ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --** The recent emergence of the running game is a positive in and of itself. But what it sets up is just as important.
Specifically, the play-action pass. It's what Peyton Manning often calls the "third phase" of the offense, and through the early portion of the season, it was less effective than it was in the previous two years.
Last Thursday against San Diego, it returned -- with a vengeance, accounting for the Broncos' longest gain of the evening: the 38-yard Manning-to-Emmanuel Sanders connection on Denver's first touchdown drive.
The threat of the run forces San Diego safety Jahleel Addae to remain within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. By the time he realizes Manning still has the football, he's out of position to provide any deep assistance, as Sanders sprints past him just outside the seam.
Meanwhile, fellow safety Eric Weddle is at the numbers on the opposite side of the field, 17 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. The chances of him making it across the field to have an impact on the pass to Sanders are remote, even though Sanders is on a post route toward the center of the field.
To Weddle's credit, he is in the area when Manning's pass arrives, and his presence would have effectively prevented any yardage after the catch, had Sanders caught the pass in stride. But at that point, all he could have done was minimize the damage. Sanders outleaped Jason Verrett for the football, and the Broncos' first touchdown drive was under way.
Underscoring the success of the playaction was the 7-yard handoff to Ronnie Hillman that followed. The offense has effective balance, and has its "third phase" back. More games like the two in the short week, when the Broncos averaged 38.5 points a contest, would come as no surprise if the ground game continues to open horizons downfield.
BLOSSOMING BRANDON MARSHALL
Week 8 saw Brandon Marshall's best game at weakside linebacker, as his extensive playing time now translates into accurate anticipations as plays develop. The best example was his defusing of a screen pass to San Diego's Branden Oliver to force an early three-and-out.
As seen often against the 49ers in Week 7, Derek Wolfe consumes two blockers. Chargers guard Rich Ohrnberger gets the better of Wolfe as Rivers prepares to throw, and peels off to block for Oliver. Von Miller's pressure from Rivers' right side helps force the quarterback to turn left toward Oliver. This takes the option of Antonio Gates, running a drag route, out of the play (although Nate Irving has him properly covered, anyway).
Marshall's accurate read of the play renders Ohrnberger's move moot. By the time Oliver catches the football, Marshall is six feet in front of Ohrnnberger, and bearing down on Oliver. DeMarcus Ware finishes off Oliver from behind, and the Broncos had their first of six third-down stops in 10 attempts.
Marshall's growth is one of the best stories of the 2014 Broncos defense.So is Wolfe's return from a cervical spine injury which hindered and ultimately ended his 2013 season before December. Wolfe spent the offseason getting his strength back, and has played better than ever.
When Wolfe is double-teamed in pass-rush situations, he frees Ware and Miller to attack from the edge. When only one blocker handles him, he uses his brute strength to brush off opposing blockers and generate pressure, as he did to end the Chargers' second possession, when he worked outside San Diego left guard Chad Rinehart to force an inaccurate Philip Rivers throw.
The three-and-out Wolfe forced got the football back for the offense, which set up the afore-mentioned play-action connection, which sent the Broncos en route to their sixth win. Moments like this are when the team clicks best, and why the Broncos head into November with a two-game edge in the loss column in the AFC West.