The St. Louis Rams were tough on defense. Physical. Even a little dirty.
Okay, maybe really dirty.
Is it any coincidence that Gregg Williams is known as a targeting coach, and two Broncos star offensive players are knocked out of the game directly due to Rams players' hits? Emmanuel Sanders even tweeted "hashtag-clear-case-of-targeting" after the game, a post he would eventually delete.
The Rams didn't just beat up the Broncos, they held them up too. There seemed to be a dozen plays where Rams DBs held on Broncos receivers Sunday, such as when Jacob Tamme was clung to on a go route on 3rd and 9 in the second quarter that fell incomplete. John Fox and company will have a an extra fun time preparing their weekly video to the NFL officiating department this week. But that doesn't help them this Sunday, and for whatever reason, the refs let them play.
I'm not whining; I'm giving the Rams credit. They played tough, and if you're not cheating a little, you're not trying (plus, the only way the Broncos o-line could block any Rams player at all was holding just about every single play).
Combine this brutal secondary with a pass rush that proved relentless and you have the formula for a big upset against Peyton Manning: the same formula the Seattle Seahawks used in Super Bowl XLVIII to rout the Broncos in February.
The good news: not every team has a four-man rush that can beat the Broncos' offensive line without the need to blitz. Not every team has a secondary that can keep pace with and out-physical the likes of Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, and Emmanuel Sanders. Even fewer teams have both.
The bad news: the Broncos have no answers for teams that do.
2. Broncos abandoned the running game far too quickly
56 passing plays. Nine running plays (not counting Peyton Manning's first half kneeldown). You might expect that ratio from a team that was behind big the whole game, but here's the rub: the Broncos weren't behind deep early.
Down 3-0 after the Rams opened with a field goal drive, the Broncos passed, passed, passed, passed, and passed on their opening offensive drive, punting after five straight passes. On their next drive, the Broncos ran once, then passed five straight times. They then ran once more, then passed three straight times, failing to convert a 4th and 5. The Rams went up 10-0 on their next drive, and the Broncos were already in a pass-to-run ratio as if they had always been down two scores: 13 to 3.
The Broncos will never be a running team, but that is too far off-balance, and the Broncos helped the Rams keep Peyton out of rhythm with their own playcalling.
@MileHighReport In the 3 games the Broncos lost, the rushed less than 20 times. In the 7 they won they rushed over 20 times. Hear that Gase?— Pete Baron (@MHR_PeteBaron) November 17, 2014
3. Peyton Manning is in a bit of a rut
Speaking of Manning being out of rhythm... Manning has thrown two interceptions in each of his last three games. That's the worst three-game stretch in Manning's tenure with the Broncos.
"I give them a lot of credit, but I've got to play better," Manning admitted.
4. How important is Virgil Green?
Virgil Green first left a game due to injury in Week 3, at Seattle. The Broncos had a very hard time running the football without Green, and they ended up losing. Broncos coaches and players admitted that Green was a big part of what they do in the running game, and his loss was not to be ignored. People thought, "How could a backup tight end really be that important?", but there's evidence that, hey, maybe this backup tight end really is that important.
Consider: Green came back in subsequent games, but after injuring his calf three weeks ago, he's missed the Broncos' entire three-game road trip. He was a scratch at New England, at Oakland, and at St. Louis.
Granted - these are all road games. That's probably the biggest source of causation to the Broncos' struggles. But I don't want to ignore Green's potential impact, and how much better the offense clearly is when he's out there taking names in the second level of the running game or occasionally helping Denver's perpetually-struggling offensive line in pass protection.
The Broncos' three losses all came in games in which Virgil Green did not play or left early. Denver is 6-0 when Virgil Green finishes games, and they're 1-3 when he's not in the lineup for most of the game.
5. Broncos lack confidence in Brandon McManus
The Broncos had two opportunities for long field goals, and instead of sending the rookie out there, they twice went for it.
Part of this could be a more aggressive John Fox, one who is getting a better understanding of metrics like Expected Points Added by certain decisions and evolving as time goes on. I've always said Fox's willingness to change is one of my favorite qualities about him. If an understanding of EPA or other statistical analyses was the motive behind these 4th down decisions, BRAVO! Ignore my next paragraphs.
But it didn't feel like that was the reason why the Broncos opted to go for it on 4th and 5 and 4th and 10 with the football on the Rams' 37 and 38-yard lines Sunday (55 and 56-yard field goal attempts, respectively). It felt like the Broncos did that because they didn't have faith in their kicker, Brandon McManus. That doesn't bode well.
To be fair, the Broncos were down two scores late in the game for the second decision, and that might have had nothing to do with my perceived lack of Fox's faith in McManus. I just can't help but think John Fox circa 2012-2013 would have marched Matt Prater out there for both attempts and leaned on his defense to make a midfield stop if Prater missed.
6. The silver lining: Broncos still own first round bye and AFC West lead
Losing to inter-Conference opponents on the road is the perfect way to lose in today's NFL, and the Broncos are sitting pretty with the #2 seed because of it. Their margin for error is now absolutely zero: the Chiefs are tied at 7-3, and Denver's games against the Dolphins and Chiefs the next two weeks loom absolutely huge. But Denver is in control of its destiny for a first round bye.
If Andy Dalton just showed us anything, it's that the NFL is a week-to-week league. You can go from throwing three interceptions and looking like NFL garbage one week to leading your team to a victory against a potential (admittedly bad) playoff contender the next.
Peyton Manning will bounce back.