I normally use stats to write an article, and I will use some of them, but this is about 5 plays that caught my attention during the game.
I will include the situation, the result and what Denver can do to improve.
Situation - Opening Kickoff
Omar Bolden returns the kick from 3 yards deep in the end zone to the 14 yard line.
Analysis: Every team and every head coach have different philosophies on starting the game, whether on defense or offense. Regardless of whether Denver won or lost the coin toss, the special teams did an awful job blocking on this play. The very short return had a two huge impacts, both psychologically.
First, it fired up the Atlanta defense and the home crowd. They came into this game as if it was their "Super Bowl". They wanted to prove they could defeat Manning after all the praise he had received over the past week. It was the first home game for them. They didn't need any more fuel to the fire at the beginning of the game and Denver gave them some.
Second, it put Denver in a hole. This play would set the tone for the whole drive if Denver doesn't make a play to quiet the crowd for a brief moment.
Obviously, if this play happens in Denver, a very returnable kickoff only 3 yards deep in the end zone in Atlanta becomes a kickoff 8-9 yards deep and Denver takes it at the 20 yard line. Even on the road with a shorter kickoff, the blocking must be better.
This is one area where Denver is lacking because of Royal's departure. The good news is on the very next kick return, Bolden returned it to the 28.
As far as the coin toss is concerned, I am conservative by nature even though I see the importance of being aggressive at the right moment. I always prefer the ball in the second half. It gives the offense a chance to set the tone later in the game and the defense to set the tone early on. I am not sure if Denver won or lost the coin toss so I have no idea whether Fox picked offense or if Atlanta picked defense.
There is no real right answer to this, as every team is different. I feel on a night where the opponent is at home and fired up, I would prefer to play defense and let the offense come on the field later after the crowd has settled down for a brief moment.
Situation - Play 1, Opening Drive
Peyton Manning pass short left to D. Thomas incomplete.
Analysis: After the bad start on the opening kickoff, Thomas appears to drive a pretty decent pass by Manning near the sidelines that is almost intercepted. This play just continues to fuel the fire because its now 2nd and long, an almost guaranteed running play on the road, and because the defense almost picked off a play that should have been caught.
Obviously it is pure speculation what happens after this play even if it were to be caught, but I doubt Manning throws a pass about yards down the field. Even if Denver got stuff on their second down play, it would have been about 3rd and 3 or 4 and not 3rd and 12. A run, intermediate pass or a screen are all in play, making this throw significantly easier.
One of the things that made Peyton Manning and the Colts so good was their ability to make plays on 1st and 2nd down so 3rd down was not difficult. In the end, Thomas has to catch that pass. Sure, it is Manning's fault for throwing a pass he assumed the defense wasn't in position to intercept, but the first down play set the tone for the whole drive.
As far as strategies go, McCoy and Manning are both calling the plays. There is a time to take a strike down the field and there is a time to simply punt it away. A draw, screen or short 8-10 yard pass are far more likely to succeed. It's definitely easier for me to say this here after the fact that for Manning to think this in the game, but it needs to be mentioned before plays like this. Deep in your territory is one of the worst places to make a mistake. I expect Manning to make better decisions against a very good defensive team in Houston.
Situation - I haven't been able to find the exact play, but the score was either 10-0 or 13-0. Rahim Moore almost comes up with an interception that would have been a defensive touchdown.
Analysis: I have never played football, so I can only imagine how fast these plays are happening in real time and how much these defenders are doing on just one play. Whether it's looking at the QB or at the receiver, interceptions are far more difficult in intermediate routes because the pass is thrown with more velocity and straight to the target rather than with an arc (usually).
With that said, Rahim Moore may be improving, but he has continually shown an inability to make big plays. This was a "catch-able" pass that he could have caught and cut the Denver deficit in half. This is just one of many plays where Moore has dropped an interception. I don't know if he is trying too hard, thinking too much or running too fast and out of control, but something needs to change because Denver is always going to struggle at times if they have safeties that never make big plays.
Situation - 2nd and Goal, Denver 4 yard line. Score: Denver 7, Atlanta 20.
