As we approach week 9 of the 2012 NFL season it is time to hand out the midterm grades for every unit on each of the NFL’s 32 teams.
Here is the report card for the 4-3 Denver Broncos.
Perhaps the biggest story entering the 2012 season was how would quarterback Peyton Manning play upon returning from four neck surgeries and a year off from football. Now, eight weeks into the season, the biggest story of 2012 year is Manning’s phenomenal play.
The Canton-bound QB is playing as well as he has at any point in his career and is well on his way to earning what would be his record fifth league MVP award. Manning leads the NFL in passer rating and in yards per attempt, is second in passing yards per game and tied for third in touchdown passes with 17. On his present pace, Manning is on track to record the most passing yardage of his career (4830), tie his fewest interception total (9) and his second-most touchdown passes (39).
Using the Real Quarterback Rating metric developed by ColdHardFootballFacts.com, an advanced statistic that measures all aspects of QB’s effect on the game – passing, rushing, sacks taken, turnovers committed and total touchdowns – Manning is top quarterback in the NFL. Manning’s Real Quarterback Rating of 101.73 is 5.18 points greater than Tom Brady’s, who has the second-highest rating.
The only black mark on Manning’s 2012 resume was the first quarter of Denver’s week 2 game in Atlanta, where Manning threw three interceptions. He has thrown only one interception in the other 27 quarters of football he has played this year.
The scariest thing for the rest of the NFL is that Manning only figures to improve as he continues to build chemistry with his surrounding cast.
What a difference a season makes. In 2011 the Broncos were the NFL’s top rushing team with an average of 164.5 yards per game. In 2012, with a real quarterback, the Broncos have dropped to a still-respectable 14th place averaging 112.4 yards per game.
The most important part of the running game for Denver’s offense, however, is not how many yards they accumulate on the ground but rather that the threat of a potent running games remains so the play-action passing game continues to be effective. So far, so good. The Broncos have remained committed to the ground game, averaging 28 attempts per game. Considering Denver has been down big early in three games this season – at Atlanta, vs. Houston and at New England – Denver’s 57:43 pass to run ratio speaks to a well-balanced offense.
The biggest problem with the Denver running backs in the first half of the 2012 season has been their proclivity for putting the ball on the ground with far too much frequency. Denver’s four fumbles lost by running backs – three by Willis McGahee and one by now-benched Knowshon Moreno – are the third-most in the league. The Broncos’ backs penchant for losing fumbles has contributed to their early deficits in several games. It is a problem that must be corrected if Denver’s dreams of a deep playoff run are to be realized.
Wide Receivers & Tight Ends
What a difference a real quarterback makes. Over the last few years Denver’s young wide receivers – Eric Decker and DeMaryius Thomas – were slapped with the ugly “p word” – potential. While the pair’s potential was undeniable, their production was almost unnoticeable.
In 2012, that has changed as both players are producing at high levels. Thomas and Decker are each on pace to surpass 80 receptions, 1100 yards and nine touchdowns. Thomas has been particularly explosive and is currently second in the league in receiving yardage per game (97.0). Like McGahee, Thomas has had something of a fumbling problem this year, losing three fumbles, two of which came as Thomas was sprinting towards the end zone. To help remedy his fumbling issues, Thomas was assigned a green football to carry with him everywhere all week between weeks four and five. Thomas has not fumbled since.
It has been impressive how much Thomas and Decker have improved over the first half of the season as they continued to build an on-field rapport with Manning. In a precision offense like Denver’s it is critically important for the receivers and quarterback to be on the same page at all times. When they are not, the result is usually a turnover as we saw in the game in Atlanta and, most glaringly, against San Diego where Matthew Willis ran a go route when the situation called for a hook route, the result was a pick-six and 17-0 San Diego lead.
One player who already had a great rapport with Manning is 14-year veteran Brandon Stokley. While Stokley is third on the team in receptions, yards and touchdowns behind Decker and Thomas, it is clear he is a receiver in whom Manning has a great deal of trust. Manning joked after Wednesday’s practice that he used the lure of tickets to the Duke/North Carolina basketball game to get Stokley to come catch passes during Manning’s off season rehab. Manning called it an “easy sell” and said he recommended signing Stokley to Denver’s leadership.
Denver’s three primary tight ends – Joel Dreessen, Jacob Tamme and Virgil Green – have combined for 432 receiving yards and four scores. Dreessen and Tamme have been reliable targets for Manning, especially in the red zone and on third downs. Green, suspended for the first three games of the season, has demonstrated standout ability as a blocker. Fox said the coaching staff liked Green’s physical skills coming out of Nevada but has been surprised with his development as a blocker saying, “Probably one of the hardest adjustments to our league out of college, especially for tight ends, is the blocking.”
