Peyton Manning’s testiest exchange after Sunday’s victory was with me, so let’s start with that.
Somebody asked if he was concerned about his exchanges with center Manny Ramirez after two of them led to fumbles, both of which the Broncos lost. On the first, Manning was under center. On the second, he was in the shotgun. Manning blamed himself for the first, saying he pulled out early. “Manny had a low one on the shotgun play,” he said of the second.
The Broncos turned the ball over three times Sunday — the third was a Manning interception for which he took full responsibility — which helped the 0-6 Jacksonville Jaguars keep the game close for a while.
Now about two years removed from multiple neck surgeries, Manning did not dive after either loose ball, as quarterbacks customarily do, which prompted my question, which prompted this exchange:
Me: Do you not go after those balls because of a fear of injury?
Manning: Um, not necessarily, no. So . . .
Me: I’m sorry, you don’t know?
Manning: What was the question?
Me: Is there a reason you don’t go after those balls on botched snaps?
Manning: I didn’t know that I . . . I can’t say that’s a . . . I mean, you’re basing it off, what, two?
Me: Those two plays.
Manning: Yeah, I mean, I can’t say that I don’t go after ’em. I mean, maybe I didn’t think I could get ’em, I guess. Be careful generalizing how I approach fumbled snaps off two plays.
Me: OK, let me ask why you didn’t go after those two.
Manning: I didn’t think I could get ’em.
Earlier, coach John Fox was asked whether Manning not diving after the loose balls was a result of coaching or his own decision.
“I think at the end of the day he’s a pretty valuable member for our football team,” Fox said. “We don’t necessarily want him making tackles on interceptions and diving on fumbles. He’s been coached that.”
I was in the locker room at the time and didn’t hear Fox’s answer until later, which is why I asked the question of Manning. (Manning and Fox hold their interview sessions in an interview room some distance from the locker room.)
Fox’s answer makes perfect sense and made me wonder why Manning didn’t answer the same way, something like: “I’ve been coached not to do that. It’s hard, because your instinct is to go after the loose ball, but the coaches are trying to keep me healthy and I respect that.”
Maybe it was because I phrased my initial question poorly, suggesting he was afraid of getting hurt, and he bristled. That’s entirely possible. When Manning doesn’t like a question, he often makes it clear in not only the content but also the demeanor of his answer. In this case, he did both.
Manning’s testiness was also evident when a couple of people tried to get him to discuss his return to Indianapolis next week, which will be a big national story all week.
“I’ll probably cover that on Wednesday,” he said. “Do I have to talk Wednesday still? OK, I’ll do all that Wednesday.”
This, too, is his prerogative, but it demonstrated he was not in a mood to do the inquiring minds any favors.
None of it matters much, unless it comes up on a fumbled snap in a much tighter and more important game later on, but I think it reflected a couple of other things. Manning and the Broncos generally might have been annoyed with the media for building up the Broncos and tearing down the Jaguars leading up to the game to the point that a 35-19 victory seemed underwhelming.
Actually, that was more the Vegas oddsmakers’ doing. They established the Broncos as a 28-point favorite, equaling the largest point spread anybody could remember for an NFL game. In the absence of other compelling story lines for a game between a 5-0 team and an 0-5 team, the parlor game was whether the Broncos would cover this enormous spread, which, of course, they did not.
More to the point, the Broncos didn’t look that sharp against the Jaguars, who are generally acknowledged to be the worst team in the league, a point Manning acknowledged.
“You know there is resistance out there — it’s called the other team,” a slightly peeved Fox said. “At the end of the day, we’re very, very pleased with the victory.”
In the only statistic that matters, the Broncos are 6-0, which is as good as it gets through six games. But if you’re not trying out for cheerleader — and I no longer have much of a leg kick — the main issue through six games has nothing to do with Manning or the offense, which remain atop the league in many categories, including points, touchdowns, touchdown passes and so on.
The main issue for the Broncos is a defense that has not yet played anywhere near its level of a year ago, when it finished fourth in the NFL in points allowed, giving up 18.1 a game, and second in total defense, giving up 290.8 yards per game. It went into Sunday’s game ranked 25th (27.8) and 29th (416.6) in those categories, respectively. The Jacksonville numbers should improve those rankings a little, but coming against the worst offense in the league (10.2 points a game coming in), that won’t be much comfort.
“That’s where we want to pick it up,” defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson said. “We got the capability to be top-five in a lot of statistics in this league. But right now we’ve got some stuff, some injuries, some people missing, but at the same time it comes to guys doing their job at the end of the day. Just getting the job done.
“We’ve got some stuff to clean up in the run game and our passing defense should definitely be good. I think that’s the weakness that we’re showing, so teams could try to exploit it. If that gets tightened up, man, I don’t think nobody gonna see us. Nobody. Just being real.”
Veteran cornerback Champ Bailey’s return from a foot injury is good news, although it’s likely to take him a little while to get back into the flow. The Jaguars’ No. 1 receiver, Justin Blackmon, caught 14 passes for 190 yards against a variety of Broncos defensive backs.
“We know we gotta play better,” Bailey said. “We’ve got a good offense and they’ve been doing a lot for us, but as a defense there are going to be some games where we’ve got to step up, and this was one of them. We stepped up when we had to and got turnovers in the fourth quarter, but as far as going forward, we’ve got to play better throughout the first three quarters.”
Most fans and observers seem content to blame injuries and other absences (principally Von Miller’s six-game suspension, which ended Sunday) for the defense’s performance to date. Miller and Bailey were the two main absentees, although linebacker Wesley Woodyard and defensive end Robert Ayers suffered injuries during the Dallas game last week and sat out Sunday.
Contemplating Miller’s return, Vickerson flashed a big smile.
“We’re fitting to unleash the beast, man,” he said. “He’s probably about 20 pounds heavier, more muscle, more solid, more ready to go. So hey . . . ”
It is not surprising that these absences, along with the loss of pass rusher Elvis Dumervil in the famous free agent fax fiasco, would make some difference. But you wouldn’t necessarily expect them to cause the Jack Del Rio-coached defense to drop from the top five to the bottom five in total defense and top five to bottom 10 in scoring defense.
“Well, we had guys step up so I’m not going to blame anything on that,” Bailey said. “This is how this league works. Guys go down, guys step up. And if you don’t, then you’re going to get a loss somewhere along the way. But people stepped up today and I’m real proud of them.”
At the end of the day, as Fox is so fond of saying, the Broncos have beaten every opponent on their schedule, which is all they can do. Next week, in Manning’s return to Indianapolis, they should face their toughest test yet against a strong Colts team.
For now, they’re undefeated and feeling a little ornery, which is not a bad thing at all. If you feel like giving me a little of the blame for the latter, feel free. As you know, I’m here to help.