It’s that time of the year again, when teams that started out hot can start clinching their respective divisions. And so it was for the victorious Broncos. Partially caused by the underachievement of their division rivals, but more so due to the seven-game winning streak they now possess, Denver now only has to worry about playoff seeding. Outside of a trip to Baltimore, the Broncos have a weak remaining schedule, so if they keep putting forth strong efforts like they did against Tampa, they may be able to swing a first-round bye.
Tampa Bay made like they were going to challenge the Broncos, but the mistakes kept piling up, culminating with an offsides penalty that helped Denver run out the clock. Five of Denver’s first downs game via penalty, and last year’s bad habit of missing tackles started to rear its ugly head again. While the NFC South has been wrapped up by the rival Falcons, both NFC Wild Card spots are still up for grabs. If the Bucs can learn from this game and improve upon it, there’s no reason to think they won’t challenge for one of those wildcard places.
Tampa Bay – Three Performances of Note
Fifteen of 26, 216 yards, one TD and a QB rating of 97.6. Those were Josh Freeman’s numbers on the 26 drop-backs in which he didn’t face pressure. But you only need look at his passing figures under pressure to figure out where his -1.5 grade came from. When the Broncos got in Freeman’s face, he completed just 3 of 13 attempts for 26 yards (with an INT and a TD) — a stat line only quarterbacks who played in MetLife Stadium this weekend would be jealous of. Freeman has shown the ability to make plays — he has more yards on deep throws than any other quarterback — but he’ll have to cut out the accompanying mistakes rather quickly as the Bucs may have to win out to make the postseason.
What’s the Rush?
Keeping two safeties deep whenever the Broncos weren’t in the red zone, Tampa forced Peyton Manning to beat them without many opportunities for the deep ball. And though they were successful in that regard (Manning attempted two passes over 20 yards in the air), the result was a short but methodical passing attack that left the Bucs’ defensive line little time to apply any pressure. Over half of Tampa Bay’s QB disruptions came from rookie Lavonte David (four hurries), but two of those occurred when he was unblocked. Neither Michael Bennett (-2.8 pass rush) nor Gerald McCoy (-1.3 pass rush) helped out the secondary as they generated one hurry apiece. A disappointing return considering their capabilities.
Williams Steps Up
With Vincent Jackson under wraps, the onus was on one of the Bucs’ other receivers to step up. And with Tiquan Underwood (-2.6) more interested in dropping balls than catching them, Mike Williams (+2.1) became Freeman’s best chance for aerial success. He stepped up as much as he could considering his quarterback’s play, catching six balls for 93 yards and a touchdown. If there’s one knock on Williams’ day, it’s that he couldn’t do much with the ball in his hands — he only managed 8 yards after the catch.
Denver – Three Performances of Note
Passing the Torch
The starting cornerback tandem for the Broncos features two players at polar opposite points of their careers. At 34 years of age, we’ve been waiting future Hall of Famer Champ Bailey to fall off that proverbial cliff that older corners tend to stumble off eventually, but it certainly hasn’t happened yet. Despite spending most of his time shadowing the much larger, and younger, Vincent Jackson, Bailey held his own, conceding a grand total of 31 yards on passes into his coverage. At the other end of the spectrum, Chris Harris Jr. (+4.8) is in his second year in the NFL as an undrafted free-agent out of Kansas. With Bailey locking down Freeman’s favorite target, Harris saw more targets (seven) than any other Bronco. Outside of a well-thrown 40 yarder to Mike Williams, Harris surrendered just 14 yards. Harris was step for step with receivers all day, deflecting two passes and taking down receivers immediately when they did make the catch. The numbers would be even better if not for a penalty that negated his second-quarter interception. Harris has now allowed a meager 25 yards per game over the past six outings, and if Bailey’s time really is coming soon, the Broncos look to have found a solid young replacement.
The Usual Suspect
You’d be sorely mistaken if you thought you’d found an article covering the Broncos without mention of Von Miller (+7.1). Coming off his first negative grade of the season, Miller responded in a big way, making his presence felt in every aspect of the game. Whether he was knifing through running lanes or putting immediate pressure on Freeman, Miller had to be accounted for on every play. He even recorded his first career interception, returning it 26 yards for a touchdown. The five pressures he recorded were second most on the team, and the only real blemish on his record was a roughing the passer call that wiped out the aforementioned Chris Harris interception.
Joel and Jacob
With the Buccaneers playing take away the deep ball, much of Denver’s passing attack would be routed through its tight ends on short and intermediate routes. And though Joel Dreessen and Jacob Tamme had fairly similar snap totals, the duo had vastly different days. Tamme, who saw significant playing time with Manning in 2010 with the Colts, was targeted on over one-third of Manning’s throws, reeling in nine of them for 89 yards against six different Bronco defenders. Conversely, Dreessen couldn’t pull in a single pass on his 30 pass routes, dropping one of the two passes thrown his direction.
— On planned running plays, Denver averaged 5.9 yards per carry outside the tackles, but only 2.8 yards per carry between them.
— Elvis Dumervil might be listed as a defensive end, but he played 61 of his 64 snaps in a two-point stance
— After a day in which he secured 99 yards and two touchdowns, Manning now has passer rating of 131.2 when throwing at Demaryius Thomas.
PFF Game Ball
As much as Von Miller’s performance may warrant the game ball, he just might need that shelf space for a Defensive Player of the Year award. Instead, it’s going to Chris Harris Jr. who had an equally impressive day.