The Denver Broncos have been rolling since their week 11 loss in St. Louis to the Rams. A lot of this is due in part to the Broncos willingness to adapt their offense. The Rams defensive front cruised through Denver’s offensive line like they were five different turnstiles. Give credit to offensive coordinator Adam Gase; after basically two and a half years of solely relying on Peyton Manning to win the Broncos’ games, he had the guts to switch things up and put a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of C.J. Anderson.
Speaking of whom, I don’t think any of this happens without the emergence of Anderson. Like many others, I think Anderson has proven to be the best back out of Montee Ball, Ronnie Hillman, and Juwan Thompson (sorry Jeremy Stewart). The offensive line has been struggling all year. Ball really struggled and Hillman did a fine job before they both went down with injuries. But Anderson is just on another level. Since the beginning of the season, I touted his vision, but he has other qualities that make him the best Broncos runner.
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C.J.’s knowledge of the offense allows him to instinctively know where the play is set up to go. Combine that with his vision and he’s already a step ahead if the original play breaks down. He’s also able to consistently break the first tackle, which is a must for a good running back. He does it so frequently that it’s becoming a rare thing for him to be brought down on first contact. His ability to break tackles comes from his outstanding balance and power, things that make him a scary back in the open field, even though he doesn’t have great speed.
With all these great things in mind, there’s still been some debate as to whether or not Anderson and the running back unit should be getting this amount of carries on a game-to-game basis. The Broncos are 3-0 with this newfound balance, but it seems to have come at the expense of Peyton Manning.
Manning got though the first eight weeks pretty much without a hitch, save for an overtime loss in Seattle against the Seahawks (an overtime in which the Broncos never had possession of the ball). Before the Broncos meeting in New England, Manning had thrown for over 2,100 yards, 22 touchdowns and three interceptions in seven games. Manning had shown little, if any, signs of slowing down from his MVP self. And then he seemed to have hit a wall. The Manning and the Broncos have had an extremely rough time in New England and this time it was no different. Manning threw two picks, a season high 57 times, and had a season low (up to that point) 59.7 completion percentage in a 43-21 blowout loss.
Including the loss to the Patriots, the Broncos are 4-2 since week nine, and Manning has thrown for 1,776 yards, 14 touchdowns, and eight(!!) interceptions. Not bad, but not very Peyton Manning-y.
Nov 23, 2014; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (18) during the game against the Miami Dolphins at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports
The numbers aren’t great and the grades from Pro Football Focus are ugly, for any quarterback. From week nine to the Broncos win over the Buffalo Bills, Manning sports an overall grade of -5.7. Manning hasn’t had this bad of a six-week stretch since PFF came out with their grading system in 2007. Even with the change in offensive philosophy starting against the Dolphins three weeks ago, Manning’s had two weeks in the negative: against the Chiefs (-1.8) and Bills (-1.2).
On the one hand, this is a pretty unique circumstance for Manning. This isn’t the type of philosophy he’s been used to playing with. I went over some of the pass-to-run ratios since he’s been in Denver last week to emphasize just how rare it is for the Broncos to have pure offensive balance. To add to that, last week against Buffalo, Manning threw just 20 times. This is the least amount of times he’s thrown in any game since week 17 in the 2009 season, Manning’s second last as a Colt. Ironically enough, this game was also against the Bills. This was a game in which the Colts had already wrapped up the number one seed, allowing them to sit Manning for the final three quarters of the game. For what it’s worth, the last non-week 17 game in which Manning threw 20 or less passes was week 13 in 2007 (17).
Peyton Manning is a rhythm passer. This finally clicked with me in the Broncos only home loss last year to this week’s opponent, the San Diego Chargers. The Broncos started off hot, scoring a touchdown three minutes into the game. However, their offense got increasingly worse as the Chargers got more drives. Of course, a lot of blame for this 27-20 loss goes on the defense. But Manning never could find his touch and the Broncos were forced to three straight 3-and-outs followed by a four-play drive that ended in just over a minute on a punt. The Broncos started off the 4th quarter down 24-10. Manning was able to throw a touchdown to Andre Caldwell to cut the deficit in half.
The Chargers got the ball back and though they were forced to punt, their four minute and a half minute drive was enough to get Manning off his groove – he threw a pick on the third play of the drive.
Dec 7, 2014; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (18) hands off to running back C.J. Anderson (22) in the fourth quarter against the Buffalo Bills at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The Broncos defeated the Bills 24-17. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
The Broncos only ran the ball 11 times for 18 yards during this game. It’s no surprise they lost. Ever since then I realized that as long as the opposing offense held the ball, even if they didn’t score every time, Manning would be off his game. And back then the Broncos didn’t have a solid enough running game to get them out of these kinds of situations. Because of this I’ve been scared of two things: the Chargers and Peyton Manning having an off game.
Now, the Broncos have C.J. Anderson to essentially single-handedly win them games, like he did against the Chiefs and Bills (with an assist from Thompson). And now, I’m not as scared of the Chargers this week. However, with Peyton in this new role, it has forced him to play out of rhythm, just like he did against San Diego last year. It’s funny to say this, but he’ll be asked to be more of a game manager at times, like he was against Buffalo. This won’t happen as often when Julius Thomas comes back, but Peyton will have to learn to get better when he’s not asked to throw as often. I don’t think that’s much to ask from the seven-time First Team All Pro. And on the flip side, I don’t doubt that he’ll be able to make that transition.