Now that everyone has had a couple of days to cool off and reflect on Denver’s agonizing playoff loss Saturday night, let’s reassess why the Broncos suffered such an unlikely defeat. Outside of Raheem Moore’s inability to knock down a desperate downfield pass and Peyton Manning’s ill-advised throw, here’s a list of what went wrong for the Broncos.
Pass rush – The Denver pass rush that had been so ferocious and so unstoppable for much of the season completely disappeared during the biggest game of the season. A lot of credit belongs to the Baltimore offensive line for shutting down the tandem of Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil, as well as the rest of Denver’s strong contingent of pass rushers, but Jack Del Rio’s defense needed to be a lot better.
The problem wasn’t so much that the Broncos only recorded one sack, it’s that they were unable to put any kind of consistent pressure on Joe Flacco all game long. Not only did Flacco have time and room to throw short and intermediate passes, he had time to sit back and take shots down the field, which is when the Broncos were hurt the most. The biggest asset Denver had on defense all year was its pass rush, and it completely disappeared on Saturday, which allowed Flacco to be comfortable and make good decisions and good throws.
Penalties – The Broncos were able to rack up 10 penalties for 87 yards on Saturday. Naturally, there were a couple of questionable and controversial pass-interference penalties that went against the defense, but the Broncos have no one to blame but themselves for the rest.
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One of the best offensive line units in the league picked up uncharacteristic and drive-stalling holding penalties at inopportune moments. Meanwhile, the only time the defense was able to pressure the quarterback was when they were jumping off sides. Denver had the homefield advantage and should have been the more disciplined team, but they weren’t, and it cost them.
Champ Bailey – It was not a good day for one of the game’s best cornerbacks. Flacco and the Ravens showed no reticence in going after Bailey, and the veteran was beat deep on multiple occasions by Raven’s wide receiver Torrey Smith. Smith looked faster, tougher, smarter, and more athletic than Bailey all game long, and he had two touchdowns to show for it.
Bailey’s struggles made things harder for the rest of the Denver secondary, which in turn, made it more difficult for the Broncos to commit players to the pass rush. Whether it’s a sign of Bailey’s aging or he just had a bad day is irrelevant at this point; the fact remains that Bailey was beaten badly by the Ravens on Saturday, and it was a major contributor to his team’s early playoff exit.
Knowshon Moreno’s injury – No one’s blaming Moreno personally, because sometimes injuries happen, but losing him really hurt the Broncos. Moreno had been great since taking over for Willis McGahee, but when Moreno went down the Broncos went from having the freshest running back in the playoffs to what was essentially “Plan C” at the running back position.
Ronnie Hillman and Jacob Hester filled in admirably, but the Broncos struggled in short-yardage situations without Moreno’s size and toughness. Denver couldn’t get any big gains in the running game without the power and speed combination that Moreno possesses, and his absence was also felt in pass protection. It’s easy in hindsight, but with Moreno in the backfield, the Broncos may have been more effective on offense and may not have committed such costly turnovers.
Big plays – In the end, the Ravens created more big plays than the Broncos, on both offense and defense. The Broncos, rather Trindon Holliday, owned the special teams portion of the game, but the Ravens were the ones coming up with big plays in the other two phases of the game. Stat wise, Baltimore averaged 6.5 yards per play, while Denver averaged just 4.6, but it’s more than that. The Denver offense methodically controlled the ball, but could only score after long drives, while Flacco threw touchdown passes of 59, 32, and 70 yards. The Denver defense had just one sack and one turnover, while the Baltimore defense had three sacks, forced three turnovers, and turned one of those turnovers into seven points.
The fact is, the Broncos, outside of Holliday, were not explosive, and the Ravens were. The Denver offense couldn’t create big plays, and the Denver defense couldn’t stop big plays from happening against them. As a result, the Broncos are sitting at home, plagued with thoughts of what could have been, while the Ravens are one win away from the Super Bowl.