DENVER – Three observations from the Broncos’ 29-24 loss to the San Francisco 49ers here Sunday:
1. RIGHT ON:
It was as though Peyton Manning wanted to answer all questions that arose last week — not only about his overall performance, but about throwing to his right, which ESPN’s John Clayton questioned during the week.
Manning threw to his right on seven of his 12 attempts in the first quarter. He completed them all for 104 yards and a touchdown. His quarterback rating when he threw right? A perfect 158.3.
This was the Manning the Broncos hoped to see — guiding an overhauled offense of which giddy fans dreamt through much of the offseason. It’s a change so transformative that it makes the Tebow-centric system look like a Second World War-era tank compared to the late-model Jaguar that the Broncos used.
But Jaguars have a proclivity for breakdowns — which we saw from the offense the previous two weeks, when even slight timing issues overshadowed the fact that it moved the ball consistently, averaging nearly twice as many first downs per possession (2.4) with Manning at the controls as it did during Tebow’s last four games (1.3).
The Broncos averaged three first downs per Manning-led possession Sunday. Most importantly, no passes were deflected, and the offense purred like a well-maintained engine.
“We had a couple of trial runs the first two games,” said WR Eric Decker, who caught both of Manning’s touchdown passes Sunday — one of which came to the purportedly problematic right side. “I think the more we play together, the more experience we get, the more comfortable we get, and that’s something, again, we’ve got to keep building on.”
2. SECOND-TEAM LOOKING SECOND-RATE:
There are some good reasons why the Broncos’ depth appears shaky, and most of them are connected to the drafts from 2004-09, which are responsible for just eight players on the roster.
Denver has done its best to shore it up in recent weeks; the additions of Jim Leonhard and Keith Brooking ensure veteran backups at nearly every position group on the roster. But neither played Sunday — and unfortunately for the Broncos, none of them play offensive line, where the second unit has emerged as a trouble spot.
It was telling that Caleb Hanie looked vastly improved working with first-teamers; after miscommunication between himself and Eric Decker led to an interception, he settled down and led a two-minute drill to a touchdown pass to Joel Dreessen and a 24-10 halftime lead. It was a needed confidence boost for Hanie, whose previous work with the second team in the preseason opener looked like his ill-fated starting stint with Chicago last season.
Brock Osweiler was afforded no such luxury when he entered the game and struggled, although the poise he demonstrated under near-constant duress offered an indication of his promise. Osweiler avoided big mistakes, didn’t throw an interception and adeptly dodged pass rushers from all directions. But he and fellow backup Adam Weber were plagued by bobbles all around them.
Still, the collapse around him helped the backups go scoreless in the second half for the second consecutive week.
“The second unit, we’ve just made a small mistake, here, a small mistake there, a penalty, a bad drop, a bad throw, a bad read, and when you do those things, you’re not going to get first downs and you’re not going to score points,” Osweiler said.
The defense improved slightly from last week, particularly in the red zone, with linebacker Steven Johnson and defensive lineman Malik Jackson looking like keepers with the energy and persistence they showed in slowing down San Francisco’s runners. But too many defenders struggled against the run and were caught out of position against the pass — with Drayton Florence’s ill-fated third-quarter attempt at a pick-six interception the most egregious of the shortcomings.
Denver’s depth will get better once players like Leonhard, Brooking and Quinton Carter are fully available.
3. WHAT TO DO AT RUNNING BACK?
The injury concerns at the position are slight now. Lance Ball hurt his ribs landing on the football after his 38-yard first-quarter reception, but said if it were the regular season, he would have stayed in the game. Ronnie Hillman emerged from his debut with his ailing hamstring none the worse for the wear, although his 2.9-yard average on 10 carries showed what he admitted after the game — that he is not yet at top speed.
“Maybe next week. I think I had the fifth (gear),” he said. ” I didn’t have the sixth (gear) back yet. When the sixth comes, I’ll tell you.”
So do the Broncos keep a fourth running back? Ball’s work with the first team as Willis McGahee’s relief option — and Manning’s effusive praise of his route-running on the 38-yard heave — indicates that he has a hammerlock on a spot. Ball can burrow into the line, something that Knowshon Moreno hasn’t proven able to do.
But Moreno did block well and executed a perfect stiff-arm after a reception and averaged 13.0 yards on his two receptions Sunday. For all that can be said about Moreno’s issues as an inside runner, he is likely the Broncos’ best screen-pass threat.
Yet no Broncos running back delivered a play more electric — or longer — than Jeremiah Johnson’s 19-yard second-quarter run. A penalty wiped it from the statistical ledger, but from the perspective of coaches, it will be a check in his column. So too is the fact that Johnson, like Ball, has shown special-teams chops.
The bell is likely tolling for Xavier Omon; he was the only Denver running back without a touch of the football Sunday.
In the event Hillman’s hamstring won’t allow him to find sixth gear for longer than a week, the Broncos have to keep a fourth running back. But neither Johnson nor Moreno was able to firmly seize the job, and now the last preseason game might loom as the the decider between the two reserves.