DENVER -- While it is certainly not the formula their faithful have become accustomed to over the previous three season, these Denver Broncos continued to grind their way through the season Sunday with a 23-20 victory over the Minnesota Vikings at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
Despite two interceptions from quarterback Peyton Manning, the Broncos cranked up just enough of a running game (145 yards) to keep themselves among the league’s undefeated.
The Broncos, after some success in the pistol formation against the Detroit Lions last week, were in pistol much of the time -- 30 snaps through three quarters -- against the Vikings.
What were they thinking? Despite the fact they had to move right tackle Ryan Harris to left tackle to play for the injured Ty Sambrailo to go with Michael Schofield at right tackle for his first NFL career start, the Broncos continued to play out a three-receiver set almost exclusively in the first half. After some initial success, the Vikings were able to consistently pressure Manning and throughout the game the Broncos were efficient out of their power looks.
One reason to get excited: This team’s defense, with seven more sacks added to the list against the Vikings, will be the biggest reason the Broncos are in any postseason conversation. The Broncos had three sacks in the first 19 offensive snaps – excluding punts – the Vikings had in the game and the defense continues to set the tempo for a still undefeated team. While Adrian Peterson’s 48-yard romp in the fourth quarter, on a fourth-and-inches play, was a significant blemish, until the offense finds more rhythm the Broncos are as good as their defense makes them.
One reason to panic: Opposing defensive coordinators will say privately the pass they feel like they can make a play on with Manning is the ball to the left flat when the Broncos have the single receiver lined up to that side. Defenders have jumped that route repeatedly, including Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr in the second quarter Sunday.
Fantasy watch: Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, who entered Sunday’s game leading the Broncos in catches, receiving yards and targets, left the game in the third quarter with a neck injury after a hard hit from Vikings safety Harrison Smith to close out a 4-yard gain. Thomas was evaluated and eventually returned to the game, but it will bear watching in the coming week.
Ouch: Thomas’ injury was certainly the most notable, but wide receiver Cody Latimer also left the game with a groin injury and safety David Bruton Jr. was evaluated for a concussion. Bruton was cleared to return to the game by doctors on site.
Double up: Given the Broncos would seem to prefer to operate out of a more wide-open look on offense, they gave a glimpse of something that could use a longer look. The Broncos were in a two-tight end formation for one snap in the first half of Sunday’s game and it was for Ronnie Hillman’s 72-yard run for a touchdown against the Vikings’ base defense. In the first three snaps they used the formation in their opening possession of the second half, the Broncos drew a pass interference penalty that gave them a first down to go with a 4-yard run and a 43-yard completion to Emmanuel Sanders. By contrast, the Broncos were in a four-wide receiver set, with an empty backfield, for two snaps in the first half – a sack and an interception by Manning.
Decisions, decisions: The Broncos have tried to regulate Hillman’s carries at times. At 195 pounds, the Broncos don’t want to over-work him and put him in harm’s way, but there is no question right now he is the best fit in the team’s run game and his 100-yard game Sunday was proof of that. The Broncos have spent the offseason program, training camp and the season’s early going with C.J. Anderson as the lead back, but Hillman has earned a longer look.