Tag Archives: Chris Harris

Learning from the past

It may not be obvious whether Peyton Manning or Tom Brady is the best quarterback of their generation, although we’re sure to hear plenty of bloviating on the subject over the next seven days as they get ready to compete for a berth in the Super Bowl.

On the other hand, there’s not much doubt about the superior Saturday Night Live host.

Following the Broncos’ 24-17 playoff victory over San Diego on Sunday, a reporter wanted to pursue an ESPN “exclusive” that Manning’s future in football will be decided by a neck exam in March. Never mind that this was also true last year and the year before that. An exclusive is an exclusive, after all.

So the reporter asked him, immediately following his first playoff victory as a Bronco, if this is weighing on his mind.

“What’s weighing on my mind is how soon I can get a Bud Light in my mouth,” Manning said. “That’s priority number one.”

Somebody at the ad agency representing Budweiser just went to work.

For two weeks, Manning and the Broncos heard about nothing but history. A digital loop replayed the nightmare from last year’s playoff loss, Rahim Moore amazingly still misjudging the ball after all this time. They were reminded that this nightmare was possible only because Manning’s offense played it conservatively at the end of regulation, trying to eat clock rather than get first downs. As a result, it gave the ball back to the Ravens with just enough time for the infamous pratfall.

They also heard about more recent history, this season’s games against the Chargers, their playoff opponent. San Diego dominated the time of possession in both games by running the ball and stopping the run.

Once this train of reminding got going, nobody could find the brake. The web site Pro Football Talk tweeted more grim numbers just before kickoff Sunday:

“Philip Rivers is 6-2 all-time in Denver. Peyton Manning was 1-5 with the Colts in his last six games against Chargers.”

The fact that Manning went into the game 3-1 against the Chargers as the Broncos’ quarterback, which would seem more recent and more relevant, considering it was the Broncos and not the Colts playing in this game, did not merit mention.

What the Broncos did with all this history was basically what the computer does in WarGames. They learned.

This time, when they got the ball with a chance to run out the clock at the end of regulation, they played more aggressively, passing on third down to maintain possession rather than running to keep the clock ticking.

They also designed an offensive game plan that allowed them to run the ball better, often running out of passing formations that spread the defense. They designed a defensive plan that allowed them to stop the run better, playing more linebackers and fewer defensive backs on more snaps. Between the two, they reversed the Chargers’ time of possession advantage in the first two games.

After rushing for a pathetic 18 net yards in their loss to the Chargers in December, the Broncos racked up 133 this time — 82 from Knowshon Moreno and 52 from rookie Montee Ball. After giving up 177 rushing yards in that loss, they surrendered only 65 this time. It didn’t hurt that the Chargers’ best running back, Ryan Mathews, was hobbled by an ankle sprain. After rushing for 127 yards in the Chargers victory, he managed only five carries for 26 yards in this one.

All of this added up to domination of the game for the first three quarters. Clad in orange on a crisp, windy day, Mile High rumbled with enthusiasm when the Chargers had the ball and turned into a library when Manning was engineering the no-huddle. The Broncos didn’t score as much as they usually do, in part because of their long, patient drives and in part because one of them ended when Manning threw a pass off Eric Decker’s chest that turned into an interception in the end zone.

Still, they led 17-0 after three quarters and their defense looked dominant.

Then cornerback Chris Harris went out of the game and, just like that, the defensive dominance disappeared. We’ll come back to that in a minute. But that’s why, just like last year, the Broncos found themselves protecting a seven-point lead in the waning minutes.

Last year, up 35-28 on the Ravens with two minutes to play, the Broncos faced a third-and-7. Rather than attempt to throw for the first down to maintain possession, they called a running play to burn precious seconds off the clock. They were forced to punt and everybody knows what happened after that.

This year, leading the Chargers 24-17 with three minutes to play, they faced a third-and-17 from their own 20-yard line. Offensive coordinator Adam Gase ordered what Manning would call “a wheel-type route” for tight end Julius Thomas. With the pocket collapsing around him, Manning waited patiently for the route to develop down the field. Then he hit a wide-open Thomas down the right sideline for 21 yards and a first down.

“Third-and-17, you know you’re going to have to hold the ball a little bit longer just to give guys a chance to get down the field,” Manning said. “It was the perfect call against the perfect coverage, which you may get one or two of those a game. It certainly came at a good time. Adam dialed it up. It was something we worked on, and it was nice we were able to execute.”

