ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When the Broncos roared through the first six games of the season, piling up the points and wins, Broncos interim head coach Jack Del Rio often preached composure to his defensive players, that how they went about their business week to week was far more important than getting swept up in the team’s successes.
It is the same tact Del Rio has now taken as he addresses the whole team these days in the wake of Sunday night’s loss in New England. That the players should keep the ebb and flow of opinions about the Broncos’ postseason prospects on the outside and simply get to work inside the building.
“I know everyone is going to ride that roller coaster, last week we’re the greatest, this week not so good,’’ Del Rio said. “We’ll just keep working at it.’’
And after a long look at the video from Sunday night’s loss, here are some thoughts on the team’s offense:
Virgil Green has quietly worked his way into the good graces of quarterback Peyton Manning and the team’s offensive staff. When Julius Thomas was held out of Sunday’s game because of a right knee injury, it was Green who made the start. Some of that was due to the fact Joel Dreessen has dealt with some issues with his left knee since having two surgeries on the knee since last season, including the second after training camp had opened, but it is also due to Green’s combination of strength and athleticism. He is continuing to grow as a blocker at the point of attack and physically may be the strongest player the Broncos have at the position. His footwork and technique, having played in an option-based offense in college, suffers at the point of attack at times such as when he let Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones beat him to the inside to tackle Montee Ball for a 1-yard loss on a first-and-goal play in the first quarter. And that's been an issue at times overall at the position with Thomas' struggles as a blocker (the Broncos often line him up "wrong-footed'' as a blocker in hopes he will get the footwork correct if his right foot is forward more often, as the Broncos try to work with one tight end out of a three-wide look or to throw out of a two-tight end look. Dreessen had some difficulty anchoring in pass protection the previous week against the Chiefs. Overall, though, Manning has said he likes Green as a receiver and Green continues to carve out a niche in the offense. Jacob Tamme, a 50-catch receiver in 2012 for the Broncos, also played plenty in longer down-and-distance situations Sunday night in Thomas' absence, and was in the game quickly, entering on the Broncos’ first third-down play of the evening. Thomas is still the unquestioned starter at the position because of his impact in the passing game, but for the other three the competition for playing time is more heated there than anywhere else on the roster.
With defensive tackle Vince Wilfork on injured reserve the Broncos repeatedly pounded away at the middle of the Patriots defensive line with center Manny Ramirez carving out a run lane play after play. The Patriots play lighter in the defensive front with Wilfork out of the lineup and the Broncos repeatedly challenged New England’s front seven in the middle of the field because of it. For the year the Broncos have been spotty in the run game in the middle of the formation – they are averaging 3.71 yards per carry on plays that begin right over Ramirez – but it’s something they want in their scheme. Overall, they have sent 35 percent of their run plays over Ramirez this season and Sunday, after a few weeks of dealing with some knee issues, it paid enormous dividends as Ramirez looked to be feeling better and consistently made space to work.
Over the years, and now 21 games against Peyton Manning as either a defensive playcaller or head coach, Patriots coach Bill Belichick has routinely chosen coverage over pressure, often dropping, seven, eight or even nine players into the passing lanes to try and slow Manning down. And Sunday night Belichick consistently did the same and as a result there were multiple times he had linebackers trailing the Broncos’ wide receivers in coverage. Wes Welker had a 5-yard reception in the game when linebacker Dont’a Hightower was matched up on Welker form the snap as linebacker Jamie Collins came from deeper in the pattern to help on the tackle. It’s at least partly why the Broncos found so much room to run in the middle of the field. But the gamble worked overall for Belichick on a frigid, windy night when even 280 yards rushing from the Broncos wasn’t enough to make the Patriots pay for that strategy.
It’s fairly easy to see how the plans for a running-back-by-committee backfield has evolved into Knowshon Moreno carries the ball as many times as possible. Because Moreno has had ACL surgery as well as a stem cell procedure on the knee this past offseason the Broncos were thinking more rotations when the preseason ended. The thinking early on had been Moreno, because he was the most reliable in pass protection, would be the back much of the time in the three-wide set, while Ball would play when the team wanted to grind things out and Ronnie Hillman would be a hybrid of the two who could catch the ball out of the backfield and show some big-play pop in the run game. But Moreno has been the only back to consistently hang on to the ball in the run game. He hasn’t lost a fumble in 187 carries this season while Ball has lost a fumble for every 25 carries and Hillman was benched after losing a fumble in Indianapolis. Hillman has fumbled twice in 40 carries, but the Broncos lost just one of those. Sunday, Ball's lost fumble gave the Patriots a short field -- New England took over at the Broncos 32-yard line on their second possession of the second half -- and plenty of momentum when they scored six plays later. C.J. Anderson also fumbled in the game, but scrambled well enough to recover it as well. With Moreno dealing with an ankle injury, the Broncos will need one of the other backs to prove they can hang onto the ball or the offense will suffer as it drifts toward a more one-dimensional look to overcome any lack of production in the run game.
The Broncos have put Manning away from center more, either in the shotgun or pistol look (a shallower set with the running back behind him), since he re-aggravated a high-ankle sprain to his right leg in San Diego. Manning was away from center on 65 offensive snaps against the Chiefs two weeks ago – including penalty plays – or 89 percent of the offensive plays. Sunday the Broncos had Manning away from center on a season-high 88 snaps, including penalty plays, or 94.6 percent of the offensive snaps. Manning has worn a heavily-wrapped brace on the right ankle in both games.