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IN DENVER BRONCO PRE-GAME ANALYSIS
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So you thought week one was important? Well, it was. After all, Denver was playing a division rival (ok, ok, the division rival), it was a Monday Night Football game, and the first game of the 2008 season. Still, this week's game goes well beyond all of that.
Denver leads the AFC West. With a win against SD, Denver takes a commanding lead over the team many "experts" pick to represent the AFC West in the playoffs.
Along with NE, this is supposed to be one of the toughest games on a weak schedule. Did I say NE? They of "Bradyless" fame?
More than any other game this season, this game should indicate the readiness of Denver to get back to the playoffs. SD is a better team than Oakland.
While many Denver fans waited for the season to start on Monday against the hated Raiders, this is perhaps the game fans have really waited for. Monday was the game we wanted emotionaly. Monday's game was a test. Now the season really starts. This is the game where Denver answers the question, "Are we for real?" This is the game where the quest really takes off.
Let's take a look at both teams; the systems, the players, the Xs and Os, the match-ups. The last game was nice, but against a basement team. This game is against the current AFC West Champions, and we need to know what's in store for the game.
The San Diego Defense -
First, let's take a look at the SD defense. The following is an excerpt from a longer article that I wrote for Milehighreport.com about common systems run from a 3-4 defense (the full article can be found here) . The article mentions terms like "one gap" and "two gap", and explanations can be found here.
This system is not what people think of when they think of the 3-4, because the original 3-4 was/is strictly a 2-gap system.
In fact, look at the Denver "Orange Crush Defense" of the late 70's. It was run by Red Miller, and one of his assistants at the time was Coach Belichick. Belichick ended up in NE as we all know, while Fairbanks returned to college coaching in Colorado. Denver fans would thus be more likely than many fans to think of the 3-4 in terms of 2 gap, but you can still read the mistaken notion in many sports sites and publications.
The Phillips is named after "Bum Phillips", father of DAL head coach Wade Phillips, who formerly coached the Broncos as both a head coach and defensive coordinator. Bum learned under Paul "Bear" Bryant at A&M and had coached high school football well enough to break into the college ranks (not a common route). He was a defensive coordinator in SD, then in HOU (that's the Oilers for you young folks). He later was a head coach in HOU and later for NO.
Phillips was an innovator who turned the 3-4 upside down. His system is one-gap. The DL penetrates, and is charged with constant harrasment of the QB. The LBs are typically fast, and at least one of them will blitz on any given play.
The reason for the near constant 1-LB blitz is to account for the fact that the outnumbered DL is also relatively undersized and only one-gapping. However, the adjustments work out well. The OL never knows who the blitzer will be, or where he will come from. The Phillips is more aggressive that the Bullough. The school of thought for the Phillips 3-4 is the need to pressure against the QB to stop the pass threat, and this is done by varying who the "fourth rusher" (who is really a blitzer) is.
Add another blitzer in here and there, and the speedy/aggressive Phillips system is a threat to QBs, and attempts to get turnovers by slashing the time that a QB has to make decisions.
This is the system of choice for DAL, but also SD.
It is not the ideal system for SD in one sense. Denver (king of the offensive "zone block " system for runs) and oakland (newly switched to the zone block) are built to run over the 1 gap defenses, and they share the division with SD. SD adjusts for this by:
- Relying on a high tempo offense featuring LT, Gates, and Chambers to dictate games,
- Backing up the LBs to give them more reactionary distance, and
- shooting for a better record against the Chiefs (2 games) and the other 10 games out of division.
So now, I hope you have a good idea of what the SD defensive system is all about. Now let's plug in the players.
The most notable issue for SD is that they are missing Shawne Merriman for the season. He is considered to be perhaps the best defensive player for SD, having been a star at the weak, outside linebacker position. This position (in the Phillips system) is faster that the ILBs, and should be equaly adept at man, zone, and blitzing duties. Jyles Tucker should be a major step down or SD.
The remaining LB corps is solid across the board.