Moments later, the Broncos were presented with a virtual replay of last year’s call. With 2:12 showing, they faced a third-and-6 from their 45. Again, Gase called for a pass. Again, Manning found his big tight end, this time for nine yards and another first down.

It seemed vaguely Shakespearean that Mike McCoy, the offensive coordinator who ordered the running plays that led to defeat a year ago, was on the opposite sideline Sunday, coaching the Chargers and watching his successor correct his mistake.

“Certainly two huge third-down conversions, which were the difference in the ball game,” Manning said.

The successive first downs exhausted the Chargers’ timeouts. From there, the Broncos were able to run out the clock. The Chargers never got the ball back and never had an opportunity to pull off the miracle finish the Ravens managed a year ago.

“I think there’s been a lot of changes since last year,” Manning said. “We are much more experienced. We’ve been through a lot and have been in different situations. Those were two huge plays. I really loved Adam’s aggressive calls. Julius and I have spent a lot of time working on those particular routes — after practice, in practice. To me, that is one of the most rewarding parts of football. When you put that work in off to the side or after practice and it pays off in a game, it really makes it feel like it was worth it. Those two plays specifically were certainly worth the hard work.”

So if the Broncos continue to be such good students of the past, perhaps they can come up with a way to beat Brady and the Patriots next week and advance to the Super Bowl in New Jersey. But first, they’ll have to look carefully at what happened in the fourth quarter Sunday.

“We got it going pretty good, and they knew it,” said Rivers, the Chargers’ quarterback. “If we got it one more time, I believe deep down that we would’ve tied that thing up. But we didn’t. Those are all a bunch of what-ifs.”

Through three quarters, the Chargers had five first downs and 25 net passing yards. In the fourth, they had eight and 169.

Did the Broncos lay back in a somewhat softer defense with a three-score lead to start the quarter? Sure, there were a couple of zones in there. But the most obvious difference in their defense was the substitution of veteran Quentin Jammer for Harris late in the third quarter, when Harris went out with what the club reported as a knee or ankle issue. Coach John Fox said he had no update afterward, making Harris’ health the biggest question of the coming week.

For three quarters, the Broncos’ defensive success was based on their ability to leave their cornerbacks in man-to-man coverage on San Diego’s wide receivers while everybody else played the run first. With Harris and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie on the outside and Champ Bailey playing nickel back covering the slot, it worked well. Once Harris went out, it didn’t.

Suddenly, the Chargers were reeling off big plays in the passing game. Jammer, the longtime Charger, always seemed to be at the scene of the crime. On San Diego’s first scoring drive, he lined up opposite former Bronco Eddie Royal, who ran a crossing route. Somewhere about the middle of the field, Jammer suddenly turned and looked back to the side he had vacated, as if unsure of the scheme. Royal ran away from him to the other side of the field. Rivers hit him and Royal turned upfield, gaining 30 yards. Moments later, Rivers went after Jammer again, throwing a 16-yard touchdown pass over him to Keenan Allen.

Manning responded by marching the Broncos down the field for another touchdown to make it 24-7 with 8:12 left. Again, a three-score lead looked comfortable. In fact, when Rivers made the mistake of going after Rodgers-Cromartie twice in a row on San Diego’s next possession, the Chargers faced a fourth-and-5 at their own 25-yard line. If the Broncos had stopped them there, they might have coasted home.

Instead, Rivers, who had ignored the Allen-Jammer matchup on third down, went deep for Allen on fourth. Jammer stumbled turning to follow Allen’s out move and the Chargers’ rookie star was wide open when Rivers hit him for a 49-yard gain. A minute later, it was 24-14, and two minutes after that, following a successful onside kick, 24-17.

This is what set up the Broncos’ final possession and the aggressive play-calling and execution that allowed them to protect a one-touchdown lead and close out the win.

Perhaps blaming this sudden change in the dynamic on Jammer is too simplistic. No doubt there were others who made mistakes as well. But if Harris is not ready to resume his role for next week’s AFC championship game at Mile High, the Broncos will have a decision to make.

Sunday, they had basically three options. They could have subbed in rookie Kayvon Webster, but it was Webster that Rivers victimized in the Chargers’ December victory. Just as Manning targeted Chiefs rookie cornerback Marcus Cooper a few weeks before, Rivers pretty much threw at whoever Webster was covering until Webster was removed from the game.

