As expected, this was an absolutely tough, physical, and ultimately, a miserable day for the Broncos. And just as predicted by most who believed that in the NFL, a team must be balanced on offense in order to win games against good teams, the Broncos were unable to establish enough of a balanced attack to put the Baltimore defense on their heels, sustain drives, and win the game against a team that I believe is now a Superbowl contender.
Below are my notes from the game.
1st Half -
Baltimore started the game by testing the Broncos' pass defense, and did a good job of getting mismatches with their TEs. I believe this was risky on their part, but Cam Cameron had a plan and was sticking with it. By forcing the Broncos to respect the passing game, it gave the Ravens hope of being able to set up their bread-and-butter later on, which is the running game.
On defense, save for the TD pass at the end of the 2nd quarter, the Ravens used Fabian Washington to absolutely mug Brandon Lloyd all day. They played all of the receivers well and maintained gap discipline against Denver's running backs.
As expected, the offensive line did our RBs absolutely no favors, as most running plays were for either no gain or negative yardage. With another sub-par effort of 13 carries for a dismal 39 yards (3 YPC,) plays downfield were not as easily generated, keeping the Ravens in the nickel for most of the game. With such a favorable scheme, Denver's running game should've been able to make gains from the past 4 weeks' weak performances. But, this is no longer a dominant running team, and Maroney's slight improvement in finding a few cracks in the D-line, with some occasional 5-6 yard north-south running, did nothing to boost Denver's morale. To be fair to Maroney, since he's still returning from injury and getting into playing shape, although today's effort did little to boost our confidence in the ground attack, with his 6 carries for 27 yards (4.5 YPC,) he did show some improvement in this game against a defense that can stop just about anybody.
Denver was poor in the 1st half on 3rd downs, where I have no choice but to criticize the playcalling: HB draws and a screen pass to Demaryius Thomas on 3rd and long situations? On at least these two occasions, McD went for the positive play, instead of giving the offense the opportunity to convert down the field. This is not 2009. This is the year 2010, and Denver has demonstrated an ability to move the ball through the air for the most yards in the league. Why such conservative playcalling? It lacks killer instinct and is evidence of over-thinking things and it is hurting the team's chances of trying to win games. If this continues against good teams, Denver's identity will be playing not to lose, much as it did in 2009, instead of playing to win.
Being a young team on offense, it is understandable that the coaches wanted to avoid negative plays and turnovers, but to call plays that will surely result in a punt is conservative to a fault. At some point, the shackles need to be taken off - after all, Orton's having another career year.
Holding penalties by the offensive line also killed promising gains by Eddie Royal. He had one nice gain of over 30 yards, but was unfortunately negated by a holding penalty by Thomas. The Broncos offense committed 7 penalties for 70 yards in the 1st half alone.
Correll Buckhalter had a lot of trouble getting the screen-game going, as he could not haul in a few passes from Orton. 1 catch for 12 yards helped, but gained only 13 yards on 5 carries (2.6 YPC.) In fact, although I am sure he is still bothered by the stinger he suffered in TC, he is having trouble contributing to the offense this year. If this is how he'll look the rest of the way, he'll have to have one heck of an offseason and be 100% healthy to earn a roster spot next year. At some point, my excuses for his TC injury will no longer be valid and that time is coming very soon.
The only real negative outcomes to pick on were Brian Dawkins not turning around on a pass by Flacco and rookie Perrish Cox's inability to play the ball on a TD attempt. In typical pro fashion, Cox was picked on by a veteran QB, but managed to stay tough and keep playing as best he could in place of Andre Goodman.
Props go to Wink for making some key defensive adjustments after the 1st quarter, where suddenly, after starting out 8/9 passing, Flacco began to have fewer options available, as the Denver D stiffened.
The one positive about the end of this half was the fact that despite being initially out-schemed, they showed that they could make adjustments to give themselves a chance to get on the board before the half. The difference from last year's version, was that this Broncos team showed no quit in this game. And that is exactly what they had to do to slowly begin to chip away at the home team's confidence.
