ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- After diving into the Broncos' win over the Ravens Thursday night, there was a lot to see beyond Peyton Manning's historical seven-touchdown performance. Here are some thoughts on the offense:
As they came down the stretch last season, the Broncos largely tossed aside the diversity element and became almost exclusively a three-wide affair when they had the ball. They had just five snaps against the Browns last December when they weren’t in a three-wide set, and in the playoff loss to the Ravens last January they were in three wide all but seven snaps in a double-overtime game. By season’s end in 2012, they had spent 64 percent of their snaps in three wide. Wes Welker’s signing, for $12 million over two years, largely cemented that into the playbook so that percentage could go even higher this time around. And Thursday night the Broncos ran their first 20 offensive snaps -- penalty snaps included -- out of three wide. In the end, they were in three wide for 55 snaps (penalty snaps included), to go with eight snaps of two tight ends and five snaps with three tight ends as they tried to wind some clock at the end of the game. They still had troubles in protection out of three wide early in the game and it was a brief move to a two-tight end look to open a first-half series that help to reset things. They are still more efficient against some defenses, especially 3-4s, with two tight ends in the formation. So, it will be intriguing to see how they balance their desire to be a three-wide offense much of the time, because of the big-play potential they have in it, with the fact they do a better job keeping Manning out of harm's way when they do other things. As you would expect with so many plays out of three wide, all three Ravens sacks came against the formation, two of them when Manning was in the shotgun.
All of that three-wide action was also why Knowshon Moreno started, and played, the most snaps at running back for the Broncos. Moreno played in 37 snaps, Ronnie Hillman 15 and rookie Montee Ball had 18. Ball played predominantly in the multiple tight end sets. But pass protection, as well as handling the multiple audibles, were the major reasons Moreno was in the backfield the most. Ball went to the wrong side of Manning to take one fourth-quarter handoff -- the two adjusted nicely to avoid a fumble -- just one of those little things he’s going to have to clean up to play more often when the game is tighter and the formation is open.
Manning simply owned the intermediate routes against the Ravens. Of his six completions between 21 and 30 yards, four were touchdowns.
With the speed the Broncos want to play on offense, as well as the complexity of the playbook, there is to be some rust expected coming out of the gate. And as difficult as it may be for an offense whose quarterback threw seven touchdowns to show some choppiness, the Broncos did at times. Of the nine penalties they were flagged for in the game -- one was declined -- six came on offense, including three false starts (Ryan Clady, Wes Welker and Louis Vasquez).
A look or two at the video confirmed what wide Eric Decker put on Twitter following the game -- it was a difficult night for the fourth-year receiver. He dropped a certain touchdown pass, dropped a certain third-down conversion and fumbled after one of his two catches in the game -- the fumble went out of bounds so the Broncos kept possession. Decker had a team-leading 11 drops last season on his way to his first 1,000-yard campaign. Some personnel executives believe he has trouble at times when he has to go get a ball low enough that he can’t extend his hands toward the quarterback or track a has to track pass over his shoulder. Following the game, Decker posted on Twitter: "Much love to Broncos Country for reppin big last night! Big win! Def disappointed in my performance, unacceptable! Watch, learn, flush.''
The Broncos didn’t consistently win the line of scrimmage in run-game situations. And while they won't be the first team to struggle with Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, 10 of the Broncos' 23 carries in the game -- 43.5 percent -- went for 2 or fewer yards. They had two carries for negative yardage and four for 1 yard.
When you look at how Manning attacked what the Ravens' defense was doing against the Broncos' passing game, Welker turned out to be the only constant. Welker was the only Broncos player to have at least two receptions in both the first and second half of the game. In the first and second quarters combined Thursday, Welker had four catches and tight end Julius Thomas had four catches (two for touchdowns). Demaryius Thomas had one reception in the first half, as did Decker. In the second half, with the Ravens trying to deal with Julius Thomas a little more, Demaryius Thomas had four receptions, including two touchdowns. Julius Thomas had one catch after halftime. Welker had five second-half receptions, including both of his touchdowns in the game. Manning has always preached the take-what-the-defense-gives-you mantra, but more than one defensive coordinator in the league believes Manning will play that way more than ever at this stage of his career with the variety of targets he has in the offense. It will make him tougher to pin down in terms of trends and predicting what he will do in certain situations.