ReFo: BAL @ DEN, Week 1

| September 6, 2013

2013-REFO-WK01-BAL@DENFor a half at least this looked like it was going to be a classic season opener befitting the start of another much anticipated NFL season. Then Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos made it a record-setting night that brought the defending champion Baltimore Ravens crashing back down to reality with a shuddering thud.

From the moment Dallas Clark dropped what should have been a touchdown to end the first half, the Ravens’ momentum went south and the Broncos rolled over a defense that, particularly in coverage, did not gel in the opening game of the season. As a defense, the Ravens let up two 100-yard receivers and a franchise record seven touchdowns allowed in a single game.

With much of the focus on Von Miller’s absence for the Broncos it was Peyton Manning who highlighted why he is his own defense’s best friend during the regular season. Driving forward a clinical offensive performance, Denver got the scoreboard in their favor and forced the Ravens to chase the game — allowing an under-strength Denver defense to attack relentlessly. For the Ravens this was a sobering taste of the reality of being Super Bowl champions as the Broncos sounded a thundering warning shot to the rest of the AFC as the new season got underway.

Baltimore – Three Performances of Note

Rocky Start for the Ravens’ New Defensive Era

After such a bright preseason, the Ravens’ new look defense was reminded (if they didn’t already know) that it wouldn’t be smooth sailing as they look to rebuild and reload. While there were some strong displays up front, only one player, returning starter Lardarius Webb (+1.3), covered himself in any glory on the back end. As my colleague Sam Monson drew up in his Analysis Notebook, the Ravens were caught out by sublime play design and execution for the opening touchdown but that excuse can’t be used for the totality of last night’s display. In reality, the Ravens were simply second best to the Broncos’ receivers and consistently so.

After making the pivotal play in the playoff victory last year Corey Graham was found wanting (-4.6 coverage) up against Wes Welker and Demaryius Thomas while Michael Huff struggled in his Ravens’ debut. Caught in a bind for the first Julius Thomas touchdown, he subsequently gave up two further catches including Thomas’ second score (sharing culpability with James Ihedigbo who whiffed on Thomas short of the goal-line), not to mention getting lost and giving Demaryius Thomas a straight line run to the end zone for the Broncos’ final six-pointer. This mentions nothing of Jimmy Smith (-1.6 coverage) who surrendered 114 yards on six catches including getting beat deep by Andre Caldwell for a 28-yard score.

Taken Out of Their Gameplan on Offense

This game really offered the Ravens a perfect storm of things to go wrong on offense. Put into chase mode early in the third quarter, the running game was set to one side and the Ravens never really looked like getting back into the game — even with Danny Trevathan’s help. Baltimore didn’t get the big plays deep and with the running game largely shutdown before it was abandoned, that put the onus on a short passing game that is still anything but efficient. Joe Flacco was 20-of-31 on short throws including two interceptions, including the (should have been) pick-six to Trevathan on a 4th-and-1 play that should never have been put in the air.

Though he made his own mistakes, Flacco wasn’t helped by a receiving corps that put five passes on the ground, including Clark’s momentum changer at the end of the second quarter. The only offensive player who really stood out was Marshal Yanda who was the only offensive lineman to grade positively as a run blocker and only surrendered one hurry in 68 plays in pass protection. The Ravens thrived on the big play in Denver last season, with that taken out of the equation (Flacco 6-of-17 on passes aimed 10+ yards downfield) they looked short of answers in the rematch.

Positives up Front

There’s plenty of football still to be played this season and Baltimore did have some positives to draw from on defense last night, so I’ll finish the three performances of note for the Ravens with those. While the coverage fell to pieces in the second half, their run defense was strong led by Haloti Ngata (+2.1 run defense) and Terrell Suggs (+1.8 run defense), limiting the Broncos to 3.2 yards per carry when they handed the ball to either Knowshon Moreno, Montee Ball or Ronnie Hillman. Suggs led the Ravens’ defense with six stops including his sack and also notched a further two hits and two hurries which gave him the team lead from the returning Elvis Dumervil (+0.9) and new signing Chris Canty (+2.3 pass rush). The poor display in coverage completely, and rightly, overshadows these positives in the grand scheme of things, but it’s not all bad news for the Ravens on defense after last night. It just seems like it is.

