Heading into Indianapolis, the Broncos’ certainly looked like a team preparing as if they thought they could still make some noise in the AFC. There’s been a heated debate in Broncos’ Country about Drew Lock playing for Joe Flacco and questioning why John Elway and the coaching staff would choose someone other than the rookie quarterback to bring off Injured Reserve.
The thinking went along the lines of “we know Flacco ain’t it and you need to know what you have in Lock before a potentially generational QB class.” Still, there seemed to remain a possibility that Theo Riddick and Tim Patrick would be the returning offensive players to give the offense a shot in the arm.
After today it’s hard to say what they’re really thinking, but here is what we did learn:
1. Ja’Wuan James got the start and looked good, got hurt again.
Remember James? He’s the athletic 300 lb right tackle the Broncos signed last spring. After an injury in week one against the Raiders Denver’s been getting by with Elijah Wilkinson doing his best to fill in. The hope was today, they wouldn’t have to.
It didn’t take long for it to become clear how big an addition the 6th year pro could be.
James making his presence felt early. pic.twitter.com/SScJRA2F81— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 27, 2019
In the second James injured his left knee and was ruled out for the game.
2. Adam Vinatieri is the Broncos’ MVP
After the Broncos’ defense held up its end of the bargain on the Colts opening drive, Adam Vinatieri’s first kick of the game went wide right. This was notable because on the third and long play that came together for the Denver D, Vic Fangio sent just three and played sound coverage.
The #Broncos D gets a stop on 3rd and long. pic.twitter.com/hZy9qDZYAK— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 27, 2019
At the end of the second half, the Colts got close to field goal range once more when Todd Davis was sent on a blitz and couldn’t bring down Jacoby Brissett. This is notable because Vic Fangio sent 5 in order to get pressure and it left the coverage a little bare on the back end.
Todd Davis can't bring Jacoby Brissett down and the #Colts move the ball to midfield. pic.twitter.com/MeygWEMV89— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 27, 2019
With his second opportunity of the game, Vinatieri drilled a long field goal to cut Denver’s lead to 3. He wound up adding to it with another kick early in the second half. But it was his miss that made the difference in the game.
That penalty by Purcell killed all momentum by the #Broncos. Next play Colts walk in for an easy score. pic.twitter.com/fLjw1a15iZ— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 27, 2019
Following a really dumb roughing the passer penalty on Mike Purcell, the Colts scored a touchdown on a give to Nyheim Hines. Adam Vinatieri missed his fourth point after of the season and Denver found themselves with a one point lead.
3. Von Miller, still really good.
Von came into the game with just 2.5 sacks on the season, and I’ve gone at lengths to explain how he’s still making his impact felt. Today I won’t have to try so hard.
After the Colts second drive got to midfield, the Broncos’ All-Time sack leader ensured it got no further.
Von Miller makes his presence felt and gets the #Broncos first sack of the day! pic.twitter.com/I9fZXP1zWc— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 27, 2019
Ultimately, those who have been hating on Miller will point to the last could-be sack of the day, but anyone who watched the full game knows the impact he had.
4. Von doesn’t do it alone.
While Miller’s sack and Davis’ near miss were the most notable pressures of the day, they were hardly the only ones. Throughout the first half the Colts’ QB was having to adjust in the pocket or leave it altogether. Late in the first facing third down, Brissett looked to his right and Dre’Mont Jones wound up with a really nice batted pass.
The #Broncos rookie Dre'Mont Jones makes an impact on 3rd and long with this batted pass. pic.twitter.com/gsrgzgIAHl— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 27, 2019
Going into today I mentioned how big a deal it’d be for the Broncos’ D to make the most of all of the attention Von Miller demands. Early in the fourth quarter, the Colts were trying to get out from their own end zone. After a big stuff by Mike Purcell on first down and a scramble by Brissett on second, Indy faced a third and long.
Derek Wolfe "may" have been hold on second down, but it doesn't even matter on third. Sack and the #Broncos D holds again! pic.twitter.com/RLpHDDj04D— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 27, 2019
Von drew two blockers which left the Colts solo blocking on the interior. Derek Wolfe got home for the Broncos’ second official sack of the day. It was only his second biggest play of the day.
I went through 6 different emotions on this play, ending with "F@$% Yeah!!!!"— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 27, 2019
The #BRONCOS D!!!! pic.twitter.com/KHN6XUNt2t
5. Courtland Sutton’s “secretly” dominant day.
With James healthy and Elijah Wilkinson getting practice reps at left and right tackle this week, there was supposed to be newfound pressure on Garett Bolles to improve his play. We all know how he handles pressure.
The #Broncos third down red zone ineptitude continues. pic.twitter.com/l7WtVr7o5A— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 27, 2019
A flag on the kick gave the Broncos’ another shot at six points. Then another flag brought Denver to 1st and goal.
Rich Scangarello dialed up three straight passing plays. On the first two, Bolles all but made a runway to Flacco. To the veterans credit, he got the ball out before eating a sack. On Third and goal Joe Flacco had a little time and threw a high pass to Noah Fant. The rookie tight end had the ups to get the ball, but had no space to bring it down inbounds.
