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Friday, 24 October 2014

Denver 35, San Diego 21: Five Things We Learned

Arguably the best Thursday Night Football game of the season, the Week 8 slate kicked off with the reigning Most Valuable Player in Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos, versus one of this year’s contenders for the MVP award in Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers.

If you read my article about the Chargers having a shot at the AFC West crown this season, you obviously knew that I’ve not been bashful of my support for Philip Rivers and belief that he’s a legitimate top five quarterback. Unfortunately, the Broncos are laying claim to being the best team in football this season.

From the start of the contest, Denver was the more physical team on the defensive trenches. San Diego are a possession based team (ranked 5th in the league at 32 minutes per game) that thrives on mixing in a power running game with a downfield offense predicated on crossing routes and “shot-plays” to the likes of Malcolm Floyd. That did not happen as the Chargers struggled mightily to run the football.

Emmanuel Sanders, who has revived his career in Denver had three touchdowns in the game, burning the Chargers corners.  San Diego had some success early in the game by disguising their coverages; showing blitz then dropping back, or showing a conservative look and sending multiple rushers. It didn’t work. Peyton Manning and Adam Gase called the right plays and the reigning MVP was his usual accurate self, complete 25 of 35 passes for 286 yards and the three scores to Sanders.

Shareece Wright and Richard Marshall, who both played the majority of the snaps with Brandon Carr injured, were both victimized badly by Sanders, who was simply too quick to cover one on one. Speaking of Sanders, I wrote at the start of free agency about his inconsistent hands and how much he disappeared last year with the Steelers. I personally felt Decker was going to be missed and it was a mistake to replace him with the former Steeler. Boy, was I wrong. Sanders is proving to be a plus route runner and he’s looked as quick as I have ever seen him. His arsenal of routes is quite impressive and he’s already above the 600 yard receiving mark. Yeah, I messed that one up quite a bit.

Rivers started the game 15 of 17, but was completing mostly short passes as the pressure he was facing from Von Miller and the interior rush from Terrance Knighton, Sylvester Williams and Marvin Austin, prevented Rivers from stepping up in the pocket; one of his best assets as a quarterback, which he uses to launch deep passes downfield. Rivers finished the contest still completing nearly 70% of his passes (30 of 41) for 252 yards and 3 touchdowns, but the two interceptions, especially the first one on a slip by his receiver Keenan Allen, proved costly as they were throws he should have avoided.

Before the game, Rivers was sacked 11 times all season, which is 8th fewest in the league. On Thursday, he was sacked twice, hurried and knocked down 8 times as well. Something has to give with their offensive tackles. Fluker was no match for Von Miller and struggled in the run game as well. King Dunlap is simply not athletic enough to combat speed rushers with his enormous frame.  Rivers was lucky to only be sacked twice.

Miller is leading the league in sacks and with nine, while not even being used as a true every down pass rusher. Miller’s dip and rip, where he bends his body at a 45 degree angle, is back and he makes life hell while using his leverage on taller offensive linemen like Fluker and Dunlap.

Rivers was finally able to get successful drives going and by halftime, the score was 14-7, but the Broncos were dominating most of the play and were frustrating Rivers and the Chargers offense. In the second half, the offense went into overdrive, with Sanders scoring his third touchdown of the game on a beautiful three-yard catch over Shareece Wright. Denver then punched it in with Juwan Thompson on a two-yard run. By the time it was 28-7, the game was all but a formality.

San Diego was able to cut the lead to 28-14, but the Broncos continued to exploit a weak Chargers secondary and Ronnie Hillman was getting chunk yardage on the ground and help the Broncos march down the field.

Denver was eight of 13 on third downs (61 percent), a solid increase of the 44 percent they convert on prior to their matchup against the Chargers. Conversely, San Diego, who entered the game second in the league in third down conversion percentage, converted only 40 percent of on third down. It’s a very simple formula against Denver. Get off the field on third down and you have a chance. Stay on the field on third down and you keep Peyton Manning on the bench. Fail to deliver and you can pencil in a loss right away.

Needless to say, if there was ever a chance that the Chargers could vye for the AFC West title, the Broncos absolutely shut that down on Thursday Night Football.

Here are five things we learned during the Chargers and Broncos game:

1. Denver’s run defense is absolutely dominating

The Chargers came into the game with with a struggling run offense, ranking 29th in rushing yards per game (89.0) and last in yards per rush (3.0). But with the insertion of Brenden Oliver at running back, their ground game saw a significant increase in productivity with games of 162 and 117 yards in two of their last three games. The Broncos, have been absolutely stout and rank second in the league in rushing yards allowed. They owned the trenches and made the Chargers massive offensive line look rather small. The aforementioned Knighton, Williams, Austin and Derek Wolfe were routinely getting the necessary push for the speedy Broncos linebackers to clean up Oliver, who finished with 13 carries for 36 yards. By the second quarter, the Chargers already had 7 plays that gained negative yardage.