Denver – Three Performances of Note

Peyton Manning’s New Triplets

The offensive grade page for the Denver Broncos is, unsurprisingly, filled with plenty of green and the top three lines all feature significant positive grades for Peyton Manning’s (+4.7) three favorite receivers last night. Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas each topped +2.5 and Wes Welker got his Broncos career underway with a +1.1 receiving grade, his overall grade dented by his false start penalty. The tale of the tape for Welker was his customary display against the Ravens, ruthlessly efficient against everyone except Lardarius Webb. Two targets to Webb’s coverage yielded no receptions while Welker’s nine other targets (six against Corey Graham) produced nine receptions and two touchdowns. Add in the devastating threat of the Thomases who combined for 271 yards on 10 catches and you have a terrifying receiving corps. The odd man out in Manning’s receiving corps was Eric Decker. Like Julius, he got seven targets but rather than parlaying that into a big night Decker put three passes on the ground, fumbled another and got called for offensive pass interference earning a -5.5 overall grade that got his season, on an individual level, off to an extremely poor start.

New Defensive Stars Shine

The Broncos had two shining stars on defense last night with Bronco debutants Shaun Phillips (+5.7) and Duke Ihenacho (+3.0) getting off to stellar starts to their Denver careers. Starting at strong safety Ihenacho made an immediate impression with three stops in the first half and was around the football all night both in run defense and pass coverage. A fourth-quarter missed tackle on Brandon Stokley proved to be one of the few blots on his copybook all night long. His five defensive stops were bested only by middle linebacker Wesley Woodyard who registered eight stops including one sack.

Meanwhile, the Broncos highest-graded defender was Phillips, the former Charger, who provided the pressure that many (including myself) questioned whether it would come in the absence of Von Miller. Yes, he got a favorable match up against rookie right tackle Ricky Wagner, but to his credit he took full advantage and did more than just rush the passer adding two stops against the run early in the second quarter and even dropping to cover Ray Rice on a wheel route, which he did so well that he forced Joe Flacco to throw the ball out of bounds. More performances like this in the first six weeks and the Broncos will start to build a real defensive identity without Miller, which will make his return all the more intimidating for the rest of the AFC.

Shining in Champ’s Absence

The Broncos’ disastrous coverage display in the playoffs last season was all the more bizarre for how well they had played in coverage during the regular season. On the evidence of last night’s game it looks like that regular season form will re-emerge rather than the playoffs sparking a new trend. Picking up where he left off last season Chris Harris was again excellent in coverage (+2.1) allowing fewer than 50% of the passes his way to be completed and nabbing an interception. New signing Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie reminded us all of the promise he had at the start of his career — targeted only once, the former Eagle and Cardinal didn’t allow that pass to be completed and had himself a quiet night aside from that.

From a coverage perspective, the linebackers, aside from a cameo by Paris Lenon (two targets, two completions, 40 yards), only added to that with Nate Irving corralling Ray Rice for a combined 4 yards on two targets, and Danny Trevathan giving up four completions on nine targets for 22 yards. Now if he’d only finished the play across the goal-line before dropping the ball we might be talking about his stellar display in more glowing terms rather than the media focus on his boneheaded moment that prevented the Broncos from putting this game away sooner.

Game Notes

-  Peyton Manning went deep six times in this game, his receivers hauled in three of those passes and each one was good for a touchdown.

-  Of the 14 kickoffs in this game every single one of them was a touchback and only three of them didn’t clear the back line of the end zone.

-  In his Broncos debut, Phillips set his highest-ever single game grade in the now six seasons we have been grading games here at PFF. His previous best was a +4.7 grade against Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts back in Week 12 of the 2008 season.

PFF Game Ball

As impressive as Phillips’ display was I’m slightly tempered by who he did it against, so the first game ball of the regular season goes to Duke Ihenacho. Showing a real nose for the football and bringing force when he finds it, the second-year safety is going to be fun to watch this season.

 

Follow Ben on Twitter @PFF_Ben

  • Jason

    No mention of Louis Vasquez?

    Guy did a marvelous job in pass-protection.

    • George McDowell

      How long do you want the article to be? It would be triple it’s current size if they mentioned every Bronco that dominated their Ravens counterpart.

  • Ari Gold

    Out of curiosity what went into Manning only getting 3.5 pass grade. It was lower than what you graded him for last year’s opener.

  • Shaun

    I know i’m really in the minority here considering his stat line, but am I the only one concerned with Peyton’s performance? a) the glove was weird and I wonder if he needed last night is it just a harbinger of things to come? b) his passes had no zip, it was almost as if he was throwing a change-up. It’s concerning because you wonder if DCs will pick up on that and just drop 7 or 8 into coverage and challenge him that way and also because if his arm strength is this low now, given all that we heard about the end of last year and his losing feeling in his throwing hand down the stretch, is it only going to get worse???

