by Mike Ridley
So much for a sweet homecoming.
On the night Peyton Manning made his triumphant return to Indianapolis, his Denver teammates let him down. Manning was anything but his best Sunday night, but the Broncos lost for the first time in the last 18 regular-season games thanks to poor play at key positions, substantial penalties, and untimely turnovers.
The Denver offensive line was bullied all night, giving up four sacks and 10 quarterback hits after allowing just five sacks and 13 hits over their first six games. Manning was constantly under attack, especially by former teammate Robert Mathis, who notched two sacks, including his NFL record-tying 39th career strip-sack, which resulted in a safety. According to ESPN's Stats & Information, Manning was sacked or under pressure on 17 of his 53 dropbacks, the most pressure he has seen since 2009.
A contributing factor to the pressure was Manning's lack of open receivers. The aggressive Colts secondary did a commendable job in forcing Manning to hold the ball and make difficult throws. Vontae Davis silenced Demaryius Thomas, holding the Pro Bowler to just four yards on two catches when Thomas aligned on the left side. Darius Butler, who excelled in Week 5 against Seattle, also played a pivotal role, limiting Wes Welker early in the game. (Welker got going after Butler got shaken up late in the game.)
Unusual sloppiness in all three phases was another key contributor to the Broncos' loss. Fumbles on offense and special teams led to nine Indy points and eliminated a late chance for the Broncos to close the gap. On defense, the Broncos committed six of their league-high 12 penalties, each one seemingly more costly than the last. Kevin Vickerson was the worst offender, committing two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties for removing his helmet (one was declined) and having a ticky-tack roughing the passer penalty for 15 yards. His unsportsmanlike conduct moved the Colts into the red zone, where they scored two plays later to take a 33-14 lead.
By the VOA
Like Indy's first appearance in this column, special teams was the main differentiator on Sunday.
|VOA Reigns Supreme|
|Team||Off. VOA||Def. VOA||Special Teams VOA||Total VOA|
Pat McAfee wasn't able to recreate his heroics against 49ers, but he was able to pin the Broncos inside their own 20 six times while effectively eliminating Trindon Holliday, who had just 16 yards on four returns and a crucial fumble. McAfee also used his 63-pound advantage to deliver a "world of pain" to the diminutive return man.
The story throughout this season has rightfully been Peyton Manning's dominance as he led Denver to one of the best starts in DVOA history. What has been mentioned less frequently is how effective the Broncos running game has been. Through Week 6, the Broncos boasted DVOA's fifth-ranked rushing attack behind a reborn Knowshon Moreno. The five-year veteran led all running backs with a DVOA of 31.8% and his DYAR of 143 trailed only LeSean McCoy, thanks to a robust 4.7 yards per carry and seven touchdowns.
Denver and Moreno have had success this year because their offense necessitates that the defense have only two linebackers focus on stopping the run. This creates mismatches and allows Moreno to utilize his agility in the second level. On Sunday, the Colts limited Moreno and Ronnie Hillman to 65 yards on 20 carries behind the strong play of their linebackers and safety LaRon Landry. Jerrell Freeman and Pat Angerer both sufficiently contained Moreno. When Moreno did see daylight, Landry was able to use his speed to aggressively attack the box, keeping Moreno out of the secondary. Denver ended up with their worst rushing performance this year, accumulating -24 DYAR and a DVOA of -35.2%, both league lows for Week 7.
It’s not breaking news that Andrew Luck is a good quarterback. In fact, some much smarter than me even claim he may be the second-best quarterback in the league, behind only Manning. This caught some skepticism because Luck doesn’t have the gaudy stats that his peers, such as Manning, Rodgers and Rivers have. But Luck’s talent and play fail to show up in spreadsheets. As Andy Benoit noted in the previous link, Luck has become phenomenal at extending plays with his feet. He doesn’t always do flashy, "Russell Wilson things," but he has the ability to subtly avoid pressure and make plays downfield.
A prime example came with just over a minute left in the second quarter. Von Miller and Shaun Phillips collapsed the pocket, forcing Luck to move up. Despite having real estate in front of him, Luck took only the necessary steps to elude pressure (drawing Danny Trevathan up in the process) and fired a bullet to Coby Fleener. This play proved to be pivotal as Indy was able to score a touchdown right before the half expired. On the stat sheet, it merely goes down as one completion, but when the film is analyzed that Luck’s hidden value is revealed.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the season-ending injury to Reggie Wayne. Wayne is an emotional leader on the Colts and his absence cannot be overstated. The Colts will move forward with a wide receiver committee to fill his absence. As Tom Gower noted in Audibles, the NFL is not the same without him.
In other bad Indy news, Trent Richardson continues to look like a bust. He ran 14 times for just 37 yards and added a fumble that gave the ball to Denver on the Colts’ 23. In five games with the Colts, he’s failed to have a positive DYAR in three of them and now has a season total of -14 DYAR. For once, it appears Cleveland was right.
Back in Denver, the Broncos need to become more adept at defending the flat, especially in the red zone. The Colts were able to exploit the hole in the defense repeatedly, including on touchdowns to Stanley Havili and Fleener. Both were wide open and able to immediately turn up field for big gains. With the Chiefs and Jamaal Charles still due up twice on the schedule, it's a problem Denver needs to address quickly.