Tag Archives: Rahim Moore

For the Broncos, a puzzling, timid ending

“Thanks,” Baltimore coach John Harbaugh said afterward, “for bearing witness to one of the greatest football games you’re ever going to see.”

You could understand his enthusiasm without buying his analysis. From the Ravens’ point of view, Saturday’s four-hour, 11-minute marathon represented an unbelievable comeback that will go down in Baltimore sporting lore. From the Broncos’ point of view, the only thing remotely great about it was the play of a five-foot-five-inch kick returner.

The word that best describes the home team’s approach is timid, right up until the key play with 41 seconds left in regulation, when a 22-year-old safety suddenly turned into a risk-taker. All in all, the Broncos’ judgment — when to play it safe and when to take a chance — seemed poorly calibrated.

I was standing in the south end zone when their fingernails slipped off the ledge, in the waning light of a day so cold that field security personnel were deployed in full facial gear. Rahim Moore, the free safety still a month from his 23rd birthday, was cornerback Tony Carter’s deep help in a situation that demanded the soft, safe prevent defense that fans hate.

When Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco stepped up through an ineffectual pass rush and launched a prayer of a bomb up the east sideline toward speedster Jacoby Jones, Moore cut in front of the receiver to intercept or deflect the ball.

Too late, he realized he had misjudged the angle on Flacco’s rainbow. He stumbled backward like an outfielder who has misjudged a fly ball. The football sailed over both Broncos defenders and settled into Jones’ hands. He jogged into the end zone without resistance.

This was the Ravens’ impossible situation before that play began: Third-and-three at their own 30-yard line with 41 seconds remaining, no timeouts, down 35-28. They had already used a precious 28 seconds going seven yards on two plays.

The Broncos led the NFL in quarterback sacks this season. When they knew opponents had to throw, they feasted. But they got very little pressure on Flacco all day as the Ravens’ reconstructed offensive line held the Denver pass rush at bay. Flacco completed 18 of 34 passes for 331 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 116.2.

Which made him the best quarterback on the field by a substantial margin. This was quite a surprise considering how Peyton Manning had outplayed him a month earlier in Baltimore. Manning completed 28 of 43 passes for 290 yards, three touchdowns, two interceptions and a passer rating of 88.3. Not bad, especially if you consider that his first interception bounced off receiver Eric Decker’s hands, but not exactly immortal, either, especially at the end.

Like the team around him, Manning seemed strangely timid for most of the afternoon. After that disastrous blown coverage in the final minute of regulation tied the game at 35, the Broncos got the ball back with 31 seconds showing and two timeouts. Manning took a knee and welcomed overtime.

Afterward, head coach John Fox explained this by pointing out what happened near the end of the first overtime quarter, when Manning threw behind Brandon Stokley into the arms of Ravens cornerback Corey Graham and put the visitors in position to kick the game-winning field goal.

“With 30 seconds it’s hard to go the length of the field and some bad stuff can happen, as you saw at the end of the game,” Fox said.

It was a contrived answer, like boilerplate when the actual explanation cannot be disclosed.¬†For one thing, the analogy to the end of the fifth quarter was a poor one because the end of a fifth quarter in the postseason is like the end of a first or third. The game just continues. There’s no need to hurry up. So Manning’s mistake near the end of the fifth quarter was not a result of trying to do things in a hurry and bore no relation to the end of regulation other than the coincidence of a quarter winding down.

In addition, the Broncos didn’t have to go the length of the field at the end of regulation. They just needed to get into field goal range.

But they chose to be timid, just as they did in the series before Moore’s blown coverage. Having forced the Ravens to surrender the ball on downs, the Broncos took over at their own 31 with 3:12 remaining, leading by a touchdown. Two runs by rookie Ronnie Hillman, in for the injured Knowshon Moreno, gained 13 yards and a first down. The Ravens called their second timeout to stop the clock with 2:23 remaining.

The Broncos gave it to Hillman again, forcing Harbaugh to use his final timeout with 2:19 on the clock. They gave it to Hillman again, running the clock down to the 2-minute warning.

At this point, with the Broncos facing a third-and-seven, the Ravens no longer had any means of stopping the clock. The Broncos had a four-time Most Valuable Player at quarterback and one of the league’s most productive offenses. They needed a seven-yard pass completion to ice the game and move on to play for a berth in the Super Bowl.

Instead, they gave it to Hillman for a fifth consecutive time. He was stopped for no gain. They let the clock run, finally punting the ball back to the Ravens with 1:09 showing, setting the stage for Moore’s brain freeze.

