ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In a span of five days the Denver Broncos went from the AFC’s top seed with a dominant win against the Tennessee Titans to a loss to the San Diego Chargers this past Thursday night that knocked them out of the inside lane for the No. 1 seed and added a question mark or two along the way.
The Broncos didn’t handle their short week, prime-time appearance very well, with a one-dimensional look on offense that featured miniscule work in the run game to go with another tough night for a beleaguered defense still looking for answers.
After a long look at the video from Thursday night’s loss, here are some thoughts on the team’s offense:
Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano chose coverage over pressure much of the time Thursday. Though the Chargers sacked Peyton Manning just once, they were able to create some pressure from the inside, a must when facing Manning, with plenty of three- and four-man rushes. Right defensive end Corey Liuget was particularly effective working the gap either between left guard Zane Beadles and center Manny Ramirez, or a little more outside when he made some plays between left tackle Chris Clark and Beadles. On the sack of Manning in the second quarter, the Chargers brought a fourth rusher -- safety Marcus Gilchrist -- and Broncos running back Knowshn Moreno, who would have been in the perfect spot to help on Liuget, had to move from left to right to pick up Gilchrist, who was the free runner at that point. But Liuget then blasted between Beadles and Clark, forcing Manning to spin and try to escape to his left. Moreno missed Gilchrist, who then ran down Manning. On Manning’s interception in the fourth quarter, it was much the same look from the Chargers. Gilchrist joined the rush from well off the ball on Manning’s right, and this time it was Montee Ball who tried to pick him up. Gilchrist ran through Ball’s attempt to slow him down, but it was Liuget who did the bulk of the damage again. After an initial double-team from Beadles and Clark, Beadles came off the block to look inside, and by the time he looked to help Clark again, Liuget had already beaten Clark to the inside to hit Manning’s arm as Gilchrist closed in. The Broncos are one of the league’s better groups up front in working double teams to create passing lanes for Manning, as well as in the run game. But the Chargers were particularly effective in beating the 1-on-1s up front, especially with the added rusher.
Manning has seen everything through the years and beaten all of it. So, to say anybody consistently solves him is a shaky premise at best. But many of the teams that do have some success in the short term do it with seven or eight players in coverage. The Chargers joined the list Thursday night with plenty of three-deep looks with five defenders working the underneath routes. It kept the Broncos from working “verticals" deep down the field, and also kept Manning from chipping away underneath to lure one of those three deep players towards the line of scrimmage. It doesn’t work if the three rushers can’t affect things up front. The Chargers rushed effectively, they defended the run well -- the Broncos had just 18 yards on 11 carries -- and San Diego limited the catch and runs by the Broncos receivers. When the Broncos' run game can’t even reach ornamental status, the play-action game is muted, and that has a significant impact on the Broncos’ ability to work smoothly. As a result Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas and Eric Decker had a combined three receptions in the second half.
The Broncos signed wide receiver Wes Welker for two years and $12 million because he is considered one of the best working out of the slot. Welker missed Thursday night's game with a concussion, and facing the Chargers’ 3-4 look on defense the Broncos chose to go with a bigger two-tight end look much of the time in the first half, with Julius Thomas and Virgil Green in the lineup. It bolstered the edges of the formation a bit, but the Broncos didn’t have their best group in the passing attack because of it. So, when the Broncos couldn’t carve out some room in the run game, the Chargers won the matchup game, beating the Broncos’ bigger look and keeping the Broncos out of the personnel grouping that would have had a little more pop in the passing game. The Broncos' best option in the passing game with Welker out is tight end Jacob Tamme working out of the slot, where he worked for most of his 52 receptions last season. But because of the decision to use Green when they went with two tight ends, usually because Thomas has struggled when asked to face up and slow down a pass-rusher, Tamme got just nine snaps on offense and finished with one catch, for nine yards. When the Broncos trailed in the second half, they spent all but four snaps in the three-wide-receiver look in the second half, with Decker working out of the slot much of the time. But in the first half, the Broncos went bigger and it didn’t pay the dividends they had hoped as they went 0-of-6 on third down in the opening half.
The Broncos’ 54 plays on offense were a season low. The three consecutive three-and-outs in the second quarter marked a season first as well. But the Broncos were also never able to consistently win the field position battle. They started four possessions at their own 11-yard line or worse in the game, taking over on the 10-, 6-, 11- and 3-yard lines. And in a game when they got the ball just nine times, their average drive start was the 19-yard line. The 21 minutes, 11 seconds worth of possession time was also a season low. The Chargers kept the Broncos below 22 minutes of possession time in both meetings this season, the lowest and second-lowest total of the season for the Broncos, with Denver at 21:57 in the Broncos' 28-20 win last month.