Denver Defense - '08 outlook

The Denver offense has many young players who are already demonstrating that they have an elite future.  We look good at every position, except for the need of depth on our offensive line.

The only thing between the Broncos and greatness is the defense.  Let's take a few moments to look at the defense from top to bottom.  We'll look at the coaches, the schemes, the players, and each position.  

These are my opinions, and I'm sure each reader shares or disagrees with some of them.  I welcome your opinions, as well as any questions you may have.  

By the way, the week following the Super Bowl I will start the "Football 101" column, where I will share some thoughts on everything from playcalling philosophy to schemes to formations to plays, each ranging from historic to contemporary to projected.  In each of those columns I will post a feature called "Coach's Corner" where I will try to answer questions that I gather from readers from the previous week.  It is my hope that each reader will get a more in depth appreciation for the strategy that goes into the game that will make the game even more facinating to watch.

The major delay for this column is in two parts.  I am still learning how to post diagrams in articles, and I want to prepare several articles in advance so that they are presented with more thought than just being written off the cuff.  I'm sure you'll enjoy the column, as well as some exciting work coming from other MHR writers in the near future.

Now on to the projections for the '08 defense!

Coaching

The first question to ask is about the future of Jim Bates.  There are many arguments for and against this innovative coach.

The argument to drop him are easy to express.  He arrived in Denver and the defense went to Hell.  That's the only argument, but it's a pretty good one.

There are several arguments to keep him.  The first is that he is an innovative genius.  He had a role in the Cowboys defense some years ago that led to their dominance (though he was a part of a committee of great defensive minds at the time).  He then made some modifications to the scheme DAL ran and took it to MIA.  There the Dolphins experienced a defense that was elite by any standard.  He went on to a brief stay in GB, where he was so influential that the Packer's defense staff call him "The Mentor" and his system is considered gospel with little change.

The second is his record.  The defenses he has touched have turned into gold.

Third, he is not a rigid thinker.  Last season's defensive coordinator Larry Coyer loved to run a "show blitz" system featuring multiple players in the box who then either brought massive blitzes or backed into coverage.  His problem was that he couldn't adjust the scheme during the game when conditions changes, nor could he adjust as other teams adapted through the season.  This is perhaps one of the greatest weaknesses experienced by otherwise great coaches I have known during my time involved in middle and high school football.  The first half of the season saw teams unable to score TDs on DEN, but the second half saw DEN unable to stop anyone.

But Bates is different.  After the first five games he radicaly changed the defense in an attempt to stop the bleeding.  He brought up a safety into the box to protect against the run most noticably.  But he made multiple oter adjustments as well.  He switched the DTs from holding the point to penetrating the line.  He switched the MLB from zone into man.  He switched the OLBs from containment to either man or zone coverages.  The changes led to some improvement for the defense, though admitedly not a lot.

The final argument for keeping Bates is his three year contract.  We don't really want to cough up a lot of money for a coach that won't be on the team, nor do we need more upheaval for the defense.

My conclusion is based on a strong sentiment I have about personel.  If someone has a long and distinguished history, but has one off year, you give that guy the benefit of the doubt.  Bates had a bad year, the worst in his 30 plus years of coaching.  I'm not going to late my dissapointment in one very ugly season change my opinion of him.  Many of the players have expressed that the problem is with the players, and not the coaches.  I share that sentiment.

Assuming that Bates stays it will be interesting to see what kind of system he runs.  Being a good coach, I imagine he will fit the scheme to the players he has.  I think he tried to do this last year, but he was let down by a host of players (Adams, Kennedy, Rice to name a few).

Safeties

There is a dilemna at this position.  The first is with John Lynch, a great guy with a great record.

Lynch has several great traits.  He is arguably one of the smartest football players in the game.  He reads offenses as well as many coaches, but can do it at game speed.  He hits hard.  He also is a vocal leader that brings out the best in his fellow players.  His football knowledge makes up for his lack of speed and allows him o be several steps ahead of some faster players.

