In Week 15 the Denver Broncos lost 27-20 at home against the San Diego Chargers. It was their third loss of the season, and it was the first time the Broncos lost at home this year. The loss also represented the first time Peyton Manning lost to an AFC West opponent.
In defeat the Broncos briefly lost control of their playoff destiny. The Broncos were trying to hold off the New England Patriots for the top seed in the AFC.
They quickly regained control of their path when the Patriots lost to the Miami Dolphins on Sunday. If the Broncos win their next two games, they will get a first-round bye, and they will have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
After the Thursday night game, John Fox was asked if he felt the team came out flat. “I’d say that we didn’t have our best stuff tonight, I’d agree with that. They obviously did a better job getting ready on the short week than we did. I thought our guys battled back in the second half. We couldn’t get them off the field on third down, and we couldn’t stay on the field enough on third down. I think basically they played better than we did in all three phases.”
Peyton Manning didn’t have much time to lead the offense. The Chargers controlled the time of possession, holding the ball for 38:49.
When Manning was on the field, he primarily kept things close to the line of scrimmage. He was only sacked twice against the Chargers, but the defense made sure to take away his deep targets.
Manning talked after the game about what went wrong. “Probably can pinpoint first and second down—we weren’t good enough. Got some 3rd-and-longs and never got into much of a flow. Oftentimes when we’re playing well, we’re getting first down, second down back to first down. That’s kind of how it was that first drive.
And then when you get a third down, you have some rhythm. We had some three-and-outs backed up, didn’t do a good enough job changing field position. As a result, gave their offense better field position. I think 1-of-7 on third down tonight—that’s not good enough. There’s not many third downs, but like I said, the ones we have, we have to try to convert them.”
The Broncos were clearly not themselves on Thursday night. The teams they face in the playoffs may try the same game plan the Chargers had.
This was the first game of the season where the Broncos allowed a 100-yard rusher. Ryan Mathews ran for 127 yards on 29 carries. The interior of the Broncos defensive line was pushed around most of the night.
On Friday, Fox talked about the struggles of the defense. “I think the difference is, instead of scoring 30, 40, 50 we scored 20 [points]. It’s something that we’re working on. It’s something that we have to get better at. I don’t think it’s acceptable for anybody, including those guys in that room.
I think they understand that and we have to get better to get where we want to go. Having said that, I think we lost our third game, not our 13th. We don’t think the sky is falling. So it’s like, I think everybody in the league, is trying to get better every day.”
Check out the grades for each Broncos player against the Chargers.
All quotes and injury/practice observations were obtained firsthand. Record/Statistical information provided via email from the Denver Broncos.
Peyton Manning: B+
Manning did the best he could when the Broncos had the ball. Lack of time of possession was huge in this contest. The Broncos couldn’t get into a rhythm offensively, and that prevented them from moving the ball like we’re used to seeing in 2013.
His 289 passing yards is the second-lowest total Manning has had this season. The Chargers did a good job of disguising their defense on Thursday night. They would often show blitz before the snap, but the Chargers were actually playing umbrella coverage. The deception worked, but none of it was really a surprise for Manning.
“I wouldn’t say there were any surprises. I thought they executed well on defense and made more plays than we did. A Thursday night game and second round in the division game you’re never quite sure what you’re going to get. That’s kind of how it is all season for us. Teams play us differently than they play other teams. But, they played well on defense and played better than we did on offense.”
Knowshon Moreno: C
The Chargers pushed around the Broncos' offensive line up-front. The offensive line was unable to create much running room for Moreno.
Moreno struggled as a runner, finishing the game with eight carries for 19 yards. He did contribute as a receiver out of the backfield. Moreno had five catches for 36 yards on Thursday night.
The Chargers made sure to take away deep targets in the passing game. This meant more targets for Moreno out of the backfield.
Montee Ball: C
The team needed Ball to do more against the Chargers. He finished the game with three carries for minus-1 yard.