Initially, Flacco had trouble keeping drives alive and credit goes to the Denver D for making adjustments. Of course, the Ravens have a good coordinator in Cam Cameron, who found new ways of getting their running game going with Willis McGahee and Ray Rice.
And that ultimately became the difference in this game. As I feared, Baltimore was able to do what Denver is possibly a whole season away from doing: run the ball in the Red Zone. This balance gave the Ravens the opportunity to eventually score on the strong side with Rice.
Later in the 4th quarter, Ray Rice was beginning to find the holes in the middle of the Denver D, and managed to accumulate 133 yards for the day off 27 carries. He also had 4 rushing plays for 10+ yards on the day, which is enough to make all of our RBs jealous.
Their ability to stop the run was emphasized in the 2nd half, as Denver's RBs could not find any holes to run through. They were very disciplined and physical right up until the whistle blew. They really are a model for our defense (as well as others around the league) for how to be physical, yet remain focused on doing your job.
As much as I'd love to tell a different tale, the poor run-blocking showed up in the 2nd half as well. Buckhalter and Andre Brown were met in the backfield and there were no signs of this phase of the game gaining any momentum. Brown had a dismal -1 yard on 2 carries. Despite making an attempt to run the ball better, the Broncos' offensive line failed again today and failed miserably. Do we need any further proof that the line is not opening any holes for the RBs to run through? Brown is now the 4th back to try to do anything behind this line and is essentially moving backwards.
With such a great passing attack, by forcing the Ravens' D into playing the nickel, this was the offense's opportunity to find some running room. Instead, against a more run-friendly defensive scheme, the Broncos fell flat again. Speaking of the nickel, that really made the Broncos offense miss Knowshon Moreno. Michael Lombardi had identified Moreno as a promising nickel RB when he was coming out of the 2009 draft. According to Ted Bartlett, he spoke on the NFL Network about Knowshon:
Lombardi's point was that Moreno was an ideal nickel RB, because he's a very good blocker and receiver, and because he's powerful enough to run through the arm tackles of most DBs.
Eddie Royal found holes in the defense and his great 1st half play was followed up with at least one more great play in the 4th quarter - but by then, the game was already getting out of hand.
Denver had good coverage to start the 2nd half, and the adjustments made in the 2nd quarter appeared to continue to be effective in the 3rd quarter as well. They did a great job of holding Anquan Boldin to only 1 catch on the day.
However, they were not disciplined the whole game: leaving 12 men on the field brought back bad memories of the Jaguars game and Jarvis Moss' neutral zone infraction helped the Ravens keep a critical 3rd quarter drive alive. Just when I was beginning to think that Wink had things under control, the D began to make mistakes.
Despite being picked on most of the game, Cox did make a great play on Mason in the 3rd quarter, playing the ball, and taking away a potential big gain - unfortunately on a 3rd and 7, Flacco scrambled, made one defender whiff on a tackle, and it resulted in a 1st down.
When backed up against their own goal line, I give much credit to Kevin Vickerson for stopping repeated attempts by the Ravens to try to punch it in on the weak side. On every attempt, the Ravens ran into a wall - Big Vick. But it was not enough, as a rushing TD at the beginning of the 4th quarter put Denver down 24-7.
Justin Bannan was also a force against the running game and on a few occasions, he was used as a pass-rusher from the middle of the D-line.
Brian Dawkins hurt his knee on a 3rd down play, and this injury marked the beginning of the end for this game. The dominoes began to fall and it quickly turned into the Ray Rice show.
I give credit to the Ravens' kicker for kicking the ball into the endzone on several of his kicks. As much as I love Matt Prater, he is much better at home than away, and is not able to force opponents to start at their own 20. The Broncos had a mountain the size of Everest to climb today, playing in such a one-dimensional fashion. Without the ability to run, especially the few times they managed to get into the Red Zone, with the receivers being blanketed for most of the game, with so many penalties committed by the offense, and some conservative, "play the percentages" playcalling, there never was any momentum for the Broncos to feed off of.
