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IN DENVER BRONCO PRE-GAME ANALYSIS
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Just how good is Denver? Earlier in the season, I wrote that Denver had a shot at anywhere from fourth to second seed in the AFC playoffs. The bad news is that the loss against Oakland wrecked any reasonable chance of second seed. The good news is that wins over the Jets and the Chiefs have catapulted Denver to the third seed.
Denver ranks 11th in the League, which is amazing considering the sheer number of injuries the team has faced (6th string RB anyone?). When factoring in the playoff requirements, Denver ranks third in the AFC, behind only TENN and PITT. If the playoffs were today, Denver would have a home game against Baltimore.
Is 8-5 anything to be ashamed of? Some in the media may try to spin it this way. But a look at other (if held today) playoff teams reveals the Jets, Cowboys, Vikings, and Cards all have the same 8-5 record. Baltimore, Indy, and TB each have just one more game at 9-4, and we've beaten TB.
Some may be concerned about the loss of Hillis. I think Hillis is the clear answer at RB for next year. I love his power running style, his ability to block, his ability to catch out of the backfield, and of course, his Mile High salute. But as MHR Chief Editor Guru points out, this team was winning without Hillis, and can keep winning behind what is becoming a legendary OL.
Facing the Panthers this week in Carolina, our young, playoff caliber team will face the toughest challenge of the year. The Panthers are one of four Superbowl Caliber teams, and this game will be an early indication of how deep the Broncos might deserve to go in the playoffs.
(Note: Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, the first former NFL player since George Halas to become a team owner, is in need of a heart transplant and has been placed on a donor waiting list. All of us at MHR wish Mr. Richardson the very best, and hope a donation match can be made soon)
The Panthers' Offensive Line and Running Backs - Smash and Dash
Let's break down the strengths of the Panthers. First, they have a devastating run block offensive line. Like Denver, they have a superman playing rookie tackle (Otah - RT). They also have powerful run blocking specialists at the FB and TE position. Because of what the line does, and because both WRs are excellent at crack back blocking, the Panthers feature a power running duo at RB who are big play threats (Williams and Stewart). The Panthers are nearly assured of 20+ yard gains in every game they play. In short, this team is designed to run over, around, and through anything that gets in their way.
If Denver's DL and LBs don't tackle on first contact, this game will get ugly very quick.
The Panthers have been moving away from the zone block system over a couple of years very slowly. It is still a big part of their gameplan, and not something they want to give up. But unlike Denver, they've been willing to go for a bigger OL and RBs who aren't natural one cutters. Is it the right move? It depends on your thinking. Denver is committed to only drafting / obtaining players who fit the system, so it should stay in Denver for a long time. The Panthers are ok with getting the best available in terms of OL and RB, regardless of scheme. Over time, they will be more focused on brute strength than agility. Both teams will have success, just along different paths.
The Panthers are not a flashy team. They are a true smash mouth team, only employing about five plays for the run (each with simple variants). They focus on power, size, and execution. Even an elite defense (and Denver is not one) is in trouble facing this Panthers team.
For the type of System that the Panthers employ, the critical key for Denver is simple in theory, but tough in execution. The first Bronco in contact with the RB must make the tackle. Arm tackles will not work, overpursuit will not work, and faulty gap assignments will not work. Our one gap DL must plug their gaps, and buy enough space for the LBs to swarm and bring down the runner. Plugging the gaps will be hard against the zone blockers, because the zone block eats up one gap players.
The other problem Denver faces is that the Panthers will likely use the running game to thwart Cutler's time on the field. Denver will need Cutler to have a big game if they are going to stop Carolina. If Carolina puts together a few drives with their running game and can win the time of possession battle, Denvers most potent weapon will spend much of the game watching from the sidelines.
Carolina's Pass Scheme and Personnel
Delhome is not the best QB in the League, but he doesn't have to be. All he has to do is manage the game, and keep the defense from focusing too heavily on the run. Delhome is blessed with an incredible line, incredible runners, but also very capable receivers. Steve Smith is an elite receiver, and attempts to double cover him can be punished by Mushin Muhammed on the other side. However, the drop off is severe. Muhammed is nowhere near the receiver Smith is. With Bly at RCB, Denver can more safely cover Smith with Bailey and keep a deep safety with his eye more towards Smith than anywhere else. At slot and beyond, the Panthers are thin and untalented.
Like the Denver WRs, the Panthers value WRs who can run block. Both starting receivers are effective on crack back blocks for sweeps, and both spend much of the game locking up with opposing CBs. They are both capable of playing physical football, but both like to get downfield to clear out the running lanes.
The Broncos are proud of Marshall, who, despite missing his first game, rapidly climbed to being a receiving leader. The Panthers have Smith. He missed the first two games, and is on a team that rarely throws the ball. He still manages to rank fifth amongst receivers in the League. That's pretty formidable.
Denver has the CBs to nuetralize the air threat, but Denver is unlikely to support the CBs with a second safety (they are very likely to put a safety in the box for the run game). Worse, even with a four man rush, Denver will have a very tough time mounting an effective pass rush. Denver will likely respect the run game enough to hold back on blitzing players, so Delhome will likely get in a few solid passes.
Delhome is a great manager. He is smart, a good leader, and acurate. He can be rattled if driven from the pocket, but Denver's defense doesn't present much of a pass rush.
Denver will be improved at safety, will get Bailey back at CB (most likely), and perhaps figure out a way to use some of the LBs who were hot in the absence of the three starters. But the overwhelming advantage on the CAR Offense versus the Denver defense has to go to Carolina.