At least he contributed as a receiver out of the backfield. Ball had five catches for 49 yards and held on to the rock tightly. The Chargers were trying to get the rookie to fumble the ball again, but they were unable to strip it away from him.
After the game, Ball commented on why the team lost. “Really, it just came down to players making plays. Players were stepping up, and they were the better team tonight, plain and simple. We need to make more plays and get back to playing our style of football.”
Ronnie Hillman: n/a
The Broncos declared C.J. Anderson inactive for the game against the Chargers. This meant Hillman was third on the depth chart for the Broncos. He did not make it onto the field in Week 15.
The Broncos were playing without Wes Welker (concussion) against the Chargers. This put more pressure on Thomas to do more as the team’s primary weapon in the passing game.
Thomas did not perform up to expectations on Thursday night.
The Chargers were taking away the deep pass, so the team tried to dink and dunk underneath. Thomas is great on short passes when he can use his run-after-the-catch ability to rack up big yards. That didn’t happen in Week 15.
Thomas finished the game with five targets, four catches and 45 yards receiving.
Eric Decker: D
Decker had a disappointing night. He was not getting open on deep routes, and Decker failed to haul in over half of his targets.
The Chargers did a good job jamming Decker at the line of scrimmage. This caused him to be late in his routes, and it certainly must have been frustrating for Decker.
He finished the game with five targets, two catches and 42 yards receiving. The Broncos moved him to the slot at times in this game, but that maneuver didn’t work.
Andre Caldwell: A+
The Chargers dared the Broncos to beat them with Caldwell. Playing without Welker, it was Caldwell who led the team in receiving.
Caldwell was targeted 10 times, caught six passes for 59 yards and two touchdowns.
After the game I talked to Caldwell on the No BS Broncos Post Game Show on ESPN Denver. He told me his increased role was an adjustment the team made early on. “I think they saw that I had a good matchup, and they kept going to it.”
Caldwell went from being a role player in the initial game plan to a featured receiver.
Julius Thomas: C
The team could have used a better game from Thomas. He was not able to haul in half of his eight targets. Thomas compiled four catches for 49 yards against the Chargers.
There was more there for Thomas, but he failed to snare passes that were just a bit off the mark. Thomas should have been able to use his frame better on underneath passes. He just seemed a bit out of sync with Manning on Thursday night.
Jacob Tamme: C-
Without Wes Welker most expected Tamme to fill his role. That didn’t happen. The team instead tried Eric Decker at the slot, and they put Andre Caldwell on the outside.
Tamme barely saw the field in the first half. He did get more playing time after halftime but only finished with one catch for nine yards.
Joel Dreessen: C
Dreessen was used exclusively as a blocker against the Chargers.
Virgil Green: C
Green was asked to block when he was on the field. He didn’t receive a single target.
Chris Clark: B
Clark controlled the edge for the most part. He was able to keep defenders off Manning, and he was able to get good push as a run-blocker.
Zane Beadles: C
Beadles was part of the interior that struggled against the Chargers. He was late to adjust to stunts more than once on Thursday night.
He pushed a defender into Manning on the pass that was intercepted by Thomas Keiser. The ball was tipped, and the Chargers were able to run underneath it for the turnover.
Manny Ramirez: D
Ramirez had his worst performance of the year on Thursday night. He was beaten often in the middle by defenders like Cam Thomas and Corey Liuget.
This created middle pressure disrupted the timing of the passing game.
Ramirez also struggled to get push as a run-blocker. This allowed the defense to swallow up backs like Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball with ease.
I talked to Broncos Ring of Fame center Tom Nalen on Friday. He noted Ramirez has always struggled with active defensive tackles who are laterally agile. Ramirez can hold his own against stout defenders, but he struggles against opponents who use quickness to get into the backfield.
Louis Vasquez: B
Vasquez did his best against his former team. He was not late to adjust to stunts, and Vasquez held his man in check for most of the night.