They could have moved Champ Bailey to the outside. Bailey missed much of the season with a foot injury. Broncos coaches have been easing him back in as a nickel back, limiting his snaps. Still, I was a little surprised they didn’t move him outside for the final 15 minutes of Sunday’s game when Harris went down. After all, he’s been to 12 Pro Bowls, most recently last year.

Jammer was the third option, and the one they chose, perhaps because he played for the Chargers all those years and perhaps because he’s the guy who replaced Webster after Rivers toasted the rookie in December.

A fourth option would be Tony Carter, but he was inactive for Sunday’s game. That will probably change next week if Harris is unavailable.

Against the Patriots next week, the Broncos will need a game plan similar to the one they executed Sunday. The Patriots rushed for 234 yards Saturday in beating the Colts, 43-22. They scored all six of their touchdowns on the ground. But if the Broncos are going to leave their corners on islands against Brady, those corners will have to play as well as Rodgers-Cromartie and Harris did Sunday.

The Broncos will also have to learn what they can from their loss at New England just before Thanksgiving. In a game shaped by cold, windy conditions, the Patriots fumbled six times, losing three, before intermission. Von Miller returned one of them 60 yards for a touchdown and the Broncos led 24-0 at halftime.

The second half was pretty much a mirror image. It was the Broncos who turned it over three times and the Patriots who came back to take a 31-24 lead. The Broncos regrouped, driving for a tying touchdown near the end of the fourth quarter, but a freak play in overtime — a punt bouncing off Carter, who was on the coverage unit — handed New England a three-point win.

Offensively, the Broncos should be at full strength against the Patriots. Wes Welker, the former Patriot, returned to action following a concussion wearing a helmet nearly as big as he is.

“I’ve been practicing with it the last few weeks, so I got used to it, but it is kind of looking like The Jetsons out there,” Welker said.

“It was the first time since November that we’ve had Decker and (Demaryius) Thomas and Julius and Welker on the field together,” Manning said. “We’ve battled through some injuries.”

This was Manning’s theme going into the game. He told his teammates to be proud of what many outsiders seemed to take for granted.

“I talked to the team last night,” he reported. “I said, ‘You need to be commended for getting back to this point.’ We’ve been through more this year — it’s hard to explain all the stuff we’ve been through, offseason and in-season. To get to this point was really hard work, and to win this game was really hard work. We are proud and happy to be at this point, and we certainly want to keep it going.”

The Broncos exorcised one demon Sunday. Another awaits. In between, at least one of them had a Bud Light.


Nevermore: Broncos ditch doomsday scenario

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,

Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,

While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,

As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.

`’Tis some visitor,’ I muttered, `tapping at my chamber door –

Only this, and nothing more.’

Spoiler alert: ‘Twas not a visitor. ‘Twas the Raven. And this is what the Broncos said Sunday about the Ravens’ previous dominance in the city of Edgar Allan Poe:

Nevermore.

No single Sunday has delivered results so promising for Denver’s football squad since the Sunday in March when Peyton Manning elected to join it.

It was not merely that the Broncos expunged an ignominious losing streak in Baltimore, nor that they won their ninth consecutive game, a streak now tied for third-longest in franchise history.

It was mainly that they leapfrogged the defrocked New England Patriots in the conference standings, with a little help from the San Francisco 49ers, who blitzed the Pats on Sunday Night Football, then hung on by their fingernails in the second half.

If the Broncos win out at home against the hapless Cleveland Browns (5-9) and Kansas City Chiefs (2-12), they will finish the season as at least the AFC’s No. 2 seed. (If the Houston Texans were to lose both of their remaining games, against Minnesota and Indianapolis, the Broncos could ascend to No. 1.)

Earning one of the top two seeds not only gets them a first-round bye, meaning they would need two playoff victories to reach the Super Bowl rather than three. It also exempts them from another postseason trip to Foxboro, Mass., and you may remember how the last one of those turned out.

This was widely assumed to be the Broncos’ doomsday scenario. No matter how well they played in the regular season, if they finished with a playoff seed inferior to that of the Patriots, the season likely would end again in disappointment far from home. After all, last year’s dream ended with a 45-10 spanking at Gillette Stadium. Even with Manning on board the Broncos’ bus, the Patriots beat them at Gillette again, 31-21, earlier this season.

The combination of the Broncos’ win at Baltimore and the Patriots’ 41-34 loss to the Niners means that if the Broncos win out, any postseason meeting with Tom Brady & Co. will be in Denver, not New England.