“I just misjudged it, man,” the miserable young safety said afterward. “It was pathetic, you know? It’s my fault.”

The Broncos did what they could to deflect attention from Moore’s gaffe by talking about their other mistakes, and there were plenty to talk about. Champ Bailey, the normally reliable Pro Bowl cornerback, was consistently beaten by Ravens receiver Torrey Smith. Smith caught two touchdowns on him, and it could have been worse.

Von Miller, the Broncos’ Defensive Player of the Year candidate who finished the regular season third in the league in quarterback sacks with 18.5, eventually shared a sack with Elvis Dumervil in overtime, but was neutralized for most of the day by Ravens right tackle Michael Oher of “The Blind Side” fame.

Manning had a timid 6.7 yards per pass attempt, meaning he was usually checking it down, dinking and dunking, while Flacco’s remarkable 9.7 yards per attempt reflected Baltimore’s aggressive downfield passing game.

The Ravens’ three longest plays from scrimmage — the 70-yard bomb to Jones in the final 41 seconds, a 59-yard bomb to Smith over Bailey in the first quarter, and a 32-yard heave to Smith in front of Bailey in the second quarter — were all touchdowns.

The Broncos’ three longest plays from scrimmage were a 32-yard pass from Manning to Decker in the second quarter and two short gains extended by penalties. Manning showed no interest in throwing the ball deep.

“I couldn’t tell you what their defensive game plan was, but for a good bit there in the second half, (they had) a lot of two-deep safeties, man-to-man underneath,” Manning explained afterward. “They are going to take away some of those guys on the outside, which means you’ve got to beat them on the inside — the back out of the backfield, the tight end. That’s how you have to attack that defense.”

Maybe, but Manning threw to his backs eight times, his tight ends 11 times and his wideouts 24 times. He had only two pass plays that went for more than 20 yards.

Their big plays came not from Manning and the offense but from kick returner Trindon Holliday, who authored the longest punt return for a touchdown in NFL playoff history (90 yards) and the longest kickoff return for a touchdown in NFL playoff history (104 yards). No one had ever returned both a punt and kickoff for touchdowns in the same playoff game. Trindon Holliday’s day will be in the record book for a long time.

If Manning lacked confidence in his ability to throw a deep, accurate ball in the frigid temperatures, he wouldn’t acknowledge it publicly. All season, he declined to discuss the progress of his comeback from four neck surgeries and the nerve regeneration in his throwing arm and hand it required, other than to say it was incomplete. We do know he decided to wear a glove on his throwing hand beginning with the final two regular season games because he was having issues gripping a cold ball.

My only basis for suspecting this was an issue Saturday is that Manning played with a timidity that simply isn’t characteristic of him. I find it hard to believe that any defensive game plan could turn Peyton Manning into Elvis Grbac.

For whatever reason, the Broncos’ stars for most of a 13-3 season were ordinary in the most important game of the year, and that includes Manning, Miller and Bailey. Following an 11-game winning streak to finish the regular season, they seemed oddly flat.

“If you don’t win, you get criticized on everything,” said Fox, dismissing all second guesses with a single swipe.

The Vegas sports book fantasy of Manning vs. Tom Brady in the conference championship is off the books. As they did in 1984 and 1996, the Broncos had both a playoff bye and home field advantage and still bowed out of the postseason at their first opportunity.

Manning called the loss “disappointing,” as great an understatement as Harbaugh’s analysis was an overstatement. To some extent, Manning, Fox and everybody else were covering for Moore, trying not to say, “Look, we had the game won with 41 seconds left, whaddaya want?”

Still, they also committed three turnovers that led to 17 Ravens points and kept the visitors in the game. Two of those were Manning interceptions, one of which deflected off Decker’s hands. The third was a Manning fumble when no one was open and he had to pull the ball down in the pocket. Again, we don’t know if his ability to grip the ball was an issue there. And the defense, ranked in the league’s top five, surrendered 479 yards and innumerable big plays that kept Baltimore in the game.

Fox is presumably responsible for the decision to have Manning take a knee with two timeouts and 31 seconds left in regulation. Offensive coordinator Mike McCoy is presumably responsible for the play calls with his team leading by a touchdown near the end of regulation, although Manning said the running play on third-and-seven with two minutes remaining was an audible on his part.