Matt Ryan short pass left to R. White for 4 yards, Touchdown.
Analysis: This play more than any of the plays this game, left me in pure disappointment. Not only was this the score that iced the game for Denver in all likelihood, but the way it was defended was disheartening. Tracy Porter had a good game, but Roddy White was left all alone on the left side. I don't know if he was peeking in case it was a run or if the safety missed his assignment, but there is no excuse for letting a receiver that close to the goal line just run freely and score an easy touchdown.
Had Porter stayed with White, this play had no chance and Denver could get a sack or an incomplete pass. Maybe Atlanta still scores a touchdown on the next play, but 3rd and Goal on the 4 is not easy. The secondary has been good, but too often they peek in the backfield instead of letting the front-seven do their job while the secondary does its job. I understand the purpose of zone, but it is tough to play zone that close to the endzone. Denver should have put a man on Jones, White and Gonazalez because the rest of the defenders can play zone and help out.
Situation - 3rd and 5, Atlanta 25. 2:35 left in 4th Qtr. Denver has 1 timeout and 2-minute warning. Score: Denver 21, Atlanta 27.
Matt Ryan short pass to Julio Jones for 6 yards. First down.
Analysis: Obviously this play was the game because if Denver forces a punt, does anyone here believe Manning fails to drive down the field with about 2 minutes and a timeout to win the game?
Still, Denver had a golden opportunity to make a play. Just like they had all game, they left someone wide open. I am still unsure how Moore was the only one even close to Julio Jones, but it definitely leaves me questioning the overall philosophy of Jack Del-Rio.
Julio had been shut out almost the entire game because he had been double-teamed. I don't understand why that would change. This allowed him to run across the field through the zone coverage and make an easy catch. No one bumped him and Moore was late.
So Roddy White may now get open. Why is our best cover corner (Champ) not assigned to him?
So then Gonzalez might get open. We dropped 7 in coverage, which was the right call. There would have been at least 1 or 2 guys to cover him.
In the end, another receiver ran freely with no press coverage or double team and picked up an easy first down.
What I have found that works the best with great offenses with 3+ dangerous receivers is not zone, but man coverage. Teams like Pittsburgh, Houston and San Francisco all use zone to change it up, but they play a ton of man-coverage while getting pressure from their front four. This disrupts the timing of the passing game and allows safeties to play the deep pass while the corners play the underneath routes.
Too often, Denver plays 3-5 yards off of a receiver when its only 3rd and short. They essential give up freely what the offense needs to convert a first down. With safeties that are young and struggle at times, Denver would be better off moving to man-coverage underneath more often and letting the safeties ball hawk than expecting Moore to run half-way across the field to cover a receiver one-on-one.
In the end, there were many plays that contributed to the loss. These 5, however, were crucial and symbolized problems with Denver that may exist beyond just this loss.
Denver's return game is not as good as it was and the blocking needs to be better. Thomas and all the receivers need to avoid drops. Moore and the entire secondary struggle to force interceptions and they need to make plays when the opportunity is right in front of them. Finally, the defensive philosophy needs to improve because receivers are getting open way too easily on the biggest plays of the game.
The good news is Denver played very well defensively the whole game, especially against the run. Matt Ryan didn't make many mistakes, but again, Denver failed to take advantage of some of his passes and he didn't make a ton of huge plays either. Offensively, the first quarter threw everything out of whack, but Denver finally did some good things in the 4th quarter. McGahee ran well all game and was definitely the best player out their on offense.
ProFootballFocus game Von Miller a score of +7.8, which is ridiculously good. The offensive line even graded positively by PFF who have been very hard on Beadles and JD Walton. Both received positive grades and have definitely shown improvement since their rookie seasons.
This team has talent but it also has youth and their will be plenty of ups and downs. I expect Denver to come out fired up at home against an excellent Houston team and set the tone early. While it is definitely too early to predict, I can see Denver winning 24-20. For that to happen, Denver will have to improve in the areas I mentioned above.
As always, Go Broncos!
Since there is no poll, feel free to critique my analysis or give me your thoughts.