We all remember the Denver Broncos‘ big plays from 2011. Thrilling Tim Tebow touchdown runs, monstrous Matt Prater field goals, and deep touchdown strikes to Demaryius Thomas to recall a few. Those plays will be running on the highlight reels of our minds as the off-season story lines turn from the Super Bowl to the draft to training camp. Let’s take a moment, though, and look at five plays that were critical to the Broncos’ success this season even if they were supporting scenes to the drama of this incredible season.
The Setup: The Broncos were backed up deep in their own territory to start the 4th quarter. After a holding penalty and a run for no gain, the Broncos had second-and-14 from the Denver 4.
The Play: Tebow faked a hand off to Willis McGahee and looked to pass. Patriots defensive end Brandon Deaderick was able to force left guard Zane Beadles off balance and wrap up and strip Tebow of the ball 5 yards into the Broncos end zone. In what looked looked to be a sure safety (or New England touchdown), Tebow spun away from Deaderick, tracked down the ball, picked it up just in front of the end line, and fired a pass in the direction of Demaryius Thomas for what might be the most impressive incompletion you’ll ever witness.
The Context: The Broncos could not convert on thrid-and-14 and traded punts with the Patriots. On the Broncos’ next possession, the offense was able to generate a scoring drive on passes of 8, 14, 39, and 34 yards by Tebow, capped by his 2-yard touchdown run. With 8:41 left in the 4th quarter and the Broncos down 34-23, thoughts of another remarkable comeback were on the minds of Broncos fans. Tom Brady and the Patriots offense, however, quickly marched down the field for the final score of 41-23.
The Setup: The Vikings were beginning a drive deep in their own territory in the first quarter and had second-and-8 from the Minnesota 9.
The Play: Denver lined up defensively with linebacker Mario Haggan positioned over the top of the tight end who dropped back into zone coverage. Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder never saw Haggan in the throwing lane and threw the ball right to the linebacker who rumbled 16 yards for a touchdown.
The Context: This play was critical for two key reasons. First and foremost, it gave the Broncos a 7-2 lead on a day that saw the offense struggle mightily during the first half (45 yards, 1 first down, 1 safety allowed, 1 fumble lost). Secondly, Mario Haggan was filling in for the injured Von Miller. For all the excellent play Miller contributed to the Broncos this season, his focus on pass rush often saw him struggle in coverage. By overloading the defensive front with Haggan and defensive end Elvis Dumervil, Ponder never anticipated that Haggan would drop back into pass coverage. It’s very likely that if Miller had played in this game, his assignment would have been to rush the quarterback freeing up that passing lane. This was an excellent design by defensive coordinator Dennis Allen to utilize the all-around skill of Haggan to force a turnover and to keep the Broncos in a game they would eventually win 35-32.
3. Von Miller’s tackle for a loss vs. San Diego Chargers (2:05 of video link)
The Setup: Late in overtime, San Diego running back Ryan Matthews broke free for a 14-yard gain to the Denver 35. The Chargers oddly selected a very conservative set of play calls for this series: Matthews for a 3-yard gain on first down followed by a run of 1 yard by running back Mike Tolbert. This setup third-and-6 at the Denver 31.
The Play: The Chargers elected a safe run once again with quarterback Philip Rivers handing off to Tolbert again. Tolbert, seeing that the Broncos were trying to crowd the line of scrimmage tried to bounce the run outside only to be met in the backfield by Von Miller for a 4-yard loss. Instead of a 49-yard field goal attempt for San Diego placekicker Nick Novak, the try was pushed back to 53 yards and ended up pushing wide right. The Broncos rushed 12, 4, and 24 yards to setup Matt Prater’s 37-yard field goal. Broncos win 16-13.
The Context: Despite struggling much of the year in the run support department, Miller was able to shed two blockers to make a diving stop of Tolbert in the back field. It’s tough to tell if Novak’s attempt would have been good if the Chargers had simply had no gain on the play, but in all likelihood, Miller’s tackle pushed the Chargers out of field goal range. Let’s not forget either that this play took place after Miller had two torn ligaments in his thumb that would require surgery to insert pins to stabilize the injury.
2. Daniel Fells‘ diving catch vs. Miami Dolphins (2:34 of video link)
The Setup: The Broncos had a difficult time finding any rhythm offensively in Tebow’s first start of 2011. With less than 3 minutes remaining in the game, they were able to find the end zone and recover the ensuing onside kick. The Broncos were again driving in Dolphins territory and with under a minute to go at the Miami 31, the Broncos had second-and-10.
The Play: Tebow lined up in the shotgun with 3 receivers to the left side of the formation. Broncos tight end Daniel Fells ran straight up the left hash toward the end zone. Tebow fired a pass over the Dolphins linebacker and between the two closing safeties. Fells reached over his right shoulder and made a diving catch at the Miami 3 with 50 seconds remaining in regulation.
The Context: Both quarterback and tight end deserve the credit for this play. Tebow, who was having a difficult time hitting open receivers during much of the game, put the ball in a perfect location in coverage to give Fells the chance to catch the ball. Fells, of course, made this sensational grab to give the Broncos first-and-goal. Two plays later, the Broncos scored on a wonderfully designed screen pass to Fells and tied the game with a successful two-point-conversion on a quarterback keep. In overtime, the Broncos’ defense forced a fumble to setup Matt Prater’s 52-yard game winning field goal.
The Setup: Another incredible Broncos comeback looked to be just a pipe dream as the Bears took the opening kickoff of overtime and drove to the Denver 38. On third-and-7, the Bears were looking to set up the winning field goal.
The Play: Bears quarterback Caleb Hanie looked to safely hand the ball off to running back Marion Barber who was lined up as the single back. He made one cut back up the middle, squeaked past the Broncos’ defensive line, and looked to have a gimmie first down (maybe even a touchdown). Broncos linebacker Wesley Woodyard, however, made a quick adjustment and dove at Barber from the backside. Woodyard got his hand right on top of Barber’s causing a fumble that was recovered by defensive end Elvis Dumervil.
The Context: It’s easy to think of this play in terms of Barber’s fumble since he had a gaffe earlier in the game that allowed the Broncos an opportunity to tie. More accurately, it is Woodyard’s strip of Barber that deserves the credit. Woodyard made the adjustment on the play, got a hand in on the football, and caused the fumble. The Broncos promptly drove into field goal range and won on Matt Prater’s 51-yarder. Was Woodyard’s play a game saver? Sure. Season saver would probably be more accurate.
Have another play you think is underrated? Comment below!