MHR Chalk Talk -- Week 11 - Denver at Atlanta

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IN DENVER BRONCO PRE-GAME ANALYSIS

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First, let's take a look at where Denver is, and where Denver is going.  There are several ways to evaluate a team.  Looking at Denver this year, one can find many areas of positives and negatives.

The average view:

The Broncos rank 15 of 32 teams in the NFL.  They are the seventh ranked team in the AFC.  If the playoffs were held today, Denver would be the fourth seed, and play at home against a wildcard team with a better record (Baltimore).  All in all, an average team with a likely chance of going to the playoffs and being eliminated early.

The bad view:

Denver is a team with injuries and IRs, and wasn't doing so well with it's starters anyway.  According to MHR's injury report as of 11-11-08, the following players are doubtful (Webster), questionable (N. Jackson, McCree, S. Young, C. Bailey), and out (Nalen, Sheppard, Pittman, Russell, Ramsey, Torain, Alridge, A. Hall, B. Bailey) going into the next game.

The happy view:

Denver leads the AFC West, and can still go 11-4 (that is, if you live in La La Land).

But there is a fourth view.  Forgive me for calling it the "realist" view, since everybody thinks their own view is the realistic view (including me).  In this view, the team is (unfortunately) as average as it looks.  However, it is also improving at a greater rate than most observers might think.  I hope to persuade some folks that Denver was a bad team last year, is average this year, and will be great next year.  The best news is that It was supposed to be this way from the start.  That's right.  What we are seeing is part of a bigger plan, and a strategic masterstroke.

Let's unfold the mystery of the Denver "vanilla" defense, the mystery of the offensive playcalling, and the mystery of Denver's future.  I think Shanahan's brilliance will be made clear.  I'll also be joined by MHR member (and grandparent of a new baby boy) Firstfan, who shared some great thoughts on the trench fight for the upcoming game, and his comments are at the heart of much of the analysis.

Read on...

Denver first mystified a lot of fans with the reloading season this year.  Despite a terrible '07 defense, the front office focused attention on the offense.

They picked up left offensive tackle Ryan Clady in the first round.  Thanks to Clady, QB Cutler remains on his feet game after game.  This is a rookie LT who hasn't allowed a sack yet.  Clady will be a star at LT for years to come.

Next, Denver picked up Eddie Royal at WR.  He is ranked (along with a very young Brandon Marshall) in the top ten of NFL receivers for yards gained, and has the longest reception of any WR in the League this year.  No one will forget how bad he made Meangelo Hall look in the MNF Raiders game.

Next, the team went for yet another offensive lineman (Lichtensteiger) and picked up another (Wiegmann) from the Chiefs to solidify the OL.  Ryan Harris (at RT) was presumed ready by the powers that be to be ready for the '08 season in a big way, and he didn't let anyone down.

Finally, Denver picked up a defensive player (Williams) with the fourth pick, perhaps expecting the need to trade either Foxworth or Paymah as the year went on.  The move to unload a CB was predicted at MHR by several sharp members, and it happened.

Next, Denver went for their fourth offensive player in the first five picks, Torain.  Fans waited for Torain's start date after he went down with an injury in the pre-season, and the excitement built as multiple Denver RBs succumbed to injuries.  During the Cleveland game, the crossing guard was down, the lights were flashing, the cars were backed up, and...  and there was no train coming.  Torain went on IR after being injured again.

Same story with the next pick, a DT that was on IR and had nothing for the team in '08.

Larsen came in as a potential LB, but was designated as a FB!  Then came Barrett, a safety that fans have been clamoring for despite his 7th round pick status.  Last (but not least), Denver got Hillis at FB, who has not only proved himself to be an extraordinary receiver out of the backfield, but a good RB in a pinch.

My point?  In a year where we had a good offense to move forward with (and a terrible defense), Denver built its offense first and foremost. The defense was staffed with less expensive options (such as injury prone Boss Bailey and injury risk DRob).  In other words, the team wasn't yet committed to building the defense.  Denver put in a teaching type of coach to work with the defense, and then played a very vanilla defense designed to be simplistic.  As time has gone on, the team has gone through several looks, including both the 4-3 and 3-4 formations, as well as several scheme looks (such as the "Coyer show blitz" and the "Lebeau zone blitz").