Oddly, this is the one game all year where I'm ok with Denver playing 8 in the box. The only real threat in the passing game is Smith. Muhammed is completely outclassed by Bly, and one deep safety can focus more on Smith. Bly can be beat without the over coverage much of the time (he likes to play underneath), but his assignment this game is one of the easier ones he'll face this year.
The Panthers on Defense
Peppers is the big name, and at RDE is always a threat to get to the QB. Peppers also benefits from Lewis (RDT), who drives the gap between the LT and the LG, forcing the LT to account for the gap to his right.
However, I'm giving the benefit to Denver here. Hamilton (LG) and Clady (LT) are two of the best in the business. We are already on track for a legendary year for an OL, and I see no reason that changes here. Teams have tried bull rushing Clady, tricking him, scheming him, etc. So far, nothing has worked. Clady has faced some of the best DEs and OLBs (including Porter - MIA) the League has to offer, and he has dominated every one of them. In the worst beatings Denver has taken this year, no one has been able to figure out Clady. I will watch the Clady / Peppers match-up closely (if the game is televised in my area), but I feel confident in what Clady has to offer.
The rest of the DL is solid too, even if some names aren't household names. In fact, I even like the depth this team features at DL. Here again, the Denver OL is amazing in their pass blocking, and I am not too concerned about this aspect of the game.
The real dangerous effect of Carolina's DL match-up against Denver's OL, surprisingly, isn't the (Peppers' led) pass rush at all. A look at the Xs and Os in my mind says the real threat is Kemoeatu, a true two gap DT. He will require double coverage on run plays from Wiegmann and Kuper, and even in pass protection. He shouldn't make too many big plays himself, but makes the rest of the line more effective. As a coach, I would be more concerned about the resources we have to spend keeping Kemoeatu in check (we'll call it Kemo-therapy).
Kemo lines up at the LDT spot. This is because runs in the League favor the strongside. His powerful frame makes the cover two defense of the Panthers more effective. The double teams he demands mean less 2nd level runblockers for any of our runners. And while the Panthers don't get much of a pass rush without blitzers, Denver has to "waste" two players just to keep Kemo from slowly lumbering over to Jay.
I trust the Denver OL to protect Jay, and trust Jay will get away from most of what gets through. But because Jay will be throwing against a defense that is in zone much of the game, he'll need to tone down his aggressive when he does get flushed. (It would be nice to see Jay throw some of his passes away instead of forcing too much. It would also be nice to see some of the eligible receivers come back to Jay when he's in trouble, something we need to work on a little bit).
The LBs and DBs are all solid players, but nothing flashy. The defense plays as a team and uses tight coordination to get the most out of the players. While they rank in the middle of the League in most defensive categories, they play a solid game that requires an offense to limit mistakes. I've always thought that Chris Gamble was one of those CBs that doesn't get enough publicity. Watching him in his early years with Carolina, I always thought he was destined to be a starter and to be a big name someday. He's doing very well this year, and may start getting some recognition. Though he plays in a zone system, Gamble could make the switch easily to a man system if needed. But the LBs remain the core of the defense. The DL gives them the protection to stop runs, and they play their zones with the discipline to keep their own assignments.
Keys to the Game
- Tackle on first contact. Denver will not stop the running game; I'm putting that in stone right here. But they must tackle on first contact to slow the running game if they are going to win. Carolina will gain heavily on the ground whenever the first tackle is blown (10 to 25 yards). We can't count on safeties to bring down either of the Carolina RBs.
- Cutler must be patient. The cover two will provide multiple chances for Jay to throw INTs. Even with the Panthers eating up the clock, Denver must cut the pass defense with a hundred small cuts, instead of a few gashes.
- Early lead. If Caroline has to start going to the air, we have taken them out of their strength; running. But getting the ealry lead needs to be done the right way; with short yardage completions, not long, risky, forced passes.
- Don't leave points on the field. Denver will try to win in a shootout. With the long, run based drives that Carolina brings to the game, they need to score on their possessions.
- Use your players in zone, and skip the blitzing. The current incarnation of the Broncos OL is on track to be the most sackless OL ever, and that's with Denver passing on almost every down! Cutler also throws well outside of the pocket. If you really want to beat Cutler, just keep the back 8 (DBs and LBs) in zone, and let Cutler's aggressiveness beat himself. Cutler is likey to force some throws, and a player is more likley to take advantage in zone than getting a sack.
- Win the turnover battle. Cutler may throw INTs, but Denver is as likely to make a fumble or two. Make sure you get to that ball when you have the chance. Denver's high power offense will take advantage when you don't.
I've only picked against Denver twice, and was wrong both times. I hope I'm wrong again this time.
Both teams have excellent offenses, though along very different lines. I expect Denver to score several times with their high powered offense against a defense that isn't as good as some we've seen. On the other hand, Carolina's run game won't be stopped. Only the Vikings DL can blunt a running game like Carolina has.
I expect the game to be high scoring, unless we turnover the ball a couple of times and Carolina eats the clock.
I'm also concerned about injuries. Carolina has a couple of injured players who won't make a difference. Still unknown is Bailey, Larsen, DJ Williams, Stokley, Young, and others. With a team as dominant as Carolina is, and with Denver a virtual lock for the playoffs, will Denver really want to risk some of their high profile players in this game?
Carolina is coming off a short week, but Denver is traveling to the east coast (even though they've won their east coast games so far this year). Carolina is playing for homefield in the playoffs, while Denver can sew up a playoff spot with a win (or a SD loss).
Last, a look at records and consistency make Carolina one of two teams likely to make the SB from the NFC. I still have Denver at 10-6 for the year, and a playoff appearance (with the fist round being a 50/50 propostion to win).
I give the edge to the Panthers, but I'll be the loudest fan supporting my team in my neck of the woods.