Not all the credit should go to the defensive tackles, as linebacker Brandon Marshall, was the defensive player of the game. Most of his eight total tackles came against Oliver, as did his two tackles for loss and pass deflection as well. He even shadowed Oliver in pass coverage and beat him consistently. Philip Rivers was pressured enough to throw a couple of ‘dump’ passes to Oliver and Marshall was up to the task, not allowing the speedy and elusive Oliver to get past him. Marshall is one of the most underrated players in the league, a sure tackler and will be a defensive stalwart for the Broncos this season.


2. Antonio Gates is still an absolute load to defend against.

My goodness, it makes no sense how good Gates is, still at his age. Healthy for the first time in years with no lingering foot issues, Gates does look more svelte than his usual pudgy self, but still, when I see him, It’s hard to not think he can clear a 5.2 40-yard dash. Does that matter? Absolutely not. More so than ever before, Gates is using his massive frame and literally boxing out defenders and he did that not once, but twice to one of the better and more physical safeties in the league, in T.J. Ward. Gates runs his routes with the goal to create slight contact, suck in the defender and use his big butt to seal the defender. When that happens? Game freaking over.

Gates also caught a beautiful pass for 31 yards while in man coverage against a quicker defender in Bradley Roby. Cover Gates with a linebacker, and he still has just enough quickness with his feet to beat his man. Cover Gates with a rookie and you are essentially asking to be beaten. Cover Gates with a defensive back and watch him box the crap out of that player. Gates is the ultimate damned if you do, damned if you don’t player and in my mind, will go down as a sure fire hall of fame player.


3. Ronnie Hillman has officially relegated Montee Ball to the bench

If you thought Hillman was going to be on the bench for long, regardless of a groin injury to Ball, you would’ve been sadly mistaken. Hillman, who’s been prone to fumbles for his entire career to the point where he’d been demoted to being a fourth-string running back, has been extremely careful with his ball protection this season. Entering Week 8, Hillman, had the same amount of carries as Montee Ball, with 55, and was averaging 4.4 yards per carry, compared to Ball's paltry 3.1. Ball, is not necessarily a plodder, but he’s far less explosive than Hillman. His steady but safe style of running will mean that chains will always be moving in a positive direction, but no one fears him ripping a 70-yard run like defenses do with Hillman.

Phil Simms said it best; Hillman makes unblocked defenders miss with relative ease, whereas Ball needs perfect blocking. The Broncos have a very good offensive line, and Orlando Franklin has quickly become one of the best run blocking guards, as he showed on Thursday against the Chargers with an array of seal and pull blocks to spring Hillman, who finished with 20 carries and 109 yards, narrowly breaking a huge run.

And about that fumbling problem that Hillman had, Ball has not been better with three lost fumbles in his first two seasons. Last year, Ball, who played well and was averaging 4.7 yards per carry, still conceded many of his carries to Knowshon Moreno and in certain stretches, C.J. Anderson, when he was struggling with ball security. With Ball not offering much in terms of ball security, let alone explosiveness and even pass protection, a factor in Hillman’s game that has greatly improved (and one that most third year running backs begin to improve in), Hillman becomes the obvious choice and I don’t see him letting go of that starting spot, barring injury.

4. You won’t beat the Broncos unless you beat up their receivers.

It’s easier said than done to try and physically match up with the Broncos receivers. Demaryius Thomas is too good at everything. Sanders is too fast. Wes Welker is too quick and Julius Thomas is too all of the above and he has the Gates factor with the basketball background. And if you don’t have the advent of Seattle Seahawks type freakishly athletic corners and safeties, it’s hard to deploy a game-plan which resolves around physically playing the Broncos receivers.

But on Thursday, the Chargers did no such thing. One example was the 31-yard touchdown catch from Sanders where he beat Marshall clean. Marshall was lining up in an odd inside technique coverage where he was playing Sanders to defend the slant or “in” route. Not only was it poor defending since he basically gave Sanders a free path to the endzone, he did not even attempt to get physical and re-route him.

The Broncos ran many quick slants, as they are accustomed to doing and benefitted from free releases at the line of scrimmage. Team’s simply cannot give them that much room to operate, or else the game will be virtually over.


5. Eric Weddle is awesome

Weddle nearly kept the Chargers in the game with a gorgeous one-handed interception, in the third quarter, on his own goal line that was called back due to a defensive holding penalty by Marcus Gilchrist.

On the next Denver offensive possession, Weddle chased after Sanders, who caught a 17-yard pass from Peyton Manning. Weddle punched the ball out of his hands, but even with four Chargers players surrounding the ball, they could not recover the ball.

Weddle had nine tackles and he really should’ve been able to add two takeaways to his totals as well. Regardless, I’m hard-pressed to find a more complete safety in the league than Weddle, who is playing at a near circa 2009 Troy Polamalu level.



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