To find negatives in the Denver Broncos' play so far, you have to dig deep.
The Broncos have played superb football, winning eight games and scoring 28 or more points in every game. Peyton Manning has an insane 121.0 passer rating, and the talent-laden defense is starting to pick it up.
But which individual players still need to pick it up? Here are four Broncos who need to have a better second half.
Yes, Montee Ball is a backup. Yes, the Broncos can survive if Ball doesn’t step up.
However, with an upcoming spike in carries likely, the Broncos would benefit from Ball helping his team down the stretch.
Knowshon Moreno has been phenomenal with nine total touchdowns, but he has handled a heavy workload. Denver wants to rest Moreno for the postseason, so it needs a reliable backup to share the workload.
Ball can be that reliable backup.
However, to do that, he will need to start picking up more yardage consistently. His fumbling concerns have been silenced due to his recent play, but he still hasn’t been able to break any big runs. Ball has just 197 yards and a touchdown on 60 carries, which is fewer than 3.3 yards per carry.
Those numbers are horrendous, and if Ball can’t improve them, he should lose playing time. C.J. Anderson is eagerly waiting in the wings and has the potential to do good things with carries. Unfortunately for Anderson, the Broncos are giving Ball every chance to improve.
Ball will keep running the ball as Moreno’s backup. The Broncos spent a second-round pick on him, and they want the pick to pay off. It might not seem like the best plan if Anderson is capable, but it’s what the Broncos will do.
And it’s up to Ball to make it work.
Denver needs to win down the stretch to secure a first-round bye, and it needs to do so without Moreno full time. To make up for Moreno’s expected dip in snaps, Denver needs more from its underwhelming rookie.
I'll admit that before the 2013 season, I was expecting big things from Derek Wolfe.
However, Wolfe hasn't fulfilled my expectations. In the process, he has underwhelmed Broncos fans.
According to Pro Football Focus, Wolfe's minus-11.4 pass-rush rating was second among 4-3 defensive ends (before Week 10). He has just three sacks this year, and he hasn't been effective rushing the passer.
He's known as a good run defender, but he has a mere 14 tackles this year. His production hasn't met anyone's expectations, and while he is starting to play better, he still needs to do more.
That goes for both facets of the game.
With star rusher Von Miller back, Wolfe has been more effective, which is a great sign. He clearly operates better in favorable matchups, as elite linemen are strong enough to push him aside and hold up on a bull rush. Weaker linemen, however, aren't as capable in that regard.
Luckily for Wolfe, he gets to face those weaker linemen in favorable one-on-one matchups. Miller takes on opponents' best linemen, and Shaun Phillips also commands attention.
Because of that, Wolfe should have a strong second half. However, he needs to finish off sacks. He has thrived in pressuring quarterbacks with bull rushes, but he isn't as talented when it comes to breaking off and wrapping up the quarterback.
Denver's secondary isn't great, so finishing those sacks is critical for the Broncos. If Wolfe can't start doing that and making his presence felt, it would definitely be detrimental to the defense.
Is it a bit harsh to criticize a 12-time Pro Bowler when he’s past his prime? Maybe.
But is it evident that Champ Bailey needs to play better for the Broncos? Yes.
Bailey hasn’t played much, but in his limited action, he hasn’t impressed at all. In his six quarters of football, he has given up a touchdown and made some poor plays. Bailey has three passes defended, but, according to Pro Football Focus, he also posted a horrid game grade of minus-1.2 against Chad Henne’s lowly Jacksonville Jaguars.
Yes, his foot isn’t helping him. However, he still needs to play through the pain and play well.
Denver doesn’t have a top-flight corner without Bailey in action, and it might not even with Bailey. He isn’t able to shut down top receivers anymore, but he can still contribute.
He just needs to do more than what he has done in his limited action this year.
If Bailey can perform like the player who led the NFL in yards per cover snaps last year, Denver’s secondary would perform much better. In the playoffs, when Denver will likely face the likes of Tom Brady and Andrew Luck, having the 30th-best pass defense won’t cut it.
Denver doesn’t need the best pass defense, as it has the best offense. However, it can't let top receivers shred the Broncos. Dez Bryant did it in Week 5, and Justin Blackmon did it in Week 6.
If Denver wants to win the Super Bowl, it can’t let that happen. And whether or not that happens completely hinges on Bailey’s play.
Pro Bowl left tackle Ryan Clady’s injury didn’t seem so significant when Chris Clark was containing DeMarcus Ware, Lamarr Houston and Trent Cole in his first few weeks as a starter.
However, since then, concern has come up.
Clark has been abused by elite pass-rushers lately, and he gave up a strip-sack of Peyton Manning against the San Diego Chargers. Against the Indianapolis Colts, Robert Mathis abused him for two sacks and a forced fumble (one that ultimately resulted in a safety).
For the most part, Clark has been solid. He is a road grader in run blocking, and he is very valuable blocking downfield on screen passes. However, he struggles moving laterally and keeping up with athletic edge rushers, which is a huge problem.
Keeping Manning upright is vital to Denver’s success; without Manning, Denver can’t win the Super Bowl. Manning is on pace to throw nearly 60 touchdowns, and he is poised to shatter multiple passing records.
But if he can’t make history and add a ring to his collection due to injury, it would completely alter everything for Denver.
Clark is responsible for protecting fumbles and, ultimately, protecting Manning. He has the second-most important job on the team, and it’s unacceptable for him not to do well. He is usually consistent, but there are still plays in which he gets beaten badly and has no chance. Those plays frequently end up in turnovers, which won’t be acceptable come playoff time.
Because as the Broncos know, poor protection can definitely be the difference between wins and losses.