If the Week 2 Thursday Night Football matchup between the Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs was any indication, the 2015 NFL season is going to be highly entertaining. In a back-and-forth battle that saw Kansas City jump out to an early 14-0 lead only to let Denver claw their way back in and tie the game before halftime, we learned that it was not only way too early to write the Broncos off as Super Bowl contenders in 2015, but we also learned that it is way too early to call future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning washed up.
First and foremost, we would be remiss if the Broncos’ defense wasn’t the first thing we discussed. They are, after all, on track and talented enough to be one of the best defenses the NFL has ever seen. One week after thoroughly dominating the Baltimore Ravens, the Broncos’ defense turned in another suffocating performance against the Chiefs. Earlier this year, during the lull of the NFL offseason, we wrote that outside linebackers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware give the Broncos the best pass-rush duo in the league. All due respect to a handful of other teams — the Chiefs being one of them — Miller and Ware are well on their way to proving us right. They have combined for just three sacks in two games, but have still made life a living hell for quarterbacks Joe Flacco and Alex Smith. For as good as the Broncos have been up front defensively, they have been almost equally impressive in their defensive backfield. Cornerbacks Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib are both playing at an All-Pro level, and safety Darian Stewart has looked like one of the bigger free agency steals of 2015. The most valuable member of the defense, however, may be new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. The 68-year-old coach has installed a 3-4 scheme that fits the Broncos’ defensive personnel like a glove, and his aggressive play-calling approach has been a welcome change to the ultra-conservative approach of former defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. All said, this is a defense that will ensure the Broncos are at the very least competitive in every game they play.
While the Denver defense has been remarkable in both of their games to start the season, things have been far less positive on the offensive side of the ball.
For the first half of the 2014 season, quarterback Peyton Manning was well on his way to winning yet another NFL MVP award. That was until the then 38-year-old quarterback and his team got physically pounded by the St. Louis Rams in a stunning 22-7 upset loss in Week 11. From that day on, Manning looked like a completely different quarterback. His passes clearly lacked zip, and the Broncos’ offense that had looked unstoppable for most of the season, suddenly looked very average. It all culminated with an embarrassing early playoff exit that came at the hands of Manning’s former team, the Indianapolis Colts, during the Divisional round of the AFC Playoffs.
Following the season, the Broncos made a coaching change, bringing in Gary Kubiak to replace John Fox. The hiring of Kubiak instantly raised questions about how well Manning would fit into Kubiak’s zone-blocking scheme that would require him to spend the majority of his time under center. The team’s offensive performance in their Week 1 game against the Ravens did absolutely nothing to answer those questions. In fact, it did nothing but bring up additional concerns after Manning and the Denver offense failed to score a single touchdown on the Baltimore defense. And it was more of the same for the first 25 minutes in their Thursday night game against the Chiefs.
After Manning threw a pick-six – his second of the season – to Kansas City cornerback Marcus Peters with 6:27 remaining in the first half, something clicked and we would witness a completely different version of Manning and the Denver offense for the rest of the game.
Manning closed out the first half of the game with two touchdown passes, but more importantly, he looked like the Manning of old. He was back to spending most of his time in the shotgun and changing plays at the line of scrimmage. In turn, he picked apart the Kansas City secondary and showed that he still has more than enough arm strength to complete passes down the field. What was more impressive, though, was the fact that Manning successfully led the Broncos on a game-tying, 10-play, 80-yard scoring drive in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter. If nothing else, that drive clearly proved that Manning still has “it”.
What has been lost in the shuffle during the Broncos’ 2-0 start to the season, has been the up-and-down play of their offensive line, which has allowed Manning to be sacked eight times in two games. In addition to the sacks, Manning has been getting hit more than ever before, which is something that doesn’t show up in the stat sheet, but goes a long way in explaining his struggles this season. A large part of the problem is the fact that Denver has four new offensive line starters in 2015, and their starting unit has been together for less than two weeks. That said, there is simply no excuse for them to be getting blown into the backfield the way they have been in both the running game and the passing game.
There is no denying that Denver’s offensive line has been below average up to this point. However, in the spirit of giving credit where credit is due, they were just as responsible for Manning’s resurgence as the quarterback was himself. It became clear – painfully clear for Chiefs fans – that Manning is still one of the better quarterbacks in the league when he has a clean pocket to throw from. We would even go as far as saying that the Broncos’ will only go as far as their offensive line can carry them in 2015.
We learned quite a bit about the 2015 Denver Broncos during Thursday night’s game. We now know that Peyton Manning may no longer be able to carry an entire team on his back, but he is still capable of playing the game at a high level. We also learned that the Broncos’ best chance for success may be to shift away from running Kubiak’s zone-blocking offense and build an offense that can emphasis the running game, but also allow Manning to be himself. We learned that the Denver’s offensive line continues to be a work in progress, but will need to gel in a hurry for this team to contend for a Super Bowl in 2015. Lastly, we learned that the Broncos’ offensive concerns may not matter with the way their defense has been playing. The Broncos may be a long way away from being the team they ultimately want to be, but at the end of the day, they are 2-0 with wins against two of the best teams in the AFC.
All statistics courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.