By Mark Schiff
After their third escape in the first three weeks of the NFL season, the Denver Broncos are putting the “whew” in Houdini.
With a closer-than-it-sounds 24-12 prime time victory over the Detroit Lions at Ford Field on Sunday night, the Broncos pushed their season record to 3-0 while yet again leaving plenty of questions about the team’s long term viability as a championship contender. As has been the case all season, Denver’s offense at times looked out of sync and vulnerable as the team leaned on its defense to make crucial turnovers and salt the game away.
As Denver heads into next Sunday’s home matchup against the surprisingly formidable Minnesota Vikings, here are your Week 3 team grades.
Straight up, the Broncos’ run attack has been atrocious through the first three games. With just 41 yards on 19 carries on Sunday, Denver’s run game is still stuck in the mud, having tallied a measly 171 on the ground in their first three games. Injuries to starting tailback C.J. Anderson, who left the game early with concussion symptoms before returning mostly ineffectively in the second half, and Juwan Thompson (neck) left the team hampered, but there’s been a troubling ineffectiveness to the rushing game in the scheme of new head coach Gary Kubiak.
Thankfully, Peyton Manning had his best game of the season against Detroit. The veteran quarterback looked far more comfortable operating from the shotgun and pistol formation, completing 31 of 42 passes for 322 yards, two touchdowns and a pick. The low-scoring offense may understandably give Broncos fans pause, but with Manning and his exceptional group of receivers finally clicking against Detroit, there’s reason to hope that they are working out the kinks in what’s proven to be a difficult transition to new head coach Gary Kubiak’s preferred offense.
Thankfully, Denver’s defense has proven more than capable of picking up the offense’s slack. With DeMarcus Ware once again wreaking havoc in the backfield, less heralded players like cornerback Bradley Roby, defensive end Malik Jackson and safety David Bruton Jr. were all able to tally pivotal takeaways against Detroit.
As with the past two wins, turnovers came at crucial times in the game. Bruton’s fourth quarter interception of Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford snuffed out their comeback and Roby’s incredible play on the ball to pick off Stafford in the first quarter validated his status as an important role player in defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’ aggressive scheme. Denver’s offense may be sputtering, but their transformation into a team guided by D was solidified by another outstanding, all-around effort from what looks like one of the deepest and most talented defenses in the league.
Special Teams: B
Brandon McManus is undergoing a transformation as well, as the third year kicker drilled a 48-yard field goal to give his team a much-needed field goal to push their lead to 17-12 in the fourth quarter. Punter Britton Colquitt consistently pinned the Lions deep in their own end and the special teams also came up with a blocked extra point that they nearly converted into what would have been the first 2-point conversion under the NFL’s newly revised rules.
However, wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders continues to be somewhat of a liability in the punt game. As one of the team’s star offensive weapons, it’s understandable that he’s tentative on punt returns, but his role on special teams continues to look like a desperation fill in rather than a solid first choice.
There were ample examples of Kubiak’s situational savvy throughout the game. Case in point, with McManus’ strong leg looking increasingly like a legitimate threat, he trotted out the kick team for an early field goal attempt from midfield, a brash choice that forced the Lions to burn a timeout. Although Denver did decide to punt on the play, it was the type of clever, disarming coaching tactic that the Broncos have been lacking in recent years.
Kubiak and offensive coordinator Rick Dennison also deserve credit for coming up with a game plan that at last played to Manning’s strengths. While there remains much work to be done on that side of the ball, the quick passes and no huddle offense that have been a hallmark of Manning’s Hall of Fame career were emphasized for the first time this season, an encouraging indicator they’re finally adjusting the the skill set of their most important player.
After two consecutive road games, the Broncos return home to take on Adrian Peterson and the Minnesota Vikings next Sunday in Denver.
The Broncos ever-evolving offensive line will again face a tough task as they take on the Vikings excellent pass rush, but last night’s close win was another good sign that the team can come through when it matters most.
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.