Sunday’s game against the Rams was a lot like your classic schoolyard fight, featuring the quiet pipsqueak vs the bully who beats up every kid who crosses him. No one gives the pipsqueak a chance, because well, he’s a pipsqueak. He has no business winning the fight and everyone expects another massacre, but then the fight starts and the pipsqueak walks right up to the bully and punches him in the nose. The bully is shocked, the other kids are shocked and even the pipsqueak can’t believe it, but that’s just the beginning. He keeps coming at the bully with lefts and rights and eventually the bully gives up, not because he is physically unable to win at that point, but because he is mentally psyched out.
If you have the stones to do so, go back and watch that game and that’s exactly what you’ll see. The Rams open up the first quarter as the aggressor; they take shots down the field in the passing game, pound the Broncos’ defense with their running game and relentlessly assault Peyton Manning with creative blitz packages. They take the lead, receive a huge boost in confidence and never let up for a second. Meanwhile, the Broncos do little to adjust and seem to believe that just because they are more talented, they will prevail in the end. What we have here is a severe oversight by the Broncos and a lesson that they should have already known – on any given Sunday, any shrimp can kick your ass if you don’t match his intensity.
The truth of the matter is, the Broncos have more than enough talent to win a Super Bowl, but their issues run deeper than what’s on the surface. They went into the season convinced that they would be faster and more physical, that the weaknesses that were exposed by Seattle had been properly addressed. 10 games into the season, I see a team that is remarkably similar to last year’s and not in good ways. Too often the Broncos allow their opponent to dictate the pacing and tempo of the game, and they are too easily pushed around. The defense surrenders big plays at inexcusable times, the coaches can’t seem to keep up with their counterparts on the other sideline and overall there is still far too much pressure on Peyton to be perfect in order to come away with a win.
Let’s start with Peyton, who quite honestly hasn’t looked like himself for 9 of the last 12 quarters of football. A lot of that is on him. He needs to make better decisions out there and cut down on the turnovers, but more importantly I think he needs to stop trying to do everything on his own. Against the Rams, the Broncos threw the ball 54 times and only had 9 rushing attempts. That’s right, NINE. For the whole game. This was a lot different than the New England game, where the Broncos fell way behind early and had to abandon the running game to try and catch up. At halftime, they only trailed 13-7 and had plenty of time to get back in the game. With the Rams completely focused on shutting down our aerial attack, you would think this would have been a perfect opportunity to pound the rock inside and try to get those defensive backs to creep up. Instead, Peyton and Adam Gase stubbornly stuck with their gameplan, which was to throw, throw, throw, maybe try a running play on the next series, and then throw some more.
Peyton is the most cerebral football player on the planet, so he knows that the Broncos can’t possibly hope to make it to another Super Bowl, let alone win a playoff game, if they don’t find more balance on offense. Maybe he’s lost faith in his beleaguered offensive line, which looks so lost at times that it’s a wonder we ever made it as far as we did last year with most of the same guys in the trenches. Perhaps you can chalk up the issues up front to the fact that a couple of those guys are playing out of position, but whatever the case I don’t think you can solve everything by bringing in Ritchie Incognito, who hasn’t played in over a year. You have to find a way to build your line’s confidence back up, and the best way to do that is to run the ball. C.J. Anderson had a terrific game against the Raiders and he needs to be a big part of anything you do offensively going forward, especially with Montee Ball, Ronnie Hillman, Emmanuel Sanders and Julius Thomas all banged up. Oh, and for fuck’s sake, would you give Cody Latimer some playing time already? You didn’t spend a second-round pick on the guy just to have him keep the bench warm all season.
For all the problems our offense has experienced over the past few weeks, I’m confident that Peyton and co. will figure it out sooner rather than later. I wish I could say the same for our coaching staff, who have made some real head scratching decisions lately. What bothers me the most is how they are dealing with Brandon McManus. I still think it was a mistake to let Matt Prater go, but that’s over and done with. Prater is gone and McManus is the kicker and so far he’s been pretty shaky, but not to the point where he should be ostracized for the rest of the season. John Fox would rather go for it on 4th and 1 from the 35 than give his young kicker a chance to get three points, and to me that’s crazy. You are in a dome and your kicker has a strong leg, and you won’t even let him try to make a field goal in a close game? How is he ever supposed to gain any confidence to make a key field goal on the road at Arrowhead Stadium, or in the playoffs if we have to travel back to Foxborough? McManus is a young player, and like any young player there’s going to be some bumps in the road before he finds his footing. If you weren’t willing to ride it out with him, then why was Prater ever let go in the first place?
Lastly, why is it that the Broncos are still letting other teams take it to them physically? John Elway spent all that money to bring in T.J. Ward, DeMarcus Ware and Aquib Talib and while the defense is improved, it isn’t exactly an intimidating unit. The Rams went right at our defense and though they didn’t score a lot of points, they controlled our field position and used their running game to put themselves in position for field goals. Our defense didn’t break, but they also rarely came up with any big plays and didn’t force any turnovers. As a whole, they are much healthier than last season and there’s just no excuse to be coming up short in the takeaway department. You can lay a large portion of the blame at the feet of Jack Del Rio, who needs to dial up more blitz packages to take the pressure off of Ware and Von Miller and never seems to adjust when teams torch his defense on third and long, but the players have to rediscover their edge and use it to instill some fear in the hearts of their opponents. I guarantee you that the Broncos were afraid after Rodney McLeod laid out Sanders, and while I don’t condone our guys trying to hurt other players out there, that is the level of physicality that our defense needs to find.
When the Broncos honored Champ Bailey on Tuesday with a retirement press conference, someone asked him if he’s worried about his former team. He confidently admitted that he wasn’t and that it was better to be dealing with these sorts of issues now than in the playoffs. If you don’t trust the opinion of ‘ol no. 24, then look no further than the Baltimore Ravens from two years ago. They were experiencing all kinds of issues with their offensive line, defense and quarterback down the stretch but got them all corrected in time to make a playoff run that culminated in a Super Bowl win. No situation is ever completely identical to another in pro football, and yet I have a feeling that if the Broncos just recapture the mindset that they have what it takes to win a championship and play within themselves, there’s no reason we can’t do the same.