Our thanks to Lee for taking the time to answer our questions. Remember to check Lee out everyday over at RockyMountainNews.com
MHR -- The Broncos seem to have righted the ship a bit. What has been the biggest reason? What is the feeling you have gotten being around the team?
LR - The biggest reason is the Broncos have stopped turning the ball over in bunches. It's been as straightforward statistically that when Denver has more than two giveaways, it loses; two or fewer, it wins. The other change has been defensively with the simplification of the scheme. Mike Shanahan keeps saying that the 3-4 and 4-3 fronts the Broncos were using the same "principles" but it's obvious when the three-man front was employed there were significant gap control issues that have gone away since New England. I also think going on the road may have actually been good for the Broncos, giving them an ‘us-vs.-the-world9 mentality. Having a division as putrid as the AFC West also has been beneficial because Denver knows it's going to be in the race regardless, unless it really falls on its face.
MHR -- I have contended that while the defense isn't talented with all the injuries they may be more fundamentally sound and that can go a long way. What is your take on the play of Sepncer Larsen, Wesley Woodyard and Josh Bell?
LR - I'm not sure switching to the younger players made the defense more fundamentally sound. Full-pad practices with some contact three days a week had more to do with it. As for the three rookie defenders, full disclosure, I attended the University of Arizona and thus watched a lot of Larsen's games in college. He isn't flashy but he's always around the ball and will drag the ball-carrier down without fanning much. I look at Woodyard the same way. He's really aggressive, which can sometimes be used against him when he pursues too hard and misdirection gets him, but he's consistently in position to make=2 0plays. I'm interested to see how it all plays out when Denver's at full strength, since D.J. Williams isn't going anywhere on the weak-side with his new contract and Woodyard really isn't physically suited to playing the other spots (or safety, for those wondering). Do the Broncos ask D.J. to move yet again next year to make room for Woodyard? As for Josh Bell, I probably know the least about him. But he does play with a swagger and has a ball-hawking mentality. Along with Jack Williams, they now have two young prospects to groom, making it possible to potentially let Karl Paymah go in free agency next season since Champ Bailey and Dre' Bly, because of his prohibitive contract, aren't going anywhere.
MHR -- When you look at the last six games, where do you see the Broncos ending up? Is the No. 2 seed in the AFC as realistic as it seems?
LR -- The difference between being a fan and a writer covering the team is that the No. 2 seed hadn't even crossed my mind. It's not because it's not possible, but I've been around long enough to see too many Decembers that evolve like a house of cards. It's probably too early for such thoughts. But since you asked, looking up the tiebreakers, it appears head-to-head would be first, then conference record as far as seeding goes. That would make the game in the swamps of Jersey vs. the Jets important in that regard, potentially. But the Steelers are 6-1 in the AFC right now as compared to Denver's 3-4 and the two don't play. The Steelers will have to drop off considerably, it appears, for the Broncos to have a chance at No. 2. I see the Broncos hanging on to win the AFC West because I see Oakland and Kansas City as gimmes and while I think they'll lose to the Jets and to Carolina, the Buffalo game is winnable, too. That's nine potential wins heading to San Diego, which has shown almost no signs of life recently.
MHR -- Has Jay Cutler finally grasped the fact that he needs to take care of the football?
LR -- I think he knew it all along. He's had his careless moments, for sure - trying to force the ball to Brandon Marshall on occasion at the forefront. But I see him letting the game come to him more in recent games, willing to take the underneath route and use the likes of Hillis and Graham without worrying about Marshall getting his touches. But he also is a risk-taker who will try to make plays, stats-be-damned, at times. On balance, depending on situation, of course, I think that's generally a good thing. But I would like to see Cutler tone down the body language some on the field when a teammate makes a mistake or things are rolling the wrong direction.
MHR -- Perhaps the way the Broncos beat Cleveland and Atlanta was more important that just getting the win. What has that done to the confidence of the team as it heads down the stretch?
LR -- If Denver was being honest, the team might want to adopt the old philosophy of ex-Eagles receiver Freddie Mitchell and thank Roddy White's hands. Things are on the uptick, but if White hangs on to that deep ball late, no one is feeling the positive vibe right about now. But he didn't make the play, and 6-4, two games up in the AFC West with a game in hand over San Diego is a best-case scenario given the talent level and especially injury issues this team has had. Let's see how the Broncos respond against Oakland, though. A loss this Sunday in a game they should win if they play well would bring momentum back to square one. Just remember the Kansas City debacle. But if Denver wins, there's little stopping the team from grabbing the division crown.
MHR -- I have started a campaign to get people voting for Ryan Clady and Ryan Harris for the Pro Bowl. What has been your take on how the two young guys have played this season?
LR -- I've been incredibly impressed by Clady. He really is smooth and can slide and protect the edge even when he takes a mis-step, which is rare. He has long arms that help him get into the body of defensive linemen. I do think he deserves Pro Bowl consideration. Look at the number of times Denver throws the ball. He's allowed one-half sack going against the likes of Derrick Burgess, John Abraham and Joey Porter There are only eight tackles in the NFL that have played all 10 games who have allowed one sack or less. Harris is also on that list, too. He's a very smart player and also nimble with his feet and has a nasty streak on the field. All that said, the Pro Bowl is a popularity contest in which the fans only have a partial say. Players tend to stay on the rosters once they make it, based on reputation. Sometimes, it takes a year after the breakthrough to get noticed. Among the players who could make the Pro Bowl ahead of the Broncos pair are Tennessee's Michael Roos, Baltimore's Jared Gaither, Cleveland's Joe Thomas, San Diego's Marcus McNeil, the Jets' D'Brickashaw Ferguson and New England's Matt Light. But the two starters last year Tarik Glenn and Jonathan Ogden both retired, so there's definitely a shot.