So you can blame the coaches or you can blame Moore or you can blame Bailey or Miller or Manning. Or you can blame them all. For 59 minutes and 19 seconds the only Bronco who played at a championship level was the kick returner. Then, 41 seconds from victory, a 22-year-old safety had a brain cramp that will haunt him and fans of his team for a long time.

Of course, you can also blame the officials, as many fans did. The crew led by Bill Vinovich seemed particularly inept, calling 18 penalties and constantly stopping the flow of the game. The Broncos seemed unable to get into a rhythm with their no-huddle offense.

On Manning’s first interception, the one that bounced off Decker’s hands and turned into a Ravens defensive touchdown, replays seemed to show Decker was hit before the ball arrived. Broncos fans found the absence of a flag particularly galling because the previous Ravens touchdown had been aided by a dubious pass interference penalty against Carter.

But frankly, the Broncos weren’t much better than the officials. Even after Moore’s mistake, even after they declined an opportunity to move the ball at the end of regulation, the Broncos had the entire overtime, slightly more than a quarter, in which to score three points and win the game. Of the 16 minutes, 42 seconds of overtime, the Broncos had possession of the ball for just 6:30. Their deepest penetration was their own 39-yard line.

“The worst thing about it is we’re going home off a play I could have made, and I’m here to make,” Moore said, standing stoically in front of his locker and answering every question.

“Coach Fox and his staff and everybody is relying on me to make that play. I didn’t make it. That’s what I do. I’ve been blessed with those skills and I didn’t use what I was blessed with today. But at the end of the day, it was a great season. I’m sorry it ended like this, but next year it won’t.”

Could be. The last time the Broncos were 13-3 and a No. 1 seed, the year was 1996 and the Jaguars came to Denver and shocked them. John Elway & Co. came back the next year to win the first of two consecutive Super Bowls. So maybe this year was their dress rehearsal for a similar run behind Manning. Certainly, they have an excellent young core of players.

But when it came time to rise to the occasion Saturday, the Broncos couldn’t do it. They were out-coached and outplayed by a team they had dominated four weeks before. And they never showed the swagger that defines a champion.

Broncos may not be dominating, but they are rolling

So Mitch Unrein was doing what he does on the football field, which consists mainly of hand-to-hand combat with offensive lineman, when Jamon Meredith, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ right guard, reached through his face mask and gouged both his eyes simultaneously.

Temporarily blinded, Unrein reached out to fend off Meredith and was immediately penalized for the personal foul of putting his hands in another man’s face. These are the ironies NFL players live with.

Red-eyed but unbowed, Unrein absorbed this particular injustice more easily than most because he had caught a touchdown pass from Peyton Manning just a few minutes before, a rare moment of glory for a 290-pound defensive tackle from Eaton, Colorado who went undrafted and started his career on the practice squad.

“I was just glad he caught it,” teammate Champ Bailey said afterward. “You see a lot of linemen get wide open and drop that thing.”

“I’ve never had a TD catch in my entire life,” Unrein said. “The last time I scored a touchdown was as a freshman in high school. So it feels pretty good. I mean, it’s still kind of surreal.”

It was that kind of day for the Broncos, who marched down the field the first time they had the ball, topping off the drive with a goal line formation in which Unrein lined up at fullback. When he released into the left corner of the end zone, Manning lofted a floater into his arms for the one-yard touchdown.

But the Broncos seemed to regress into confusion for the remainder of the first half. At intermission, they trailed 10-7, and the mere seven points suggested their offense was short on rocket fuel.

“Their defense does a good job of moving around,” explained tight end Jacob Tamme, who, in the absence of veteran Brandon Stokley, became Manning’s security blanket.

“They run a lot of games up front and make it tough to run the ball because they’ve got D-linemen moving everywhere and linebackers doing the same thing. It was really just kind of adjusting to how they were playing us and we were able in the third quarter to come out and put some big drives together.”

Tampa defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan might have gotten this idea from Mike Nolan, the Atlanta coordinator with whom he competes in the NFC South. Nolan’s walk-around, amoeba defense confused Manning into three interceptions and the Broncos’ first loss in the second week of the season.

In this case, Manning seemed less confused than his linemen. He connected on 11 of 15 first-half passes, but the Broncos sabotaged their own efforts with six penalties for 60 yards before intermission, including 10-yard infractions against offensive linemen Orlando Franklin and Chris Kuper that short-circuited the two drives following the touchdown.

“I really felt like there were some opportunities there,” Manning said. “We had some self-inflicted penalties, some mistakes we thought were hurting us. Believe me, they have an excellent defense, but we thought we were doing some things to make it a little tougher.”

