Joe Flacco's play was encouraging in season-opener, but Broncos must still face reality
Man, what a disheartening way to start a season. With the Denver Broncos heading to the Oakland Coliseum for what is likely the last time in their history, the Raiders made this another game those in Broncos Country would soon like to forget.
After winning five meetings in a row on the ugly baseball diamond field that is the Coliseum, the Broncos closed their visits to Oakland on a four-game losing streak against the Raiders.
From the opening drive in which the Raiders marched 72 yards down the field for a touchdown on 10 plays, eating up 6:08 of game clock, the Broncos just didn’t seem ready to match their opponent's intensity.
The Broncos' defense, which was stranded on the field for nearly 20 of the 30 minutes in the first half, continually allowed the Raiders to play the quick-pass game and run the ball just effectively enough to completely neutralize the vaunted pass rush duo in Bradley Chubb and Von Miller. Blame the coaching staff and play-calling, blame the players, but both deserve criticism for how the Raiders controlled the game in the first half with Denver going into the locker room down 14-0.
It was disconcerting to see the once formidable Broncos' defense give up yards and let the Raiders’ offense dictate the flow of the game, but the offense was, unfortunately, more of the same that the organization has come to expect since Peyton Manning retired.
The passing offense was inconsistent, the pass blocking was sporadic, and most concerning, the run game totaled only 15 yards rushing (not including sack yardage which would have put Denver in the negatives), completely neutering the Broncos' one lone spot on offense from last season — a solid rushing attack.
The Broncos came out better in the second half both on offense and defense, but it did seem the Raiders took their foot off the gas a bit and played more ‘not to lose via the big play or mistakes’ than the aggressive punches to the gut they dished out in the first half in Oakland.
Not all is lost for the Broncos, though. Many players from the 2018 draft class (Isaac Yiadom excluded) shined in action playing some of their best career games. From Courtland Sutton, to Royce Freeman, to Josey Jewell the Broncos' 2018 class stood up and kept Denver in the game for the most part.
Hopefully ending the putrid string of second-round misses in Denver, 2019 pick Dalton Risner looked like he absolutely belonged playing on Sundays, or in this case Mondays, and will be a solid piece for the Broncos’ offensive line for years to come. However, when it comes to the short term, perhaps nothing was as encouraging as was the play of Joe Flacco.
Flacco is not a franchise quarterback. Period. Now that that is out of the way, he played a solid game in Oakland, despite many things going against him. From the lack of a run game in the first half (the offense's average yards-to-go on third down in the first half was 11), with the Broncos putting themselves in bad situations time and time again, the passing offense and the threat of play-action never was allowed to take off.
Nothing hurts a passing offense more than being behind schedule and letting the defense sit on the pass and pin their ears back rushing the quarterback.
Despite the issues surrounding Flacco, he was solid. Finishing 21-of-31 with a 67.74% completion rate, for 268 yards, one touchdown, zero interceptions, and, a QB rating of 105.3, Flacco produced one of the better statistical performances the Broncos have had at quarterback on the road in quite some time. His yards per attempts was 8.65, and air-yards per attempt was 9.29.
Upgrade over 2018
If DaeSean Hamilton hadn’t dropped an easy catch in his breadbasket in the endzone, Flacco would have finished with a 117.4 quarterback rating. For reference, Case Keenum didn’t finish above 100 a single time last season, despite being spotted one of the better rushing offenses in the league.
Also improving upon from Keenum last season, Flacco continually went to the well that was the middle of the field, essentially a demilitarized zone for the Broncos’ pass offense over the recent years. From hitting Hamilton, Phillip Lindsay, Sutton, or Fant between the numbers, Flacco was able to keep the passing game just effective enough to chip away in the second half (with the complement of a suddenly awake run game) and make competitive what had felt like a contest that was out of reach.
Also, despite the struggling pass blocking of tackles Garett Bolles and Elijah Wilkinson, along with a very rusty looking Ronald Leary at right guard, Flacco was able to navigate the pocket and with his subtle movements, avoid rushers off the edge.
There were a few ‘cover your eyes, I can’t look’ pass sets from Bolles in which he was beaten badly, only to have Flacco feel the pressure and slide up to give himself and the team a chance. This may not be reflected in the stat sheet, but this is a key area the Broncos have been missing from their passer since 2015.
Not a QB to carry the load
Flacco is starting-caliber in the NFL, but he is not a lauded ‘franchise quarterback’. He has his flaws. He is very limited to how well his offensive line can protect him given his lack of twitch or athleticism from within the pocket.
When given time, Flacco can make reads and make plays, but ask him to create outside of structure with his athleticism and he will struggle. Furthermore, Flacco, despite his veteran status, still struggles with his ball placement on passes, often times putting the ball just off-target and limiting a play's chance for yards after catch.
This could be a timing issue with a new offense and playmakers around him, but the issue of placement has followed Flacco throughout his career. It probably isn’t changing in his age-34 season.
Furthermore, during his tenure in Baltimore, Flacco was afforded a great offensive line and a great defense in most seasons. While never really having great pass weapons, the offensive line allowed Flacco to be kept clean and stay in the pocket.
He won’t have that luxury in Denver it seems, and a few of the sacks he took seemed like it was because he was used to having guys like Ronnie Stanley and Marshal Yanda blocking for him, and not the questionable unit in Denver. Flacco is married to his protection, it’s just the way it is.
The Broncos do not have a great starting quarterback option in Denver, but just popping on the gametape it’s easy to see that Flacco is the best the Broncos have had since Manning was under center in the Mile High City.
Flacco won’t finish as a top quarterback, and may, in fact, be closer to the bottom-10 than the top-10, but Denver gave up a fourth-round pick for him. This is what they paid for in reality.
However, he is more than talented enough to win games if properly complemented with even an average set of pass blockers, a dependable run game, and a good defense. The Broncos did not bring a single one of those things to the table on Monday, and they lost because of it.
Some quarterbacks can carry the load for a team when other areas go haywire. Flacco is a trailer, and not a truck when it comes to whether he can carry a team. That isn’t him.
With that said, Flacco absolutely can win you games and lead you to the playoffs if properly supported. In the city of Denver, this can be a hard concept to understand given the standards set at the position during the Elway and Manning eras, but it’s true.
The Broncos lost for a multitude of reasons on Monday, but the quarterback was far from the true issue at hand. It’s just a sample size of one game, but Flacco played well enough to win if the Broncos' run game or defense was anything the level they showed in the recent past.
Those elements didn’t show up in Oakland, and Flacco isn’t the caliber of quarterback to move the needle when so much else fails around him. In the words of pro wrestling superstar Randy Savage, “You may not like it, but accept it.”