1. THE GROUND EMPHASIS WASN’T JUST A TALKING POINT.
In the end, the play-calling balance was perfect: 39 passes, 39 runs. It didn’t start that way, as the Broncos opened with pass plays on 13 of their first 20 snaps, but this is a team that is better served by using the pass to soften up a defense and force its linebackers and safeties back to open up running lanes.
Thus, the Broncos averaged 3.5 yards per carry on 24 rushes in the first three quarters (24 for 84), then finished off the Raiders with 59 yards on their next 12 carries (4.9-yard average) before Manning’s three kneel-downs ended the game.
It was a breakthrough for running back Knowshon Moreno, who finished with the third 100-yard rushing game of his career — and first against someone other than the Chiefs. From the 5:35 mark of the fourth quarter to the two-minute warning, Moreno ran the football on seven of eight plays, averaging 5.6 yards per carry as he dealt the Raiders the final blow.
“Knowshon ran it tough,” Manning said. “I was really proud of that last drive. I thought that was really something special.”
Those carries took Moreno’s workload to 32 carries. It had been eight years since a Broncos running back last ran that many times in a game — when Reuben Droughns got the call 38 times on a damp, muddy October afternoon at Oakland.
“You always have to have your mind ready to carry it as many times as they need,” Moreno said. “That’s what we needed. That’s what we had to do.
They probably won’t need that many carries in future games — although the Broncos have won 18 games in a row when a running back had at least 30 carries.
But with Moreno averaging 91 rushing yards and 29.3 receiving yards per game, Moreno has provided enough of a burst to keep defenses honest. The only negative? The Broncos’ short-yardage package came up short in goal-to-go in the third quarter; when Moreno scored on the next possession in goal-to-go, it came when the Broncos went with three wide receivers.
Denver needs to be able to line up in short-yardage situations with eight or more men in the box and be able to get two yards on third- or fourth-and-1. They’re not there yet, but the repeated carries for Moreno as the Broncos ground down the clock offered evidence that in future weeks, the Broncos might be able to rebuild their short-yardage attack even without the injured Willis McGahee.
2. CHRIS KUPER WAS MISSED.
Kuper’s replacement at right guard, Manny Ramirez, can hold his own, and was responsible for helping push Moreno to his first touchdown since Week 1, which pushed the Broncos’ lead to 23-7 in the third quarter and effectively put the game out of Oakland’s reach for good.
Not all of Oakland’s sacks were Ramirez’s responsibility — in fact, only one of the three could be attributed to anything he did or did not do. But there’s a ripple effect from not having the steady veteran Kuper up front: some extra pre-snap adjustments, running backs needing to watch more for potential blitzers, and opponents seeing Ramirez and second-year right tackle Orlando Franklin and thinking that’s a good place to attack, thus overloading the right side, which successfully disrupts the Broncos’ offensive timing on occasion.
Thus, the best news out of Thursday — beyond Demaryius Thomas’ AC joint injury not being serious enough to prevent him from returning in the second half — was that Kuper’s setback was because of scar tissue in his left ankle being sore.
“I think if it was a Sunday game, he could have been ready,” Fox said.
Without Kuper, Manning was sacked three times but not decked; one of the quarterback’s gifts is an ability to anticipate the sack, know when he’s beaten and go down limp, minimizing the risk of injury. Manning emerged healthy, the Broncos came out with a win, and Kuper was saved a game of wear and tear and should be ready for Baltimore.
All was well that ended well, but Thursday was a reminder that against some of the elite front sevens the Broncos will soon face — and potentially a force of nature like Houston’s J.J. Watt — the Broncos need their captain up front.
3. IF YOU’RE EXPECTING REVENGE FOR 59-14, FORGET IT.
One thing I’ve learned about John Fox from four seasons of covering his teams in Carolina and Denver: in almost every conceivable circumstance, he will not run up the score and will take the safest, quickest way out of the game when he has a comfortable margin.
Thus, in the situations when the Broncos have been on offense in the last five minutes of a game with a lead of two or more scores, their play breakdown is as follows:
The kneeldowns in end-game scenarios are inevitable, but the reactions of fans on Twitter offer an indication that grinding down the clock it’s starting to drive people bonkers.
@masedenver Fox is shutting the offense down again!!!!!!!!
— Doug Nelson (@dnel0780) December 7, 2012
— Ben Boyd (@boydy2669) December 7, 2012
Meanwhile, Thursday’s ground emphasis worked beautifully, allowing the Broncos to play keep-away for the last five minutes, 36 seconds.
“It’s probably more of a coach’s dream — it’s probably not exciting for anybody doing fantasy,” Manning acknowledged. “But any time you can run the ball and make them use their timeouts and continue to run the clock and end the game with a kneel-down, that’s something we can build on.”
If you’re reading this, you’re probably a Broncos fan. And if you’re among the more rabid followers, you want retribution for the 59-14 slaughter of 2010. You want the Raiders to absorb a loss that humiliating.
It’s not happening.
It’s not happening when Fox wants to use those portions of games to build confidence in his ground scheme. It’s not happening when he looks across the sideline and sees a loyal former lieutenant in Dennis Allen. Just like it didn’t happen in 2008 when his Panthers took a 34-0 lead on the Chiefs and held them without a first down until the fourth quarter; Kansas City was coached by Fox’s college teammate, Herm Edwards.
You might not like it. But this isn’t Madden, folks. This is a real game with real emotions, and Fox knows what it’s like on the other side of a beatdown.
If such a Broncos win happens, it will take place appropriately — and not because he ran up the count Belichick-style — and after what you saw in 2009 and 2010, you want your team to be better than that, right?