After scoring at least 30 points in the first five wins of their current seven-game winning streak — the fourth-longest in franchise history and longest in 14 years — the Broncos managed only 17 the previous week in Kansas City. Sitting with seven at halftime against Tampa, the orange-clad denizens of Sports Authority Field at Mile High began to grow restive.

If game balls went to coordinators, which they seldom do, Mike McCoy and Jack Del Rio might have deserved them after this one. In a contest of halftime adjustments, the Broncos dominated. They won the third quarter 21-0 and the fourth became a formality.

So much so that fans began to entertain themselves by doing the wave. Unfortunately, the Broncos had the ball at the time. Manning, needing quiet so his signals could be heard in the no-huddle offense, politely shushed them.

“I’m all for excitement, but certainly, in a no-huddle offense when you’re calling something at the line, the quieter the crowd can be, it certainly is helpful,” he explained, while also paying obligatory tribute to the crowd’s enthusiastic spirit.

Meanwhile, on the defensive side, the Broncos gave up consecutive scoring drives in the first quarter, then shut out quarterback Josh Freeman and his troops until the fourth, when a couple of late scores accounted for the 31-23 final. They limited Doug Martin, one of the NFL’s leading rushers also known, unfortunately, as The Muscle Hamster, to 56 yards on 18 carries, a measly average of 3.1 yards per.

“We just settled down,” Bailey said. “You’ve got to give (Freeman) credit. He’s a good quarterback. He’s been doing that all year, making plays early in the game. We knew if we just stay with it and just keep trusting our technique, we’ll be fine.”

“The hype these guys get is well-deserved,” Freeman said of the Broncos’ defense, which is ranked in the NFL’s top 10 for the first time since 2005. “They get after it. Their front four did a good job of timing their blitzes. The Denver defense played a great game today.”

Freeman completed six of eight passes in the first quarter, when the Bucs scored 10 points, but only two of six in the second and three of 12 in the third as the Broncos took control.

Von Miller had a quarterback sack to give him 15 on the year — third in the league behind San Francisco’s Aldon Smith (17.5) and Houston’s J.J. Watt (15.5) — but he also returned an interception for a touchdown, yet another plank in his campaign for defensive player of the year.

“He’s the best player in the NFL right now on defense,” said safety Rahim Moore. “He’s unstoppable. I’m just glad to be a part of his team. He makes all of us better.”

The Broncos improved their record to 9-3, clinching the AFC West title — and the playoff berth that goes with it — with four games still to play. They tied the Raiders, whom they play Thursday night in Oakland, for most AFC West titles all time, with 12.

They remain in a battle with the AFC’s other division leaders for playoff seeding. Baltimore, which leads the North, lost to Pittsburgh on Sunday, dropping them into a three-way tie with the Broncos and Patriots at 9-3. Like the Broncos, the Patriots clinched their division Sunday.

A win at Baltimore in two weeks would leapfrog the Broncos over the Ravens, but they still need help to pass the Patriots, who beat them earlier in the season, to get one of the top two AFC seeds and the first-round bye that goes with it. New England still must play Houston, which has the inside track on the AFC’s top playoff seed at 11-1, and San Francisco.

“Winning the division, that was certainly one of our goals,” Manning said. “We still want to keep getting better throughout the season.”

So the Broncos keep rolling along, playing well enough to win each week without exactly dominating.

“A year ago we were getting critiqued if we won or lost,” club vice president John Elway said last week. “Now we’re getting critiqued on how we win. So that’s a good thing, as long as we’re winning.”

The critics of the Manning signing have disappeared. The apocalyptic talk about his age and injuries has been silenced. The Broncos rule their division once more, the first step in Elway’s plan to return to their glory days.

‘Von Miller is the next Lawrence Taylor, plain and simple’

On at least one San Diego third down Sunday, a third-and-10 early on, Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio dispatched two defensive linemen, two linebackers and seven defensive backs.

If five defensive backs is a nickel defense and six is a dime, I’m guessing seven is a quarter, or possibly a JFK half-dollar, considering the effects of inflation.

As defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson pointed out afterward, Von Miller wears a linebacker’s number (58) but he’s generally rushing the passer, so maybe that was a 3-1-7 alignment rather than a 2-2-7. Either way, let’s just call it Del Rio’s freakout package.

That’s what it did to Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, who was under pressure because of Miller and looked downfield to see nothing but the Broncos’ alternate blue uniforms. Symbolizing the frustration he showed much of the day, he threw the ball away into his own bench.

