Biggest Takeaways from Denver Broncos' Week 4 Win
The offense seemed to find balance in this contest. Quarterback Peyton Manning didn’t have to carry the load, as the ground game finally got on track. Running back Ronnie Hillman became the team’s first 100-yard rusher of the year with a 103-yard performance against the Vikings.
The defense continues to dominate and once again sealed victory for the Broncos. It compiled seven sacks on Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, and a last-minute sack and forced fumble by strong safety T.J. Ward ended the game.
Head coach Gary Kubiak talked about how he feels with this undefeated start.
"I think we're improving in a lot of areas. We obviously need to protect the ball better, but I think we are improving. We improved today offensively running the ball. We had a new lineup up front, so I'm proud of the way those guys played. We're putting together some big drives at the right time.”
Kubiak continued, “Then defensively, we gave up some big drives. We gave up that 98-yard drive that got them back in the game, but then we come back and make the next play. We're finding a way as a team, but yeah, you're right: There are a lot of things that need to improve."
Here are the five biggest takeaways from the Broncos’ Week 4 win against the Vikings.
Offensive Line Shuffles Pay Off
The Broncos offensive line has been a work in progress this year. The starting five to begin the regular season had never played in a game together. That unit was changed once again when rookie left tackle Ty Sambrailo was declared out with a shoulder injury.
To replace Sambrailo, the team moved right tackle Ryan Harris over to left tackle. With Harris vacating the right side, second-year pro Michael Schofield received the first start of his pro career. Harris was decent at left tackle against the Vikings, and Schofield played better than some expected; there were only a small handful of snaps where it looked as if he was beaten by his man. Schofield also did a good job as a run-blocker when asked to do so.
Kubiak had concerns about this group before the game.
"My concern more than anything was the fact that we didn't practice together all week. [G] Evan [Mathis] was out. [He] had a hamstring going on. We had to rest Evan. We had some guys to move around, so we really didn't practice.”
Kubiak continued, “We rested [G] Lou [Louis Vasquez], I think, on Wednesday. Our guys didn't practice together until Friday.”
A group that has yet to establish chemistry now had to deal with yet another line combination and players moving out of position. Kubiak knows that’s part of the business.
“Having changes, that's part of this league, so you've got to just trust guys and go and battle, but you want some continuity in your work. Hopefully we can settle down a little bit, get some continuity in what we're doing.”
Kubiak concluded, “Obviously, we did a good job. I think we gave up a couple sacks. To go out there and run the ball the way we ran it, I think you've got to, with asking 68 [T Ryan Harris] to move and Michael [Schofield] to come in, you've got to feel good about what happened."
There’s no word on how long Sambrailo could be out with this shoulder injury. For the time being, this latest combination may be the one for the Broncos moving forward.
Peyton Manning Under Fire
We normally don’t see Manning under fire that often, but this season has been a different story. Defenses are not worried about him throwing deep, so they are squatting on shorter routes and sending extra blitzers early and often.
Manning is certainly not the same player he used to be. He was never known as a scrambling quarterback, but he used to be able to buy more time with his feet. Now, Manning is more immobile than ever before and needs his feet set to throw with proper velocity.
In the Week 4 win, Manning was only sacked two times and hit three times. However, there were more than a few snaps where Manning was hit while releasing the ball. Those type of hits can add up over the course of the season.
Kubiak praised the offensive line after a tough win over the Vikings.
“I thought they did a really good job. I thought that Mike Schofield, [he] was making his first NFL start, and it’s not easy against a really good front and defense. [T] Ryan [Harris] moved to the left side, and I thought that he did a good job. Evan continues to get more comfortable playing next to [C] Matt [Paradis], and of course, Lou is kind of the anchor in there. I thought that they did a really good job in some critical situations.”
Manning beats the pass rush with elite anticipation. He sees the rush quickly and usually is precise on where to go with the ball under duress. Manning will need to continue doing that going forward as the offensive line continues to rotate and establish chemistry.
