The Denver Broncos' 28-20 win over the San Diego Chargers will likely draw some ambivalence from Broncos fans. On one hand, the offense clicked for the most part, showing no rust from the bye week, and the defense delivered more big plays than it has in recent weeks.
However, the 28 points are the lowest offensive output of the season for Denver, and San Diego's consistent ability to pressure Manning could have potentially disastrous consequences (more on that in a bit). Still, the Broncos were in control nearly the entire game on the road against a playoff-caliber squad. That this game could be considered a letdown illustrates how high Denver has set the bar for itself.
With a brutal three-game stretch forthcoming, here are the five most important takeaways from the Broncos' victory.
Peyton Manning's Health
The potential dark cloud looming over the victory surrounds Peyton Manning's ambiguous health. Manning took several big hits from the Chargers, including a strip sack and a low hit on his last pass of the day. Manning admitted to feeling "pretty sore" after the game, according to the Denver Broncos' official Twitter account.
It appeared his leg was banged up near the end, in addition to his already sprained ankles. For what it's worth, Manning does not believe the injury is serious enough to keep him out of the lineup:
Manning on whether he's confident he'll play against Kansas City this week: "I certainly plan on it."— Denver Broncos (@DenverBroncos) November 11, 2013
That's obviously good news, but a compromised Manning could be in a bit of trouble against Kansas City's elite pass rush next Sunday night. Tamba Hali and Justin Houston are the top two 3-4 edge-rushers, having combined for an eye-popping 20 sacks, 79 hurries and 113 pressures on the season.
The Broncos' pass protection has excellent numbers, having given up the second-fewest sacks per game, per TeamRankings.com. But those numbers are slightly deceiving given Manning's lightning-quick release and superb pocket awareness.
Left tackle Chris Clark has done a solid job in place of Ryan Clady but seems to have occasional breakdowns. Indeed, it was Clark who was beaten by Tourek Williams on Manning's third-quarter fumble. Clark should not be singled out as a scapegoat, but if the Chiefs are to pull off a win in either of their two meetings, the Kansas City pass rush will likely play an integral role.
But when Manning did stay upright, the results were nothing short of astounding.
Receivers Making Impact in Limited Opportunities
The Broncos have never stopped scoring, but over the past two games, the Colts and Redskins played much more press coverage in an attempt to stymie Denver's prolific receiver trio of Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Eric Decker. As ESPN's Jeff Legwold illustrates, both teams were successful in forcing the ball away from Manning's preferred targets:
Peyton Manning has gone away from the Broncos' top three wide receivers over the past two games. In the Broncos first six games, 78 percent of Manning’s completions went to Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Eric Decker. In the last two games -- a loss to the Colts and a win over the Redskins -- defensive backs have been far more aggressive in how they defended the three and the frustration has shown as the timing of the Broncos offense has been affected. As a result Manning has looked elsewhere in the formation. In the past two games 58.1 percent of Manning’s completions have gone to the three and three of Manning’s last four interceptions have occurred on plays in which Thomas was the intended target.
San Diego started off in the same fashion, as the Broncos failed to complete a pass to a receiver until midway through the second quarter. Of Manning's 25 completions, 13 went to one of the trio, only a 52 percent rate. However, those 13 receptions went for 13.9 yards per catch, as there were stretches where the Broncos drove down the field at will.
Going forward, we can probably expect the same treatment, as both the Chiefs and Patriots, whom Denver meets Nov. 24, rely primarily on man coverage. The Broncos do a great job of finding imaginative ways to get their receivers open, as they did on this touchdown, and will need every ounce of their creative juices to help the receivers break free from the likes of Aqib Talib, Brandon Flowers and Sean Smith.
Von Miller Coming On
With just one sack headed into Sunday's action, some might have wondered what was wrong with the Broncos' All-Pro linebacker.
But in reality, nothing was wrong with Miller, who had already compiled an astounding plus-10.7 overall grade by Pro Football Focus through two games. Powered by eight quarterback hurries, that grade was already higher than any other Broncos defender.
Miller added to his stellar start, compiling a sack, a hit and two tackles for loss. That still doesn't do justice to how disruptive he was, however. For a Broncos team that has been middling in the pass rush, plays like this exemplify Miller's value:
Miller is still getting in condition, as he has actually come off the field on occasion this year. Snap counts weren't yet available at the time of this writing, but it appeared Miller was likely on the field for around 90 percent or more of the snaps.
While Miller and the pass rush represent one component of good pass defense, the other component was not nearly as stellar on Sunday.
The Broncos continue to shuffle around their secondary personnel in a search for the right mix. With Champ Bailey and Duke Ihenacho out, Denver used all nine defensive backs at some point. Much confusion arose when seldom-used Quentin Jammer started the game over Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, but as the Denver Post's Mike Klis notes, it may have been a sentimental favor from DRC:
Solved the DB mystery - Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie let Quentin Jammer start ahead of him. Coaches didnt know till first play— Mike Klis (@MikeKlis) November 11, 2013
Regardless, while the secondary was not exactly a sieve, there were certainly the usual handful of troubling moments. Denver had two pass interference penalties, though Philip Rivers rarely had enough time for slow-developing vertical routes.
The Patriots and Chargers are the only two particularly daunting passing offenses left on the schedule, and the Broncos have already proven capable of containing San Diego. Most importantly, Denver was able to check Antonio Gates, who compiled just four receptions for 62 yards. On the year, the Broncos have given up 658 yards to opposing tight ends, second-worst in the league.
With Rob Gronkowski back healthy for New England, that could pose some problems in a few weeks. The Broncos have another week to conjure up a personnel group to try to contain the Pats tight end, but the secondary's success will likely be dictated by how well the pass rush performs.
No Worries with Del Rio
John Fox's first game away as he recovers from heart surgery was rather uneventful for Jack Del Rio. With the Broncos staking out to a big lead, Del Rio did not have to worry much about tight late-game management.
That may change over the next three weeks, and we'll see if Del Rio's defensive responsibilities begin to interfere at all. Since Del Rio can no longer ignore the offense to make defensive adjustments on the sidelines, Denver's position coaches will take on a little more burden in that respect, especially linebackers coach Richard Smith.
While the game-day management aspects are different, Del Rio is wisely avoiding putting his fingerprints on Denver's offensive game plan too much, according to USA Today's Lindsay Jones:
Offensive coordinator Adam Gase will make the play calls, and Manning will make his changes at the line of scrimmage. Del Rio will handle timeouts and replay challenges and whether to punt on a fourth-and-1.
"I'm not going in tinkering with things on offense or special teams. We have good people there, and they're doing their jobs," Del Rio said.
Del Rio is no novice, having coached the Jacksonville Jaguars for nine seasons. His no-nonsense leadership is a good fit given the players' experience with Fox, and his prior experience should serve him well. Besides, with Manning as a de facto on-field offensive coordinator, Del Rio can afford to avoid tinkering with preparation on the offensive side of the ball.
*All stats courtesy Pro Football Focus' premium section (subscription required).