A handful of observations in looking back at the Broncos' 41-17 win over the Oakland Raiders:
- We first had a glimpse of using T.J. Ward in the box and Quinton Carter as a deeper safety during OTAs and again in training camp, so it was no surprise to see the alignment return at intermittent points during the first half of the regular season.
But Nate Irving's knee injury brought it back to the forefront, as the Broncos used the two safeties together on 43 of 62 plays Sunday with Irving sidelined, which cost the Broncos a presence in the base and nickel packages.
In terms of personnel, the Ward-Carter pairing -- with Rahim Moore still at free safety -- is a dime package, but in the way they used Ward, it's a nickel, with him at linebacker. Sometimes he played several yards back; at others, he showed blitz at the line of scrimmage. Executive Vice President and General Manager John Elway first floated the idea of Ward seeing linebacker snaps last March, and it saw occasional use during the first half of the season.
Expect more of this.
"That's probably going to be one of our main defenses," cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said. "Teams are going to have a problem with me and T.J. inside and having 'Q' back there at safety."
Carter's return from a hamstring injury made it possible. He missed the Patriots game and struggled in the previous game against San Diego when Chargers tight end Antonio Gates beat him for a 31-yard gain.
Oakland didn't have a tight end to match Gates, which helped. But the extended work helped, as well. It allowed Carter to find a groove that he had not enjoyed since returning from the knee problems that cost him two years. He played more defensive snaps Sunday than he did in the entire month of October.
Having Carter back gave Head Coach John Fox and Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio the freedom to use the three-safety grouping, and Carter responded with arguably his best game of the season.
- As Harris noted, he saw slot work when the Broncos inserted Carter and went with the Ward-at-linebacker sub package.
Harris' work in the slot was intermittent through the first half of the season, and he went some entire games without working inside, leaving that to rookie Bradley Roby. Roby worked outside at right cornerback on the two plays that defined his day: the touchdown he allowed to Brice Butler and the second-quarter interception of a pass intended for Mychal Rivera.
The dual work means twice as much studying, but Harris is used to it.
"Hey, I just go to work and they say, 'Chris, you're here; Chris you're there,'" Harris said, with a smile. "I just go where they tell me to go."
- Moving Will Montgomery to center worked, and he had a crucial role in three of C.J. Anderson's longest runs of the game.
On Anderson's 17-yard sprint with 1:40 left in the second quarter, Montgomery snapped with Oakland linebacker Sio Moore looming over him. Moore got a quick jump off the snap and had momentum, but Montgomery guided Moore away from and behind Anderson, allowing the running back to sprint upfield.
Montgomery also delivered a second-level block on Oakland linebacker Miles Burris to help spring Anderson for a 12-yard gain, and took care of Oakland's 334-pound Justin Ellis off the snap on what became a 16-yard gain. Montgomery's work allowed right guard and erstwhile center Manny Ramirez to pull and lead Anderson upfield.
That worked helped Montgomery earn a plus-1.9 run-blocking grade from ProFootballFocus.com. That is the third-highest run-blocking grade given by PFF to a Broncos offensive lineman this year, behind two games from Louis Vasquez, a right guard until shifting to right tackle this week.
The shuffled alignment got the results the Broncos desired, and should be in place for at least another week.
"I'd say it's fair to say on Wednesday we'll probably start how we left off versus Oakland," Fox said.
- Ben Garland's first regular-season game also saw him get his first regular-season action; he replaced Manny Ramirez at right guard when the Broncos took possession with 5:25 remaining, for a drive that went three-and-out. Garland also lined up for the two kneel down snaps at the end of the game.
Chris Clark played the entire fourth quarter at left tackle in place of Ryan Clady; he took over on the last play of the third quarter, one play before Brock Osweiler stepped in to begin the fourth quarter.
- Win No. 7 in a season makes history for precisely no one but the 1995 Buccaneers, who snapped a streak of 12 consecutive double-digit loss seasons that remains an NFL record.
But for the Broncos, the seventh win ensures that the Broncos will remain one of four teams with just one season of double-digit defeats since 2000, along with Pittsburgh, New Orleans and New England.
There's something to be said for consistency, and the more competitive seasons you have, the more title chances will come your way. Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh theorized that when your floor was higher than others -- say, in the neighborhood of .500 if everything goes wrong -- it was easier to build a team positioned to reach the ceiling, e.g. the Super Bowl, than when your floor was 4-12.
Now, what the Broncos need is a title. The Steelers, Saints and Patriots have won it all at least once in the 21st century. The Broncos hope to join them this season.
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