Orlando Franklin: B
Franklin can take a defender out of his game. His strength helps him maul opponents as a run-blocker. Franklin is still a work in progress in pass protection, but he did a good job keeping edge pressure away from Manning.
Shaun Phillips: B
Phillips made an impact against his former team on Thursday night. He finished the game with two tackles, one sack, one tackle for loss and one quarterback hit.
After the game, Phillips was quite clear about what went wrong defensively. “We didn’t play good enough, I mean we know we can play better, and they’re a good football team, too, so we can’t take nothing from them. They outplayed us today, but it humbles us, and it gets us back to the drawing board and realize what we have to do and how much farther we have to go to be a better football team.”
Robert Ayers: C-
Ayers needs to start making more plays on the field. He had three tackles against the Chargers (one solo) and did a decent job of setting edge against the run.
However, Ayers continues to disappoint as an edge-rusher. The team needs to put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks, and Ayers did not get that done on Thursday night.
Malik Jackson: C
Jackson finished the game with three tackles, all solo, against the Chargers. He was doing a good job of making Philip Rivers uncomfortable as an edge-rusher, but Jackson failed to record a sack this week.
Terrance Knighton: B
“Pot Roast” can’t do it all himself. He put up a great effort against the Chargers, finished with five tackles (four solo) and one tackle for a loss.
The middle of the defensive line was collapsing against the Chargers push up-front. Mathews was the first back to gain over 100 yards rushing against the Broncos this year.
Knighton was candid in his postgame comments. “We’ll take this on the chin. We’ll watch the film and see what happened, but leaders on this defense we won’t let this happen again, and we’ll come together tomorrow and see what we’ve got to do to get this better because this is an inexcusable way we played on defense. We’ll find something, and we’ll try to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Sylvester Williams: C-
The rookie could have done more versus the Chargers. Looking at the box score, one sees the making of a decent night. Williams had five tackles (three solo) and recorded the first sack of his pro career.
However, watching the film shows more holes in his game. Williams’ sack came on a play where Rivers was running away from Von Miller. The veteran quarterback essentially ran right into the rookie defensive tackle.
Williams also continues to guess wrong as a run defender. He’ll pick the wrong shoulder to attack then attempt to run around his blocker to get to the play. That may have worked in college, but his inexperience is a glaring weakness in the pros.
We’ll see if Williams can look better with more game experience.
Mitch Unrein: C
Unrein is a lunch-pail worker. His blue-collar work ethic shows in the way he plays the game. He is relentless when getting after the quarterback, and Unrein does a good job as a run defender.
Von Miller: C
Miller failed to make plays at critical junctures in the game. He did finish the game with six tackles (four solo) and one tackle for a loss. Miller just seemed a step slow against the Chargers.
He did pressure Rivers, but he failed to record a sack on Thursday night.
Wesley Woodyard: C-
Once again we saw Woodyard get less playing time. He’s playing primarily in sub-packages, and some feel he hasn’t looked the same since suffering a neck stinger against Dallas in Week 5.
After the game, Woodyard discussed the Chargers dominating the time of possession. “Absolutely, they controlled the game by us not getting off (the field) on third down. If you don’t get off on third downs, then teams can run the ball on you. That’s something that we have to continue to get better at. We can’t let a team control the clock on us like that.”
Danny Trevathan: C
Trevathan was all over the field against the Chargers. He led the team in tackles with 10 (seven solo). Trevathan was able to compile those numbers because Mathews frequently smashed through to the second level of the defense.
Trevathan didn’t care about his personal stats. In the locker room, he lamented the loss. “It definitely wasn’t our best game. We came out there and showed spurts, but you know they came out there with the playoffs on their mind. They needed this game to get to the playoffs. We played ball, but I think we gave them a little bit too much. Our defense, we take accountability for our own actions, and we’re on the road to get this right.”
Nate Irving: D
Irving made a huge mistake on a play that was likely the turning point in the game. With the Chargers punting out of their own end zone, Irving lined up offside and was penalized. The penalty gave the Chargers a first down, and their drive stayed alive.