SD's cornerbacks are elite, most notably starters Cromartie and Jammer. While Jammer has been around the block for awhile, Cromartie is a newer, growing sensation. Along with Denver and Oakland (two other AFC West teams), this is one of the top CB tandems in the entire League.
Hart (strong) and Weddle (free) are the safeties. Again, SD presents with solid players across the board. I particularly like Weddle, who is a threat to any offensive player that gets through coverage.
There is also no real weakness on the front three. Defensive ends Olshanky and Castillo are more than adequate at hitting their gaps, as is nose tackle Jamal Williams.
All in all, SDs defense is good at DL, very good at SAF, and elite at CB. While one could call them something between elite and very good at LB, with the loss of Merriman they downgrade somewhat to being "just" good. With the exception (perhaps) of a back-up player at ROLB (weak LB), this defense has no real holes.
The Denver Offense -
Denver's offense looks to explode onto the scene in 2008. Just ask Oakland.
QB Jay Cutler was hailed by some sports journalists as being a top ten QB last year. This was even after Cutler lost 33 pounds to untreated diabetes. Now Jay has the condition under treatment, has gained back his weight, and no longer deals with fatigue. He's a pocket passer that, according to (former) Coach Mike Ditka can throw better on the run than any current QB. Culter ran an option system at Vanderbilt, and knows how to run and throw on the run. He has a gun for an arm too. But his poise, and his intelligence make him perfect as a drop back passer in Coach Mike Shanahan's (prefered) drop and pass program. Cutler has the tools and the poise to be a top five QB this year.
And his targets are frighteningly good. #1 wide receiver Marshall is back after a one game suspension, and has the power to fight for a ball, then run over the first one or two tacklers he encounters. Rookie Eddie Royal showed (against pro bowler DeAngelo Hall) that he has veteran route skills, blazing speed, and sure hands. Royal played as the #1 receiver against Oakland. He will only have to play as the #2 against SD. That's great news for Denver fans alone. Now one adds in slot receiving star Brandon Stokley, and SDs job should be harder.
But it doesn't stop there. While TE Graham is likely to pass block most of the game (and he is perhaps the best blocking TE in the League), TE Scheffler was a favorite target for Cutler last year in the passing game. Add in TE (former receiver) Nate Jackson, who caught a bomb on Monday night, and you have a perfect storm in the making.
Denver's committee running back program features Young and Hall, each whom garnered over a 5 ypc average (and running back, short down specialist Pittmann, who tied for third in scoring in the League last week). No worries there.
And Denver's O-Line is legendary. What can be added there? Oh, right. No sacks against Cutler last week.
Denver's first round draft pick, Ryan Clady, has been perfect so far:
Denver, like SD, features no weaknesses. Denver is elite or excellent across the board. So what happens when Denver's offense meets San Diego's defense?
Bronoco offense vs Charger defense
The first thing to note is Denver's advantage in zone blocking against a one gap system. SD can (and will) mitigate the mismatch by zoning LBs not assigned to the Denver half back, and assigning a LB (probably an inside linebacker) to that runner. SD can do this because DEN will not likely run to the sides against a 3-4 defense (which features OLBs that are spread further left and right than a 4-3).
The result, on running plays, is that Denver is very likely to pick up easy short yardage. Few running tackles should be made by the DL, with the LBs and even safeties making most of these tackles.
If the DEN O-Line gets penetration to the second level (LBs), Denver's one cut runners are likely to increase their gains from short yards to medium and long gains. SD must tackle on first contact to hold Denver. Failure to bring down a Denver runner on first contact in this scheme match-up can mean disaster for the Chargers. As long as the Chargers tackle well, they can hold back the flood. But they must do it on every running play with consistency, because Denver only needs one mistake to go the distance.
Denver's run game will be set up by the pass game (as it was against Oakland). Denver was not afraid to pair a rookie WR against a #1 CB (and pro-bowler to boot). This week, that rookie (who holds the League's top reception stat), that QB (who holds a triple digit passing rating), and the the team's real #1 WR bring their game to bear against another talented secondary.
