Even at 6-0, are Broncos trending downward?
Broncos linebacker Von Miller (58) on the sidelines during the second half against the Cleveland Browns at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The Broncos won 34-12. (Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports)
At the rate they are going, the Denver Broncos are going to be a really good football team … next season.
By the time September 2014 rolls around, Peyton Manning will have a grasp of the offensive scheme and be able to recognize defenses with the best of them.
Denver’s receiving corps will throw fear into every opponent and the rest of the roster will be versatile and deep.
That’s next season.
What about the here and now?
Aren’t the Broncos 6-0? Aren’t they on track to set every offensive record ever dreamed up?
Aren’t they the people’s choice as America’s Team?
They were. Emphasis on past tense.
Cracks are widening.
Sunday’s 35-19 victory over Jacksonville reinforced what we were starting to suspect the previous week in a 51-48 win over the Dallas Cowboys: The Broncos can be beat.
It hasn’t happened yet, but it’s blowing in the wind.
Ever since Denver steamrolled Baltimore in the season opener, there has been talk of finishing unbeaten in the regular season.
Sixteen and zip won’t happen because a roster that was once so deep is becoming more and more depleted.
In preseason, we shook our heads in collective disbelief as we learned more and more about Von Miller’s escapades and the resulting audacity of a six-game suspension.
Miller will be back Sunday night, but he will be only a footnote as ex-Colt icon Manning returns to Indianapolis.
While Miller and Manning will be there, what we need to start taking note of is the players who won’t.
All-Pro left tackle Ryan Clady won’t be there, being placed on the season-ending injured reserve list on Sept. 18.
Starting right tackle Orlando Franklin when down in the second half of Sunday’s win to a knee/ankle injury. His return against the Colts is questionable.
The reshuffling of the offensive line now has only two projected starters in the lineup, left guard Zane Beadles and right guard Louis Vasquez. If Vasquez stays at guard, recently signed free agent Winston Justice will move in – and “recently signed free agent” is always a red flag.
The Jaguars, even with Franklin in the lineup, pressured Manning relentlessly in the first half, hitting him once in the knees to throw a scare into 76,000-plus in the stadium and another million or so watching on the tube.
That’s one crack widening.
Another is the defensive front that is stopping the run extremely well, but simply cannot pressure passers.
Jacksonville’s Chad Henne threw for 291 yards Sunday. He dropped back 42 times, was sacked only twice and intercepted twice, both of those coming on rare occasions he was hurried.
Denver has plenty of players on the defensive front with impressive stats – linebacker Shaun Phillips has 5.5 sacks, Robert Ayers 4.5 and Malik Jackson 3.5 – but the pressure has not been consistent, not even in obvious passing situations.
And that leads us to the other crack, the defensive backfield.
Champ Bailey returned to the lineup Sunday after missing the first five games with a foot injury. And while he did break up three passes and have five tackles, he also played a big part in allowing Jag wide receiver Justin Blackmon to catch 14 passes – yes, 14 – for 196 yards.
The previous week in Dallas, two Cowboy wide receivers, Dez Bryant and Terrance Williams, combined for almost 300 receiving yards.
Head coach John Fox and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio have relied on man-to-man coverage on wide receivers and tight ends throughout the season, banking on a few big plays each game to turn the tide.
And they are banking on Manning and the offense to score on virtually every possession.
It’s worked – so far.
But players are going down at what is becoming an alarming rate – Ayers, starting middle linebacker Wesley Woodyard and defensive back Tony Carter, who is tied for the team lead in passes defended with 10, all missed Sunday’s game.
The roster is shrinking, cracks are widening, and other teams, even Jacksonville, are noticing.
Denver’s hopes for the here and now ride on Miller being able to cement a few of those cracks. His presence should bolster the pass rush, which will in turn help the secondary.
Hopes for a happy ending to this season depend upon the roster becoming once again deep and versatile – maybe to the point it might resemble the juggernaut that will be 2014.
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