“I’ve never been a part of a team that’s shown this many looks,” said cornerback Champ Bailey, now in his 14th season. “It’s funny because every guy that comes out there could start. It’s not like we’ve got a bunch of guys we’re just trying to get playing time. These guys can play. I’ve got to give Jack a lot of credit for trying to utilize all the guys he has around him.”

Do all those different looks — pretty much every coin in the change machine — confuse opposing offenses?

“I sure hope so,” Bailey said. “I think it does. But I think the most important part of our defense is that front. They’ve been getting it done and that’s what’s really enabled us to play better.”

Good as the front wall has been overall, the difference maker is Miller, who took over the NFL lead in quarterback sacks Sunday, adding three to his previous 10. He became just the fourth NFL player since 1982 to record at least 11 sacks in each of his first two seasons, joining the late Reggie White, Jevon Kearse and Dwight Freeney.

“I told him today, he’s a beast, man,” Vickerson said.

“That boy works his butt off and he plays with a lot of confidence and I see him doing it for a long time,” Bailey said.

“Von Miller is the next Lawrence Taylor, plain and simple,” said safety Rahim Moore. “No lineman in the country — born, not born, past — can block him.”

With the inquiring minds, Miller takes his lead from Bailey, returning the compliment.

“I think it all starts in the secondary,” he said. “I don’t think our guys in the background get too much credit. We got Champ Bailey out there, Chris Harris, Rahim Moore’s been having a great season. I think that’s where it starts.”

The media scrum around Miller afterward was almost as deep as the Broncos’ defense. He used the word “relentless” relentlessly to describe his mindset, citing other dominant defensive players who play with that attitude, including the Cowboys’ DeMarcus Ware, a two-time league sack champion who had 19.5 a year ago and has 10 so far this year, three back of Miller’s league-leading total.

“He’s explosive, he’s fast, he’s a savvy football player,” Chargers center Nick Hardwick said of last year’s defensive rookie of the year. “He uses his hands and feet well and ties his moves together.”

“It’s probably his speed,” said San Diego guard Rex Hadnot. “He probably runs under a 4.4 (40-yard dash). He’s really fast and plays pretty physical.”

For the second week, the Broncos’ defense took the lead. The offense ended up scoring 30 points, but 17 of them came as a result of Chargers turnovers (a Wesley Woodyard interception, a fumble forced by Miller on one of his sacks, and a punt blocked by Nate Irving), giving Peyton Manning and the offense short fields.

Manning’s streak of 300-yard passing games came to an end — he managed only 270 — although he did throw for three touchdowns again, becoming the first quarterback in Broncos history to do that six times in the same season. And he still has six games to play. The previous record was five, set by John Elway in 1997. Still, the story was the defense again, and Manning knew it.

“Anytime you have a change in the defensive coordinator and you have some new players, it’s going to take time forming a little chemistry and getting on the same page,” he said. “I think they just continue to get better each week, understanding coach Del Rio’s system, and those guys are playing at a really high level right now. It sure is fun to watch.”

In fact, the offense sputtered enough that someone actually asked Manning if he felt more happiness or frustration after this one.

“Happiness,” he replied. “We won, didn’t we? Are you not happy? Strange question . . . strange question.”

The defense surrendered a couple of late drives that made the final score closer than the game actually felt, but the Broncos’ growing confidence on the defensive side is a propitious sign for the postseason.

And, yes, although they can’t talk about it, we can start talking about that now. With a record of 7-3, they lead the Chargers by three games with six to play, and effectively four since they swept the season series and own the head-to-head tie-breaker.

In the process, they stretched their string of third-down denials to 26 over three games, the longest such streak in the NFL in 10 years, before the Chargers finally converted one into a first down. San Diego finished three of 16 on third down.

“It’s the best defensive team they’ve had since we’ve been playing against them,” said Rivers, who has been playing the Broncos twice a year since taking over the starting job in San Diego in 2006. “This is definitely as good, if not the best defense they’ve had that I can remember.”

Bailey, of course, was having none of it.

“You look at the fourth quarter, they had two drives that we just can’t give up,” he said. “We’re better than that. We’ve shown we’re better than that. It’s just being consistent. We’ve just got to find a way to keep pressing on the gas throughout four quarters.

“Never become complacent. That’ll put you on your couch.”

It’s now five in a row since they came back from a 24-0 halftime deficit in San Diego on Oct. 15. On both sides of the ball, the Broncos are on a roll.