MHR Chalk Talk -- Week 13 - Denver at New York Jets

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IN DENVER BRONCO PRE-GAME ANALYSIS

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When the Broncos win, fans can easily see their team positioned for a run at a high seeding in the playoffs.  When the Broncos lose, fans quickly turn to despair and end of the world predictions. The truth is that Denver remains a team in transition, and as such, will win some surprising games and lose some games that looked easy on the schedule.  For fans wanting to avoid a heart attack, Chalk Talk recommends staying the course, and looking at the season as a whole.  If you really want to get excited, stay the course and continue to use next year as the measure of great things to come.

Despite poor play against Oakland, Denver remains atop the AFC West by two games, and still has a schedule (comparable to SD) that allows Denver to set it's own destiny.  Denver has enough time to fix problems, heal injuries, and make adjustments to make a run at the end of the season.  Looking at the NYJ's game in detail, we can see a microcosm of what Denver needs to do to improve.

Let's look at how to play against a team like the Jets, and why the keys to beating the Jets are exactly the things Denver should be doing in general.

  

Let's get one thing out of the way.  Despite having coached football at the lower academic levels (HS and below, and just as a coordinator), I am not a pro level coach.  Like all of us, I am a Monday morning quarterback who likes to tell the real coaches what they did wrong, and what they need to do better.  I have a lot of sympathy for pro coaches, because I had to put up with every local yokel who pretended to know more about coaching my team than I did.

The locals don't study the tape that I do, don't understand the real reason a kid isn't starting, and don't understand why a great play in one game won't work against a specific team we are playing the next week.  I get that.  I've lived it, and so I try to be careful about ever being critical of another coach.  And who am I to be critical of coaches who are at a level light years beyond anything I ever did?

What I can do comfortably is express what it is about our current team that doesn't make sense to me, with the hope that a press conference will explain these things, or we will see the changes made on the field.  I always assume (unlike some of the old media sports writers) that the coaches know more about the team and the game than I do, so I am putting down my thoughts with a lot of respect.  But I want to take a look at some things we don't seem to be doing right (ala the Raiders game), and some things I think would help us out against the NYJs.  For instance...

Winning the Turnover Battle

Steve O' has it right in this piece.  When we turn the ball over, we lose to bad teams.  When we protect the ball, we can beat anyone.  Is there anything that can be done to protect the ball at a "macro level"?  Sure, at the micro level we can practice with pads on.  But this "novel" idea didn't do anything for the Raiders game, did it?

Yes.  At the macro level, or the playcalling level, we can protect the ball.  We do this by calling a lot of run plays.  There is a larger risk of a turnover during a pass play than a run play.  There are many reasons for this:

  1. While the ball is in the air, no one controls it.  During a run play, the ball is always in someone's hands.
  2. In the right place at the right time, anyone can catch an interception.  But this isn't the case in causing and recovering a fumble.  First, a player must strip the ball (or make a hrd hit) instead of making a sound tackle.  Second, the defense must get to the loose ball first.
  3. A tired defense is less likley to cause a turnover, and run plays wear down a defense more than pass plays.

Denver has been living on Cutler's arm.  That's not such a bad thing, because Denver has a great quarterback, great receivers, and great receiving TEs and RBs.  Down to a fifth string RB, the pass may look like a great thing.   But the more he throws, the more the chance for an interception.  Also, the more he throws, the more defenses will go into pass coverage schemes, further increasing the danger.

Denver doesn't need big chunks of yards on the ground.  They only need consistent yards.  Looking at the stats provided by CalvinandHobbs, one sees that we have a great offensive line, even if we don't have runners that make the grade.  But I might differ with the conclusions of Calvin's stats.  We don't get a lot of yards, and we don't get a lot of breakaway runs, but not because of supar runners.  It is because we don't run the ball often enough to get those gains.

Perhaps you have heard of RBs getting better as the game goes on.  As an MHR reader, you are likely aware of the axiom that RBs don't get better as a game goes on, the defense gets worn down at a faster rate than an offense does (if the offense is running the ball).  Without wearing down defenses, we aren't getting the big runs late in the game.  Also, because of turnovers, we are playing games from behind or close games, which require more passing.  Let's look back at the Oakland game, and ahead to the Jets game, to see how this plays out.

