MHR University - Who Should Start, and Why

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From Born Orange comes these excellent questions, which are at the heart of much discussion at Milehighreport.com lately:

What's become of K2?  He seems to have fallen far from Shanny's grace to have both Larsen and now Haggan starting at MLB in Webster's absence (I still think we're better off without Web in the middle). 

Also, what's your take on the status of some of the rookies/backups who've been doing a good job filling in for the injured starters, once the starters are healthy again- primarily the LBs and CBs?

When players go down to injury, a coach has a headache on his hands.  If the back-up plays poorly, the coach has to make adjustments to cover for the weakness.  If the back-up plays well, a controversy can be in the brewing.

Let's take a look at the issues in BornOrange's questions, and take a look at the thinking that goes into when (and whether) to bring back injured starters.

More below the fold...

Niko Koutouvides 

First, let's address the K2 issue.

During the pre-season, Webster and K2 were locked in a struggle to determine who would start at MLB.  Webster edged out K2, and the season got started.  Fans quickly tired of Webster's missed gap assignments and his overpursuits.  But he's an energetic player who fires up his teammates, and folks like keeping count of how many times his helmet flies off (I guess).

K2, on the other hand, is a speedy LB who shines making open field tackles on coverage units.  Many folks (including me) were hopeful he would get a shot at starting.  Keep in mind, though, that K2 had a shot at starting during the pre-season and during camp, and didn't beat out Webster.

Then came the injuries.  K2 had a shot at starting, as did Larsen (who plays at MLB and FB).  Larsen proved himself the better MLB, to such an extent that the Denver staff had him play both ways on the field.

In short, as much as some fans may not be thrilled with Webster starting, K2 just hasn't earned the position, having been beat out by Webster and Larsen (and even a virtual unknown Haggan).  Sometimes the devil you know is better than the one you don't.

But what about starting Larsen?

Let's stay on the MLB position for a moment.  Why isn't Larsen our starter?  First, I'm going to grant that Larsen is probably the best MLB we have.  But the situation for the coaching staff is more complicated than just "Who is the better player".

Denver has been losing a lot of games to a lot of bad teams throwing the ball "early and often" and "deep".  The spread offense is a fine concept, but not for this Denver team, which needs to be pounding the ball after gaining a lead (the formula that has taken Denver to championships).  Only lately, Denver has realized the folly of throwing too often (we hope), and discovered the talent of power RB Hillis.

Hillis faced one of the best run stuffing teams against the Jets.  Keep in mind that he is a 7th round pick, was meant to be a FB, ran in single back formations (meaning no FB run support) and is somewhere around a 5th string RB for this team.  Against the Jets, a lot of fans were reminded of the dominance of a true powerback.  Hillis, who was a FB behind two elite RBs at Arkansas, still managed to prove himself in college as a powerful blocker, receiver, and runner.  In the NFL, he proved that he deserves to be Denver's #1 RB.

So what does any of this have to do with Larsen not playing at MLB?  He's needed at FB even more.  Here's why.

Denver's FB Situation

Denver has lost a FB, but in a good way.  Hillis is one of those "diamonds in the rough" that has been discovered by Denver.  He is a one cut runner who plows over and through defensive players.  For readers of Chalk Talk and MHR University, it has been preached time and again how a power running game is needed to wear down defenses, to limit interceptions (defensed can't exclusively play in pass mode), and to set up the break away runs of faster RBs.

With Hillis out of the picture at FB, Denver has only three options.

  1. Play a lot of single back formations
  2. Use Pinnock at FB
  3. Use Larsen at FB

One is to play Hillis in single back formations (as against the Jets).  This option worked very well, and took the Jets by surprise.  A lot of fans would likely want to continue on this path.  But it isn't good coaching.

The Jets assumed that Denver would be their regular pass heavy selves.  When they saw three recievers and a single back, they played pass.  Denver hit them right in the gut.  As pointed out by a couple of astute MHR members, nothing kicks you in the stomach like a powerback charging into a nickle defense.  If Hillis is the answer at HB (and I think most of us agree that he is), then teams are going to adjust for him quickly. 

Teams were not ready for Jay Cutler and the wild spread offense, but they adjusted, and Denver suffered.  The way to stop teams from adjusting is to play a balanced game, where the opposition can't load up a defense against a particular trait.  Denver needs to have a FB in to block for Hillis, and also needs to run some pass plays with multiple receivers without a FB.  Denver needs to mix it up, instead of relying on a single look.

In other words, we will need a FB in our system.

