NFL Team Report - Denver Broncos - INSIDE SLANT
Peyton Manning opened his second Broncos season by making NFL history: his seven touchdown passes in Denver's 49-27 rout over Baltimore tied an NFL single-game record, last set by Minnesota's Joe Kapp on Sept. 28, 1969.
But the accomplishment, one of many in his Hall of Fame career, didn't give him cause to pause and reflect. When Kapp's name was brought up, Manning immediately noted the crusty passer's fist-and-cane fight with Angelo Mosca at a pre-Grey Cup event two years ago that was captured and immortalized on YouTube.
Indeed, while the touchdowns piled up, the flow of the game -- in which the teams combined for 155 plays and 903 yards from scrimmage -- dictated that the Broncos keep driving and keep going. When they took their foot off the accelerator, Baltimore trimmed a 25-point deficit to 15, offering a glimmer of hope.
"I felt like we had to keep scoring," Manning said.
And after the Ravens narrowed the gap, Manning fired his record seventh scoring pass, hitting Demaryius Thomas with a screen to the left side. Thomas let Wes Welker and Ryan Clady get into position, and easily sprinted home for the 78-yard touchdown -- 77 of which came after the catch.
Manning's reaction to that game-sealing score was like any other. At most, he had a humdrum appreciation of the moment. But as Crash Davis counseled scatterbrained fireballer "Nuke" LaLoosh in "Bull Durham," "The moment's over."
That's one of Manning's favorite films, and there's a bit of Kevin Costner's coolly detached but playful mindset in Manning. Both appreciate their accomplishments, but whether it's seven touchdown passes or the minor-league record for home runs, neither one wants a scene made over his individual milestones.
"Obviously it's a huge achievement," wide receiver Wes Welker said. "But he was so nonchalant about it -- throwing seven touchdown passes -- so you didn't even really notice it."
Welker and the other receivers did -- although the touchdowns were piling up so fast that the experience didn't seem real.
"It's like Madden to me," said wide receiver Andre Caldwell, who caught the third of Manning's touchdown passes, a 28-yarder in the third quarter. "Just throwing the ball around -- a lot of people making plays -- it just felt like a video game."
Added Thomas: "This is the first time I've ever been a part of a game where a quarterback throws seven touchdowns. Not even high school. Maybe Madden, but that doesn't count.
"This was real life. It was amazing."
And it wouldn't have been possible last year, when Manning was still learning about his new receivers and his strengths and weaknesses after four neck surgeries during 2011, when he missed the entire season and the Colts collapsed to 2-14, giving them the No. 1 overall draft pick and triggering the chain reaction that led to his release and his revival in Denver.
"We're starting from where we left off, not from where we started a year ago," Broncos coach John Fox said. "So there's no comparison to where he is, where we are as an offense at the beginning of last year."
No wonder, then, that Manning was so reserved about his seven-touchdown night. If his timing and precision continues to grow, this might not be his signature moment of 2013.
NFL Team Report - Denver Broncos - NOTES, QUOTES
--Until Thursday night, Julius Thomas was like an emerging rock band working college-town bar gigs: his brilliance was known to only a few -- mainly Broncos fans who showed up for training-camp practices in recent years -- but he was obscure in every circle beyond that.
Against the Ravens, Thomas had his breakthrough hit: a five-catch, 110-yard, two-touchdown game that announced the former college basketball player's arrival as an effective downfield threat. It culminated a meandering, unusual path: four years playing basketball at Portland State, one season in the school's football program that was enough to propel him into the fourth round of the 2011 draft and finally, a high ankle sprain in his second regular-season game that ended up worsening into an injury that kept him from being fully healthy until the end of the 2012 season.
"He got frustrated, we got frustrated, because it wasn't coming, it wasn't getting better," Broncos coach John Fox said. "When the injury occurred, it was right in front of me and I thought he broke his leg. Looking back, it might have been better if he did."
Through it all, the Broncos stayed with him. They kept him on the 53-man roster last year, even though they deactivated him for the last 12 games of the regular season. The practice squad might have seemed a logical place for Thomas at the time, but the Broncos knew they couldn't risk exposing him to the waiver wire.
