The Denver Broncos dropped to 6-1 on the season with a loss in Peyton Manning's return to Indianapolis. Putting the loss in perspective, it's merely a hard-fought 39-33 road loss to the Indianapolis Colts—a quality opponent.
No big deal, right? It's one game, and there are nine more on the schedule.
A month or two from now, we could look back on this game, and it could be the only blemish on an otherwise storybook season. Or it could be the start of a period of struggles for the Broncos.
The Colts revealed some of Denver's weaknesses, and if the Broncos don't make some corrections or adjustments in the coming weeks, they could have more close games—and losses—as a result.
The Broncos turned the ball over, struggled to get any stops on defense and, for some reason, fell in love with low-percentage deep passes down the sideline at the same time that Manning seemed to have lost his fastball. The Colts also ran over, around and through Denver's offensive line.
Without adequate pass protection or Manning's pinpoint accuracy, the receivers struggled to produce. Wide receiver Eric Decker spent a good portion of his night begging for penalty flags that never came, and the rest of the receivers and tight ends were invisible for the better part of two quarters.
For a while, the Broncos looked like a very bad football team. Bad offense, bad defense, bad turnovers and poor play-calling seemed to plague them until a frantic comeback attempt in the fourth quarter that fell short.
Points Off Turnovers
One of the biggest problems for the Broncos was turnovers. The two fumbles, one interception and a safety cost the Broncos dearly as they turned into 19 points for the Colts if you count the drive on the extra possession after the safety.
The turnovers also came in key moments, two of them as the Broncos made their comeback attempt and appeared to have the Colts on their heels. Both turnovers were the result of questionable play-calling and coaching.
|Turnover||Colts Points||Probable Point Swing|
Manning threw an interception that was the result of the offensive line not being able to give him the time he needed to make the big play. Manning had called an audible and was going to throw deep when he was hit. It was a huge play because the Colts turned the turnover into three points, going up by two scores with about six minutes left to play.
The last turnover came courtesy of running back Ronnie Hillman, who fumbled at the goal line after Manning had quickly moved the Broncos inside the 2-yard line with a few assists from wide receiver Wes Welker. It was a questionable decision to hand the ball to Hillman inside the 5-yard line considering his history of fumbles and how Manning had marched the offense to within two yards of the end zone.
The Broncos were in desperation mode for two of the turnovers, but the other two came well before the Colts took a big lead. Left tackle Chris Clark allowed Robert Mathis to hit Manning from behind, resulting in a fumble recovered for a safety, and return man Trindon Holliday fumbled, setting up a Colts touchdown.
So far, the Broncos have been willing to take the good with the bad with Holliday returning kicks, but they need his return skills to justify it. On Sunday night, Holliday's fumble hurt the team a lot more than his returns helped it, which is not the kind of trade-off the Broncos want.
Offensive Line Stalls Passing Game
The Broncos have been able to survive without left tackle Ryan Clady, but against an elite pass-rusher like Mathis, his replacement Clark was finally exposed. Because the Broncos dug a hole with turnovers, Mathis was able to rush without much fear of the running game and was rarely even getting chipped by a tight end or running back.
Right tackle Orlando Franklin also missed the game with a foot injury, forcing the Broncos to move right guard Louis Vasquez outside with veteran Chris Kuper started at left guard. Vasquez did well enough, but the Broncos allowed a ton of pressure up the middle in addition to the pressure from Mathis, which made it hard for Manning to step into his throws.
In the future, the Broncos are going to face elite pass-rushing teams like the Kansas City Chiefs, and they have to figure out how they are going to give Manning enough time to get the ball to his talented receivers. The talent is currently thin, so this is an area that could continue to hurt the Broncos.
The offensive line's struggles were compounded by the fact that the Colts successfully jammed Denver's receivers at the line of scrimmage and took away the short passing game. Part of the reason Manning kept trying to hit a big play down the sidelines was to force the Colts to soften their coverage.
A similar strategy will continue to work against the Broncos unless the offensive line can give Manning an extra second and a better pocket to make his throws. Manning was a little off on Sunday night against the Colts, but it probably had a lot more to do with the offense and defense than it did any type of Manning injury.
A Defensive Disaster
The Colts started slowly, but once they opened things up and let Andrew Luck do his magic, Denver's defense looked slow and out of position. It all seemed to go south for the Broncos after Manning's fumble that was recovered for a safety, both for the offense and defense.
|Colts Drive Chart|
|Drives||First Quarter||Second Quarter||Third Quarter||Fourth Quarter|
On the drive after the safety, the Colts marched down the field 66 yards on seven plays for a touchdown to go up 19-14. Two drives later, the Colts went 50 yards in six plays for another touchdown. A couple drives after that, the Colts went 59 yards on four plays for another touchdown to make the score 33-14.
The Broncos got a few stops in between, but the Colts scored three times on four trips into the red zone. Von Miller returned from his six-game suspension and failed to make an impact in the passing game, which is precisely where the Broncos have struggled without him.
Turnovers certainly aided the Colts, but they were able to get into the end zone on just about every opportunity. The Broncos needed to force one or two field goals to give their offense a chance to get back on track without having to abandon their entire game plan.
The Colts provided a blueprint for beating the Broncos that could be replicated if Denver doesn't make some corrections in the next few weeks. It's a huge concern for the Broncos if these things continue to be problems, and they aren't problems Denver had to solve last year.