The Denver offensive line has been one of the strengths of the team. That is remarkable because the unit has been without a pair of starters for several games this season.
Right guard Chris Kuper, who spent the offseason recovering from a gruesome leg injury he suffered in week 17 last year, returned to training camp and subsequently broke his arm. The injury kept Kuper, Denver’s longest-tenured lineman and a team captain, out of the starting lineup for the first five games of the year.
The other injury came to starting center J.D. Walton. Walton, who was one of the first Broncos to begin working out with Manning when he signed with Denver in April, broke his ankle in the week four game against Oakland. Manning said he was “absolutely sick” over losing the center with whom he had developed such strong chemistry. John Elway’s decision to sign veteran Dan Koppen a week earlier now looks positively clairvoyant; Koppen has stepped in seamlessly at the pivot.
Denver’s best offensive lineman this season, and probably their second best offensive player after Manning, has been left tackle Ryan Clady. Clady has not allowed a sack through seven games and has been called for only one penalty. Clady is back to his 2008 and 2009 form where he garnered All-Pro selections. Head Coach John Fox would argue Clady’s play is actually superior to 2008-09 period as he is much improved as a run blocker. Said Fox, “I think the area he's improved in is his run blocking…it was something that we had seen as something he could improve at and he has.”
The Offensive Hog Index, a measure of o-line effectiveness developed by ColdHardFootballFacts.com that takes into account run and pass blocking, ranks the Broncos’ as having the third-best offensive line in the league. The Denver o-line has allowed only ten sacks this season, the fourth fewest in the league, and only 22 quarterback hits, the third fewest.
While not as dominant as their counterparts on the o-line, Denver’s defensive line has played relatively well this season. The d-line, long a glaring weakness for the Broncos, has improved markedly. No one is going to confuse the Broncos’ d-line with that of, say, the New York Giants, but the unit has made strides.
Denver has the ninth-most rushing attempts per game against at 28.9, likely due to opposing offenses trying to keep Manning and the Broncos’ offense off the field, but have allowed the fifth-lowest average gain per attempt at 3.7 yards per rush. So, despite being run on a lot, the d-line has held up and not allowed teams to get much from their ground game.
The Broncos rank eighth in the league in ColdHardFootballFacts.com’s Defensive Hog Index which grades a defense based upon rush yards per attempt, third down success rate and negative pass plays (NPP%). The NPP% measures what percentage of an opposing offenses’ pass plays end in either a sack or an interception. On this score the Broncos rank ninth. However, much of the credit for this belongs not to the d-line but rather to Denver’s linebackers and, to a lesser extent, the secondary.
Denver has sacked the opposing quarterback 19 times this season, good enough to rank 14th in the league. However, only eight of those sacks have come from defensive lineman while 9.5 have come from linebackers and 1.5 from cornerback Chris Harris. Defensive ends Elvis Dumervil (five sacks) and rookie end Derek Wolfe (three) are Denver’s only d-lineman to record a sack this year.
All in all the d-line is improved, especially in run defense, but it remains the weak link of the Denver defense.
Second-year linebacker Von Miller has been nothing short of outstanding. The 2011 Defensive Rookie of the Year leads Denver with six sacks and his 14 tackles for loss are second most in the league (Houston standout J.J. Watt has 15). Yet what is most impressive about Miller’s performance in 2012 is how he has been a force in all aspects of the game; the former Texas A&M Aggie has become a complete linebacker. After Manning, Miller has been Denver’s best player in 2012.
Said Denver Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio, “He's a treat to coach; to have a guy with that kind of talent that brings it and competes the way he does.” Del Rio went on to praise Miller for how hard he has worked to improve in coverage and run defense. Miller’s play is a major factor in Denver’s top-10 rank in the afore mentioned Defensive Hog Index and, especially, the NPP%.
Aside from Miller, the rest of the Broncos’ linebacking corps has had some good and some not-so-good moments this year. With the absence of long-time starter D.J. Williams, Denver has employed a linebacker-by-committee approach in an attempt to find the best combination for various game situations.
Opening-day starting MLB Joe Mays was demoted after four games in favor veteran Keith Brooking. While both players are somewhat limited from an athletic perspective, Brooking’s superior instincts and experience were the deciding factor in making the change. The two MLBs have been good on early downs, Brooking in particular, but were exposed in pass coverage. Opposing coaches have routinely tried to get either a tight end or running back matched up one-on-one on Denver’s MLBs with the results often detrimental for the Broncos.
