The Denver Broncos are coming off a quality 2013 season, but not a successful one. It’s championship or bust for these guys. All the records broken in the regular season will be forgotten soon enough in Denver if the Broncos are unable to bring the franchise’s third Lombardi Trophy home in the next couple seasons. The 2013 regular season went well, to say the least. Manning broke several NFL records on way to leading the highest scoring offense of all time and ran over San Diego and New England in the AFC playoffs. After such a dominant streak, the team seemed poised to seal the envelope on a dazzling season in Super Bowl XLVIII. Seemingly never having a chance and quickly falling flat on their face, the Broncos suffered a devastating 43-8 throttling at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks. We’ll use this game as the main reference to determine where Denver’s needs lie because they showed sporadic and insignificant struggles before that point in the year. The offseason is nearly over and we know what additions and subtractions have been made to the Broncos roster. But how do they stack up to the needs which were made evident in the Super Bowl?
During the regular season, the Broncos averaged 37.9 points and 457.3 yards per game. The next closest teams had 27.8 points (NE) and 417.2 yards (PHI). Peyton Manning was simply dominant, more dominant than any quarterback we’ve seen before. It seems easy to leave the offense alone and expect the same results in 2014, but that’s obviously not going to be the case after an 8 point showing in the Super Bowl. While Manny Ramirez’s snap over Manning’s head set the tone for the game and allowed Seattle to gain every bit of momentum early, other inconsistencies in the offense were revealed as the game went on. Critics and fans alike love nothing more than to plant the “choker” characteristic firmly on Peyton Manning. Please, disregard this notion for the duration of this article and focus on the inner workings of the offense and more tangible reasons that contributed to the defeat.
WR: The Seahawks’ secondary was extremely well prepared and executed its plan to perfection. Richard Sherman was able to take Eric Decker out of the game and it negatively affected the rest of the team. Decker did not have the foot speed to get into his routes and Sherman blanketed him the entire game. The underneath routes were clearly open, as Demaryius Thomas actually set a Super Bowl record with 13 catches. Only totaling 118 yards, Thomas was able to make shorter catches because of his ability to quickly cut across the field. Wes Welker had eight catches, again because of agility and ability to get open.
Julius Thomas and Eric Decker were unable to gain the matchups they wanted and failed to have the athleticism to beat defenders in and out of their routes. Although playing Sherman won’t happen too often for Denver, Seattle’s Legion of Boom has laid down a blueprint for success. In a copy-cat league, look for teams to place higher value on mid-sized to large cornerbacks with speed (Kyle Fuller’s stock skyrocketed as he went to the Bears at 14 in the draft). Speedier, faster receivers who can get off the offensive line more quickly is one need for Denver.
OL: Like many football games, the team that dominated in the trenches came out victorious. A combination of Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett, Chris Clemons, Clinton McDonald, and Brandon Mebane constantly harassed Manning and totaled four QB hits. On one of the game’s most critical plays, Malcolm Smith intercepted Manning and returned it for a touchdown, raising the score to 22-0. Smith got all the glory, but Avril and Clemons did most of the work, nearly sacking Manning and making enough contact with the QB to disrupt the throw. Both Broncos tackles, Chris Clark and Orlando Franklin, matched up one on one with the defensive linemen on this play and were abused.
Some of the defensive line’s success can be attributed to the secondary’s excellent coverage, but Seattle still achieved too much pressure while rushing only four players, as they did on this play. The Broncos’ offensive line looked too porous in pass protection and left their quarterback under duress far too often. Their run blocking produced a disgusting 1.9 yards per carry, though 14 carries is hardly enough to get your running backs into a groove. In 2014, Ryan Clady will return to the LT position and instantly upgrade the offensive line unit. Still, upgrades would be welcome at tackle after some unsettling performances and an obvious lack of depth at the position.
RB: In an offense led by Peyton Manning, the running backs are less crucial because of how much the pass is leaned on. Pass catching running backs are useful, as are ones that can pass protect, but an upgrade over last year is not necessary. A game breaker would be a luxury in this offense, not a necessity. Some offenses like Kansas City and Minnesota gameplan around the run game, but inserting a serviceable player at that spot is all the Broncos really want. It is not a huge need, though improvement could be made.
