With a first half that lasted 103 plays (last year games ran for about 160, with the bigger portion usually coming in third and fourth quarters), and the Broncos running 30 offensive plays in the first quarter alone, we got a taste of what the copy-cat use of “no huddle” is likely to do during the season. Just as the Wildcat spawned many imitators following the Dolphins’ sustained use in 2008, the Patriots recent success in utilizing “hurry up” will see a large percentage of teams following suit, including both Denver and St. Louis.
With an excellent crowd in Mile High, and both Peyton Manning and Sam Bradford playing until halftime, the first two quarters had more the feel of a regular season encounter. Closer inspection, however, told us that nearly everything was out of the first few pages of the playbooks and, particularly in the running game, it was very vanilla fare.
St. Louis – Three Performances of Note
Tackling the Problem
One of the Rams’ biggest issues over the past few years has been fielding a consistently good offensive line. During the offseason they invested in LT Jake Long (+0.6) to solidify that unit and to date, barring a couple of penalties (a false start in this game) and a minor working over from Clay Matthews last week, he’s been very sound. If he builds on this, his acquisition, where the Rams’ front office took a calculated risk as to his health, could be one of the bargains of free agency.
However, the equally valuable part of that signing was how it would ripple through the rest of the unit and, in particular, if the previous left tackle, Roger Saffold (-0.9) could transition to right tackle. There are few better tests than Von Miller for an RT and, although on this occasion Miller was the winner on points, it wasn’t a disaster for Saffold by any means. He generally held his own, with only a few downgrades — on one play he couldn’t get outside the linebacker, who strung out a run over right end, and on another (4:12 left in the second) he was beaten for speed off the edge. While that was really it from a physical standpoint, it was clear Miller also got in his head on occasion. Saffold was saved from a false start only by a delay of game penalty and, at the end of the half, lined up so far off the line of scrimmage (likely to get a head start on Miller) he was almost in Bradford’s lap.
Making an Impact
If there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to get the media frothing at the mouth over a player it’s “impact plays”, and in this game no one made more than Rams linebacker, Alec Ogletree (+2.8) . Not content with an extremely athletic pass interception where he got great depth on a seam route, or coming close to another pick in the end zone that he defensed but just couldn’t reel in, he also stripped Ronnie Hillman of the ball, picked it up and ran it in for a touchdown for good measure.
Now these were all fantastic plays that owed little to luck and much to hustle and genuine ability, but other facets of play also stood out in a less positive fashion. In the running game, he struggled to get off blocks at the second level and was pushed back easily (even by the one-dimensional Julius Thomas), and on one occasion appeared to lose his gap assignment and fill the wrong hole leading directly to a big gain. It wasn’t all run defense either — on a short pivot route Montee Ball juked him so badly he didn’t even touch him, and on a later crossing route, Eric Decker’s glancing block completely took him unawares.
Ogletree is already a huge upgrade at weak-side linebacker (Jo-Lonn Dunbar is a decent strong-side LB playing out of position), but there are still areas to improve and if he wants to genuinely earn Defensive Rookie of the Year, as opposed to winning it through hype, run defense is a good place to start.
One of the players whose PFF grade has attracted a lot of criticism is Janoris Jenkins (-3.9). The issue with Jenkins is that he’s a mercurial player who optimizes the word inconsistent — last year he allowed a quarterback rating into his coverage of less than 50 five times and more than 90 five times. While Rams fans prefer to dwell on the former set of games, the real question for them should be which player is going to turns up?
On this occasion it was “bad” Jenkins, as he started very poorly and never recovered. On only the sixth play of the game he seemed more concerned about fiddling with his belt than getting set for a Demaryius Thomas 9 route that, but for a slight Manning overthrow (and a Broncos illegal shift) would have ended in a touchdown.
In 36 coverage snaps he was targeted seven times and allowed six receptions for 82 yards. It was as good a time as any to get this type of performance out of his system, and a reminder that talent can only take you so far.
Denver – Three Performances of Note
Vasquez Steps it up
Fine player though I think he is, the knock I had on Louis Vasquez (+5.2) during his career with San Diego was that while he made a ridiculously small number of errors in every facet of play, neither did he truly dominate the line of scrimmage. When a player gets paid, as Vasquez did by Denver, they can often rest on their laurels, but if what we saw against St. Louis is any indication this is a player going in the opposite direction.
Not only did I see the same mistake-free performance I saw from him as a Charger, but this time he had that extra edge to him as well. His work at the second level was excellent, with him not only sealing linebackers but driving them yards off the ball — just check out what he does to Ogletree on the first play of the game.
Now, there is a slight caveat to this, in that much of his good work came against the Rams’ second-string unit, but this is balanced by the fact that group included Jo-Lon Dunbar, a sturdy run defender that Vasquez did most of his good work against.
Three running backs, three different skill sets and an incredibly difficult decision for the Broncos’ coaches. To some it feels like the decision is already made in that there will be a rotation, and that it will feature Ronnie Hillman (-0.7). Not one to make the front office’s life easy, Hillman conspired to showcase both his talent, with some flashy runs (not many have the quickness to bounce a ball outside with the ease he did at 9:53 in the second), and his weakness with another fumble.
Being a rookie high draft pick, Montee Ball (-0.7) is many fans’ favorite for the job, but together with some tough running, the aforementioned juke of Ogletree, and a touchdown, he also dropped an easy reception and was responsible for an illegal formation when split out wide.
Lastly, Knowshon Moreno (+1.8) did nothing wrong and much right, but his contribution came against the second- and third-string Rams. As a very minimum he should the other two backs on their toes.
While the pass rush may be a cause for concern, the interior run defense could be in excellent hands. The starting tandem of Kevin Vickerson (+1.6) and Terrance Knighton (+2.6) combined for a run defense grade of +5.1 on only 18 snaps and gave Rams center Scott Wells (-4.3) a particularly tough day. Vickerson also picked up a hit on a comical encounter when St. Louis somehow allowed Isaiah Pead to face him one-on-one is pass protection.
However, I doubt many offensive lines will be laughing at the prospect of these two players. Watch the disdain with which Knighton tosses aside Wells to get in on the tackle with 5:34 gone in the first quarter, or the way Vickerson splits the double team on the same play.
– Think teams may kick away from Tavon Austin? He returned only two punts: an 81-yarder and an equally good 23-yarder.
– Not content with having one of the best young kickers in the league in Greg Zuerlein (an almost laconic 58-yard field goal and four touchbacks from four kickoffs), the Rams may, in Johnny Hekker, have one of the best punters too. His average net yardage on three kicks? 53 yards.
– The Broncos better hope LT Ryan Clady is fully fit. Back-up Chris Clark looked overmatched even against the back-ups. He allowed three hurries, a penalty, and dropped a -2.4 in the running game.
PFF Game Ball
It’s the preseason so performance triumphs out over winning value, and while Ogletree would be most people’s choice, once more I’ll go against the grain and say the best overall performance came from Louis Vasquez.
Follow Neil on Twitter: @PFF_Neil