“Little too close for comfort there at the end.”
My buddy Ryan’s synopsis of the Broncos’ win over the Raiders hit the nail right on the head. That was more or less my first thought after the game concluded, as it was just an ugly win overall and much closer at the end than it needed to be. But after reflecting on it for a bit, I remembered that the 2015 season was littered with ugly wins and that turned out pretty well for the Broncos.
Not to say that the Broncos can make it that far this year without improving in some crucial areas. They can’t. All I’m saying is that it’s a reminder that the defense is and has been the backbone of this team, and that the offense doesn’t have to be the best in the league for the Broncos to win most Sundays. For instance, if McManus makes that field goal he missed yesterday and Siemian and co. come away with just one more touchdown, the outcome of the game isn’t even close to being in doubt. And I don’t think it’s too much to ask of this offense to score 20+ points per game and give their defense a cushion to work with, especially when it’s already happened twice this season.
We’ll see if they are improved or not after the bye, but for one week at least, we were all back in the glorious year of 2015, watching the dominant Denver defense close the door for another hard fought win. Almost brings a tear to my eye.
1. The Defense
I could wax poetically about the Broncos’ defense all day, but I’ll save most of my time for the rest of this article. Just know that I was a bit critical when they surrendered that long touchdown pass to Johnny Holton (I know, I have no idea who that is either), but then the No Fly Zone recovered and promptly made me and anyone else who questioned them look like fools. Also, the run defense has only yielded 203 yards through the first four games, which is the lowest mark in Broncos history. I don’t have to tell you how amazing that is, especially considering that the Raiders rumbled for 218 yards alone the first time these teams met last year.
And of course, major props to Justin Simmons for sealing the win with an interception on the Raiders’ last drive. The kid hasn’t been at his best early in the season, but that was a big-time play and just a preview of what he’ll bring to the table as he gets more comfortable.
2. The Running Game
I know that this runs contrary to what we’ve become accustomed to here in Denver the past several years, but this is not a passing team. They are a running team. C.J. Anderson and Jamaal Charles led the Broncos to 143 yards on the ground yesterday. Trevor Siemian threw for just 155 yards, most of which came in the first quarter. The Broncos average the third-most rushing yards per game in the league with, drumroll please… 143. Meanwhile, they have the 23rd-ranked passing offense, accumulating just 198.2 yards per game.
I’m not sure what it’s going to take to convince Mike McCoy that he needs to let his stable of backs loose more frequently, especially on first down, but it needs to happen. I don’t care if it’s old fashioned. With C.J. off to the best start of his career, Charles looking healthy (save for a scary hit to his knee yesterday) and both Devontae Booker and De’Angelo Henderson waiting in the wings, it just makes too much sense not to happen.
And if that’s not enough to convince you, Trevor plays his best when the running game is keeping the opposing defense off balance and in turn keeps the Denver defense fresh, which makes them even more of a force to be reckoned with. So run, Mike! Run like there’s no tomorrow!
3. A.J. Derby
If you didn’t tune in for the Broncos’ first drive, then you also missed one of the best plays of the year. Derby hauled in a pass from Siemian one-handed, then kept his balance up the sideline to get in for the score. It was easily the highlight of the game for the offense and the Broncos probably don’t win if Derby doesn’t channel his inner-OBJ (the one-handed catch OBJ, that is, not the pretend to urinate like a dog OBJ).
1. The Passing Game
Did I mention Derby’s incredible grab was the highlight of the game for the offense? Well, it was one of the only highlights for the passing game, which endured another afternoon of ineffectiveness. Part of the blame definitely can be attributed to the pass protection (more on that in a bit), but the Raiders seemed to anticipate that the Broncos would try and attack their suspect secondary down the field, and for the most part they took those looks away. It didn’t help that the Broncos refusal to run on first down put Siemian in a ton of second and long and third and long situations, and he’s just not going to convert very many of those.
To Trevor’s credit, he avoided the backbreaking mistakes that he made a week ago and that allowed the defense to close out the win. But it sure seems like the Broncos are trying to ride his arm to victory every week and clearly that is not a sustainable model of success. Trevor is much closer to Alex Smith than he’ll ever be to Peyton Manning, and there’s a reason that the Chiefs don’t ask Smith to throw 35+ times a game (save for week 1 against New England, which remains one of the great anomalies in sports). Give Trevor some balance and more manageable second and third down situations, and you’ll get the guy we saw in weeks 1 and 2. Make him stand in the shotgun and sling it like he’s Dan freaking Marino and you’ll see the far less efficient guy from weeks 3 and 4. This isn’t hard to figure out.
2. Special Teams
Sometimes it’s the issues that you can’t see just by popping the hood that will eventually break your car down. For the Broncos, that’s definitely their special teams right now, which continues to struggle mightily in return coverage and in critical situations. They gave up another big one to the Raiders yesterday, and that was before McManus missed another field goal that would’ve given the Broncos a cushion late and before Dixon shanked a punt to give the Raiders great field position on their last drive.
So far, special teams haven’t cost the Broncos a game, but they’ll eventually get burned if they keep playing with fire.
1. Right Tackle
Alright. Enough is enough. The Broncos have been using the bandaid approach at right tackle for years now, and one series from yesterday encapsulates how well that’s going this season. Menelik Watson, who has been mostly bad through four games in that position, went down with an injury and had to briefly exit the game. Donald Stephenson, the guy that John Elway brought Watson in to replace, subbed in and immediately gave up a sack to Khalil Mack (and Mack was THIS close to a strip-sack, prevented only by Siemian’s knee going down before the ball came out).
This has gone on long enough and it has to stop. So please, John Elway, spend the bye week finding a trade for an actual right tackle. I don’t care if it costs a high draft pick to bring someone in. If the line can protect Trevor more consistently and the running game keeps churning out the yardage, then this team has a chance to go somewhere come January. That’s definitely worth a second or third-round pick that may wind up being spent on a potential bust anyway. Make a trade, put Watson on the bench, cut Stephenson and then hope he winds up on another team so Von Miller can go against him. And if you can’t make a trade, then just line up an actual turnstile at right tackle. At least those things get jammed sometimes and don’t let anyone through.
Next game’s prediction: Broncos 31, Giants 10
Even if the tradition of terrible Broncos right tackles continues into week 6, I’m not expecting the Giants to put up much of a fight. McCoy will have a week to adjust his offense (which he has a track record of doing well) and the Broncos defense should batter Eli Manning and the Giants’ offense into submission. Post-bye week home games have long been kind to Denver, and that’s a tradition that I’m happy to see continue.