Thursday, the Broncos were rewarded for their patience, as the athletic Thomas made catches near the sideline and down the seam. The only area of Thomas' game that remains sub-par: blocking. Although he continues to improve at the skill, it's the most unnatural aspect of the position to a former basketball player.
Thomas is a perfectionist -- he'll be the first to castigate himself for a mistake, even when someone tries to point out a moment when he blocked well. So when a missed block on Elvis Dumervil led to a sack, he was miffed.
"There was some other plays in there too that I didn't exactly execute what I needed to do," Thomas said. "I'm just going to keep on working out and getting after it and hopefully by some time at the end of the season I'll be able to look at you and say, 'Hey, it was perfect.'"
--With Julius Thomas' emergence, the Broncos are now blessed with potential targets. He and Demaryius Thomas both broke 100 yards, and Wes Welker had nine catches for 67 yards and two scores, a typical game that establishes him on a pace to break 100 receptions yet again.
But in this passing game, a target is liable to be the forgotten man. Thursday, that was Eric Decker, who led the Broncos in touchdown receptions last season but had just two catches for 32 yards. He was targeted seven times by Manning -- as many as Julius Thomas -- and some of Decker's struggles were self-inflicted, particularly on a pair of drops, one of which cost him a touchdown.
"I was asked earlier, 'How are you going to keep all these guys happy?' Well, they're happy when they win and I don't think they care," Fox said. "They are very unselfish guys."
It helped that the Broncos heavily emphasized three wide-receiver formations. Fifty-five of their 67 snaps against Baltimore came in that package.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Of course, because that's basically saying, 'Shaun Phillips, you suck. Denver Broncos defensive line, you suck.' We've got good football players. Football's not about one person; it's about 11 people doing the same thing at the same time. Von Miller, to me, is the best player in the NFL, and it hurts not to have him, but it's part of the game. If you don't have somebody sometimes, it's the next man up." -- Shaun Phillips, on whether he took the criticism of the Broncos' pass rush personally.
NFL Team Report - Denver Broncos - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--RB Knowshon Moreno started and finished with 28 yards on nine carries. The Broncos chose to go with a three-man committee at running back, splitting the repetitions among Moreno, Ronnie Hillman and rookie Montee Ball.
--DE Shaun Phillips delivered the pass rush from the edge that the Broncos needed in the wake of Von Miller's suspension and Elvis Dumervil's departure, notching 2.5 sacks in 60 snaps of work. Phillips played almost exclusively as a pass-rushing defensive end; the Ravens ran on just 11 of the snaps he played.
--WR Andre Caldwell matched his season reception total for last year with his one catch for a 28-yard touchdown in the third quarter. Caldwell bobbled the pass before reeling it in, and gave the Broncos the lead for good.
--TE Julius Thomas caught five passes for 110 yards and two touchdowns in his second career start, and first since 2011. His yardage total was the most for a Broncos tight end since Shannon Sharpe's 214-yard tally on Oct. 20, 2002 at Kansas City.
--DE Robert Ayers finished with a sack as he began working at right defensive end, Elvis Dumervil's old spot. Ayers will see more pass-rush work in the first six games, while Von Miller is suspended.
--LB Nate Irving made his first career start, but was limited to just 23 snaps as the Broncos spent most of the game in nickel and dime packages. He had four tackles, including one for a loss.
--LB Danny Trevathan's first start was marred when he hit the self-destruct button on a potential pick-six by releasing the football before crossing the goal line. He was the subject of some good-natured ribbing from teammates, but was also on the receiving end of a tirade from defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio.
--QB Brock Osweiler was the only Bronco who did not play. The coaches considered inserting him into the game, Broncos coach John Fox said, but nixed that after Danny Trevathan gave up a potential touchdown by dropping the football before crossing the goal line on an interception return.
--CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie assumed the shutdown cornerback role usually handled by the injured Champ Bailey and didn't permit a reception. "He's an extreme talent," Broncos coach John Fox said.
--LB Wesley Woodyard left the game during the fourth quarter with an ankle injury, but returned. He said it would not keep him from playing against the Giants on Sept. 15.
--S Omar Bolden injured his shoulder against the Ravens, but it is not considered serious and is not expected to keep him from practicing next week.
