The resurgence of the Denver Broncos, fueled by the arrival of all-universe QB Peyton Manning, has been something to watch for football fans. Manning has directed the Broncos offense to unbelievable heights and has been a dominant force in the NFL. Even after last season’s thrashing at the hands of Russell Wilson, Richard Sherman, Marshawn Lynch and the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl, the Broncos – after a very busy offseason – are once again the sexy pick to not just make it to the big game again, but to get over the hump and win it all this year. But the Broncos, as good as they are, really are built on a house of cards. And if that one card falls, the entire house will come crumbling down.
Though he is still one of the best, most prolific quarterbacks in the league, there is no getting around the fact that Manning is 38 years old. Not only is he 38 years old, but he’s had several serious procedures on his neck. Now he’s obviously acquitted himself quite well since returning from his cervical fusion and has seemed almost better than new. He’s certainly played like he has something to prove, and Denver has benefited from it tremendously.
But the key to Manning’s success over the last couple of years has been the play of the offensive line and the ground game. The line has excelled at keeping opposing defenses off of Manning, surrendering just 20 sacks and 54 quarterback hits in 2013. Denver’s running game, though not spectacular, did a good job of chewing up yards, posting 1,873 yards and an average of 4.1 yards per carry – making them the 15th ranked rushing attack in the NFL.
But gone are Knowshon Moreno – who accounted for 1,039 of those 1,800-plus yards – and the running attack is being entrusted to second-year back Montee Ball. Though he posted a healthy 4.7 yards-per-carry in 2013, he also had trouble holding on to the football, accounting for three lost fumbles on his own. He also was less than stellar when it came to blocking opposing defenders. And by less than stellar, I mean he looked terrible at it.
Ball was supposedly one of the most pro-ready running backs in the 2013 draft, which is why the Broncos spent a second-round pick on him. The belief was that he was a better back than Moreno and should have opened the season ahead of him on the depth chart. But he was inconsistent and his star turn never materialized.
Now Moreno has moved on to the Miami Dolphins and the Broncos are counting on Ball being better in his sophomore season than he was as a rookie. If he doesn’t improve his blocking and doesn’t become the type of running back who will keep defenses off the QB and help open up the passing game, Manning could find himself getting planted by blitzing linebackers more often than he’d like.
Also gone from the Denver line is longtime lineman Zane Beadles, a second-round pick of the Broncos in 2010 who left for greener pastures with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Beadles had played in all 64 games since Denver picked him, starting 62 of them and provided leadership as well as a lot of stability in the offensive trenches. Orlando Franklin is expected to slide into the considerable hole Beadles left behind, and though by most reports, he’s a solid lineman with a lot of positive attributes. But it’s also said that he can come off the ball very slow at times and also has difficulty with his focus and concentration, which could be very detrimental to Manning and the Denver offense. No disrespect to Brock Osweiler, but he’s most definitely not Manning.
Denver has had a terrific offseason and most definitely seem to the class of the AFC at this point — at least on paper. But they’re on dangerous ground. If the line doesn’t hold up and Ball doesn’t step up, they are one injury to Manning away from having the whole house of cards come crashing down around them.