Without focusing on only the negative though, despite the lack of a good ground game, I will give credit to Denver's offensive line in protecting Orton and allowing only one sack for the day. They did appear to play better with Russ Hochstein replacing Stanley Daniels at LG, and Orton was able to throw once again for over 300 yards and 2 TDs in this losing effort.
Had Moreno been 100%, this game might have gone down a little bit differently. Denver's passing game warrants the same response the Ravens had today, and it is now anyone's guess as to what could've been with Moreno in this game. I do agree with the decision to have him sit this one out, since the rule of thumb with hamstring injuries is that it takes 6 weeks to recover. But it has to be taken care of properly. Anything short of that and the injury can linger. Hopefully, his more recent "tweak" is less severe than the one he suffered to his other leg in TC, so he can make his return against another tough group: Rex Ryan's Jets defense.
Back to what went wrong today. Only after the Ravens had a dozen or more plays on the Broncos' side of the field did Wink decide to bring some pressure. Maybe it's just me, but I think this adjustment should've been made after the Ravens' first drive.
Injuries began to pile up again, where Darcel McBath got tangled up with Haloti Ngata on a goal-to-goal situation. Luckily, it only appeared to be an ankle sprain. The scary moment of the day was the kick return by D. Thomas, where he was hit low and high, resulting in a neck and head injury. Hopefully, he will be ok to return to action soon. Dawkins was also hurt, leaving the game with a knee injury. We can only hope it is not serious, as we are down to Bruton and Hill at safety.
Let's talk about some positives. An improvement from last year's matchup, is that although Denver lost by two TDs, it did not get blown out in the same fashion as they did last year. The gap has narrowed somewhat, but it obviously is still one that will have to be overcome for this team to have deep playoff aspirations.
To be honest, the Ravens are a very good team and they play very well at home. I believe that with a good existing ground game, defense, and a now potentially dangerous passing game, Baltimore is well on its way to being a Superbowl contender. They are a strong playoff team that has been picking up steam slowly thus far, and deserves to go deep in the playoffs. Where last year, they were a mere playoff contender, by adding a few key receivers to their offense, this team is now a legitimate SB contender.
Let's face it - we lost today to a team that is one or two years ahead of the Broncos in development. Today's contest was simply a measure of whether Denver had improved since last year, and to some degree, it had. The Broncos were completely dominated last year, and without Knowshon, they would've been even worse off. This year, without the help of Moreno and Elvis Dumervil, they hung around and were still very much in it into the 4th quarter.
Another positive to take away from this is that Denver's schedule gets easier from the Jets game on out. Some of us have been saying that if Denver could be 3-3 after the first 6 weeks, we'll be in good shape to take on a lighter portion of our schedule. This first half of the season was what we all expected to be: rough. And, so far it has been just that. We may turn out to also be right in assuming, that the rest of the year will get easier for this team, and that gives me hope that the playoffs are still within our reach.
I can't stop saying how pleased I am to witness Kyle Orton playing so well, so consistently. Today, he was 23 out of 38 for 314 yards and a QB rating of 104.5. I can't even begin to imagine the possibilities, if this offense was able to run the ball, had a healthy Moreno in the backfield, a healthy Doom terrorizing QBs, and used the no-huddle offense against good defenses like the one it faced today. Regardless, this is what it would take for this team to match up against the best in the league. And in time, it will happen.
Props go to Jabar Gaffney for his 9 quiet catches for 87 yards and Brandon Lloyd, who amazed again with 5 tough receptions for 135 yards, and 2 TDs. Royal may have only had 4 catches for 31 yards, but penalties completely erased some of his otherwise positive production. He truly is rebounding from a sophomore slump in the best way imaginable.
Small steps folks, small steps. In some ways, they've made strides, but in others, they're regressing. The running game is an obvious area for them to improve in, but we all must remember that this offense is also still very young. Hopefully, the team will be able to fight its way back into the playoff race by December, make some much needed adjustments in the offseason, and come back with a vengeance next year.