Gut Reactions: ‘We’re On To New England’

There was a point where I tweeted out that today’s Broncos-Steelers game didn’t feel like a one-point game.

We can all feel pretty good that it was, though, because it gave the Broncos a chance to win in the fourth quarter despite having too many hiccups on offense and defense.

The downside, of course, is that the Broncos didn’t put four quarters together. And it’s been like that most of the season. The Green Bay game is the only game where you can make the argument that the Broncos executed for all four quarters in every aspect.

But, perhaps, it may be better that way, because pundits will continue to declare the Broncos the team that is the least likely to win the Super Bowl and put other teams on a pedestal. And we’ve seen what has happened to the teams that got the label of “nobody wants to face this team in the playoffs!”

The Chiefs? Gone. The Seahawks? Gone. The Steelers? Gone.

Oh, and a minor point: Everyone was convinced the Packers were back after they beat Washington, but they couldn’t get enough done against Arizona.

Get ready for the Patriots to get touted as how they are back and more dangerous than ever. And you know what… that’s fine. Because it allows the Broncos to stay under the radar, and sometimes it’s better to be that team. It doesn’t guarantee success, but at least you aren’t being given a reason to get a big head going into a game.

So let’s review a few things about what went down today. We’ll get the bad out of the way first.

Broncos better leave their favorite candy bar (Butterfingers) behind next week.

The Broncos moved the ball well at times in the first half, but a big reason they couldn’t put a full drive together was their tendency to let good throws hit the turf. Peyton Manning was far from being “vintage Peyton” today, but of the six drops I counted (others counted seven, so maybe I missed one that CBS never bothered to replay), five of them should have been caught and at least three should have resulted in first downs.

Demaryius Thomas was the first, but fortunately, he didn’t let it snowball and caught every other pass that was thrown well his way. Emmanuel Sanders followed with a dropped pass that might have seen him tackled short of the first down, but if he catches the ball first, he might be fortunate enough to escape the tackle. The second time Sanders was credited for a drop, we’ll be fair to him and recognize that safety Mike Mitchell hit him hard (and those who prefer to call it a pass defensed by Mitchell, I won’t argue with you).

Then we come to Bennie Fowler, who may or may not have dropped a pass in the flat the first time he was targeted, but I couldn’t tell from first glance and CBS decided it was more important to get Jay Feely’s opinion on punting than discuss what happened on that play. But the next time Fowler was targeted, it was a clear drop on his part, a second-down play that would have at least shortened the yardage Denver needed for a first down.

The two most frustrating ones I saw were at the hands of C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman. Anderson’s drop would have meant converting a third down, while Hillman’s could have resulted in a nine-yard gain. Both came because the players seemed to be thinking about all the yards after the catch they would get instead of just catching the ball. The two might not be the best pass-catching backs in the NFL, but those were passes that are easy to bring in if you aren’t thinking about something else.

I don’t mean to sound so harsh on these guys, and the likes of Thomas, Sanders and Fowler each came up with key catches on later drives. But five dropped passes that were easy catches are not what you want to see happen in the playoffs, and such mistakes cannot happen often when the Broncos face the Patriots next week.

Soft zone coverage won’t get it done next week.

The other gripe comes with the Broncos’ decision to play too much zone coverage, particularly when it became clear that Ben Roethlisberger’s shoulder injury wasn’t affecting his ability to throw a deep ball. Bradley Roby particularly had a bad outing, as he left his assigned receiver (which was often Martavis Bryant, who Roby drew because Chris Harris was limited with a shoulder injury) on several occasions because he thought Roethlisberger was going to be sacked or take off running. But while Roethlisberger has shown a willingness to run in the open field, he is a smart passer who will find the open guy if you let up on coverage.

Aqib Talib had a couple of blown coverages, too, but he redeemed himself by breaking up two touchdown passes, and in each case, avoided pass interference. To be fair to Chris Harris, he may not have had a good game in man coverage to begin with thanks to his hurt shoulder. And Roby did redeem himself by forcing a fumble. But, overall, it wasn’t a good day for the cornerbacks.

