Denver's schedule is considered an easy one, but Denver is also a team in transition. The transition includes a change in defensive systems, and a new approach to team building.
The team building approach is perhaps the most intriguing move. The Broncos have thrown out the model of trading up in the draft and seeking high profile FAs in favor of seeking depth, quantity (for roster competition), value, and character.
One area where this is made clear is the receiver position. Marshall returns as the easy choice for #1 receiver. But competition is stiff for the #2 position. Colbert was brought in and priced to be the #2, and has been turning heads in early practices. But D. Jackson was brought in with a very impressive resume, and the fight is on! Not to be outdone, Royal was the #2 draft pick (intended to be a STs return ace) and has been lighting up the practices as well. The story doesn't end there.
Stokley is likely to keep his slot position, and that still leaves KC veteran Parker and current returner / speed man Martinez to compete for a chance to even make the team. Seven players at WR, and all of them with a chance to make the team.
Despite the positions of strength and depth, Denver also faces some questions. Are any Denver fans really comfortable with the kicking / punting situation? Has the biggest weakness of last year's team (DT) been addressed?
Let's take a look at the Broncos in transition while they face a schedule they might be able to manage. If Denver can pull together an identity early in the season, they might get ahead of the curve and manage a major jump this season. At worst, this year can launch the young players in place into victory in '09.
The first thing to notice in Denver's schedule is that 3 of the first 4 games are against division rivals. This presents a potential problem. Denver is a team with new faces (much like last year), and a team that is shifting in its defensive identity. Denver needs to hold its own early in the season, until the learning curve catches up and the team plays as one. But with three critical games so early, Denver doesn't have much time to gel.
SD won't have this problem, as they are an established and effective team. KC may have to operate on a curve with an influx of talent from the draft, but the weakness at QB may keep them from being effective. oak (never capitalized by the author) has brought in a lot of talent (and perhaps spent themselves into Salary Cap Hell two years from now), but faces the same issues of needing time to gel a team together.
Looking at the first game (DEN at oak), Denver faces two issues. Denver's weak run defense faces an effective (and even improved) RB group that runs behind a zone block defense. Denver also faces a good looking CB tandem. The game is MNF, and is the rivalry that Denver fans look forward to the most. It is also an away game.
Some factors play to Denver. One is oak's weak run defense versus Denver's run offense. We'll save the breakdown for the actual game prep, but for now let's call it a wash. Denver will practice against the zone block in two preseason games (HOU and GB) at nearly game speed. Watching these two pre-season games will indicate how prepared for oak the Broncos front 7 are. (As always, look for player performance in the pre-season; ignore the scoreboard and playcalling).
This is a high stakes game. The loser starts the season with a losing record and a negative check in the division race for a playoff spot.
As if the first game wasn't big enough, Denver next faces another division rival, and arguably one of the top teams in the NFL. Denver faces another elite CB tandem, and an offense that features two future hof's (likewise, not capitalized) in TE Gates and RB LT. WR Chambers is not an elite force, but solid enough to keep teams from planning against Gates and LT.
Denver will likely switch tactics this year, and go back to classic Broncos defense. Blitz Rivers with the Show Blitz System (run by Slowik) and rely on its on elite CBs. Denver will either try to keep the SD offense off the field with an effective power running game, or get into a shootout with Cutler at the helm. Cutler should build on an impressive start (now that he has more experience, and now that his diabetes is treated) with a deep and effective stable of WRs and TEs.
The Broncos now turn to a non-conference opponent. While many fans focus on big names at RB or depth at CB, I see a team with an effective TE group. Blocker Campbell's return should aid the running game (he was injured last year) and spring the better known players there. Johnson and Miller are both effective TEs that don't get as much notice as they should. This game will be a major test for our SAM linebacker and strong safety.
And yet, Denver has two very effective TEs. Graham is our version of Campbell, and Scheffler is our version of Johnson. Denver also has a better (and deeper) class at CB.
Like Denver, NO has questions at DT. They have a returning (injury) playmaker, as well as draft pick Ellis. They may be the top team we face in the NFC South rotation.
And now, only four games into the season, Denver faces the third division rival. While KC is a team that made some solid moves in the draft, they have a much deeper hole to climb out of. They are rebuilding, and doing a solid job of it. The key missing ingredient remains a QB. For now, KC is building evenly and hoping to get help at QB (perhaps in '09). It's a long term approach, but should pay dividends in a few years. In the meantime, Denver should do well here.
KC is going to have a new offensive system (emphasis on power runs to set up the pass) and a blitz version of the cover 2. If KC can get a win, it will be behind a dominant rushing attack. If Denver can slow the run, their balance in every other aspect of the game will mean a win for the blue and orange.
This game will be a major test of our DTs and our MLB.
(Photo courtesy of Buc 'Em)
Another team with QB troubles, the big debate in TB is perhaps "Do we want Favre?" There are some match-up issues to look at, but here again we look favorable.
Here is a game that should be worth watching. I really like the way JAX has built themselves up, and the team is on the way to challenging INDY for the AFC South Crown shortly. I like the Jags at QB, RB, and DL the most, and think there will be a lot to write about just before the game. I very much like the balance on the DL, as I expect the Jags DL to equaly stop the run and rush the passer against most teams.
This should be a very close run affair. At this point Denver will almost be halfway through the season. If Denver looks competitive for a playoff spot, this is the game that will show just how good Denver is.
Shanahan manages to slay the dragon more often than not, but the Patriots are arguably the top team in the NFL (if judged on the nember of recent SB appearances and wins). It's another MNF game, and another away one at that.
It's a no lose situation. If Denver loses, no one will be shocked. But if the game is close, or if Denver wins, folks will take note.
We'll take a closer look at this team nearer to game day. But for now, most football fans are going to call this a likely Denver victory against a 1-15 team. (Quick, how many Dolphins can you name on offense?)
Halfway through the season and the toughest games out of the way. If Denver can hold their own through the first eight, the likely improvement will help the team flourish against the remaining 8 teams.
Should be wins - I feel very good about the KC and MIA games. TB may be a darkhorse for an upset loss, but I doubt we drop this game.
Too early too call - JAX could go either way. I think we are a much better team than NO, but they present some match-up issues. oak is a terrible team, and has been for several years, but may benefit from some new blood. I'm not taking them for granted just yet.
Looks tough - The NE and SD games look tough on paper. Not out of reach, but very tough.
We could easily be at anywhere from 7-1 to 4-4 at this point. The schedule gets ven easier in pt. 2.....