We’ve often talked about how great teams should be able to beat the bad teams decisively and put them away by the fourth quarter. The Broncos did that yesterday against Tampa Bay.
Last year, that wasn’t the case. The Broncos tended to let even the bad teams hang around with them, only for the defense to come through with crucial plays that gave the Broncos the win. They had to go to overtime to beat the Browns 26-23, they won a sloppy game against the Bears 17-15 and they turned the ball over too much against San Diego to close out the season with a 27-20 win. Throw in the Ravens’ game, which the Broncos won 19-13 thanks to last-second heroics by the defense and the Broncos had their issues against several teams who drafted in the top 10 this past offseason.
Things have changed this season. Tampa Bay looks like a team that may draft in the top 10 and the Broncos had the game won early in the fourth quarter, despite losing Trevor Siemian to a shoulder injury. That Paxton Lynch was able to hold the fort down is a good sign (I’ll get to that in a few minutes). The Bucs did have injury issues throughout the game, but the great teams have to capitalize on that rather than assuming they have the game in the bag.
The Broncos, to their credit, never let up. That’s a good thing regarding their prospects for the rest of the season, when the schedule will pick up a bit with Atlanta and a road game at Oakland in the weeks to come. And it will especially be important after the bye week when the Broncos will have arguably their toughest games, with New England, a home game with Oakland and two games with the Chiefs in the latter half of the season.
So what’s been the difference this season? The obvious one is that the Broncos are more efficient on offense than they were last season. Although the run game has stalled out a bit in recent weeks, I would attribute part of that to the right side of the line not holding up that well in the run game. Ty Sambrailo isn’t the run defender that Donald Stephenson is, even if Sambrailo did improve in pass protection as the game progressed yesterday. Also, the Bucs are a good team against the run, giving up just 3.3 yards per carry in four games.
What’s been working well so far for the Broncos is how the coaching staff is exploiting the weak areas that each opponent has. Against the Bucs, it was clear their secondary is a liability. The Bucs had a few good plays in the secondary but, for the most part, Trevor Siemian, Paxton Lynch and the receivers had their way with them. The Broncos spent more time throwing the ball against Cincinnati as well because the Bengals’ secondary isn’t as good as it was last year. Compare that to the Colts’ game, in which the Broncos ran the ball more often and were better at it, even though Indy’s secondary was beat up.
The Colts’ game is also the game in which the Broncos lost Stephenson, so his return should help the run game improve. It would be a good time for that to happen this week because the Falcons are giving up 4.5 yards per carry through four games. They might have looked good against the run this past week, but Carolina’s offensive line is regressing (this just in, Mike Remmers is not good. At. All.) and they didn’t have Jonathan Stewart. Obviously, the Broncos don’t want to rush Stephenson back, but if the coaches determine he can go this week, his return will be welcomed.
As for the quarterback situation, I expect Gary Kubiak and his staff will play it safe with Siemian. What makes the most sense is to get Siemian healthy and allow Lynch to start against Atlanta. The coaching staff has been good about not rushing players back onto the field and I expect they will handle the QB situation no differently, especially because Lynch showed poise in the pocket and mostly made good decisions. He had one pass attempt that may have been forced and he may have waited too long to throw the ball away on another play, but like with Siemian, Lynch is far from reaching his ceiling.
What about the long term? That all depends on how Lynch performs and how soon the Broncos are comfortable with Siemian coming back into the lineup. If Siemian will miss a lot of games, then whether or not he should start again depends on how Lynch looks overall. If Siemian will only miss one or two games, it’s a trickier situation, but I would lean toward returning Siemian to the lineup unless Lynch looks so dominant that the Broncos feel they have no choice but to keep going with him.
As for what’s happening with the defense, it isn’t the stalwart it was last season, but it’s not showing signs of slowing down. More importantly, it doesn’t have to be a stalwart. The offense is playing well, which takes some pressure off the defense. The defense doesn’t have to spend too much time defending the short field or spending more time on the field because the offense can’t do better than a three and out much of the time.
Additionally, the Broncos depth is improved. Both Shane Ray and Shaquil Barrett are better than they were last year and they haven’t hit their ceilings, either. Jared Crick and Billy Winn are settling into their roles, and while they don’t show much in the stat line, the little things they do are keeping teams off balance. Of course, Von Miller is the epitome of a player who makes his presence known even if the stats don’t show it – yesterday’s game saw Miller draw holding penalties a couple of times could have drawn a couple more flags if the referees were perfect (they aren’t, unfortunately, but I thought they did a good job overall yesterday).
Then there’s the secondary, which may be better than what it was last year. Aqib Talib is showing no signs of slowing down. T.J. Ward continues to play well and I’m sure John Elway will be thinking that Ward should be the guy due for an extension around August 2017, similar to how Emmanuel Sanders got one this past August. Chris Harris remains one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. Will Parks drew a pass interference flag but his hustle to the ball was a good thing; he just needs to improve his timing and discipline and such penalties will turn into legal pass break-ups.
Against Atlanta, the Broncos will have a tough task in containing Julio Jones, but bear in mind that the Falcons were beating the Panthers deep with more receivers than just Jones. If the Broncos secondary plays at a high level, it should avoid deep passes to receivers other than Jones and, when Jones does catch passes, limit his yards after the catch.
What’s made this Broncos team better than last year is that it no longer has to rely on its defense to do the heavy lifting. The offense is doing more than its share toward winning games and, once certain players get healthy, it should only improve. Tougher games may lie ahead for the Broncos and, yeah, the Patriots will get Tom Brady back and the Chiefs will get Justin Houston back. But as long as the Broncos keep trending in the right direction on both sides of the ball, they’ll become the team to beat in the AFC.