The second option is to use Pinnock.  Who?  That's right.  A virtual unknown.  With Denver near securing a playoff bearth, the time for experimenting is over.  Pinnock was brought in because we lost a FB (Hillis, to the starting RB role).  But he wasn't brought in to start.  He was brought in to back-up Larsen in case Larsen goes down.

The third option is to use Larsen.  If we use Larsen, why not use him at MLB too?  He's done it already this year!  Fans may disagree on the point I'm going to make, but here's the coaching thinking that is likely going into the decision.

Playing Larsen two ways is a fan pleaser, but it isn't good football.  Larsen played two ways for Denver because Denver was short handed and desperate, not because they wanted to.  Larsen beat the odds and played both positions, and did it very well.  To do so game after game though, is to risk injury, not to mention an exhausted player playing at two positions (hurting both sides of the ball).

Like it or not, Larsen can only do so much on a weakened defense.  As a FB, he ensures that there are no postions on the offense that aren't elite.  Right now, ensuring that our un game can keep up with our pass game is what will make this offense unstoppable.

Take it from me.  I'm all about defense, and I would be kicking and screaming to get Larsen in at MLB if I was the defensive coordinator.  But for the sake of the team overall, I think Shanahan is making the right move.

What About Other LBs (Haggan, Woodyard, and Winborn)?

Let's assume the obvious.  DJ Williams is going to start at WILL.  He is a better run stopper than Woodyard, and has more big play potential.  He is one of the true elites on the team, and plays his position better than anyone.  He never lost his position when he went down.  While the WILL position isn't primarily a run stopping position (it zones the weakside and blitzes more often than playing man), my point is that DJ does everything Woodyard does, and more.

Woodyard's best fit is at WILL.  He is not really a true MLB, and has an excellent future ensuring depth at WILL and playing coverage for STs.  Moving him to MLB would be an adjustment (something we don't want late in the season), and would weaken the depth at WILL.

Haggan is getting a lot of love from the MHR faithful, but there's a catch.  He has played on limited downs, and it's hard for a coach to make a major decsion on very limited data.  Haggan may have raw talent, but going towards the playoffs (where experience is everything), he just doesn't have a record beyond a few plays.  As it is, He is listed as the third string at WILL (an excellent place for a LB with raw talent, but little experience with the team), but can also play third string behind K2 at MLB.

Winborn is the natural fit at SAM.  He has played over the talent level of Boss Bailey (IR), and will likely keep his position unless he is bumped by a draft pick in the offseason.

What About the DBs?

This is the most complex issue for me to address.

Let's start with the easy part; Dre Bly.  Dre Bly will return and keep his #2 CB position.  Bailey and Bly are #1 and #2 in interceptions since 1991.  They are both two of the best in the game.

Fans are leary of Bly, pointing out his seeming lack of production in Denver.  But in the two years he has been in Denver, Bailey hasn't looked stellar either.  I have attributed this to Denver's weak pass rush, and even more to the decision to put the strong safety in the box.  (A story on this issue is coming up next week).

Yet, in the last game Bly looked great.  Denver had two safeties in deep coverage (despite the rain).  Coincidence?  No way.  Denver respected Favre, and played the right defensive alignments.  This allowed Bly to be himself, and it showed.  Bailey's return (hopefuly this week) should be a major boost.

But what happens at safety and at nickleback?

Tough call.  Very tough call.  Let's assume for moment that Denver finally decides to play two safeties out of the box.  Lowry would likely have a better showing than his first outing, when he was one of the top tacklers for the Broncos, but whiffed on several tackles trying to guard the entire field horizontaly by himself.  As much as I've defended him, I don't think he's the best option.

This leaves McCree and Barrett.  Like most fans (I believe), I would like to see Barrett get the call.  McCree has the experience, and could play well if he has another safety to take half of the field.  Barrett has the advantage in speed and athleticism.  All other factors being even (which they aren't), I would like to see Barrett developed.  This close to a playoff run, it's a tough call.

At strong safety, Manuel has done a decent job playing in the box.  Out of the box, in the Jets game, Fox came out looking like a winner.  In my mind, we should play the strong safety out of the box, and play Fox (unless he proves the Jets game was a quirk).  My uneducated guess is that Manuel will get the start.

For the safeties, in my mind, the big question is whether we go back to playing 8 in the box or if we go traditional.

At CB, the contenders for nickle are Paymah, Williams, Bell, and Jones.  I don't know much about Jones.  Bell looked good, but like Haggan, it was in limited action.  The competition then comes down to Paymah and Williams, and I would guess Paymah gets the start.  My guess is as good (or bad) as anybody's on this topic, and I'll bet readers have some good thoughts on why someone should start over someone else.

So how about it gang?  What are your thoughts?

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