Against Oakland -

In the first quarter the Broncos had the Raiders right where they wanted them.  Denver was so effective running the ball that the Raiders had to do what Denver does for most of every game.  Oakland had to drop a safety into the box.

The first drive took almost 7 minutes off of the clock.  It led to a fumble at about the Oakland 6 yard line.  Denver couldn't be stopped by Oakland, and only stopped themselves.  Still, Oakland only had the ball twice, and the defense kept them to a 3 and out, and stopped the second Oakland drive inside Oakland's side of the field.  The quarter went so fast (because the run game kept the clock moving), that Denver moved into the second quarter before most fans at home had even settled in for the game.  If Denver had replayed the first quarter, they would have been inside the redzone with a tired Oakland defense, and kept Oakland in terrible field position.

Then what happened?  The pass heavy Broncos came out, and moved the ball down the field, where the kicker made a field goal, and missed two others (in fairness to him, the wind was horrible that day).  Oakland again had two possessions, and Denver's defense held Oakland to a 3 and out, as well as a FG.

As the game wore on, Oakland's defense never wore down.  Denver's defense couldn't stop a TD when Cutler threw an INT on Denver's side of the field.  Oakland ran the ball heavily, and Denver's defense went from effective to exhausted.  Then the real beating started.

Throughout the passing game, Styg was making the comment (on the MHR game thread) that Denver was more busy trying to drive a dagger in the heart of Oakland than just killing them.  He was right.  Instead f taking the easy downs and moving the chains, Cutler repeatedly went deep.  This risked turnovers, resulted in few catches, and stopped drives that could have worn down the defense and converted into TDs.  Let me take Styg's analogy further.

In the army, I learned that an expert with a knife rarely thrusts, he slashes.  A puncture leads to less blood loss than a slash.  In football, a running game is like a slash.  Let's use boxing as another example.  A street fighter may come out swinging for the knockout right away.  but the pro boxer uses jabs and body blows.  Then, when the opponent is worn down, the professional boxer uses the knock out .  Denver was trying to knock out an opponent who hadn't been worn down yet.

Carry This Thought over to New York -

One thing I love about the Giants / Jets is that their stadium is built with a nifty home field advantage.  At one end of the field there is a tunnel that leads to the outside world.  There, at the outer edge of the stadium, is a giant door.  This door is used for deliveries, and is massive.  Here's the kicker:

When the home team is on the field, the door is shut.  When the opposing offense takes the field, the door is rolled open!  The result?  A heavy draft of wind that causes inpredictable wind currents (eddies) within the stadium.  This affects passing, and even field goal attempts.  Nice huh?

What this means for Denver is what it should have meant in the home game against Oakland with the unusualy bad winds.  Denver needs to keep the ball on the ground!  In fact, keeping the ball on the ground would mean a few fumbles here and there, but many less interceptions.  And it's the interceptions that are killing us.

Some will correctly point out the strength of the Jets is both running and stopping the run (which allows Favre to do his thing).  This is true, and they proved it against Tenn.  But Denver doesn't need to gain big yards on the ground.  They need to make a lot of short but consistent runs to eat the clock, wear down the defense, and enhance the passes that Cutler makes.

Throw Away the Spread Offense / Vertical Attack

The spread offense can be an effective tool in the right hands.  While it is more of a collegiate system, there are applications that can work at the NFL level.  There are also spread offenses that are not overly passing dependent.  In fact, I really like the spread offense.  But not in the incarnation used by Denver.

The thinking of the Denver coaches (if I am correct) is that we have a superman at QB, and at least 5 great receiving players on the field at any time.  We are deep at WR, TE, and even FB.  This could make any coach want to hit the air.  The problem is that one can go this route so often that it becomes one dimensional.

As wonderful as a spread offense can be, it loses its luster when the opposing defense can just settle into a pass defense look all day.  And believe me, defensive players love the pass.  On passing downs, the defensive linemen get to be the aggressors.  On passing downs, the front seven act instead of react, which also leads to less wear and tear.  The coordinator loves passes, because passes mean a better chance for turnovers.  Remember, most defensive coordinators start from the premise that one should take away the run, and the spread offense (in our variation) conceeds the point right away.