On the other hand he has some drawbacks.  He suffered his second neck injury this year, and that's not something to play around with.  He should also be slower next year.  Last, his lack of range does nothing for pass coverage.  He has the power, but not the speed to match-up with most elite TE's, including two of the best in our own division.

One criticsm of Larry Coyer was that he placed Lynch at free safety instead of strong safety.  I shared the sentiments of those who disliked this move.  Coyer had a point though.  He knew that Lynch couldn't go man to man with the TEs or with slot receivers if Denver found itself with 4-3 personel on the field.  The criticism was fair also.  The criticism was that Lynch could not begin to cover a deep zone against any pass threats.

Lynch is 50/50 in my mind to retire.  I would like to see him do so because of concerns regarding his neck as well as the need to develop a fast coverage safety.  Lynch is one dimensional (though good in that dimension).  But we really need a safety who can do more.

On the other side we have Hamza Abdullah.  Hamza has excelled expectations.  In fact, he has done so well that when he plays like the young player he is, people get dissapointed because they expect him to play like the pro he has demonstrated he can be like.  He has speed, and he has shown he can bring down running backs as well as receivers.  He has been one of the more proficient tacklers on the team, putting several vets to shame.  His position should be safe for next year.

This leads me to believe that the team needs another safety.  He must be fast and a good tackler.  Hands would be icing on the cake, but you can't have it all.  He must also be a smart player like any zone player.  If such a player is available high in the first round I would like to grab him.  I don't like CB/SAF hybrids, because SAF and CB have different qualities.

A good CB is a more tactical player.  He stays on his target, and uses his athleticism to prevent the completion.  A good SAF is a more strategic player.  He uses his mind and speed to adjust to an unfolding play to be in the best position to prevent yardage.

Many SAFs in the draft are hybrids, and many of the true SAFs aren't dominant enough to merit notice, even though they are fewer in number than any other defensive position.  Thus in my mind, SAF is not a position to gamble on.

Corner Backs

We are lucky here.  We have the best in the business with Bailey and Bly.  There was a recent article about speculation that Bailey might want a better contract, but reading that article beyond the headline doesn't give me much concern.

Bailey and Bly did what they could despite only having one SAF behind them and a dismal front seven in front of them.  These two had to carry the defense, and got condemned when the inevitable blown play took place.  We should count our lucky stars to have two pro-bowl caliber players in the same position on the same team.

The depth looks solid as well.  Paymah did very well at nickle, and Foxworth held his own.  Both players are at the free agent stage, so their futures are in doubt.  Whether we keep one, both, or neither I belive we will have a decent nickle back on this team for next year.

Defensive Ends

Here too the future looks bright.  Doom is so good that the writers at MHR use his nickname more that his real name.  Our top pick from last year (Jarvis Moss) should return in '08, and Crowder, Ekuban, Mallard and Engleburger provide solid depth.  Here we have an advantage not even offered at our elite CB position: depth AND youth.  There should be little adjustment in the offseason here.  Denver will feature rotation at DE during games instead of using an "every down" system for DEs.

Defensive Tackles

This was the killer of the Denver defense in '07, as well as the season as a whole.  Denver brought in some big FA names at DT to launch the Bate's "Run Contain System".  When those players failed to produce, the entire system collapsed.  Denver was forced to switch systems and fire the under-performers.  The turn over at the position was harsh, and the failure of so called "big name" players was atrocious.  Denver is left with a thin and questionable stable of DTs to work with, and there is little doubt that Denver will be forced to address the position in the offseason.

It is reasonable to believe that the postion will be targeted in the draft, and perhaps in FA and in a trade.  There are more promising DTs than SAF in the draft, so the position may be addressed two or more times.  While my own analysis of what Denver needs is sound in ym own mind, I am open minded enough to recognize that Denver will probably address DT or LB higher than SAF.

The good news is that with such focus on the DT position, it is reasonable to believe that Denver will show improvement at that position.  With improvement at DT, the entire defense benefits.  The LBs have more protection to go after RBs, and the DEs have less traffic to get through on pass rushing.  Based on the laser focus I expect to be put on DT this offseason, I highly expect a turn around in the '08 season for the defense.

