Denver Broncos: St. Louis Rams

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- It is easy to look at Saturday night’s preseason game against the St. Louis Rams and simply see the Denver Broncos faced an NFC West team they’re only going to see once in a great while in the seasonal rotation that is the NFL schedule.

But look a little more closely and you will really see what the template will be for many defenses that face the Broncos and Peyton Manning this season.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
Chris Humphreys/USA TODAY SportsQuarterback Peyton Manning tried to find room to pass against the Rams on Saturday night.

Because out of any head coach and high-ranking assistant coach, no combination in the league has likely faced Manning more during the future Hall of Famer’s career behind center than Rams coach Jeff Fisher and Rams assistant head coach Dave McGinnis. Which means, they've tried most everything, including Fisher calling for an onside kick the first three times the Titans kicked off in a game against the Colts.

Fisher faced Manning twice a year in the AFC South since 2002, when the league’s divisional alignment was changed until Fisher’s exit from the Titans following the 2010 season. And McGinnis has been an assistant on Fisher’s staff, in both Nashville and St. Louis since 2004. The current St. Louis staff also includes a former Titans defensive coordinator in Chuck Cecil and a former Titans linebacker in Joe Bowden.

And when they all put their heads together for a rather no-frills defensive gameplan, the Rams' strategy Saturday night was still likely the same Manning will see against teams comfortable enough with their pass rush not to have to blitz him a lot. Nobody really likes blitzing Manning a lot, though teams did try it slightly more against the Broncos than they did in Manning's final two seasons in Indianapolis. The Rams worked back to front, took away the big stuff, especially down the hashmarks, forced patience and hoped for the mistakes that impatience brings.

In short, yards don’t matter, points do. So the yards pile up, but when the offense moved inside the 25-yard line or so, the angles go away, there is less room to work and it can be more difficult to throw into a crowd to score without resorting to corner fade after corner fade.

As a result, Manning threw 34 passes and completed 25 of them for 234 yards in his half of work Saturday. The Broncos, working at breakneck speed as well, ran an astounding 49 plays in the first half, but because of turnovers, a missed field goal and two punts, they had just 10 points to show for all of that.

Manning’s longest completion was a 23-yarder to Andre Caldwell late in the second quarter. He had 12 completions of fewer than 10 yards and 20 of his completions were for 15 or fewer yards. That’s because that’s what the Rams were hoping for as well.

“That’s what they were doing," Manning said. “So, you can throw down the field, I guess, and throw incomplete, but it would be just a waste of time in my opinion if they’re all just sitting back and hanging back."

It does show those who have faced him the most over the years, except the fact Manning knows what they’re up to most of the time and has an answer for it. So, better to take the drum-beat approach and force him to make completion after completion, try to make tackles to limit the catch-and-run damage. Then hope the four-man rush can get there at times to at least get him off the mark once in a while, and hope a mistake or two from the Broncos comes along for the ride as well, be it a fit of impatience, an ill-timed penalty, turnover or missed assignment.

Even Manning’s touchdown pass, a 6-yarder that had to be a GPS job, fit into the smallest of windows to Demaryius Thomas over Cortland Finnegan. In the end, until the Broncos can run the ball well enough to threaten the defensive plan and bring the safeties down toward the line of scrimmage, it is a blueprint others will try to follow. Because with Wes Welker added to the offense, it’s really the only choice they will have, to simply live with the gaudy stats left behind and hope the touchdowns aren’t listed next to them.

Observation deck: Broncos-Rams

August, 24, 2013

DENVER -- While Peyton Manning's night was done at halftime, the Denver Broncos took most of their starters into the third quarter of Saturday night's preseason meeting with the St. Louis Rams and came away with the same questions they carried into the contest -- turnovers on offense and special-teams play that is changing games in the wrong direction. The Broncos did, however, come away with a 27-26 victory.

Some things to consider:

  • The Broncos kick-started the offense by going big. They opened the night in a three-wide-receiver set, their preferred look, but after Rams rookie linebacker Alec Ogletree broke free in the middle of the formation on a third-and-4 on Denver's first possession, the Broncos beefed things up a bit. They lined up in a two-tight-end look on 29 of the next 35 plays, including all 12 in a drive that ended with a blocked field goal. It is a versatile formation for the Broncos, one that forces defenses to decide whether to put a linebacker or safety on Jacob Tamme. In all, the Broncos put up 174 of their 290 yards in the first half out of the two-tight-end look. But for a team that signed Wes Welker in the offseason, it shows there is some work to be done. Welker was not in uniform Saturday because of an ankle injury and Andre Caldwell played as the third receiver with the starters.