Joe Flacco throws a jump ball to Noah Fant, who can't bring it down for a #Broncos touchdown. pic.twitter.com/otH5TmCk4A— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 27, 2019
Later in the game Courtland Sutton’s carried the Broncos offense onto the doorstep with an awesome catch and run where he bowled over a defender. I came into today really watching to see how he’d adjust to life without Sanders, and so far, so good. For all for the other concerns about the offense it’s been ridiculous how awesome Sutton is week in and week out.
Courtland Sutton is a grown ass man. pic.twitter.com/DZjBu6jo0f— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 27, 2019
Facing third and long in the high red zone, Joe Flacco was pressured into the longest rush of his Broncos’ career.
Lamar Flacco for a first. pic.twitter.com/v7TCahweNU— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 27, 2019
Unfortunately, the Broncos couldn’t make the most of the opportunity after Joe Flacco was pressured into missing an open receiver in the red zone.
Don't think Flacco had time, but he may have had a chance in the middle of the field. #Broncos 6 - #Colts 0 pic.twitter.com/jwSOXQGRJl— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 27, 2019
In the second half Courtland Sutton again carried the Broncos offense into the red zone by beating rookie Rock Ya-sin badly enough to draw a DPI on what would have been an easy touchdown.
Courtland Sutton is Rocking the rookie Ya-sin today. pic.twitter.com/QZ2yT5TReC— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 27, 2019
This time around, Royce Freeman followed Dalton Risner and Connor McCovern as they beat the door down for six.
At the end of the third in a one point game, the Broncos offense faced a 3rd and 10 after a hold by Andy Janovich had them clawing out from under a 1st and 20. Joe Flacco went back to the well once again, and Courtland Sutton drew yet another penalty on Rock Ya-sin.
Courtland Sutton Rocks the rookie yet again. pic.twitter.com/iOWupBmdQh— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 27, 2019
The drive stalled out after a
garbage questionable offensive pass interference on Noah Fant. Colby Wadman’s punt pinned the Colts inside their own 10. Sutton wouldn’t get another chance to carry the offense, and his day really gives insight into how box score scouting misses: The second year receivers’ final statline? 3-72-0.
7. Vic Fangio’s play calling keeps things close.
Following the Broncos touchdown the Colts marched the field with some really timely scrambles by Brissett. In the high red zone, the Broncos’ Don of Defense dialed up two big blitz calls that stalled Indy out. A field goal dropped Denver’s lead to 7.
Vic Fangio picked a perfect time to send heat at Brissett. #Broncos D holds on third down. pic.twitter.com/6BuskfiTAM— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 27, 2019
With the Broncos’ offense turtling following the fumble recovery by Malik Reed, the Colts got the ball back with yet another chance to march the field to take the lead in a one point lead. The defense held, due in no small part to brilliant play calling.
Another great playcall by Vic Fangio. #Broncos D holds again! pic.twitter.com/LyMd7eRiw3— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 27, 2019
8. Royce Freeman does Drew Lock no favors.
Facing a third and three with an empty backfield, Joe Flacco takes the snap and hits Royce Freeman on a slant route with room to run after the catch. Incomplete.
If you're wondering why the #Broncos are still thinking about Riddick over Lock... pic.twitter.com/QfzrC3uYw1— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 27, 2019
If you’ve been wondering why the Broncos’ coaching staff is torn between Theo Riddick, Tim Patrick, and Drew Lock, plays like this may help you understand. For how often the running backs are used as receiving options they really can’t afford to drop easy passes.
Now Freeman’s been reliable as a pass catcher and runner through most of this season. So don’t take the point above as damning him. I’m merely pointing out that I can certainly understand the rationale that would have led to potentially bringing back the pass catching back prior to the final outcome today.
9. Groundhogs day with a twist.
Tell me if this doesn’t sound familiar. Clinging to a tiny lead in the waning moments of the game, the Colts got the ball back. They drove the field on one big play and a really, really dubious call.
The #Broncos were playing with fire all game. Great defense and a turtling offense just waiting to blow a 1 point lead.— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 27, 2019
This is the 2019 season in one play. pic.twitter.com/VjREspjFCr
Ultimately, the Colts embattled kicker got a chance to play the hero. If Denver would have pulled out the upset he’d have been their MVP. Instead, he had a predictable shot at redemption.
Losing to the Bears was enraging. Especially after the Mitch Trubisky miracle timeout. Losing to the Jaguars felt heartbreaking after the first half performance. Today was different.
The Broncos defense did its part to win this game. Since the Jaguars game they’ve been one of the best units in the league, even without Bradley Chubb. The offense has gone from average to straight up bad. Until last week that was mostly due to Joe Flacco and marginal tackle play. I spent the weekend after Kansas City studying Rich Scangarello’s playcalling and was set to write a piece next week about how he’s done his part to win Denver games.
After today, I can’t.
I’m done saying how the Broncos should have four wins when they clearly learned nothing from the two losses the zebras gave them. You can’t put the game in the hands of the referees in today’s NFL. It’s as simple as that. Vic Fangio got too conservative with his overall game management late in the game against a young quarterback who’s been nails this year. He was begging for this ending.
That doesn’t mean there weren’t plenty of gutty and awesome performances. Here are the 11 (in no certain order) who most impressed me before I dive into the All-22:
1. Courtland Sutton
2. Von Miller
3. Derek Wolfe
4. Shelby Harris
5. Dalton Risner
6. Justin Simmons
7. Kareem Jackson
8. Davontae Harris
9. Colby Wadman
10. Dre’Mont Jones
11. Malik Reed