By Rich Kurtzman
When the Broncos went out and landed Peyton Manning, they went all-in to bring another Super Bowl title to the Mile High City.
While the results have been somewhat mixed for the team overall, as they are 3-3 at the bye, one thing is for sure—Manning has been better than advertised. The seasoned veteran has been on the top of his game which is spectacular considering the circumstances. It’s a new city, new coaches, new philosophies and most of his teammates are new, too. And even after missing an entire season, he hasn’t missed a beat. Manning is second in passing yards (1,808), touchdowns (14) and passer rating (105.0), third in completions (154) and fourth in completion percentage (67.8) through six weeks of the 2012 season.
And there’s proof that Manning is finding his rhythm holding the reigns of the Broncos’ offense, as he became the first quarterback in the history of the NFL to pass for 300 yards, three touchdowns while completing 70 percent of his passes in three straight weeks. It’s unprecedented production from the most important position on the field. Denver’s scoring is up to 28.3 points per game, a notable nine-point improvement compared to last season, and the way Manning orchestrates the offense is like none other. He gets to the line and reads the defense, then picks the play and picks the opponent apart. It all starts with his preparation, which is top-notch, as he studies how to exploit opposing teams all week long in the film room.
The men he’s throwing to have stepped up their respective games as well. Third-year man Demaryius Thomas leads the team with 542 receiving yards and three touchdowns, he’s on pace to shatter his personal bests from last year. 2009 draftmate Eric Decker has racked up 441 yards and three scores as well, meaning the duo are on pace to each go over 1,000 yards receiving, a rare feat if they can each achieve the milestone. And while each of them have been special, they’ve both had their share of bonehead plays as well. Decker slid instead of gaining extra yards against the Texans and tripped himself up last week instead of cruising into the end zone, while Thomas has fumbled three times. Of course, ex-Colts Jacob Tamme and Brandon Stokley have come through for Denver as well, scoring a combined four touchdowns while being safety valves for Manning on crucial third downs.
For Denver, the one facet that has struggled with Manning’s addition is the running game. The Broncos were No. 1 rushing the ball last year, they’ve slipped to 24th in terms of total rushing yards (563). Longtime veteran Willis McGahee has been good, but not great, though he’s on pace to gain over 1,100 yards this season. He’s fumbled twice, including a key late-game drop at the end of the New England loss and been inconsistent in his play. McGahee continues to be the featured back, as backups Lance Ball and Ronnie Hillman only have 95 yards combined. And really, when you pass as well as Denver does, the run is there to merely keep defenses honest. Plus, if the Broncos can find leads, the running game will be leaned on more heavily to run the clock late.
Yes, most of the hype surrounding Denver is due to the offense, as the men in orange and blue are one of the most dominant units on that side of the ball. Undoubtedly though, the defense is to thank for the Broncos sitting at 3-3 and in first in the AFC West at their bye.
The Defense has done a decent job in all, with Jack Del Rio the eighth new defensive coordinator in as many years in Denver, and at times his D has looked great. They’ve forced 10 total turnovers—six against San Diego alone—and have consistently put pressure on the quarterback with five or more rushers. Second-year linebacker Von Miller is a standout, he’s third on the team with 26 total tackles and first with six sacks. Elvis Dumervil has five sacks of his own while nickleback Chris Harris leads the Broncos with two interceptions, one returned for a touchdown. In fact, even with new arrival Mike Adams and second-year starter Rahim Moore at the safeties, the Broncos have one of the best secondaries in the NFL. Champ Bailey is still a great corner and Tracy Porter, signed in the offseason, has paid off as a very good cover cornerback. The Broncos are ninth-best in pass yards allowed, and they’ve faced high-flying offenses in Houston, New England and Atlanta.
Still, Denver’s linebacking corps and defensive line are among their weakest points. Strong ground teams have run all over the Broncos’ weak front seven that includes backups Keith Brooking and Joe Mays playing major roles due to injuries and D.J. Williams’ suspensions for PEDs and a DUI. There’s almost no push up front when the team brings four and the depth on the D-line is a huge question mark if the Broncos want to do damage in the postseason.
Bad is the fact that Denver is a -3 in the turnover differential department. It’s certainly something they’ll focus on improving in as the season moves forward, and if they want to compete, they must protect the ball while forcing turnovers. Terrible is the Broncos’ special teams, where they are 17th and 22nd respectively in kickoff and punt return yards, while fumbling twice.
Unquestionably, Denver is a team that wins and loses on the offensive side of the ball. They’re scary with Peyton Manning under center, a team that has proven they can come back from nearly any deficit, even 24 points. Although, the defense has shown flashes of brilliance and maybe their amazing game against San Diego can be a confidence booster moving forward. Special teams have been anything but that, and this team can’t count on them deciding the game, unless it’s in a bad way through turnovers.
Overall, the Broncos have been good, very good even, but not great. They’ve lost to the best, most established teams. It’s not necessarily a surprise considering all the turnover in recent years personnel and coaching-wise, and it’s certainly a plus that they’ve lost by an average of only seven points per game. As it stands at the bye week, the Broncos should win the AFC West—possibly with ease—but just how far they will go in the playoffs remains to be seen. Signs point to this not being their year to win a third Super Bowl, but we’ll all just have to see what the next three months of football brings.
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Rich Kurtzman is a Denver native, Colorado State University alumnus, sports nerd, athletics enthusiast, and competition junkie. Currently writing for a multitude of websites while working on books, one on the history of the Denver Broncos and Mile High Stadium. Find more of Rich’s Denver Broncos pieces on Examiner.com.