  • Special teams have gone from a hey-there-is-time dilemma to a full-blown, what’s-the-deal affair. The Broncos surrendered a 107-yard kickoff return for a score to go with a 33-yard punt return against the Seahawks a week ago. Saturday night, Tavon Austin took the Broncos’ first punt 81 yards and added a 23-yarder in the second quarter; the Rams also blocked a field goal. Jeff Rodgers' units were consistently a strength in the 13-3 campaign of 2012, and more of the same was expected this season. Yet the Broncos are giving up lanes in the return game when they don’t show the discipline they had last season and they aren’t getting off enough blocks.

  • [+] EnlargeRonnie Hillman, Alec Ogletree
    AP Photo/Jack DempseyRonnie Hillman saw this second-quarter carry end with Alec Ogletree ripping the ball away and returning it for a touchdown.
    For the second consecutive game, Broncos running back Ronnie Hillman saw one of his fumbles returned for a touchdown. Last week, it was Seattle’s Brandon Browner who went 106 yards when Hillman fumbled into the end zone in Seattle. Against the Rams, Hillman committed a cardinal sin for a running back -- turning his back to the defender when his forward progress had been stopped. Ogletree ripped the ball out as Hillman was falling, back to the ground and ball exposed; Ogletree scooped up the loose ball and returned it 13 yards for the score. The Broncos have lost four fumbles in three preseason games, including Hillman’s two. Hillman went back into the game to start Denver's next possession, so it hasn’t affected his playing time … yet.

  • Knowshon Moreno, whose roster spot looked shaky early on in camp, has carved out some playing time in passing situations because of his reliability in protection. He got some snaps with the starters in the first half and more on the Broncos' first possession of the second half when all of the offensive starters, except for Manning, were in the game.

  • The Broncos figured out a way to get Von Miller into the game and still work in the linebackers who will have to replace him during his six-game suspension to open the regular season. Broncos coach John Fox said this past week he would play Miller in the final two preseason games, including the finale Thursday against Arizona -- a game most, or all, of the Broncos regulars are expected to sit out. With Robert Ayers (ankle/Achilles) and Derek Wolfe (neck) out of the lineup, the Broncos played Miller at defensive end, with Shaun Phillips in the base defense. That put Nate Irving in Miller’s usual strongside spot in the base look, with Wesley Woodyard in the middle and Danny Trevathan on the weak side. Miller also stayed at end in the nickel and dime looks, which is where he normally plays in those packages.

  • Denver offensive coordinator Adam Gase has promised to push the pace at times, especially in the elevation of the team’s home stadium, to see if defenses can keep up. The mistake-filled first half against the Seahawks camouflaged the fact that the Broncos ran 40 plays on offense for 209 yards. Saturday night, they made that look positively tortoise-like. Against the Rams, the Broncos ran an astounding 30 plays in the opening quarter and 49 for 290 yards in the first half. Hillman’s fumble and an interception from Manning in the two-minute drill tempered the output, however. But it shows opposing defenses that they will have to be ready for that kind of pace.

  • Manning showed he has regular-season awareness when he caught the Rams with 12 men on the field with a quick snap, which drew a penalty flag.

  • Wide receiver Eric Decker had one catch for 10 yards in the first two preseason games combined. He was targeted eight times in the first half and finished with six catches for 66 yards. With Welker out, Decker worked out of the slot plenty.

  • Cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who left Thursday’s practice after taking a knee to his lower back, started the game and played with the first-team defense through the first half.

  • And in the what-a-difference-starters-can-make department: With the majority of the first-team offense still in the game, Brock Osweiler opened the second half under center for the Broncos. On the second possession, the second-year player led the Broncos on an 11-play, 79-yard touchdown drive. With time to look things over, he showed a power arm, going 5-for-6 for 58 yards on the march. Playing behind backup linemen, Osweiler had been sacked seven times in the first two preseason games. Saturday, he was sacked on his first drop-back after the starting offensive line left the game, and he tossed an interception in the fourth quarter.

  • Left tackle Ryan Clady made his first preseason start and played into the second quarter. Clady, who had offseason shoulder surgery, had practiced more with the starting offense this past week. Chris Clark, Clady’s replacement, was flagged for holding on his first play after entering the game for Clady. But Clady’s return should settle things down up front, and the Broncos will be able to push the help in pass protection to the middle of the field.