For now, Thomas and Mckinley are going to have to prepare for a fierce competion during training camp this summer.  They survived the purges in '07, but that may not be enough to protect them from the expected influx of talent that promises to be the central mission of management over the next few months.

To see if we go back to a run contain type system, watch for what type of DTs we go after.  It will provide a major clue for the direction we take.

Middle Linebacker

My prediction right now is that Williams stays at MLB and will NOT move to OLB.  I have several reasons that I have reached this conclusion.

  • Williams led the AFC in tackles.
  • He was second in the NFL in tackles.
  • He did all of this in only his first year at MLB.
  • Williams is a rare breed, possessing equal parts speed, power, and tackling.  He is also studious; learning quickly from his mistakes.
Why move the guy for the third time in almost as many years?  He isn't the vocal leader people like in a MLB, but that should be a secondary concern to his abilities as a tactical player.  We should reward his talent, and continue the experiment that Shanahan announced would lead to our MLB of the future.  He isn't broke; don't fix him.

Outside Linebackers

Uh oh.  That's my words for it.  Some folks at this postion are in big trouble.  

Gold has always been one of my favorites.  I was sad to see him sent to TB, and thrilled to see him return.  With Gold, Williams, and Wilson we had a LB trio as fast as most leaugue secondaries!

But Gold hasn't been gold for Denver this year.  I wish I could blame a poor defensive line for failing to protect him from offensive linemen, but it just isn't the case.  Gold looked slow, missed tackles, and missed assignments through the '07 season.  Given his years as a starter, I don't think he would want to play as a back-up.  I would like to see a trade here.

Webster was a dissapointment overall, even if his tackles increased somewhat as the season went on.  Winborn looked good on STs, but didn't have a lot of time to make an impression at the end of the year.  He did get a two year extension, so he may have a future with the team.  

This leaves us with Green and Holdman.  Holdman was expected to be in competition for a starting position at the start of the year, but an injury prevented us from evaluating his contribution to our team.

Suffice it to say that OLB will be a position addressed with as much ferocity as DT, and we are almost certainly going to see rewards from this focus.

My guess on OLB is close to my guess on DT.  We have so many draft picks, as well as possibilities in FA and trades, focused on only two major concerns (DT / OLB) that we have an excellent chance of major improvement at both positions.  I expect that if Holdman is with us in training camp, he will be a major competitor above Winborn and Webster against a large influx of talent from the next few months of the offseason.

Offseason Free Agency

Take a look at this link to see the best players available in FA so far:

http://den.scout.com/a.z?s=101&p=2&c=716819&refid=400

The draft

As far as the draft goes, we have the #12 pick.  Here is a list of players that Denver might want who are ranked 12th or higher:

#2 DT Dorsey
#3 OT Long
#4 DT Ellis
#5 OLB Rivers
#10 OLB Conner
#12 SAF Phillips

There has been talk at MHR about getting a receiver.  I didn't list receivers, because I think defense is such a strong need and I doubt Denver would use its highest pick for a position that already looks strong (whether or not Walker returns).  But if you want to consider it, WRs are available at 7 and 8 (Doucet and Bowman).

I think the odds of 2, 3, 4 or 5 falling to us are slim, and I don't see us trading up this year.  The big argument should be between Conner and Phillips.

Conner is the fast kind of OLB we want on team, and that is what I like about him the most.  Phillips has all of the qualities you want in a safety (speed, smarts, and tackling) plus the special icing on the cake: he's got great hands.  There are two reasons I really want Phillips over Conner.  One, he is just plain more likely to fall to us.  Two, there are several good OLBs and DTs out there, but we need a safety and Phillips is the only safety with an excellent record.

I think Phillips has a shot at making this team unless (somehow) positions 2,3,4,5 or 10 fall to us.  Even if #3 falls to us (a dominating offensive tackle), he is not a fit for the zoneblock in my estimation.