    • bobrulz

      Were you watching the same game as everyone else?

    • Richard Light

      Manning’s ball placement was off for the first 1.5 quarters of the game, but his velocity was fine. And anyone who actually watched the game could see his ball placement for the remainder of the game, particularly in the third quarter, was simply outstanding.

      Some fans need to learn that it’s actually bad for a QB to throw a full-speed bullet pass on every play. Ex. Andre Caldwell’s fingertip 28-yard TD catch wouldn’t have been possible if the ball was moving much faster.

      In addition to that throw, Manning demonstrated great “touch” on his deep and intermediate throws, and that’s reflected in his stats. On passes that traveled 20+ yards in the air, he was 3 of 6 for 78 yards and 3 TDs, and on passes that traveled 10-19 yards in the air, he was 6 of 12 for a total of 129 yards and a TD. That performance is significantly above the NFL average. There’s a long list of NFL QBs who had significantly worse completion percentages on deep passes than Manning last year, including guys named Roethlisberger and Flacco… I’m a Pats fan, and I’m finding criticisms of Manning’s arm a bit ridiculous at this point.

      • Shaun

        Thanks Bob really appreciate your terrific insight. Keep it coming. As for you Dick, you should know the difference between ‘touch’ and not having enough zip to force the ball in there. Obviously Manning is smart enough to beat defenses w/o having full arm strength, but considering he lost arm strength and feeling in his throwing hand (the glove last night) last year it’s not a good start to the season. Now specific to last night he looked pretty awful in the first 1.5 quarters. Case in point Decker PI totally Peyton’s fault as Decker got caught up trying to adjust for the ball. Also incompletion to Welker where he got behind the defense. Even the TD throws to Julius Thomas were weak. Now, there’s two sides to every coin, did Peyton get better or did Baltimore’s defense get exhausted and breakdown? Admittedly I went to bed for the 4th quarter but I know 4 of those TDs were uncontested, 2 to Julius Thomas, 1 to D. Thomas (read on PFF the 78 yarder was horrible coverage) and the walk-in for Welker. So again I ask was that the defense breaking down or Peyton being Peyton? Just some food for thought.
        Lastly stats, even advanced stats, only tell half the story. They eyeball test is still arguably the most important analysis.

        • pbmann

          Peyton wore the glove for one play, which resulted in a TD.

          He was 11 of 19 for 160 yds and 2 TD’s in the first half even thou people said he looked awful the first quarter. I don’t know of any QB’s who would complain about his first half or teh end result.

          We don’t know if his arm strength is not there based on the Baltimore game because he did not have to force the ball in to his receivers. Anyone who knows football knows that the majority of long passes are not zipped in to the receivers but use touch to get completions.

          As for the short passes to Welker and Decker name one quarterback who has not under thrown receivers, even the strongest armed QBs under throw receivers.

    • nogoodnamesleft90210

      You’re getting a lot of thumbs down, but I felt the same way. His accuracy is still good (as obviously evidenced by his stats) but his arm strength just doesn’t look great. I’ve got to think that, at some point against better pass coverages, this will become a factor.

      • Brian Bigger

        Which teams do you think can really cover those 4 receivers (D.Thomas, J.Thomas, Welker, Decker) closely? Maybe two at the most, not all 4. They appeared not to be in synch the first half and still had some pretty good numbers. This is a very dangerous offense to try to stop. Arm strength has never been Manning’s forte. It has always been accuracy and reading defenses.

  • AJ

    I have a question about the way PFF graded Wes Welker on that 3rd-and-9 play that he dropped but was ruled a catch (the one John Harbaugh opted not to challenge). Did you guys penalize Welker for a drop or reward him for a catch?

    • PFFSamMonson

      As it happened on that play we did neither. He wound up with a 0 grade. We didn’t feel that it was right to either penalize him for a play that the officials didn’t see him make, nor reward him for a play we all know he didn’t actually make.

  • John Kearney

    I don’t think Joe’s misses A. Boldin at all and the many “jump-balls” thown his way last year.

  • MH

    I really like Ihenacho and the whole Denver team but the game ball should absolutely go to Manning.

  • Dro

    I can see why Decker got a -5.5, but I thought that Corey Graham (-4.6) would have gotten something worse than what he got. Most of Denver’s touchdowns came not only when Graham was covering the go-to receiver, but also when the go-to receiver was left wide open due to a missed coverage assignment by him. Corey Graham almost single-handedly allowed Peyton Manning to have a 7 TD night.