Is it possible that Denver is using '08 to test out players, and to determine areas to target in the upcoming reloading season for key positions?  Denver is youthful and vibrant at every position on offense, and not much more can be done to build up the offense anymore.  In the meantime, the front office can focus the upcoming reloading season on the defense, and they have the picks and the cap space to do some serious damage this year.

As MHR member Steve O' wisely points out, '09 will be a windfall for Denver in terms of cap space and draft picks.  With a crop of top tier talent on the defense next year from the draft, a teaching coach, and an actual system (unknown to all but Slowik), Denver can catch several teams off guard next year.

Even the offense plays into this plan.  Playing the spread offense is giving Cutler two years of passing experience crammed into one.  The receivers, TEs, and OL are getting similar experience.  All that's left is to plug in a RB or two next year, and the offense is built like any other elite football team.  Is the current type of spread offense going to win us a lot of games?  No.  Is it going to prepare the team to be an efficient program going into next year, when the defense is built up and the team gets their RBs back?

It just looks to me like Denver is building towards a 2009 powerhouse, and all of the questionable moves this year are geared towards '09 and not '08.

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

Denver has a tough fight on its hands this week. 

Atlanta is a team that was crawling with tragedy for their fans.  A QB that goes to prison, a coach that quits on the team, and the loss of several key players.  No problem.  Atlanta brings in another coach, another QB, and plays tough, sound football.  To answer our questions, Dave the Falconer stopped by MHR and taught us about a team that most of us would have chalked in as a "win" before the season started.  Instead, Atlanta has risen above their issues, and become a force to be respected.

MHR member (and MHR University doctoral student) FirstFan has done some terrific opposition research, and it deserves to be quoted verbatim.

ATL, on the defensive side of the trenches:

This will be the smallest team our Offensive Line has faced this year. They appear to fit the historical Bronco profile: smallish, fast and agile. They play a traditional 4-3.

The defensive front seven of Atlanta is led by Right End #55 John Abraham. Abraham has 10 sacks thus far in 9 games. He is 6’4” and 263 lbs and in his 9th year. Next to Abraham at R-DT is #95 Jonathan Babineaux who is small for a DT at 6’2” and 284. He is 4th year player. The Left Defensive Tackle is the largest man on the entire front seven (including all back-ups) ; the 12 year #90 6’2” 345 lb. Grady Jackson.  Jackson has been hampered by a nagging knee injury and was listed as Questionable for NO and I have been unable to determine if he played or not, but at best case he will be slowed. If he is unable to go he is backed up by fourth year man Jason Jefferson who is 6’1” and 295 lbs. On the Left End they have 6’6” 282 lb. Jamal Anderson. Anderson is a second year player.

Some Atlanta fans consider their line backing core to be the strength of the defense. I doubt this. The linebackers are anchored by rookie Curtis Lofton #50. Lofton is 6’0” and 248 lbs and has recorded 47 tackles and one sack thus far in 2008. At LOLB they have 4th year veteran Michael Boley. Boley is 6’3’ and 223. Last week on the right side they started 11 year veteran Keith Brooking. Brooking is 6’2” and 241lbs. I think Atlanta has good linebackers, but not great. As boydy2669 pointed out on another thread, a key match up will be Abraham v Clady (or our Zone Block scheme).

Abraham is now listed as probable against Denver.

ATL, on the offensive side of the trenches (again research by FirstFan):

The offense of Atlanta has abandoned the Zone Block and returned to a traditional man-on-man. Their starting LT (Sam Baker - 6'5" 312 lbs.) is sort of the equivalent of Clady.  He is a rookie who has not only cracked the starting line-up but has been the main bodyguard for Matt Ryan. He is out, perhaps for the year. He had some sort of back surgery last week and he also has a hip issue. They have so little faith in his back-up (Quinn Ojinnaka, 6’5” 305lbs.) that they brought over Todd Weiner from the Right Tackle spot to fill in for Baker last week against NO. Weiner is nursing a sore knee. This could mean Doom could have a good game and disrupt all sorts of things in the Atlanta Backfield including Ryan. The Left guard is second year man Justin Blaylock who is 6’4” and 333 and the largest man on the O-Line. The center, Todd McClure, a ten year veteran, is also banged up. He is 6’1” and 301 lbs. and has had a bad back. He was listed as Questionable against NO but once again I have been unable to tell if he played and how fast he may be healing. If McClure cannot go he is backed up by Alex Stepovitch who is 6’4” and 296 lbs. and a 5th year career back up. At Right Guard is 6’5”308 lb.  Harvey Dahl out of the University of Nevada Reno. He is a second year man. Starting at Right Tackle is a player originally signed by the Broncos, Tyson Clabo. Clabo is 6’6” 332 and is in his third year.

