All season long, the one subject everyone wants to talk about regarding the Denver Broncos, more than any other subject, has been Peyton Manning.
Let’s get this out of the way: Yes, Peyton is declining and has been for some time. Yes, he’s made poor decisions and his throws aren’t consistently where they need to be. And this is likely going to be his last season.
But after last night’s 29-10 Denver Broncos victory over the Green Bay Packers, it’s time to ask ourselves if we are worrying too much about Peyton.
Because the Broncos-Packers game showed that the Broncos have more than enough to compensate for Peyton’s weaknesses and, if everyone stays healthy, the Broncos are a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
Those who are declaring “Peyton Manning’s not finished!” do need to be cautioned, but so do those who are doing the cautioning. Because those who are doing the cautioning need be reminded about how a team can compensate for a quarterback who was once elite but is no longer that, and that the Broncos are doing those things.
Some have been done from the start of the season while others have taken time to get there. Let’s look at what everyone really needs to consider about this year’s Broncos.
1. They have the best defense in the NFL. The Packers offense entered Sunday’s game with the fourth-ranked offense by Football Outsiders’ DVOA rankings. That offense managed just one touchdown drive against the Broncos defense, and it came largely thanks to defensive penalties.
Wade Phillips has been, by far, the best addition to the Broncos this offseason. He schemed to contain Aaron Rodgers in the pocket as often as possible, not allowing him to extend enough plays. When the Broncos dropped more players in coverage, Phillips’ approach was to keep them there and not break away until they knew Rodgers was beyond the line of scrimmage. It was a risk worth taking because Rodgers almost never completed anything downfield.
The Broncos secondary of Chris Harris, Aqib Talib, Bradley Roby, T.J. Ward and Darian Stewart can officially be called one of the best in the NFL and, at this point, it has surpassed the vaunted Legion of Boom in Seattle. Individually, you wouldn’t compare Ward or Stewart to Earl Thomas, but collectively, the comparison holds up.
And then there’s the pass rush. DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller by themselves are tough to stop, but throw in the likes of Malik Jackson and Derek Wolfe getting into the mix and it’s difficult for opposing offensive lines to keep the quarterback protected.
There are still nine more games left to play, but at the rate this defense is playing, it will go down as the best Denver Broncos defense ever. It’s certainly the best in the league this year.
2. The offensive line is settling down. After left tackle Ryan Clady was lost for the season with a torn ACL, the debate began about how good this offensive line would be. That’s to be understood when the Broncos were looking at spare parts such as Gino Gradkowski and Shelley Smith competing for spots, with unknowns such as Matt Paradis, Ty Sambrailo and Michael Schofield likely to be protecting Peyton Manning.
Along the way came Evan Mathis, who the Philadelphia Eagles released. He chose to play for the Broncos and looks more comfortable than he did to start the season. Paradis has improved and looks like he might be the long-term starter at center. Schofield has gotten better as well and may be the long-term guy at right tackle. Rookie guard Max Garcia had two costly penalties, but has found his place in a rotational role.
Left tackle remains an issue, but the rotation of Ryan Harris and Tyler Polumbus, both veterans who are familiar with Gary Kubiak’s system, has been solid, and once Sambrailo returns to the field, there should be less pressure on him. Being part of a rotation may be exactly what the second-round pick needs to build his confidence.
I’ll admit to having my doubts about the Broncos rotating offensive linemen. But after two games in which the Broncos didn’t give up a sack and opened holes for the run game, I’m warming up to that tactic.
3. The running game is coming together. C.J. Anderson was thought to be done, but it appears the bye week was exactly what he needed to rejuvenate himself. He looked decisive and showed burst when hitting the holes. Couple that with Ronnie Hillman’s overall play and the Broncos suddenly have an effective one-two punch at running back.
Neither back is ever going to be at the level of an Adrian Peterson, a Marshawn Lynch or a Todd Gurley. But they don’t have to be. Nobody is ever going to mistake the Patriots’ Dion Lewis, for example, as the next Peterson, Lynch or Gurley, but he is a good fit for the Patriots’ offense. Combine Lewis with LeGarrette Blount and the Pats have a pair of backs who, while not elite individually, are a quality pairing.
This is exactly what the Broncos appear to have — two backs who aren’t going to be ranked among the best but, when healthy, can spell each other and get the job done. Throw in Juwan Thompson and the Broncos have a third back who can take snaps if necessary.
An elite running back certainly helps boost an offense, but those backs are rare. Thus, finding two solid players who can form an effective duo is the best approach to take, unless you are lucky enough to find that elite back. The Broncos don’t have the latter, but they look like they have the former.
4. The depth is an asset. Go back to the Broncos defense. The Broncos are without first-round pick Shane Ray, who served an important role in the rotation. The past two games, we have seen Shaquil Barrett have his way with the Cleveland Browns, and now we’ve watched Lerentee McCray make good plays against the Packers.
Go back to the defensive backfield, where David Bruton has spent several years as a good special teams player, but was an afterthought on defense until this season. The Broncos are just as comfortable putting backup cornerback Kayvon Webster on the field. And then comes the defensive line, in which Antonio Smith twice got to Rodgers and Vance Walker has been invaluable.
When you have quality depth, you can overcome players lost to injury for a few games. In the Broncos’ case, they have little reason to rush Ray back onto the field, when guys like Barrett, McCray and Smith are doing their jobs effectively.
5. They’ve made some under-the-radar moves that are helping more than you may think. Go back to the offensive line and the decision to bring in Polumbus after Sambrailo injured his shoulder. It was right for people to be skeptical, even pessimistic, when Polumbus has been a poor right tackle throughout much of his career.
Schofield’s emergence has meant the Broncos can play Polumbus on the left side, where he has been solid as part of a rotation. Again, his familiarity with Kubiak’s offense has helped him settle into the “reliable veteran” role, even if he’s never been anything more than “strictly average” at his position.
And then there’s Richard Gordon, a blocking tight end the Broncos brought on board before the Cleveland game. They briefly released him when Thompson wasn’t cleared to play and they needed room to promote Kapri Bibbs to the practice squad. But they told Gordon to stick around and he did. He was brought back to the active roster and appears to be the player Denver needed to solidify its tight end rotation.
Remember that the Broncos had drafted Jeff Heuerman in the third round, which should have signaled that they wanted to rotate him with Owen Daniels and Virgil Green. Heuerman’s ACL injury spoiled that plan and the Broncos couldn’t find a tight end to replace him. But along came Gordon, who took a few snaps against the Packers, allowing the Broncos to rotate Daniels out and allow Green to be used in the passing game. Daniels and Green both looked better than they did before the bye week.
And some may have wondered why the Broncos would be interested in backup center James Ferentz, but against the Packers, they utilized him as a fullback for a couple of plays. Maybe the Broncos knew what they were doing when they claimed him off waivers.
No, Peyton Manning isn’t going to go back to elite QB status again. And it remains to be seen what develops over the rest of the season. As other teams can tell you, an injury to a significant player can leave you with plenty of questions to answer.
But if everything stays in place for the Broncos, they won’t need Peyton to play at elite level. The pieces have been in place on the defense and they are coming together on offense. If they stay that way, Peyton can be “good enough when he needs to be” and the Broncos will keep on winning.