And so, as surely as winter follows fall, here comes the Super Bowl talk. Whether you get your sports conversation from the radio, TV or social media, you will be treated to a barrage of excited Super Bowl talk for at least the next three weeks. The Broncos will do their best to ignore it.

“We’re not measuring ourselves now,” coach John Fox said after his team improved to 11-3 on the season. “We need to measure ourselves at the end to be the best. Right now, our guys have responded very well to just improving every week, and we’ve kept it as simple as that. The big challenge this week was to win the turnover battle and we were able to do that. I thought that was the biggest difference in the game. This (Ravens) team is a very good football team and we may run into them again.”

To appreciate how hard it is to do what the Broncos did — playing every phase of the game expertly with two rushing touchdowns, a passing touchdown, an interception for a touchdown, a stifling defense, two takeaways, no giveaways and a dominant time of possession — you have only to observe the frustration along the other sideline.

“The thing about football is the offense can be playing really well and then the defense is not playing really well; it’s lopsided,” said Ravens running back Ray Rice, who was held to 38 rushing yards. “Today the defense was playing really well, and we didn’t. Last week, it was the flip side. We have to find a way to come together and play as one unit. ”

For all the Broncos’ ultimate dominance, the key play in this one came at the end of the first half, with the Ravens on the verge of a touchdown that would have cut the Broncos’ lead to 10-7. The home team, which had only four first downs and 119 yards before intermission, finally got its offense moving in the last two minutes, connecting on a 43-yard pass from Joe Flacco to Jacoby Jones to begin the drive and arriving at the Broncos’ 4-yard line with a first-and-goal and barely 30 seconds showing.

Head coach John Harbaugh, new offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell and Flacco, the quarterback, had two choices. They could call timeout — they had all three remaining — and set up a play, or they could run to the line of scrimmage and run a play out of the no-huddle offense in an effort to catch the Broncos off guard. They chose the latter. The Broncos were not caught off guard.

“There were 34 seconds when the ball was snapped,” Harbaugh said. “With three timeouts left that’s going to give us time to run three plays. That’s plenty of time. Throughout the course of the drive, we wanted to score, but we didn’t want to leave a lot of time on the clock. That’s a strategic call. We have a number of plays we run with no-huddle that are not kill-the-clock plays, but they are run-route plays, and that was the play we had. And we thought that gave us a great chance to score, and that’s what we ran.”

The Ravens chose a pass play with one receiver running a fade to Flacco’s left and another, Anquan Boldin, running a flat route beneath the fade. Flacco is supposed to check the fade first, then the flat. If neither is open, he’s supposed to throw it away, stop the clock, try again.

“That’s one of our plays that you kind of get a flat and a fade, and it’s kind of like going up and clocking the ball,” Flacco said. “It’s kind of like calling a timeout in that situation because it’s one of those things that you catch it and get out of bounds, you catch it in the end zone, or you throw it away, and you live for the next down. I just made a mistake, there’s no other way to put that. I made a mistake. I wanted to have the fade, and I came down to the flat, and the guy undercut it, picked it and went the whole way. It’s just a mistake on my part.”

The guy was Chris Harris, the former undrafted free agent who took over for Tracy Porter opposite Champ Bailey earlier in the season and has not permitted Porter to get back on the field. He cut in front of Boldin, caught Flacco’s pass at the 2-yard line and sprinted up the Broncos’ sideline 98 yards for a touchdown, the longest regular-season interception return for a score in franchise history. The previous record — a 93-yard return at Cleveland 32 years ago — was authored by linebacker Randy Gradishar.

“Chris did a good job kind of hanging back there, and stepped in front, right in front of our bench,” Fox said with a smile. “He had a lot of direction from the sideline on that (return).”

“A 14-point swing,” Manning said. “Baltimore has some momentum there on the drive and looks like they’re probably going to get the touchdown. Plus they get the ball the first series of the second half. So just a huge play by Chris, undercutting it. The turnover is good; the fact that he took it all the way to the house for a touchdown is even bigger. Big swing in the game, in the momentum, and I thought it kind of jump-started everything in the second half for us.”

“I didn’t really expect him to throw that out-route, but he threw it to me, and I just wanted to make sure I scored,” Harris said. “That was a long run, but once I got to the 40, I was like, ‘I just have to stride it on in.’ ”

Flacco tried to run him down, but managed only to dive at his feet as he flew into the end zone.