If Denver somehow doesn't get any of the players I've listed, they may trade down and still get #16 Highsmith, a speedy OLB out of LSU.  This would still be an excellent pick and would give Denver something to bargain with.

Other Offseason Considerations

  • There are several trade possibilities as well for this offseason.  It is, however, too early to guess at what these may be.
  • Denver ranks as the 14th team under the salary cap ($98,752,003), compared to CAR who is first ($123,707,016).
  • According to this article: http://sports.espn.go.com/nfl/news/story?id=3176167 the Lepsis retirement clears away 4.5 million dollars this year and 4.75 million next year.
  • Other potential retirements and what remains on their contracts include: Smith (5 mill), Nalen (4.5 mill), Lynch (3.5 mill), Hamilton (2 mill), Elam (1.8 mill), and Alexander (1 mill).
  • I'm reading speculaltion that Smith will retire, Nalen will return, Lynch will retire, Hamilton is up in the air, Elam will stay, and I haven't found anything on Alexander.
Overview

I feel confident that DT and OLB will be addressed, and that both positions will show marked improvement in '08.  I believe that Williams will stay at MLB and continue to improve.  In fact, I expect him to break out next year (as if second in the league in ackles isn't enough).  

I feel that safety will remain a potential weakness unless Denver gets Phillips in the draft or makes a significant pick-up in trade or FA.  If the safety position is not addressed we will continue to see blown pass coverage, even with two of the best CBs in the League today.  If Lynch stays we will be in the uncomfortable position of using him in the box instead of where we really need a safety to be.  If the front seven do their job we really want a true safety playing in a deep zone, not being an extra linebacker.

But most importantly, the rush defense will improve.  Because of this, by implication the pass defense will gain some help.  With the extra help at DT we should expect the DEs to get an even better pass rush, and perhaps see better blitzing opportunities for the LBs.  The best cas scenario would feature improvement on the d-line that LBs can play their assignments without having to blitz, but that may be too much to hope for.

In order for us to fall further or to stay where we were at in '07, one would have to buy into one of two possibilities.

  1. Terrible decisions from top to bottom in the draft, FA, and any trades.  Given the few positions we need to address (SAF, OLB, DT, and o-line depth), and the high number of picks we have (8), as well as money under the cap and trade possibilities, it is hard to believe we won't see improvement.
  2. A key injury or two.  For example, an injury to Cutler.  But this danger is faced by every team in every year.
Given the schedule, I see a lot of hope for the defense.  I think KC has too much age, lack of depth, and not enough wiggle room on offense to improve in '08.  SD will remain a strong team, and has enough room under the cap and enough long term signings to remain competive for at least another five years.  Like us, Oakland is moving up with youth, but they also start behind us.

The remaining 10 games break down like this for our defense (remember, I'm not predicting results this far out, just matching where I project our defense is next year and the opposing team's offense to be):

Home -

BUF - advantage DEN
JAX - advantage DEN (with some scheme problems)
KC - advantage DEN
MIA - advantgae DEN
NO - even or leans NO
TB - advantage DEN

Away -

ATL - advantage DEN
CAR - advantage DEN (with some scheme problems)
CLE - advantage DEN
NE - advantage NE
NYJ - advatage DEN

When you add in the match-ups with our offense and special teams the pairings shouldn't be so dominant in our favor.  Again, while the above listing favors us in matching JAX, I see this as a game we might very well lose.  On the other hand, I see our overall match-up against NO being favorable.

In terms of just predicting the overall schedual, I see us winning between 9 and 13 game, with 10 to 11 being most likely.  This gives us a shot getting past the WC or perhaps division round of the playoffs (wich is good), but perhaps not more.  It sets us up (as many at MHR believe) for an excellent run in '09.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

So there it is.  Please let me know your thoughts pro and con on anything I've put up.  And of course, share any questions related to this story or anything about on-field football strategy.  I've delved a little bit into the offseason (an area with many MHR experts, and I'm not one of them).  So I'll take a shot at offseason questions, but I imagine we'll have a lot of folks with better answers in that arena than I.

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