To take away the pass, teams can simply play two deep safeties, zone or blitz the LBs, and give the defensive line the green light.  Given enough plays, there will be turnovers (as demonstrated by Cutler and co).  Two great examples of elite passers using the run game are Manning (multiple play action) and Elway (misdirection).

We have an elite running system, we have an elite offensive line, and even our fifth string RBs have proven they can rack up the yards.  But we abandon the run whenever it stalls, or let ourselves get behind to the point we feel we have to throw.  Often, we are behind because of a turnover.  The odd thing is that many of our turnovers are in the redzone, and the defense holds.  Why not keep our field position advantage and burn off the clock with that advantage?

Worse still, in the Oakland game the Broncos "switched places" with Oakland.  While Oakland ran the ball down our throats with the zone block system we made famous, our offense switched from the spread offense to an outdated and discredited system, the "vertical pass". 

The vertical pass comes in two forms.  The classic (early NFL) version is to power run the ball, with multiple deep passes to spread the defense verticaly.  This has become outmoded, because modern defenses play two safeties deep (oops, not Denver) and the schemes developed for CBs to take away routes have become more complex.  Offenses have learned (thanks to Walsh) that spreading a defense horizontaly is more effective in passing.  The version that Denver used is a purely collegiate system, and is more of a run and shoot without any run and with only deep "shoots".

The question is, is the scheme meant to be this terrible, or is Jay only throwing to his deep options in an attempt to force the win instead of moving the chains?  Either way, blame the coaches.

When Jay is coached to take what is given (as in the TB game) he does an excellent job managing the game and taking what the defense gives him.  But when he is given multiple options he picks the right one most of the time and does a fine job.  But he also throws just enough interceptions to tarnish drives that could have gone for 3 or 7 points.  There are two reasons for this:

  1. The defense knows the pass is coming on most plays,
  2. The high rate of passes ensures more INTs.

An "all or nothing" pass is a low percentage affair, and high risk.  It can be effective in only two points in a game.  One, if the team is losing and has nothing left to lose, or two, if the team runs the ball so heavily that the opposition doesn't see the deep pass coming.  If Denver would reign in Superman, he would end up looking more like Superman.  Multiple, high percentage passes that can't be easily defensed.  Imagine the following scenario:

Cutler makes short passes to Marshall, who gets a lot of yards after carry because he is a brute.  Cutler makes a lot of intermediate passes to Royal, because Royal has the "double moves" to get open.  Cutler makes a lot of intermediate passes to Scheffler, because Scheffler is a mismatch for most LBs in the League, and Scheffler makes a lot off passes to Graham and Stokely, because both know how to fight for the ball.  The kicker: the defense isn't covering these guys well because Denver is constantly pounding the ball up the field on the ground, and these elite receivers are left unguarded.  Unlikely?  It was what we did for the first portion of the Raiders game, and it was working.  And while it was happening, our defense was resting comfortably on the sideline, and coming in only briefly to stop Oakland's offense on 3 and outs.

But here is what happens instead.  Denver comes out throwing deep on most plays.  It's like backyard football!  "Everybody go deep, and I'll try to hit someone!"  Some fans will point out that several of those deep throws were very close affairs.  Styg, in a poetic reply in a game thread, made a great statement.  It was something to the effect of "exactly".  In other words, a ton of "close passes" don't win games.  We need receptions, even short and intermediate ones, much more than we need deep passes that go uncaught.

Against the 3-4 as run by the NYJs (a Fairbanks Bullough version that is closer to the Patriots than the Phillips run by the Chargers), we can expect a lot of LBs in zone coverage instead of heavy blitzing.  Will Denver take advantage by hitting the gut early and often?  Against Oakland, Denver forced a safety to come into the box.  Instead of keeping him there with frequent runs plays, Denver gave into the pass temptation and lost the advantage.  They'll need more patience against the Jets.

Don't Ruin Barrett!

