ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Some games are tedious to re-watch. The regular-season opener last Thursday was not one of them.
THE BREAKOUT STAR
On the first touchdown, tight end Julius Thomas used his relative anonymity against the Ravens. Lined up outside of right tackle Orlando Franklin, Thomas begins as though he's going to run an out, and slows up, suckering Baltimore linebacker Daryl Smith into a false sense of security. Then Thomas cuts upfield and behind Smith; by the time the linebacker realizes what's happened, it's too late, and no one is within seven yards of Thomas when he makes the catch.
Six minutes later, Thomas scores again. This time, he's covered by Ravens safety Michael Huff, but cuts inside and has built two yards of separation by the time Manning's throw arrives. Thomas makes a nice catch and then takes advantage of an overplay by Baltimore safety James Ihedigbo, who mistimed the pass and was caught behind Thomas.
What was most notable about the play were the other options. If Peyton Manning had looked elsewhere, he would have found Montee Ball, Wes Welker, Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker all in man-to-man coverage; Demaryius Thomas and Decker were perched beyond the sticks, and should have easily been able to make first-down grabs on passes thrown to the outside shoulder.
Blocking will remain a concern for Julius Thomas until he gets it right. He has the physical tools; what he needs are repetitions and time. This is something the Broncos will have to accept in the short term, but his ability to ward off defenders just long enough to help make a play happen (see the end of the next item for an example) gives reason to believe that he can, and will, improve.
"Yeah, there were some other plays in there too that I didn't exactly execute what I needed to do. It's a tough job," he said. "I'm going to watch the film and continue to try to improve. It's the same message I've been preaching since training camp started. There are some plays I need to do better on and I'm just going to keep on working and getting after it.
"Hopefully by the time the end of the season, I'm going to be able to look at you and say it was perfect."
He will see more attention from safeties going forward, so don't expect every game to be like this one, but all that will do is open up horizons for targets on the outside. If Thomas draws an extra linebacker underneath, Wes Welker and running backs out of the backfield will have more room; if Thomas attracts a safety, then you can send one of the receivers on a go route where all they have to do is get a step on a cornerback. This is potentially transformative and pushes an already potent offense into new territory. It also helped result in Andre Caldwell's touchdown, which we'll touch upon later.
THE OVERLOOKED RUN GAME
On the ground, the Broncos had a forgettable night, and had they lost, the combined tally of 64 yards on 22 carries by Ball, Knowshon Moreno and Ronnie Hillman would have been subject to greater scrutiny. But let's focus for a moment on a play that worked: Moreno's 7–yard gain on the Broncos' first possession.
The key to this play is Zane Beadles, whose role is two-fold. First, he must read Chris Canty off the snap; simultaneously he must also account for linebacker Josh Bynes, who along with Daryl Smith are the only two Ravens who are not immediately blocked at the snap.
Beadles has to read and take advantage of No. 56 diving low; he peels off Canty and guides Bynes to the ground. This is the sort of play that he would have struggled to make even two years ago; now it's routine. His reaction time has improved, and with it his overall play.
This is also a nice example of how offensive linemen work in tandem, and why it's worth the investment of finances and time to keep a line together. Clady and Beadles couldn't have done this when they were thrown together in 2010, with Clady coming off a patella tendon injury and Beadles a rookie thrown into the deep end of the pool. Now they execute this play easily. It's nothing special for them, but in the scheme of line play, having two Pro Bowl-caliber players on the left side who work so well together is crucial and difficult to replicate otherwise.
Moreno also does well to read the dance between Julius Thomas and Terrell Suggs on the left side; by the time Moreno cuts, two yards separates Thomas from Suggs, who eventually has a shot at an ankle tackle of Moreno but just misses.
The other run I kept watching was Ball's 4-yard pickup on third-and-1 at the Baltimore 6-yard-line. Ten of the Ravens' 11 defenders are lined up within five yards of the line of scrimmage; seven are in the box, so there's not much room, and it depends on two players in particular: Louis Vasquez, who rotates left and takes out Bynes, who had filled the hole that Ball could have run through.
Vasquez's block buys Ball time to work outside and around and Julius Thomas. As he did on Moreno's 7-yard run, Thomas holds up Suggs just long enough to allow Ball room to get by. Ball runs outside, and the only question becomes whether he can beat the defenders to the corner and get the touchdown. He didn't, but the play was a success in setting up first-and-goal and the Broncos' fifth touchdown two plays later.
We got our answer on whether safety Duke Ihenacho can handle the rigors of starting. His performance wasn't mistake-free, but what jumps out is his reaction time. On the second play from scrimmage, he immediately reacts off the snap to the handoff to Ray Rice; the time from his read of the run to contact with Rice is 1.9 seconds.
It's possible that opponents will try and use his quick reaction against him, and perhaps try to execute play-action passes to sucker him short and leave the Broncos exposed deep, so this is something to keep an eye on in the next few weeks. But the positives far outweigh the issues, and for a first start, the Broncos and Ihenacho should be pleased with the performance, speed and dynamism he brings to strong safety.
-- Six of Welker's nine catches went for first downs, a 66.7 success percentage that was a shade better than the 61.0 percent figure he amassed last year. What was much better was his first-down percentage relative to times targeted: last year, that was 41.4 percent, but it was 54.5 percent on Thursday.
-- The Broncos were just balanced enough in direction to force the Ravens to cover the entire field. Twenty-two of Manning's 42 passes were to the left side; 15 were to the right and five were down the middle.
-- If Andre Caldwell can continue breaking off the line of scrimmage like he did on his 28–yard touchdown catch in the third quarter, he becomes a valuable weapon. He gets outside, and because the safety (No. 29) is busy trying to contain Julius Thomas, Caldwell is a prime, easy target once he has a step on (No. 22). The only variable becomes whether Caldwell catches the football; after one bobble, he did. This is also a consequence of Thomas' emergence; the Ravens devoted more resources to covering him at the expense of the threats on the outside.
-- Based on plays relative to time of possession, the Broncos ran one play every 23.12 seconds, fourth-fastest in the league. Philadelphia ran one play every 25.44 seconds it held the football; that placed it 10th. (Washington, which was behind and forced to accelerate its tempo, averaged one snap every 23.44 seconds.) Of the top 10 teams in this statistic, the only three that one were the ones who have a stated affinity for fast-paced football: Denver, New England (one snap per 25.43 seconds of possession time) and Philadelphia.