.
Position Grade: B-
Denver simply has the best group of wide receivers in the NFL. They have superstar talent, and feature three of the best in the game every week.
Wes Welker continues to show great chemistry with Manning. He’s scored in all but one game this season, and leads the NFL with 9 nine touchdown catches. This is the first time in his career that he has recorded at least one receiving touchdown in seven or more games in a single season.
Demaryius Thomas patiently waits for his opportunities each game. Most defenses will bracket cover Thomas early in an attempt to prevent him from making a big play. However, as the game wears on Thomas will get single coverage from time to time. Peyton Manning is always looking for Thomas in these situations.
Eric Decker sees single coverage on most every snap. He runs crisp routes, and he has proven to be a reliable target for Manning. Decker continues to drop a few passes here and there, but that hasn’t shaken Manning’s confidence in him.
Andre “Bubba” Caldwell is getting a few snaps each week. He fills in for Thomas when he needs a breather after a deep route. Caldwell gives them quality veteran depth at the position.
Position Grade: A+
Julius Thomas had his breakout game in Week 1 against the Ravens. He scored two touchdowns in the season opener, and Thomas has not looked back since then.
There’s no word on the severity of the injury right now. It is a concern for the Broncos as Thomas is their primary weapon at the position, and he has a history of ankle injuries. It was a right ankle injury (and subsequent ankle surgery) that essentially cost him the first two seasons of his pro career.
Virgil Green has become a good all-purpose tight end. He plays mostly as a blocking tight end for the Broncos, and has helped spring Knowshon Moreno on a couple of rushing touchdowns this year.
Joel Dreessen is finally healthy after two offseason knee procedures slowed him earlier this season. He got more playing time after the injury to Thomas in Week 8. Dreessen responded with his first receiving touchdown of the 2013 season.
Jacob Tamme has done anything the team has asked him this year. He’s played special teams, stayed in as a blocker more and will sometimes split out wide as a receiver. Tamme only has three catches for 27 yards so far this year.
Position Grade: B
The Broncos offensive line has been playing through a couple of key injuries this year. They lost left tackle Ryan Clady in Week 2 to a season-ending Lisfranc injury.
Chris Clark has played well most weeks in the place of Clady. He did struggle against the Colts in Week 7 as Robert Mathis proved too much for him to handle.
The interior of the offensive line is the strength of the unit. Left guard Zane Beadles has improved as a pass protector over the course of his pro career. He’s also known for being a strong run blocker.
Center Manny Ramirez is doing a good job as the quarterback of the offensive line. He has played well as a run blocker in 2013. Most weeks he is also reliable as a pass protector.
Louis Vasquez is arguably the best offensive lineman on the team. He’s played all but one game at right guard, but did kick out to right tackle in Week 7 against the Colts. Vasquez did a good job of stopping Mathis, which forced the Colts to move him to Clark’s side.
Orlando Franklin is a mauler when opening up holes for the ground game. He missed one game due to an ankle injury, but Franklin was back on the field against the Redskins in Week 8.
Reserve lineman Chris Kuper started one game at right guard in place of Vasquez. He’s a quality reserve player who can play multiple positions.
Position Grade: B-
Robert Ayers continues to make plays for the Broncos as the season rolls on. He’s doing a good job setting the edge as a run defender. Ayers is also getting to the quarterback with more regularity in 2013. Through eight games Ayers has 4.5 sacks, a career high.
Derek Wolfe seems to be playing better over the last two weeks. The return of Von Miller has helped him get better matchups in the middle of the line. Wolfe has responded by getting into the backfield more often.
Malik Jackson has a nasty game. He’s not a technician, but is able to make plays with brute strength and a high motor.
Position Grade: C+
Terrance Knighton continues to make plays against the run. His considerable size makes him difficult to move, and this allows him to stuff the run with ease.
Knighton has also made plays against the pass. He’ll knife through the line to get interior pressure on opposing quarterbacks. When he doesn’t get a sack, he will at least make a big hit.
Kevin Vickerson has to start playing with more discipline. Over the last two weeks we’ve seen him get two unsportsmanlike penalties for late (and unnecessary) hits on the quarterback.
He plays with plenty of energy, but needs to avoid stupid penalties moving forward.
Mitch Unrein gives the team quality veteran depth. He can stuff the run with ease, and is a sound wrap-up tackler. Unrein also gets a little pressure as a pass-rusher from time to time.
He’ll even get on the field as a fullback in goal line situations. The team likes his size as a lead blocker near the end zone.
After the Redskins game, Peyton Manning talked about the weapon that Unrein is. “Mitch is always a threat out there. Never know how the defense is quite going to play him, whether they’re going to double team him or not (laughter). It’s definitely good to throw a little wrinkle at the defense”
2013 first-round pick Sylvester Williams has been a healthy scratch twice this year. His play is inconsistent on the few snaps he does get on the field. Williams is known as a hard working player, and he will continue to develop as a reserve player for the Broncos.
