Some fans had started to lose faith in the Broncos after they's lost two of their last three games in blowouts at New England and St. Louis.
The team knew Miami, which entered the game with a 3-2 road record, would be a tough opponent.
Denver, meanwhile, hadn't yet lost at home.
The Offensive Line
What really drove the team towards this win was the running game, which has been erratic at best this year. It finally found its stride behind the rocklike body of #22, C.J. Anderson. He didn’t do it alone. The offensive line finally found its form. Ryan Clady had his best game of the year. Louis Vasquez, meanwhile, is making right tackle look easy.
PFF graded the Broncos offensive line at a collective +16.9. They graded the Rams defensive line at -20.7. When the smoke cleared, that was the story of the game.
What drove the Broncos’ revitalized offensive line play? Coaches, players, and sports psychologists have talked at length about the role of emotion in big games. Denver needed this win - not for the playoffs, not for the division title, but for themselves. The OL had had their fill of being criticized.
The Dolphins have been playing well - they were no pushover. But the media last week was filled with people tearing at and tearing down the Bronco line. They had fair reasons for questioning the squad, too. It was struggling.
For the OL, this game was a pride thing. They found an outlet for their anger along Miami’s defensive front. Anderson earned every yard he gained, but the holes the OL opened were substantial. The line gave Peyton Manning the extra time that he always uses so well. Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas made sure that it didn’t go to waste.
There were several reasons that the line played better. Wounded pride was one. Manny Ramirez seems more comfortable at right guard - he had the highest grade of any of the starters. Will Montgomery filled in well at center. Orlando Franklin seemed to have found himself at left guard.
Virgil Green and Co.
Perhaps bigger than those was the difference of having tight end Virgil Green back on the field. Green is a former seventh-round pick. I did a Broncography on him back when he was drafted with the 204th pick in 2011, earning me a denouncing email from a reader who berated me for having wasted an entire article on a nobody.
Seventh-round players don’t see the field in regulation, he said. He was thorough about his feelings on the matter. Never heard from him again.
Denver also drafted Orlando Franklin in 2011, in the second round. One of the reasons that John Fox gave was that Orlando had a reputation for bringing a certain level of pure nastiness to his game. It was contagious against Miami. For those of us who have been waiting for that hostility to return, this was the game.
Franklin’s pull block to the weakside with Green and Clady’s down blocks sprung Anderson for 20 yards on a key 4th-and-2 that ended the third quarter. On the next snap, it was Franklin who pulled strongside perfectly for Anderson.
Orlando's move created the go-ahead TD run at 5:01 of the 4th quarter.
Along with Green, Paul Cornick played T/TE out on the edge. He got in 16 snaps with Green, and one with Jacob Tamme. That bolstered the running attack’s effectiveness. The addition of Green and Cornick, along with Denver’s return to the ho-huddle, brought the team back.
C.J. Anderson had been something of a cypher to many fans. A lot of us thought that he was the back that Denver needed, but didn’t get his chance. Early this year, Montee Ball tried to play through increasing levels of groin problems. That approach usually slows the player's healing and reduces the player's effectiveness. He was no exception. Next, Ronnie Hillman showed that he’s got the chops that Denver drafted him for. With his injury, though, that’s changed in the past three weeks.
C.J. piled up 163 yards from scrimmage against Oakland. He only got nine carries against the Rams, but ended up with 115 total yards. This week, C.J. piled up 167 yards on 27 carries, for a 6.2-yard average. He added 28 more yards on four receptions for a total of 195 yards from scrimmage on the day. The steady Juwan Thompson provided the best protection skills of the RBs. He still added 33 yards on five carries (6.6 ypc). Denver put together 201 total yards on the ground.
To do so, Denver made a change spotted by offensive coordinator Adam Gase. Gase noticed that Miami was stacking the right offensive side, so he drove his runs to the left (weak, or open side). He generally used Green on that side. Gase also went to the no-huddle late in the second quarter, which turned the tide Denver’s way.
The Run Game
Earning his own due, Ryan Clady had his best blocking day of the season. Franklin was lightfooted when pulling, and he anchored well when attacking his assignment. It was textbook guard work. Once he locked up his man, it was over:
"They told us we were going to run the ball," offensive guard Orlando Franklin said. "We were excited about that, and we got into a groove in the running game. The more you run the ball, the more you get a feeling for it. We were able to get on our guys and protect Peyton and help win this game."
It didn’t end there. Every quarterback plays better when he’s got a clean pocket to step up into. The OL, along with Green, Cornick, and Thompson, held the Dolphins to a single sack and one QB hit. It helped Manning throw four more touchdowns, three of them to Demaryius Thomas. DT had 13 targets and caught 10 passes, for 87 yards. Manning had plenty of time. It was like watching a different offense from the week before. Manning loves play action, and you can run or pass out of a two-TE set. I hope to see a lot of that approach. Cornick may have found himself a niche.
Several members of the press dunned the play of Von Miller. It’s true that he only had four hurries and a QB hit to go with a single tackle. That was on 40 pass rush attempts. Watching the game a few times, though, I saw Miller making Dallas Thomas’s life miserable. He filled gaps, redirected runners, and kept Ryan Tannehill corralled. PFF gave Miller a cumulative of +4.5. I thought that was pretty fair.
Coaches talk about the importance of a team’s emotion at seminars. The emotion in the trenches, it’s often said, sets the tone for the rest of the team. So, of course, does the quarterback. The Broncos came back from a game they should have won in St. Louis. On Sunday, they played with an attitude that wins games. Look at the difference between the way the OL moved and the effectiveness of the defense in each game. Add to that the way Manning threw and you have the difference between the contests.
The team bent early, snapped back, and didn’t play the conservative ball that has incensed fans so often. If Jack Del Rio couldn’t make adjustments before this game, he must have taken genius pills before Miami. The Fins had seven yards on six carries after halftime.
Sun Tzu said the same thing a half dozen other brilliant generals noted: every battle plan lasts until the first attack. Sometimes Manning reminds me of that. The biggest consistency with him is that no one is better than him at play action. That makes the running attack even more essential. If it struggles, play action suffers. It’s a cascade.
Last Sunday, Denver made relatively few mistakes on a lot of plays. I’m not letting them off for the penalties, but still. Even with them, that was the kind of game that every team aspires to. It’s a very hard game to win. You play from behind, get scorching hot, and never let the opponent back into it. The longer I watch, the more I appreciate what winning the close ones requires. Winning a Super Bowl will require as much Manning, Miller, and Chris Harris as Fox, Gase, and Del Rio.
Miami played well, on the road against a good team. They should be proud of their play.