MINNEAPOLIS – Three observations from the Broncos’ 35-32 win over the Minnesota Vikings at Mall of America Field at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome on Sunday afternoon:
1. YET ANOTHER REVIVAL.
There wasn’t enough sugar to adequately coat the Broncos’ first-half offensive performance — which was, well, offensive. They had more turnovers (two) than first downs (one), ran three or fewer plays on six of seven drives, ran just 19 plays (to the Vikings’ 47), kept possession for just 8:54, executed a solitary play on Minnesota’s half of the field and were responsible for a net loss of two points thanks to a first-snap safety.
Then they emerged from the locker room, picked up a first down on their first play via a 17-yard Tim Tebow-to-Eric Decker pass, and slammed their way downfield with four consecutive Willis McGahee runs for 34 yards, setting up a third-and-9 touchdown pass from Tebow to Demaryius Thomas.
The Broncos had quick drives in the first half, but they were fruitless. Their second-half drives were equally rapid: four of them lasted four plays or less, but two of those four ended in touchdowns. Significantly, two of the Broncos’ three second-half touchdown drive came immediately after Minnesota scores, squelching any chance for the Norsemen to gain momentum.
“It does take the momentum away,” Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier admitted. “You’re all hyped up and you feel like you can go get them pinned back and get the ball back to the offense; it’s going to be a good situation.
“We shoot ourselves in the foot, and they get the ball back. All of a sudden, they’re back in scoring range. That’s part of what gets you to be a 2-10 team.”
Conversely, it’s the Broncos’ ability to bounce back — in this case, from both a lousy first half and quick Vikings scores — that has them on a five-game winning streak.
2. DEMARYIUS THOMAS.
It may have come against a secondary ravaged by injuries and suspensions, but Thomas finally had the breakout for which he and the Broncos had been patiently waiting through a litany of injuries that cost him 11 of his first 21 games before he returned from a torn Achilles tendon in Week 6.
“We knew they were playing Cover Two a lot, so we tried to make the safety make a decision, and he just kept making the decision on the inside guy,” said Thomas, whose 144 yards on four receptions were 41 more than he amassed in the season prior to Sunday.
The Broncos’ run- and option-intensive offense is reminiscent of what Georgia Tech ran when Thomas played there and still uses. Theirs makes heavier use of the triple option, but the scarcity of passes — and the propensity for deep tosses when they are made — is similar to the Broncos’ recent philosophy.
His four receptions — three deep streaks up the sideline and one improvisational play where he waited for Tebow to find him wide open for a 41-yard touchdown — meshed perfectly with his strengths.
“I had a route in the middle of the field,” Thomas said. “I broke it off and came back to the middle of the field, and (Tebow) saw me when he was going out of bounds, and he threw it to me and I just took advantage of it.”
Winning duels down field, making defenders miss in the open field en route to the end zone — this was the Thomas the Broncos expected to see when they drafted him, and it was the game he’d been waiting for ever since April 2010. Only a drop of a potential 28-yard touchdown pass with 1:44 left sullied his day.
“I have. It’s been a long time,” he said, a knowing, relieved smile crossing his face. “My first 100-yard game since college.”
It could scarcely have come at a better time, given the defense’s struggles.
3. THE BRONCOS NEED VON MILLER BACK — ASAP.
They managed to eke through Sunday for two reasons above all others: first, they were able to exploit a depleted Vikings secondary; second, Andre’ Goodman and Mario Haggan caught Christian Ponder’s two mistakes.
But unlike other games, the pressure the Broncos brought was mostly reliant upon blitzes that opened holes in the secondary, which Minnesota eventually exploited in the form of a 29-of-47, 381-yard performance for quarterback Christian Ponder, which made him the first 300-yard rookie passer in the Vikings’ 51-season history.
“He started getting the ball out quicker,” said linebacker Mario Haggan, “and guys like (Percy) Harvin were catching the ball for him. We needed to play a little bit better nod defense, but luckily we pulled it out in the end.”
In other games, most of the Broncos’ pressure comes from their front four; their work so consistently collapses opposing pass pockets that the linebackers and defensive backs are free to focus on coverage responsibilities more often than not. Sunday, the Broncos’ m.o. for generating pressure was sending Chris Harris, Joe Mays, Brian Dawkins and Champ Bailey after Ponder.
When Minnesota adjusted, defenders arriving a split-second too late became a too-common sight. Never was this more dramatically illustrated than on the 48-yard Ponder-to-Percy Harvin touchdown connection, when Dawkins blitzed, only to arrive just after Ponder released the ball. Once Jim Kleinsasser blocked Champ Bailey, Harvin only had to beat newly-promoted Kyle McCarthy in order to score his second touchdown of the day.
Together, Miller and Elvis Dumervil provide the Broncos the luxury of generating edge pressure that eases the burden on the defensive tackles and allows the back seven to focus on coverage responsibilities. Without one or the other, the Broncos must dig deeper into their bag of tricks; while this can create some big plays, it also creates higher risk, which burned the Broncos as the game progressed Sunday.