 

They only have two tight ends on the team and I had to do an NFL wide search for the back-up. He is a guy names Martrez Milner. The starter is 5th year veteran Ben Harstock who is 6’4” and 264. Harstock previously played for the Colts and the Titans. We will not be facing the very large, fast, mobile, excellent pass-catchers we are used to seeing in the AFC West.

FirstFan raises some great points.  ATL is a team that has some injury issues on the offensive line.  They also have some concerns on the defensive line.  Looking at these two areas, one might consider ATL to be in big trouble.  There's more optimism for Denver fans looking at the Special Teams, as First Fan does:

  • The punter is Michael Kroenen who has a horrible average (39.3 yds.)and a worse net average (36.3).
  • The punt returner is Adam Jennings who has a very weak punt return average6.6 yds).
  • Of course we all know Elam is a great kicker, but not a particularly long kick-off man.
  • All of this could add up to good field position for the Broncos. If we can get on the board early and force Ryan to pass we stand a good chance of winning. We must avoid turnovers. On the other hand, if Atlanta jumps out to an early lead they can rely on their #1 ranked rushing offense (163.4 yds/game) to dominate the clock and wear down our defense.

Let's compare Offensive League rankings:

  • Points - DEN 9th / ATL 13th
  • Yards - DEN 2nd / ATL 6th
  • Pass yards - DEN 3rd / ATL 19th
  • Rush yards - DEN 18th / ATL 2nd

And now the Defenses:

  • Points - DEN 28th / ATL 9th
  • Yards - DEN 29th / ATL 23rd
  • Pass - DEN 28th / ATL 22nd
  • Rush - DEN 27th / ATL 21st

What we find is that Denver beats ATL in 3 out of four categories on offense, and ATL beats DEN in all four categories.  Was strength of schedule a factor in those stats?  Maybe, maybe not.  Denver had beaten some good and bad teams, and lost to some good and bad teams.  ATL has beaten a lot of terrible teams, but the losses have all been to good teams.  To me, this means ATL is a more consistent team.

Denver has beaten - oak, sd, no, tb, cle.

Denver has lost to - kc, jax, ne, mia

ATL has beaten - det, kc, gb, chi, oak, and no.

ATL has lost to - tb, car, phi.

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

This game looks very tight to me.  A few days ago, I was certain of an ATL win.  But the deeper I look, the tougher the call.  ATL hasn't beaten any tough teams, but they show great consistency.  Denver is decimated with injuries, particularly at RB.  But they are bringing back Tatum Bell.  While not a fan favorite, he ran for 921 yards in 2005, and 1,025 in 2006 (and in a committee system)!  On the other hand, you never know which Denver team is going to show up.  And whichever team does show up is going to have to face an effective Atlanta running game.

Keys to the game:

Denver

  1. Limit turnovers
  2. An early lead forces ATL to pass more than they want to
  3. WIn the field position battle on STs

Atlanta

  1. Hit Denver hard with the running game
  2. Keep the game close (avoid a shootout)
  3. Limit Cutler with zones instead of man coverages

This game has me really torn.  The good news is that I was ready to pick ATL a few days ago, and I have moved away from that prediction somewhat.  The bad news is that I'm still not sold on a Denver win.  I still need a couple of days to figure this one out, and will probably wait until the very last minute to make my pick.

If Denver wins this game, it will help us greatly in the race against SD.  SD faces PITT this week, and should lose.  KC's failed 2 pt conversion at the end of their game means SD has the advantage in tie break if we don't beat SD at the end of the year and are tied with them in the division.  We need to be 2 games ahead of SD, or we need to beat SD at the end of the year for our best shot at the division playoff slot.  This would be a terrific week to get a good lead.

Thanks again to Firstfan, who deserves a lot of praise for having more chalk dust on his hands at the end of this week's Chalk Talk than I do!

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