T.J. Ward Is the Man
Strong safety T.J. Ward is one of the fiercest players on this Broncos defense. He’s an intimidating presence on the field and usually plays close to the line of scrimmage, where he can stuff the run or blitz the quarterback.
The veteran safety sealed the victory for the Broncos on Sunday by stripping Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater with only 35 seconds remaining as the Vikings were trying to move into scoring position.
Ward explained the final play.
“They had a stack alignment. We had been playing a lot of man coverage, so I tried to show that to [TE Kyle] Rudolph, and at the last minute I tried to move outside and came around the edge, and the tackle missed me, so I snuck up under there and got to Bridgewater.”
The Broncos are leading the league with 18 sacks after four games. The pass-rushers up front help out the players in the secondary. Ward is a player who can serve both units. He can roam the field in coverage but is also proven as a blitzing safety.
He’s a fine asset for the Broncos defense, and his versatility comes in handy on any down-and-distance situation. Ward should continue to wreak havoc for the Broncos defense each and every week as one of the team’s primary leaders.
After the game, linebacker Von Miller was asked about Ward. After looking thoughtfully to the sky, Miller simply answered, “T.J. Ward is the man!”
Yes, Von, you’re right: Ward is indeed the man.
Owen Daniels a Favorite Target
The Broncos have made a greater emphasis to get the tight ends more involved. While Virgil Green is staying in to block, veteran Owen Daniels is being targeted more frequently by Manning.
He has been targeted 21 times this year, and as the weeks go by it looks like Daniels is Manning’s third-favorite target behind superstar receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. Over the last two weeks, Daniels has caught a touchdown pass in each game.
His touchdown this week came on a fourth-down play in the third quarter. He motioned across the formation and looked like he was going to block on the left side for a running play that was going to the right at the goal line. Instead, Manning turned to Daniels and lofted an arcing passing into the end zone.
Daniels talked about the difficulty in hauling in such a wide-open pass.
“Yeah, those are probably the hardest throws to make and the hardest catches to make. You just have to think to yourself, 'Just catch it.’ It seemed like it was in the air forever, but Peyton did a great job of getting it there.”
Daniels knows the offense like the back of his hand, since he’s played under Kubiak in every year he’s been in the NFL. While some players asked Daniels for help with the playbook earlier this year, Daniels believes his teammates are getting comfortable with the Kubiak system.
“Guys are getting it. A lot of that [happened] during OTAs and camp, but we have smart people and smart players, and they’re figuring it out pretty quickly.”
The Broncos offense is finding it’s stride. They are gaining better balance due to the success of the rushing attack, and they seem to find more comfort with Daniels as a primary target. Expect that to continue going forward.
Ronnie Hillman Sparks Ground Game
All season long, the Broncos have struggled to run the football effectively. That changed against the Vikings on Sunday.
Ronnie Hillman was able to break away for a 72-yard touchdown run and finished the day with 103 yards rushing. He flashed the speed he’s always had as he hit the corner on a toss play and went untouched into the end zone.
Hillman knows how big that run was—not only for this game, but for the entire rushing attack going forward.
“That was definitely a big run for us. We had to get the run game sparked this week. We had three bad weeks of running the ball, and tonight we got it started.”
We haven’t seen much of a change in the snap count for Hillman over four weeks. He’s averaging about 24 snaps per week and ended up with 25 on Sunday.
At this time, it doesn’t seem like the team is going to make a change to their running back corps. Anderson should continue to be the starter and the primary back on passing downs. Hillman should continue playing a change-of-pace role behind Anderson. It’s the best way to keep Hillman fresh, so that the change of pace can be an explosive one for the Broncos.
All quotes and injury/practice observations were obtained firsthand. Record/statistical information was provided via the Broncos' media department unless otherwise noted. Advanced stats were via ESPN's employees-only database.