Asked to explain what happened on the play, Boldin, the intended receiver, replied: “I’d rather not.”

Someone asked Flacco if he changed his mind at the last moment about where to go with the ball.

“No, I was just reading it out,” he said. “The fade was just taking a little bit longer than I wanted. I was probably a little bit late on it because the sideline was squeezing with (Boldin) and all that. In hindsight, I should have just taken the ball and thrown it over Anquan’s head and lived for the next play.”

The Ravens did manage a scoring drive to start the second half, but they got only a field goal out of it. When the Broncos responded with consecutive touchdowns, it was 31-3 and all over but the excuses. The first of Denver’s two third-quarter touchdowns came on a 51-yard bomb from Manning to Eric Decker, who finished with eight catches for 133 yards in an oftense that seems to reward a different receiver each week.

“(We) were hitting some outs and some intermediate routes and we thought it was time to maybe send something down the field,” Manning said. “They had good cover guys outside, so anytime you’re playing against good cover guys you’ve got to give them the mix, you’ve got to give them the short, the intermediate and the deep stuff.

“It was a double-move by Eric, a good route, good protection. I really thought it was set up by the run game. We were running the ball well. It was off a run play we’d been running. Had a good fake. I don’t know that it necessarily froze the safety or anybody, but it just gives you that good mix of run and the play-action when you’re running the ball well.”

Ravens safety Ed Reed undercut the route, leaving Decker with single coverage, perhaps because Decker had been running comeback routes for much of the day.

The Broncos ran the ball 45 times and threw it just 28. Even subtracting the final series — two kneel-downs by backup quarterback Brock Osweiler and a no-gain run by rookie running back Ronnie Hillman — this is a heavier dose of running plays than one normally associates with Manning, who set or extended two more NFL records Sunday (most 11-win seasons, 9; most 4,000-yard passing seasons, 12).

Manning said one series where he threw it on all three downs — and went three-and-out, getting knocked down by the pass rush twice — represented probably the worst play-calling of the day. Heavy reliance on the running game was not a plan solely for the Ravens. The Broncos are coming to understand it will be a good strategy in the playoffs against higher-scoring offenses as well. If the re-emergence of Knowshon Moreno is paired with veteran Willis McGahee, who could be ready to return from injury for the AFC Championship Game, the Broncos’ ground game could be nearly as formidable as their aerial attack.

“It’s something we’re going to have to be able to do,” Manning told KOA. “Especially against teams that have these explosive offenses, you don’t want to give them the ball back.”

So let the fans and media types talk about the Super Bowl. Manning will make use of every moment of practice and game action between now and then to get in closer touch with his new teammates. They may not seem new to you anymore, but they do to him.

“You try to learn something every day,” he said. “You get a little more comfortable with something every day, but it’s still very new, there’s no question about it.

“I think the goal is to get on the same page. Obviously, the more that the receivers and I are on the same page, the better for our offense, the better for our team. I do think the more games you play, the better you’re going to be; the more practice reps you get, going against our secondary in one-on-one drills in practice.

“What are we, in Week 15 here, that’s all the time we’ve had to improve our timing. It’s not what it’s going to be if you play with guys six, seven, eight years. So it feels like a scramble and you’re trying to use every piece of practice that you have — walkthroughs, meetings, special teams periods where you might get them off to the side. We try to use all those things to talk football.

“There’s some things we’ve made strides on; there’s some things that I think you just have to have more time in order to get more on the same page. But I appreciate the work ethic. I know Decker had a good day today. DT probably didn’t have the numbers that he’s been having, but his presence, I can assure you, is a huge part of what’s going on out there. It’s a huge part of why the run game is good.

“For the most part, those runs, Baltimore had their safeties and corners apart, or removed from the line of scrimmage. That’s because the respect they have for a guy like Demaryius Thomas and Decker. So if you can run it versus those looks; when they come up, if you can throw it, that means you’re playing good offensive football.”

Winners of nine in a row, now in position to earn a first-round bye and second-round home game in the playoffs, the Broncos, according to their quarterback, remain a work in progress.

But the raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only,

That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.

Nothing further then he uttered – not a feather then he fluttered –

Till I scarcely more than muttered `Other friends have flown before –

On the morrow he will leave me, as my hopes have flown before.’

Then the bird said, `Nevermore.’