DENVER – Three observations from the Broncos’ 31-19 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night:
1. PEYTON MANNING AND THE OFFENSE ADJUSTED.
And should this be a surprise?
Last year, it seemed as though the only adjustments that could reasonably be made were at halftime, and to the credit of offensive coordinator Mike McCoy, the Broncos managed to alter their attack to adapt to defensive tactics, an occurrence best illustrated at Minnesota last December, when the zone-read option was junked for an I-formation, power attack supplemented by deep passes that allowed them to escape with a 35-32 win.
Sunday night, they happened in real time. After a fruitless first quarter of two punts, a fumble and a pair of sacks — one of which came on a missed blitz pickup by Knowshon Moreno, the other which came when Moreno was attacked by two defenders and couldn’t do much to hold off more than one — Manning and the offense went to a no-huddle, where he began working his line-of-scrimmage, pre-snap magic.
Pittsburgh didn’t have another sack and barely grazed Manning the rest of the night, playing the final three quarters on its heels. As a result, the only Broncos drives after first quarter that didn’t end in scores were on the two brief possessions when they ran out the clock at the end of each half.
“We didn’t get the (Troy) Polamalu blitzes like we did last year. He did a couple of times, but we picked it up. At the end of the day, Peyton checked out of certain things, and helped us out,” said running back Willis McGahee.
Manning’s 71-yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas was a perfect example of his ability to read a play at the snap. He saw Steelers outside linebacker Chris Carter creeping forward to his left, so he adjusted into a screen pass to Thomas, who promptly ran 70 yards with the football behind blocks from Jacob Tamme and Zane Beadles. (Although, it must be noted, Beadles yanked Ryan Mundy’s jersey.)
“The offensive coordinator saw it,” Thomas said. “We talked about it a little. We made the adjustments, called it and it worked.”
You have the play coming from the sideline. Then you have the play the Broncos run. Quite often, they won’t be the same — although the initial playcall also accounts for the changes Manning can make at the line of scrimmage. But Manning reads defenses at a genius level — and perhaps does so better than he ever has.
2. GET OFF THE FIELD!
Allowing the Steelers to convert eight of 10 third downs during a 21:05 stretch from the second to the fourth quarters was hardly what the Broncos had in mind for their debut under defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, their seventh coordinator in as many years.
Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s ability to wiggle out of jams created by Denver’s pass rush and his subsequent accuracy allowed him to finish the game with a 145.5 rating on third downs, coming from an 11-of-14, 132-yard, two-touchdown third-down stat line. On all other downs, his rating was a pedestrian 39.4; he completed 11 of 26 passes for 113 yards, no touchdowns and an interception on first, second and fourth downs.
It wasn’t simply that Roethlisberger escaped jams, but that his fleet feet eventually caused the Broncos to pull up in their pass rush. On one play, Elvis Dumervil was engaged with a blocker, and then quickly stood up and pulled back, preparing for the inevitable Roethlisberger mobility.
“When you’re watching on film, (you’re thinking), ‘There’s no way I’m going to miss him,” said DL Derek Wolfe. “When you’re actually out there, and whenever it’s a game like this, you’re coming after him, and if he slips from you, there’s not much you can do because you’re not going to get him down with one arm.”
Other quarterbacks the Broncos will face don’t cause the same problems as Roethlisberger, but will be mobile enough in their own right to cause problems — especially on the do-or-die scenario of third down, a bugaboo of recent years that doesn’t appear fixed yet, but could be remedied with time and experience for players like Wolfe and Von Miller, who also had an outstanding night defending the run, using his speed to flush ballcarriers outside and into tacklers.
3. UNSUNG STANDOUTS:
In a 31-19 win over a perennial contender, there’s plenty of accolades to go around, from pick-six hero Tracy Porter to touchdown-scorers Jacob Tamme and Knowshon Moreno, to safety Mike Adams, who saved a touchdown, and on through myriad players.
But perhaps no Bronco who played more than half the snaps Sunday is less known or more worthy of a tip of the cap than defensive tackle Mitch Unrein, who enters when the Broncos go into their nickel and dime package, in which they spent most of the game, especially after halftime.
“I set the guard up, and Mitch came down and picked the center for me, and did a great job,” Wolfe said. “He actually did too good of a job, because when I came around, I had too much space to work with, and I had to make a shoestring tackle on him.”
A few hours later, Wolfe shared his praise of Unrein with the world via his Twitter feed. The statistical line reveals nothing about Unrein’s day; he’s only credited with an assist. But his work to set up Wolfe for career sack No. 1 also set up a play that took Pittsburgh out of field-goal range, cost the Steelers three potential points and eventually changed the tenor of the game’s flow.
Not much went right on third down for the Broncos on Sunday, but Unrein and Wolfe’s tandem work offered hope that they can capitalize off the attention given to Miller and Elvis Dumervil — or perhaps attract some extra blockers of their own, setting the edge rushers free in some one-on-one situations.