Many Broncos fans feel that if Irving had not committed the penalty, then the offense could have built better momentum.
Irving’s mistake wasn’t the only one of the night. The defense also lined up with 12 men on the field—TWICE. These mistakes are unforgivable, and they must clean up this mental lapses if they want to win a Super Bowl.
Paris Lenon: D
Lenon just shouldn’t be starting for the Broncos. He’s regularly late to plays as a run defender. Lenon is even worse when asked to cover.
He essentially tackled himself on the Chargers' first play from scrimmage. Mathews ran for 18 yards through a hole Lenon should have filled. He was late to react (as usual), and when he turned to pursue Mathews, he stumbled and fell to the ground.
Chris Harris: B
Harris failed to make the box score against the Chargers. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. He did a good job covering his man most of the night. The Chargers were moving their weapons around all night, so Harris was matched up against several different players.
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie: B+
Rodgers-Cromartie only allowed Keenan Allen to catch one pass. Too bad that crossing route went for a touchdown. Allen had one other catch (also for a touchdown), but it was when Kayvon Webster was guarding him.
John Fox praised Rodgers-Cromartie on Friday. “I thought for the most part he did a pretty good job. We had a little miscommunication on a crossing route that he caught for what I believe was their first touchdown. But other than that, I thought he did pretty good.”
Kayvon Webster: D
The rookie had a terrible game against the Chargers. Rivers was targeting Webster early and often.
Webster is fast in a straight line, but he struggles to transition from backpedal to sprint. His hips are stiff, and he will regularly bite on double moves. Webster also looks for the big hit instead of making sure to properly tackle.
To make things even worse, he suffered a thumb injury that will require surgery. It’s not season-ending, but he may miss valuable playing time. Webster has talent, but he certainly needs more experience.
After the game, Webster talked about his disappointing day. “If they feel like that’s where they want to go, then I have to put myself in a position to make the best play. I want them to keep coming after me because that is just making me better week in and week out.”
Quentin Jammer: C-
Jammer didn’t make it into the box score. However, unlike Harris it was because Jammer wasn’t making many plays out there. A miscommunication with Webster also caused one of the Broncos 12 men on the field penalties.
Duke Ihenacho: C-
Ihenacho needs to earn more playing time. It’s not because he’s fantastic on the field, but it’s because his replacement (Omar Bolden) has struggled during the last two games.
Ihenacho loves to hit, and he can intimidate an opponent. He finished the game with two tackles (both solo) against the Chargers.
Mike Adams: B
Adams was everywhere on Thursday night. He did a good job of putting himself in position to make a play. Adams quickly diagnosed plays in front of him, and he came up hurriedly in run support.
He was posterized on a touchdown catch by Keenan Allen. That wasn’t his fault. Allen jumped over Kayvon Webster and landed right into Adams as he crossed the goal line. Very few (if any) defenders could have stopped that play.
Adams finished the game with six tackles (five solo) and one tackle for a loss.
Omar Bolden: C-
Bolden may be showing up in practice, but he’s struggling to translate that success to the games. He was out of position on many plays and played almost as poorly as Webster.
Bolden compiled three tackles (one solo) against the Chargers. His increased playing time over the last two weeks has not paid off.
Fox talked about why Bolden is getting more playing time. “As I mentioned last week, you earn playing time. A guy catches your eye in practice. It’s a performance-based business, so they earn that right, and I think Omar has.”
Trindon Holliday: B
Holliday held on to the rock, and that’s most important for the Broncos in a battle of field position. He had four kick returns for 108 yards on Thursday night.
Matt Prater: A+
Prater was perfect (again) this week. He was 2-of-2 on extra points and 2-of-2 on field goals. Prater scored eight of the Broncos’ 20 points.
Britton Colquitt: A
Colquitt punted more than he’s used to. He had four punts for 186 yards against the Chargers. Only one of his punts landed inside the Chargers’ 20-yard line. His long punt of the night was 51 yards.