By Mark Schiff
Welcome to the new normal, Broncos fans.
For the fifth time in five weeks, the Broncos defense bailed out the offense on a crucial fourth quarter play, as Denver improved to 5-0 in another close victory, a 16-10 win over their surprisingly frisky AFC West rivals the Oakland Raiders. This time it was cornerback Chris Harris who played hero, as he picked off second-year Raiders quarterback Derek Carr and returned his interception 75-yards to the house to push Denver’s lead to nine with just under seven minutes remaining in the game. It was more than enough for Denver to hold on, as they won their eighth straight against Oakland and pushed their road winning streak against divisional opponents to 14, an NFL record.
By following a familiar formula, Denver provided plenty both to praise and criticize in their Week 5 Team Grades.
You know those mean-spirited tabloid stories about the aging supermodel at the beach? That’s how it feels to talk about Peyton Manning right now. Manning is a future Hall of Fame QB just two years removed from the greatest season ever at the position and yet no one who has watched the team this season was surprised when he ended the first half by wiping at least 3 points off the board on a ghastly pick right to Charles Woodson. Peyton helped Emmanuel Sanders have a nice game (9 catches for 111 yards) and fellow receiver Demaryius Thomas had some crucial drops, but it’s troubling how far Denver’s best offensive player has fallen off in the past five games.
The abysmal running game is not helping. CJ Anderson had the team’s longest carry for 10 yards; their remaining 17 attempts went for a total of 33 yards. Oakland’s dominant time of possession altered the flow of the game but Denver’s lack of success on the ground, particularly in the red zone, is putting all of the pressure on Manning, and his gifts may no longer be enough to overcome what’s been a predictable, one-dimensional offense.
The Raiders did a very good job extending drives by converting on third and fourth down (they finished a combined 8-18) but it mattered little with Denver’s star players making game-altering turnovers. In addition to Harris’ pick-six, Von Miller made one of the sexiest plays of his career in the third quarter when he simply stripped the ball away from Derek Carr like you and I might pick up a cantaloupe from the fruit aisle.
Unfortunately, two of his fellow defensive Pro Bowlers were injured in the game. DeMarcus Ware was carted off with a back injury in the first quarter while cornerback Aqib Talib missed time in the second half due to an ankle injury. It speaks to Denver’s depth on defense that the team was still able to continue in their scheme without missing a beat. The defense’s only flaw continues to be poorly timed penalties.
Special Teams: A-
You can make a case that kicker Brandon McManus is Denver’s biggest offensive weapon. In scoring all nine of the team’s points on offense against Oakland, McManus improved to a perfect 12-for-12 on the season. That’s 36 points, exactly the same total that Manning has scored thus far in 2015.
If there’s one concern for Denver’s otherwise excellent special teams (which also blocked a Sebastian Janikowski field goal attempt in the first quarter), it’s Emmanuel Sanders on punt returns. Denver trusts him because he won’t make mistakes but it’s clear that’s all Sanders is concerned with, as his paltry 5.6 yard punt return average often leaves Denver stranded deep in their own zone.
Denver’s consistent play on defensive isn’t happening by coincidence. Players are always in position to make plays and a lot of that speaks to the system of defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who is our frontrunner for the coveted (yet totally made up) NFL coordinator of the year award.
Rick Dennison, his counterpart on offense, seems like he needs some coaching himself. For the second time this season, Denver was held without a touchdown on offense and they still pulled off the win. The disparity within the Broncos — not just the pass-heavy attack leaning way too hard on a 39-year-old QB, but the pressure faced by the defense when Denver is more adept at turning it over than scoring — is unsustainable. But thanks to another divisional road win, the undefeated Broncos still have time to try to find that balance.
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.