Position Grade: C+
The return of Von Miller has been huge. He immediately made an impact last week against the Colts. That trend continued this week against the Redskins.
Miller added muscle during his six-game suspension in an effort to be stronger against the run. After two weeks it’s clear that move worked.
He’s still showing incredible ability as a pass-rusher from the edge. Miller gets a lot of attention on the edge, and that helps free up his teammates around him.
After the Redskins game Miller talked about how he felt after two weeks back.“I felt great last week, I felt great this week and the production just came this week. I was able to take it one play at a time same as I did last week and sometimes you get the plays and some days you don’t. Fortunately, I was able to make some plays today.”
Wesley Woodyard missed a couple of games earlier this year with a neck injury. He triumphantly returned to the field in Week 8 against the Redskins. Woodyard is the defensive leader, and he does a good job as a run defender. He’s also improved his coverage ability during his pro career.
Danny Trevathan has been making plays at weak-side linebacker. He has three interceptions this year, tied for the most on the Broncos in 2013. Trevathan is also doing a better job of wrapping up an opponent in the open field.
Nate Irving plays well as a run defender for the Broncos. The return of Miller has put Irving back on the bench. He’ll come in on certain situations to help the team better defend against the run.
Shaun Phillips did a great job as the team’s primary pass-rusher while Miller was suspended. His 6.5 sacks are good for the team lead after eight weeks. Phillips should be able to generate even more pressure now that Miller is back.
Paris Lenon and Steven Johnson give the team valuable depth at the linebacker position.
Position Grade: A
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has had an up and down first half of the season. He started out great, but seemed to lose some confidence against teams like the Cowboys and Colts.
Rodgers-Cromartie got his swagger back against the Redskins in Week 8. His 75-yard interception returned for a touchdown helped seal the win for the Broncos.
After the game, Rodgers-Cromartie talked about making big plays in the fourth quarter. “That’s one thing about this team, first half you know how things go, and then you come out in the second half and you always talking fight; so we just kept fighting. For the most part we rattled them a little bit and that wasn’t good for them.”
Like Rodgers-Cromartie, Chris Harris has had a topsy-turvy year. He plays with good discipline in most games, but has been caught out of position a few times over the course of the season. Harris can cover smaller receivers as a nickel corner, or he can play on the outside as a starter. He’s been getting plenty of time outside with Champ Bailey injured.
Bailey has missed most of this season due to a foot injury. He did come back for two games, but Bailey ended up re-aggravating the injury. There’s no timetable for his return, and the team will wisely be cautious as he recovers.
Kayvon Webster has been seeing more playing time over the last few weeks. He’s a big hitter who loves to look for the big play. However, too often Webster will fail to wrap up an opponent.
He’ll instead lower his shoulder to deliver a hit. This leads to extra yards gained by an opponent after contact if they can absorb the blow.
Tony Carter was inactive for the Broncos against the Redskins. It wasn’t the first time this year that he’s been a healthy scratch. Carter is a reckless player who got burned by Terrance Williams in the game against the Cowboys. He needs to show better discipline in practice if he wants to get back in the game.
Position Grade: C+
Duke Ihenacho has really helped energize this defense. His big hits fire up the entire defense, and his attitude is a welcome sight in the secondary.
Ihenacho plays with a chip on his shoulder, and he never backs down from a challenge. In addition to being a violent tackler, Ihenacho also has good technique when bringing an opponent down.
He was banged up in the game against the Redskins with what is being described as an ankle injury. There is no word on the severity at this time.
Rahim Moore is doing a good job as the veteran leader at the safety position. He’s playing with more confidence than ever before in 2013.
Moore provides a calming influence in the secondary. This is a fantastic counterbalance to the energy that Ihenacho plays with.
Mike Adams gives the team veteran depth at the position and is now a reserve player with the emergence of Ihenacho.
David Bruton also gives the team veteran depth, but is incredibly impactful as a special teams player.
Position Grade: B-
Trindon Holliday is one of the most dangerous returners in the league today. He is capable of making big plays and energizing the team at any moment.
However, he’s also capable of fumbling a punt or kick at any time. This makes him an exciting player to watch as you never quite know what is going to happen.
We’ve also seen a bit more from Holliday on offense. The team has a package of plays for the tiny wide receiver. They could choose to feature him as a runner or a receiver from time to time in an effort to get his playmaking ability on the field.
Matt Prater is one of the best kickers in the league. He’s 100 percent accurate on both field goals and extra points this year.
Britton Colquitt is an underrated weapon for the Broncos. His strong leg can regularly pin an opponent deep in their own territory.
Position Grade: A