The Broncos’ defense was solid last year despite the 43 points in the Super Bowl. They’ve received too much blame this offseason for their performance. Seattle’s offense had drives of 51, 58, 37, and 5 yards in the first half. The first two resulted in field goals, but during the season those would have been OK results because the offense was expected to score more. The third drive was for a touchdown, but the drive started on Denver’s 37. They allowed only 13 points in the first half, which would equate to 26 (not far from their season average of 24.9, 22nd overall) over a whole game. Denver’s offense averaged nearly 38 in the regular season, so this performance was acceptable. However, they went into halftime down 22-0 and then 29-0 after a Percy Harvin return TD to open the second half. Only 13 of those points the defense was responsible for. With Peyton Manning, the defense had never needed to be anything more than decent. However, the defense on that night needed to create a turnover and could not. The team needed a jump start from its defense and simply could not find it. Obviously disheartened, they didn’t play very well the rest of the game and the 43 Seattle points still stand today.
DB: In the Broncos’ secondary, one player really stood out – Champ Bailey. Percy Harvin, Golden Tate, and Doug Baldwin athletically dominated the veteran. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was an elite cover corner for the Broncos’ man to man system in 2013, but had neither a dominant nor disheartening performance in the Super Bowl. He couldn’t make a big play, though. Tony Carter’s small frame and risk taking leave much to be desired. Kayvon Webster displayed strong tackling abilities but still looked out of place in coverage as a rookie. The Broncos play in the nickel formation about 66% of the time, per Jack Del Rio, so the third cornerback is vital.
At safety, Ihenacho and Adams played unspectacularly. They did a good job of stopping Harvin and Lynch at the second levels of the defense, but do not provide game changing abilities. Neither have above average senses to stop plays around the line of scrimmage or to make plays in the passing game. A healthy Chris Harris and Rahim Moore will help the defense next year, but questions remain in the secondary. More depth at cornerback and starting talent at safety is badly needed to keep up in today’s passing league that is the NFL.
DL: The defensive line left a lot to be desired in the Super Bowl, but will be improved next year with more players coming back from injury. Kevin Vickerson and Derek Wolfe will bolster this unit which features a breakout player in Terrance Knighton. On more than one occasion, Knighton burst through the Seahawks’ line to make a play. Sylvester Williams showed progression over the season, but was unable to provide any real spark on the interior of the line. A very exciting and widely unknown player to remember is the young Malik Jackson, a hulking defensive tackle who has a great burst. He projects to have a solid campaign next year with continued opportunities. Sean Phillips and Jeremy Mincey were veteran additions on one year contracts who played an average game, not quite giving the Broncos what they needed in terms of pass rush.
The line as a whole was alright, but not good enough to bring down the mobile Russell Wilson. The Broncos posted a goose egg in the QB hit department. They hurried him, but Wilson was still effective out of the pocket, running on a few occasions as well. The interior of the line should be ready to go next year as is, but the defensive end spot needs help.
LB: Ever since Al Wilson left the MLB spot, Denver has been struggling to replace the position. Well, the NFL is different now and that position is only used about one third of the time, at least for he Broncos. Nate Irving was a third round pick in 2011 who was supposed to fill the spot, but has been slow in progressing. Given an opportunity to play some outside linebacker, he looked very comfortable in the Super Bowl. Wesley Woodyard manned the MLB spot as poorly as he did all season. He’s more suited to the outside though, as he is athletic and should be covering tight ends instead of seeking to take down the running back. Danny Trevathan had a Pro Bowl deserving year at the outside linebacker position and posted 12 tackles against Seattle. He is good in coverage and a sound tackler.
This linebacking corps will get a huge boost when true Pro Bowler Von Miller returns from his torn ACL in 2014. The pass rush dearly missed his presence, but so did the run defense as Miller plays a complete game and is underrated in finding the ball carrier. A veteran or two for depth could be added, but the linebackers in Denver are a productive bunch when healthy.
ST: On special teams, Prater has as strong a leg as you’ll find in the NFL. Colquitt got paid like a premier punter this year, so hopefully he can keep his consistency going. The coverage teams obviously need to improve after their Super Bowl blunders, but some of that can be attributed to coaching and a temporary lapse for a player to stay in his lane.
Overall, the Broncos really had no chance in this game from the get go. They played with a noticeable lack of heart and had no answers for Seattle's defense. While many will look at the 43 points on the board, the real issue was the combination of only being able to put up 8 and allowing too many momentum swinging plays. The offense put the team in a hole early and was never able to regain control. There is talent to work with, but clear and pressing needs presented themselves. Both the offense and defense will look to improve in 2014 and avenge 2013's embarrassing loss.