The weakside position has been manned in most situations by Wesley Woodyard. Woodyard, long thought of as simply a special teams ace and nickel linebacker, has improved his abilities in both run defense and pass rushing. Woodyard has improved each game and his performance in the week 8 game against New Orleans – 13 tackles, a sack, an interception, a forced fumble and two passes defensed – were good enough to earn him AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors. So good has been Woodyard that Williams could be moved to the MLB position when he returns from his suspension in week 11. Expect to see Williams and Woodyard play in Denver’s nickel packages with Miller lined up at defensive end.
One of the missions of the Broncos’ leadership this past offseason was to improve the overall talent and depth in the secondary. The powers that be at Dove Valley pointed out repeatedly last spring that Denver struggled in 2011 when opposing offenses spread them out. However, they did not feel a complete remake of the secondary was needed. They liked their young crop of defensive backs – safeties Rahim Moore and Quinton Carter and cornerback Chris Harris – but felt a few veterans would bolster a unit that is anchored by future Hall of Famer Champ Bailey.
Cornerback Tracy Porter, the starter opposite Bailey for the first four weeks of the season, clinched the week 1 win against the Steelers when he intercepted a pass from Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger and returned it for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter. Porter’s play, however, dropped off significantly as the weeks wore on. In the week three loss to Houston, Porter gave up 284 passing yards and two touchdowns. Porter then suffered effects from what has been called a seizure-like issue that the Broncos are loath to discuss and has not dressed for the last two games and likely to miss the week 9 game in Cincinnati.
Harris and Tony Carter have both seen increased playing time in Porter’s absence and have combined for three interceptions, a fumble recovery and two defensive touchdowns. It is going to be hard for Porter to crack his way back into the starting lineup when he is healthy considering the way Harris, who has to be considered a starter in his own right as teams today frequently use three cornerbacks, and Carter have played.
Despite Brian Dawkins’ decision to ride off into the sunset and the loss to injury of a second-year safety in Carter, Denver has seen solid play from the safety positions. Moore frequently plays the deep middle and seems to have the confidence he lacked last year. Veteran free agent Mike Adams is a jack-of-all trades, but a master of none, who covers in zone, man and comes into the box to support the run. The Broncos are also not afraid to use the rarely-seen three safety set with Jim Leonard serving as a CB/S and sometimes LB/S hybrid.
Overall the Denver secondary has been solid, even if unspectacular. Despite having played games against the likes of Roethlisberger, Matt Schaub, Tom Brady, Philip Rivers and Drew Brees (a combined six Super Bowl victories and 20 Pro Bowls between them) the Broncos rank 13th in ColdHardFootballFacts defensive passer rating metric. Denver has held opposing passers under 60% completion rate (59.84%), a 6.43 yards per pass average (sixth-lowest in the league) and only 1633 pass yards, the eighth best mark in the league.
In kicker Matt Prater and punter Britton Colquitt, the Broncos have one of the top specialist tandems in the NFL. Prater is a perfect 9/9 in field goals this year, including 2/2 from 50-plus yards while Colquitt and the punt coverage unit are fifth in the league with 42.6 net yards per punt.
Most impressively, the Broncos rank second in the NFL in average starting field position allowed on kickoffs and rank eighth in the league with 14 punts downed inside the 20 yard line. Denver also boasts the second-lowest average yards per return allowed in all of the NFL.
The Broncos have not allowed a return touchdown this year but also have not scored one. The only real black mark on the special teams units have been the fumbles lost, one each, by Omar Bolden and newly-acquired return man Trindon Holliday.
Fox is a strong head coach who is highly confident and has a firm grasp on his program. He is, unlike some previous coaches (cough…cough….Josh McDaniels), unafraid to change things up. In addition to the strong locker room rapport he has established, his greatest attribute is his willingness and ability to put his players into whatever position he and his staff feel best allow them to succeed. He is not going to try to fit square pegs into round holes, again unlike the previous regime.
Fox is not a control freak and allows his assistants to coach. Del Rio runs the defense and Mike McCoy coordinates the offense. Del Rio’s defense is allowing an average of 21.7 points per game (14th) and McCoy’s offense is scoring an average of 29.1 points, the fourth best in the NFL. Fox, Del Rio, McCoy and the rest of the staff have done a superb job making adjustments at halftime; Denver has out-scored opponents 145-47 in the second half this season.