The quickest way to ruin a safety is to misuse him then fire him.  If we ask Barrett to cover the entire deep field of play, he won't be able to do much.  He'll be second guessing decisions as they are made, will find himself out of positon, and will miss tackles because he is in the midst of readjusting instead of committing to a course of action from the start of the play.

The safety positon is designed to provide "over coverage" for half of a field.  If the front seven do their jobs, the safety can focus on pass protection.  When the safety can do his job, the cornerbacks have the flexibilty to force plays, rather than simply react.

In my humble opinion (and bear in mind that free safety has always been my favorite position, so I should be biased here), Denver does not need an elite safety right now to fix their woes.  As much as I would love to see an early round safety come to Denver, I think the safeties we have (or have had) would perform well if they weren't expected to cover an entire field.  Let Barrett play free safety this week.  Line up Manuel next him.  Let each player take a half of the field, or a third (if we play a sky or cloud coverage), or drop a safety into man (TE) on occassional plays.  But if we keep Barrett alone in the deep field, he will get burned, and he will allow the CBs to get burned.  By himself, Barrett faces:

  • Little help from the front seven in pass rush, decreasing his reaction time,
  • Little help from the front seven, forcing him to account for runners as well as receivers,
  • Little help from a strong safety who is stuck in the box, forcing him to cover an entire field.

I'm excited to see what Josh can do for us.  But he deserves to play in a defense that is designed to use each element of the defense as a single unit, instead of leaving different units on an island to fend for themselves.

Another consideration is Favre's favorite target, the slant pattern.  Favre has a strong enough arm and enough experience to make these plays work.  This will make life rough for Barrett if he is alone.

The slant is a double edged sword.  It is tricky, because the throw has to lead the receiver who is moving east/west.  It is further complicated because the defensive players are harder to account for when the QB is watching the target, lead area for the throw.  On the other hand, the receiver often gets out in front of the corner, and the safeties (even if there are two) are often taken out of the picture by other receivers whose routes are designed to take them away fro the play.  No one plays the slant as well as Favre, and it is his bread and butter pattern to throw to.  Look to last year's game to see what happens to elite corners (both Bailey and Bly) when the safety is alone in the deep field.

Keys to the Game

Denver -

  1. Denver must slow down the Jets running game.  If they can force the Jets to be one dimensional, they can slow the offense.
  2. Denver needs to limit interceptions.  They can do this by running the ball more, and playing the Jets like they played NO and TB.  Take what the defense gives, and stop forcing deep throws instead of gaining downs.
  3. Hit the gut.  Sweeps won't work too well against the Jets 3-4, because of the wide alignment of the OLBs.  Jenkins is one of the best NTs in the NFL today, but if you want to beat him, you have to put hits on him early and often.  Wear down Jenkins by hitting him (instead of letting him aid the pass rush by occupying OLmen, which is what he wants to do).

NYJs -

  1. If you can run the ball on Denver, run it all day long.
  2. Take away Denver's run game.  The more Denver throws, the better chances are of a turnover.
  3. Stop the deep pass.  Denver loves to score on big plays.

The NYJs are a good team.  There's no doubt about it.  Denver can win this game, but only if they play up to potential.  As a young team, Denver has little consistency.  They play brilliantly one moment, then terribly the next.  They lose to a team like the Raiders or the Chiefs, but they beat teams like Atlanta and Tampa Bay.

I have to give an edge to the Jets for this one.  The Jets are locked in enough of a race for the AFC East that they likely won't take Denver for granted after the big win over TENN.  Unlike Denver, there are enough vets on this Jets team that know not to take any game lightly.

Fear not Denver fans.  As badly as Denver fans mirror their young team (too many emotional highs and lows), the team is still two games ahead of SD for the AFC West, and right about where many prognosticators would have put the team before the season began.  (I had Denver splitting games with the Raiders, and didn't imagine SD would be so poor this year, though I saw a decline was coming).  SD has ATL this week, and while I give the edge to SD for this one, ATL has a shot of knocking down SD.

Again, let the players focus game by game.  Keep your eyes on the prize (the Quest), and watch the season overall.  We are a younger, but better team than last year, and have the bonus of a shot at the playoffs.  We're moving in the right direction, and the pains we have now as fans are the price of building a solid program with youth.  Hang in there Denver fans!

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