--KR/PR Trindon Holliday had his leg examined on the sideline by team trainers in the second half and did not return, but his injury is not considered serious.
--CB Champ Bailey was deactivated because of a sprained foot. Bailey sprained his foot at Seattle on Aug. 17 and wore a walking boot for nearly two weeks after suffering the injury. The Broncos hope to have him back against the Giants.
--TE Joel Dreessen continues to recover from knee surgery last month and did not practice all week and was deactivated for the win over Baltimore. Dreessen is listed as the second tight end on the depth chart behind Julius Thomas.
--G Chris Kuper has been practicing for three weeks, but did not play in the preseason and was deactivated Thursday as he continues recovering from a second leg surgery in as many years.
--RB C.J. Anderson made the 53-man roster, but was inactive Thursday and will miss at least one more week after suffering a sprained medial collateral ligament while blocking during practice Aug. 15. Anderson said Aug. 31 that he has resumed jogging in his rehabilitation.
REPORT CARD VS. RAVENS
PASSING OFFENSE: A -- After some early wobbles, Peyton Manning was flawless, spreading the football around to an array of targets that appear to be the deepest of his career. New acquisition Wes Welker kept the offense from sputtering too much early; new starter Julius Thomas then helped ease the offense into fifth gear with a pair of second-quarter touchdown catches, justifying the Broncos' patience in his two-year development. The only issues involved Eric Decker, who had two passes -- including a potential touchdown -- fall through his hands, and Julius Thomas, who missed a block on Elvis Dumervil, leading to a sack on the first play of the second half.
RUSHING OFFENSE: C- -- The Broncos tried to establish the ground game for a change of pace, but never quite got any component of their running committee untracked. Knowshon Moreno started because he is the best blocker of the group, but he averaged a pedestrian 3.1 yards per carry on nine attempts. Rookie Montee Ball got the call when the Broncos were trying to chew the clock with a three-tight end set, but his plows into the line only got him a 3.0-yard average on eight carries. Ronnie Hillman was limited to just four carries after battling fumbling problems in the offseason. None did enough to distinguish themselves, so the three-headed monster should live for the foreseeable future.
PASS DEFENSE: B- -- The Broncos' pace of one sack every 16.5 pass plays was just a shade below the league-average rate of one per 16.2 pass plays last year. Being so close to the average has to be considered a victory for a defense that was without the suspended Von Miller, the released Elvis Dumervil and the injured Champ Bailey, whose one-on-one skills ordinarily allow the Broncos to cheat safeties forward and blitz more often. Shaun Phillips was in vintage form as an edge rusher, leading the way with 2.5 sacks, and the Broncos' defensive backs contained Baltimore's receivers, even without Bailey to help. Free-agent pickup Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie didn't allow a reception and showed the shutdown potential he's always had, but rarely channeled.
RUSH DEFENSE: A -- After a slow start, defensive tackles Kevin Vickerson and Terrance Knighton began holding up and then crashing through the Ravens' line, forcing Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce into the clutches of other defenders. Their effective play at plugging holes on the inside helped force the Ravens into pass-first mode; by the second half, Baltimore trailed by multiple scores and was thoroughly one-dimensional.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C-plus -- David Bruton's blocked punt set up one touchdown, and Mike Adams kept his balance to prevent another Britton Colquitt punt from sailing into the end zone. But the Broncos had no chances to return kickoffs, and Wes Welker did the one thing he can't do as a punt returner -- fumble. He was brought in to handle punts inside the Denver 10-yard-line in relief of the fumble-prone Trindon Holliday, but lost the football, leading to a Ravens touchdown.
COACHING: A - John Fox puts heavy trust in coordinators Adam Gase and Jack Del Rio, and their aggressive tendencies allowed the Broncos to deliver blow after blow to the staggering Ravens early in the second half. Gase made heavy use of three-wide receiver formations and entrusted Julius Thomas to make plays down the seam in his first extended action in two years; Del Rio supplemented his front four with zone blitzes and disguised coverages that confused Joe Flacco and capitalized off the personnel changes in Baltimore's passing game. Del Rio's commanding presence was revealed after Trevathan's goal-line flub; he verbally eviscerated the second-year linebacker in an exchange caught by NBC's cameras.