It is amazing what thirty minutes of football can do to a franchise and the views of their supporter base. As an untouched Antonio Gates put the Chargers 23-0 up pandemonium erupted across the internet at the impending doom of the Broncos season and at 3am, here in UK, I decided heavy eye lids and what seemed a Broncos blow out could not compete with my bed.
Thankfully when I got up yesterday morning I decided I would be a glutton for punishment and watch the second half unaware of the result and got to experience the drama of the great comeback albeit four or five hours later. The reaction across the internet captured the elation amongst the Broncos player and fan base and was a marked difference to that pandemonium I witnessed a few hours before.
When offering my thoughts on the first third of the season it is important to acknowledge those thirty minutes but also not let it cloud my judgement on the performance of the first half and the other five games which proceeded the Monday night game.
There is no hiding it this coaching staff is as conservative as John Elway's political views. This has held the team back to an extent over the first six games and although I am not sure it has yet cost this team a victory, mistakes and personnel inadequacies account for those defeats, I do think it has made it difficult for the team especially at the start of games. Although it should not be forgotten Peyton Manning clearly has the freedom to alter these plays at the line of scrimmage and the call to run on 3rd and 11 late in the game Monday suggests he is happy to make conservative calls and trust his defense.
That said this coaching team, John Fox especially, has developed this roster into the best the Broncos have had since the 2006 AFC Championship game (granted not difficult) and a roster who believes they can win football games. Whether it will be enough to take them back to those Championship games remains to be seen but I believe they have done enough so far in their tenure to be judged on this at the end of the season.
The passing game has been a joy to watch with Manning returning to play at an MVP level and the starting receivers, a few mental errors aside, are thriving because of it, not just in their numbers but also in their attitudes and in the technical side of their games (Demaryius Thomas route running for example has improved exponentially). They have been ably assisted by the smart free agency signings of Joel Dreesen and Jacob Tamme and Brandon Stokley is proving that experience and a good QB-WR relationship cannot be understated. The drop off however to their replacements is vast and could be woefully exposed by injuries. It looks like another receiving option needs to be sought in the off season.
The passing game has been helped no end by an offensive line who, Manny Ramirez aside, have been excellent providing protection for Manning, although the timing of his release has helped with their development. Orlando Franklin for me has been the most improved player from last year and Zane Beadles and JD Walton, prior to his injury, have also taken a step forward in their development this year in this aspect of the game. However neither Beadles, who pulls and traps as well any guard in the league, nor Walton have, and in my view probably never will, developed into that dominant physical interior lineman which this team needs in the run game. As such the offensive line can on occasions be overwhelmed against the run and struggles in those critical 3rd or 4th and short scenarios.
The run game has not been helped by the play of the running backs outside of Willis McGahee and for this team to challenge this season one of the other backs needs to contribute soon. That said it doesnt mean I subscribe to the Ronnie Hillman is a bust theory, the likes of Ray Rice, Jamaal Charles, Arian Foster and Lesean McCoy did not perform at this stage in their career either but the Broncos will not be able to go into next season with this stable of backs.
It is no surprise that my biggest issue on defense is with the linebacking group outside of Von Miller who defends the edge on run plays almost to the same level he rushes the passer. I only see Keith Brooking and Wesley Woodyard contributing although both have real deficiencies and neither is anywhere near the elite players in the league. I think this team needs two starting linebackers and when he returns DJ Williams returns as a starter.
This group has not been helped in the run game by the defensive line who, although improving can still be weak in the middle against the run, the edge is a lot stronger. Nor is this group helped by the safety group who can get lost in coverage. Losing our best coverage safety in Quinton Carter has been a big blow.
The cornerbacks have established themselves as the best grouping on defense with all the players stepping up at some stage this season with big plays. At this stage I would suggest that although another corner will need to be acquired if Porter doesnt resign it is not the pressing need I thought it would become next off season.
The pass rush has been better than the sack numbers suggest with Miller, Doom pressurising the opposition quarterback with regularity and Unrein, Wolfe and Vickerson pushing the pocket. Those coverage weaknesses do mean though that the opponents quarterbacks can get balls off quickly with success negating the impact of the rush. When a team has to go deep and the Broncos corners are covering then the impact of that pressure is more noticeable. If the team can get better starts with some more aggressive plays I see them get better sack numbers as the opposition need to go deeper earlier. The pass rush is also much better when there is one player blitzing to help the four man rush. I would also like to see our tall defensive tackles try to batter the ball down more.
My one concern about Miller though is to why he spends too many plays on the side, is this a conditioning issue or just keeping him as fresh as possible. He is the best player on the defense and the opposition know it. The more often he is on the field the better.
Special teams has been obviously criticised because of the lack of a return threat. However this for me is the least important aspect of special teams. Prater is an elite kicker and Colquitt gives this team great field position and they are ably assisted by a good coverage units with David Bruton, Mathew Willis and Omar Bolden looking good. Returning looks good when it goes to the house but rarely does a game hinge on a great return, a game is more likely to be determined by a botched return. If every kick off goes to the twenty and every punt results in a fair catch then I am fine with it especially when you have a passing attack this team has.
As it stands I think this team will win the division and probably be competitive in a divisional game but ultimately I think the quality of the run game and the weak defensive spine will mean competing for an AFC Championship or a Super Bowl is a step too far for this team at present.