Were it not for T.J. Ward returning to the linuep, it could have been a much longer day for the Denver defense. People will spend all their time pointing to Antonio Brown’s absence, but truth be told, he wasn’t really missed that much in the receiving game. Back to Ward, though, he was the one sniffing out how plays developed and making sure he stayed in his assignment. In particular was his coverage on an attempted bubble screen to Bryant, in which Ward saw it coming and went right for Bryant, getting a tackle for a loss.

But when it comes to the overall defensive back play, soft zone coverage and Roby being too focused on the quarterback won’t get it done against New England. Do that and guys like Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman will eat the Denver defense alive.

Certain players who struggled this season had acceptable games.

We’ve gotten on Michael Schofield’s case for good reason, and he definitely needs to be called out for committing holding when there was no reason to (CJ Anderson was already blowing past the Steeler defender when Schofield reached out). But when you consider his recent games would be diplomatically described as “beyond horrible,” you’ll certainly take a “decent enough” outing from the guy. He didn’t give up a sack and most of the pressures weren’t on him, and considering how much he’s struggled in pass protection this year, if he’s at least not letting defenders blow past him on every play, I’ll take what I can get from him.

Peyton Manning’s last start (Week 9 vs. the Chiefs) was, of course, as ugly as ugly gets. He was far from the Peyton of his prime today, with miscues such as a near interception (which Sanders deserves credit for breaking up) and falling down when he lost his footing trying to escape pressure (although the referees never ruled he gave himself up and, because he wasn’t touched, he got back up and hit a wide-open Sanders). But he played solid for most of the game. Were it not for dropped passes, he would have had a better stat line. Furthermore, he showed he could take snaps under center and still see enough of the field to adjust to what the defenses showed. He’s certainly not what he used to be, but overall, he was good enough and that’s all you want.

Finally, there’s Britton Colquitt, who has made a propensity of bad punts at the wrong time, and today’s windy conditions could certainly have resulted in him falling victim to that when the Broncos could pin the Steelers deep in their own territory. True, Colquitt isn’t the sole reason for keeping the Steelers from getting favorable field position and I will get to the player who had the bigger role shortly. But give credit where it’s due: On a day in which Steelers punter Jordan Berry did not have a good game (including a shanked 27-yard punt that may have gone out at the Steelers’ 31-yard line even if he had the wind to his back), Colquitt did the job he was paid to do, with six punts for an average distance of 47 yards. We give Colquitt plenty of grief, and rightly so, but today, he arguably played the best game he has all season. So tip your cap to him and give him a break, at least until the next playoff game starts.

This Broncos defense is so much better with DeMarcus Ware in the lineup.

I already mentioned that T.J. Ward’s presence made a difference, but one who made a bigger difference was DeMarcus Ware. While guys like Shane Ray and Shaquil Barrett have had their moments, Ware brings more consistency. The one edge he has over the younger players (who, to be fair to them, are still learning) is that he can read what the opposing offense is doing and understand where to be when plays develop.

Witness how Shane Ray failed to recognize the developing reverse with Martavis Bryant the first time the Steelers ran the play, but when they ran it a second time, Ware saw it developing quickly enough to limit Bryant’s gain and allow Ward to come in to help, thus preventing a first down. Then move forward to when Jordan Todman tried to run to his right, only for Derek Wolfe to push past his blocker and force Todman to move to his left. Rather than overpursue Todman, Ware stayed in his lane and waited for Todman to make a cut, then he moved in and made the tackle possible.

Take those little things that Ware does, and add in what he can do in creating pressure and generating sack opportunities (and he had one in this game), then throw in his fumble recovery that gave the Broncos new life, and we can all be happy to have a healthy Ware back in the lineup. He may not be with the Broncos next season, but we definitely want all we can get from him in the playoffs.

Your real MVP on special teams isn’t the obvious one.

Give credit to Brandon McManus for hitting five field goals, a playoff record, and a distinction that will probably net him the AFC Special Teams Player of the Week, particularly when he had to kick in windy conditions. He does deserve praise for making good on every attempt and keeping the Broncos in the game.

But there’s one special teams player whose contributions may get overlooked in our rush to heap praise on somebody who puts points on the board. I am talking about Kayvon Webster.

