By Mark Schiff
Two years ago in the season opener against the Baltimore Ravens, Peyton Manning tied an NFL record with seven touchdown passes as the Denver Broncos offense set the tone for what would become a record-breaking season. Two years later, the team’s defense led the team to victory over the Ravens in the hopes that they too can have a season for the ages.
In a dominating performance that suggests they could be among the NFL’s best units, the Broncos defense held Ravens to just six points and 173 total yards of offense in Denver’s 19-13 victory at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on Sunday. The stout defensive performance was crucial as Manning and the Broncos offense struggled through much of the game in the adjustment to the new system of Denver’s first year head coach, Gary Kubiak. As the Broncos improve to an AFC-best 36-19-1 in their season openers, here’s our week 1 team grades.
Manning’s performance on Sunday won’t do much to assuage the fears that Father Time may finally be catching up with the 39-year-old future Hall of Famer. Manning finished just 24/40 for 175 yards and missed throws both short and long as he failed to tally a touchdown. Perhaps most alarmingly, Denver’s newly reconfigured offensive line surrendered four sacks, and Manning was harassed all afternoon by the Ravens blitz pressure.
Still, Denver’s offense came together nicely on a 17-play, 81 yard fourth quarter field goal drive that chewed up nearly 11 minutes of clock. After struggling mightily for the first three quarters, Denver’s running attack finally came alive on that drive, tallying over half of their meager 69 yards rushing. Although the Ravens look to have one of the most well-rounded defenses in football, the Broncos left a lot of plays out on the field, an indication they’re still not in command of Kubiak’s new system.
The Broncos defense appeared to have no such issues as they get familiar with the system of Denver’s first year defensive coordinator (and former head coach) Wade Phillips. DeMarcus Ware got a sack and applied constant pressure to Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. The team’s crisp tackling was spotlit by linebackers Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan, who each had 6 solo tackles. And unlike last season, Denver was tough on 3rd down, as the Ravens converted just 2 of 13 tries.
But the secondary was the biggest factor in the win. Cornerback Aquib Talib scored the team’s only touchdown in the third quarter as he jumped a slot route and took his pick 51-yards to the house. And with Baltimore threatening on the final drive, new signee (and former Raven) Darian Stewart corralled a tipped ball in the end zone to seal the victory.
Holding Flacco to a 38.2 quarterback rating, Denver’s defense looked in control the entire game.
Special Teams: A-
For part of last year, the Broncos kept two kickers on their roster, with the strong-legged youngster Brandon McManus handling kickoffs while the veteran Connor Barth took field goals. When the team released Barth in the preseason, it was a vote of confidence that McManus had improved his accuracy and he redeemed their faith immediately, drilling 57 and 56-yard field goals in the first quarter. He added two more field goals later and didn’t surrender a single kick return. McManus’ start was an encouraging sign that they can regain the kicking advantage that comes at altitude.
The aggressiveness and creativity of Phillips’ scheme had a lot to do with the Broncos success on defense. He routinely brought five or six pass rushers, with Marshall picking up a sack on inside linebacker blitz. Phillips is in the enviable position of having incredible players across all position groups at his disposal and his first game as coordinator saw him using these pieces shrewdly.
Not so much on offense. Denver’s issues often came down to execution rather than play calling but there were also moments where Manning looked like an awkward fit for Kubiak’s offense, which has traditionally favored snaps at the line over Manning’s preferred shotgun-operated offense. If he can’t find success in the running game, Denver’s offensive coordinator Rick Dennison will need to find more effective ways to get Manning involved if the the Broncos want to regain the offensive dominance they’re known for.
After a tough, physical game, Denver’s schedule doesn’t get any easier as they head out of town on a short week to face their division rivals the Kansas City Chiefs on Thursday Night Football. Kansas City looked dominant in their 27-20 road win over the Houston Texans on Sunday and Denver’s offensive line figures to once again be tested by the Chief’s formidable pass rushers. To pull out the win in what figures to be another low-scoring dogfight, the Broncos will need their defense to once again lead the charge.
Mark Schiff is a freelance writer and music journalist for AXS.com. In 2013, his coverage of the Seattle Seahawks ended in heartbreak when they defeated the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. Now covering his beloved hometown team, his knowledge and passion for pro football has resulted in multiple fantasy football championships. Find him on Twitter at @mihilites.