On paper, this should have been a Denver Broncos win today. But as we all know, matchups don’t always play out like they do on paper.
And while we are aware of what have been the weaknesses with the Broncos offense — and they were evident against the Colts — that really wasn’t what cost the Broncos the game today.
If we are honest with ourselves, it was the Broncos defense that didn’t come through like it has in the past seven games. The defense isn’t the sole reason for the loss, but the defense was nowhere near as sharp as it had been.
With that said, it’s not time to declare the Broncos as pretenders. Rather, it’s time to recognize the things the defense (and, yes, the offense) didn’t do well and remember what must be done to address them.
Briefly regarding the offense: The issues came down to run blocking not always where it needed to be, dropped passes by receivers (granted, Emmanuel Sanders got hurt, but a couple of passes to him he dropped were catchable) and two bad throws by Peyton Manning when he was mostly on target, but those two bad throws led to the worst possible outcome (an interception). We’ve seen some of these things before and it’s hard to see them come up again.
But what we weren’t used to seeing was the defense make so many mistakes. The defense had too many penalties, most notably an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty by Aqib Talib in the final minutes of the game, which allowed the Colts to kill the clock. Then came another penalty when the Colts kicked a field goal in the final seconds (a holding penalty on Danny Trevathan) that allowed the Colts to kill the clock for good.
Those weren’t the only penalites, and while one may argue about whether or not they were the right call, the referees didn’t cost the Broncos the game. The referees made several calls that were not only correct, but were wisely recognized and helped the Broncos, such as the Colts penalty on interfering with Omar Bolden’s attempt to field a punt, and T.Y. Hilton’s illegal touching when the replay showed he stepped out of bounds.
Today, the Broncos total penalties — the bulk which came on the defense — were eight for 56 yards. Through the first seven games, the Broncos defense committed 44 penalties for 299 yards, 21 which resulted in first downs for opponents. The total number of penalties the Broncos D has committed ranks among the lowest (tied for third lowest with Dallas), but penalties that resulted in first downs ranks among the worst: Fourth overall, behind New Orleans, Houston, and two teams tied for third, Baltimore and Tampa Bay. Today, the Colts had seven first downs that either were awarded on a penalty or where a penalty added to the yardage after the first-down conversion. The worst thing a defense can commit is a penalty that extends a drive, and that’s something the Broncos must correct.
Additionally, the Broncos didn’t do a good job of coverage, like they did against Green Bay a week earlier. Part of that goes back to something the Colts did this past week: They made a change at offensive coordinator. We must remember that Rob Chudzinski has had success with running an offense (or did we forget how Cam Newton fared as a rookie?) and he ran a scheme that incorporated more two and three tight end sets, something the Broncos weren’t prepared for. He also juggled the lineup on the offensive line and, while the Broncos got pressure and hits on Andrew Luck, they never fazed him.
Our friend Ted Bartlett made an observation on Twitter that the Broncos may have blitzed too much. I think he’s right. Blitzing has certainly been something that the Broncos have done well, and you don’t want to rush three or four on every down with multiple players in coverage, but given how well Luck played under pressure today, it might have helped to blitz less often than the Broncos did. They had a chance to make adjustments at halftime and, while they worked early in the second half, they didn’t work later when the Broncos really needed to get defensive stops.
One thing I didn’t give the Colts credit for was how the offensive line had improved, even before the changes that were made. Pro Football Focus recognized that the Broncos line improved from 20th to 16th overall, but guess who else improved, and even more? Answer: The Colts, who moved from 19th to 13th. Again, the Broncos hit Luck often, but at a cost, and more importantly, the Colts were able to run the ball well enough to keep drives going. The only reason the Colts finished with three yards per carry is because they spent so many downs late in the game running the ball to keep the clock going.
With all of this in mind, is it time to panic? Answer: No. What it’s time to do is to recognize that, while having an aggressive defense is a good thing, it’s important to be disciplined and understand when it’s time to hold back on blitzing. Given how many receivers and tight ends the Colts utilized, blitzing the majority of downs may not have been the smart thing to do. Additionally, the Broncos have to stop committing dumb penalties that keep drives alive, because the more that happens, the harder it will be for the Broncos to get other teams’ offenses off the field and keep them from scoring.
But remember, it’s the losses that will do more to make you recognize the issues in what’s normally your area of strength than the wins do. We all saw in the first six games the areas that the Broncos needed to improve, but that mostly came in the areas in which the needs were obvious, and most of them surrounded the offense. The fact is, the Broncos had some issues on defense as well and, when the issues are in the area that’s mostly strong, it takes a loss to get you to recognize those things.
Bear in mind that the other three undefeated teams each have issues, even in the areas that they are strongest, but they haven’t become readily apparent because they haven’t lost yet. When they don’t play well in the areas they usually excel, that’s the time when those teams are very likely to lose. And all three of those teams would rather have that loss come during the regular season, than to go 16-0 and take that loss in the playoffs.
So Broncos fans must accept that the strongest area didn’t hold up in the Colts game, recognize what must be addressed, and hope the Broncos can correct those things so that the strongest area gets back to where fans know it can be, and it doesn’t let down when the Broncos truly need to win.
But don’t look to blame anyone but the Broncos for the loss and don’t let this one loss that you think shouldn’t have happened define where the season is headed. Again, better to take the loss now than to take it in the playoffs when you don’t get another chance the next week.