The biggest reason the Steelers kept starting in poor field position was Webster’s special teams play. It started when the Broncos punted from their own 40-yard line and Webster hustled downfield as the ball bounced around the 5-yard line. Just as the ball looked like it would go into the end zone, Webster leapt into the air to swat the ball back toward the field of play, where it rolled out of bounds at the 3-yard line. That Webster had the presence of mind to not only swat the ball, but keep his feet from touching the end zone, was amazing to see.

But it didn’t stop there. After the Broncos had to punt on their opening drive of the third quarter, Webster was quick to reach Markus Wheaton and tackle him for a mere 1-yard return. The Steelers did drive for a field goal after the Broncos had a breakdown in coverage, but credit must go to Webster for ensuring a short return after Wheaton returned two punts for 20 yards in the first half.

Then came yet another great play, in which Wheaton failed to signal for a fair catch at the 9-yard line, allowing Webster to hit Wheaton just as the ball touched the Steelers’ return man. The ball bounced away from Wheaton and might have been recovered by Denver, were it not for Darrius Heyward-Bey hustling for the ball and recovering it out of bounds at the 3. Webster’s play, though, got into Wheaton’s head, to the point that, when Webster came at him again, he muffed another punt and the Broncos almost recovered it. (On that play, yes, a touchback was the correct call because the rule states that a muffed punt is not a fumble if the ball merely bounces off the returner’s hands — a bad rule, admittedly, but as long as the rule is in place, you have to enforce it.)

So if anyone should be getting special teams awards, it’s Webster, who is coming up big at a time when the Broncos need plays like his.

Other random notes.

* One final grumble: Going 3 of 15 on third down isn’t good at all. With that said, the Steelers weren’t any better, going 2 for 12 on third. Admittedly, though, it didn’t seem like it.

* Derek Wolfe isn’t waiting until next season to start earning that contract extension. Nobody will argue with four tackles and a sack, plus his frequent penetration of the line that allowed the defense to disrupt plays.

* Von Miller may not have had a great game from a statistical standpoint, but he got to Roethlisberger at the right time and allowed the rest of the defense to clean up. Plus there was a definite occasion late in the game when he was held at it wasn’t call, but that seems to be par for the course these days.

* Danny Trevathan was all over the place, as evidenced by his nine tackles. Truth be told, if the Broncos have to choose between him and Malik Jackson, I lean Trevathan’s way because he does so much well. Plus he might actually come at a lower price than Jackson, given that the bulk of inside linebackers don’t command top dollars.

* C.J. Anderson is the better of the running backs, but the reason you see Ronnie Hillman take more snaps early is because Anderson is the better pass protector. True, he blew protection on one play and allowed James Harrison to sack Manning, but he picked up most blitzes. It’s hard not having him on first down, but when it’s third down, you definitely want him as much as possible, so I can understand why the Broncos use him the way they do.

* Cody Latimer and Virgil Green haven’t seen a lot of snaps, but they made the most of their opportunities today. True, they were each only targeted twice, but Latimer’s catches both resulted in first downs, Green had one catch for a first down and broke a tackle on the other to gain yardage. I wouldn’t be surprised to see more of them again next week.

* Gary Kubiak probably should have gone for it on fourth down when the Broncos had the ball on fourth and one at the Pittsburgh 10-yard line in the first quarter, and clearly Anderson wanted to go for it. But Kubiak made up for it, and then some, when he not only wisely chose to go for two when the Broncos got their first touchdown of the game, but for drawing up a brilliant play. The Broncos’ formation suggested they might try to run the ball and the Steelers bit on it, allowing Manning to swing it out to Demayrius Thomas, who easily got into the end zone.

Enjoy the win, Broncos fans. Never apologize for it, despite the pundits that want to grumble about Antonio Brown’s absence. And bring on them Patriots, who will certainly be the “team du jour” for conference championship weekend.

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Bob Morris

I'm a sports writer in real life, though I've always focused on smaller communities, but that hasn't stopped me from learning more about some of the ins and outs of the NFL. You can follow me on Twitter @BobMorrisSports if you can put up with updates on the high school sports teams I cover.