SD will rely on a pass rush coupled with varied LB blitz packages. They must get pressure if their secondary is going to cover Denver's receivers. This pass rush will meet a team that hasn't given up any sacks so far.
Denver can try to minimize QB pressure in several ways.
By shooting for an early lead that can be protected with the running game. This is tricky for SD to count on though. Denver can take the early lead and switch to a high octane run game, or they can do what they did to Oakland - just keep passing (if successful).
With misdirection (the signature bootleg play, and the common cut-backs), it can be difficult for players to stay on assignment (going after the QB).
Cutler is more of a pocket passer than previous Denver QBs, but he scrambled at Vandy, and has scrambled well in DEN. He can get out of the pocket easily, run, and still put the ball on target at great range.
Denver's O-Line did something amazing against Oakland, given Cutler what seemed like YEARS to throw the ball.
The classic approach to protect QBs from 3-4 rushes is with a two tight end set. Denver is capable with 3 solid TEs.
SD will counter by doing what they do best. Most plays that show pass will feature one (and likely no more than two) LBs coming at Cutler from varied directions. Power is not the SD forte. SD will rely on deception and speed to get into the Denver backfield. This should work better that Oakland's Press and Force system, since Denver has a rookie LT and a RT playing in his first full year (after a rookie season injury). Where Denver's young tackles could use sound technique against Oakland, they will really need experience and football smarts to counter a SD type rush / blitz package.
SD will be unable to double cover receivers. Both Marshall and Hall are legitimate threats, but Denver can also hit their TEs as well. In passing situations, the base defense expectation is to have both SD safeties deep, CBs in single coverage, and a LB covering a TE, one LB to blitz, and two LBs to zone. SD will vary this to some extent, but primarily which LB has which assignment.
The Denver Defense -
The expectation at MHR for Slowik's defense this year was the Man - Show Blitz system. Oddly enough, Denver didn't show much in the way of a particular system in the Oakland game. Where they doing so well on defense (Raiders scoreless the first three quarters) that they felt they could hid their blitz packages until the big game in week two? Aggressive minded coordinator Slowik didn't have to attack much at all, and played a simple, one gap, man defense. But that defense was star studded.
Denver's obvious strength is at CB, where the two leading interception masters for years (Bailey and Bly) play on the same team. Elite
While Denver lost a legend at strong safety (Lynch), they seem to improved overall at the safety position with former Charger McCree and new addittion Manuel. Good.
2nd in the NFL (2007) tackler DJ Williams moves from MLB to his prefered WLB position, and the team moved Webster to MLB and got Boss Bailey from Detroit to play at SAM. Here, the question marks start. Williams is great; no doubt about it. Webster has had some issues in the past playing at SAM, but he is now back to MLB and played well in Oakland. The jury is still out there. And WInborn played at SAM for an injured B. Bailey, so Denver fans still haven't made a decision on that side of the field. Good.
The situation remains murky at DT. Denver will rely on Marcus Thomas and DeWayne Robertson, with some rotation of other tackles. Again, the jury is out on how well this position holds up for Denver. Question mark.
Things look better at DE. Denver feels they have a future pro-bowl talent with Elvis Dumervil, and they have four other DEs who are either pass rush or run stopping specialists. None of the five players are weak. Very good.
The San Diego Offense -
This is where the game could be decided. Rivers is a decent enough QB, but his weapons are incredible.
Tomlinson is perhaps the best RB in the League. He can run like no one else, he can catch, heck, he can even pass! He is the player that Charger opponents worry about the most.
Gates is one of the premier TEs in the League. His talent is such that Bailey (Denver CB) was charged with covering him instead of a WR in the past. Until...
...the arrival of WR Chambers. Now, with Bailey forced to cover Chambers, the job of covering Gates falls to either a Denver safety or Denver's SAM. whichever player covers Gates leaves a hole for Tomlinson.
Put this package behind a solid offensive line, and you can see the problems that teams face.
Charger offense vs Bronco defense
Worth considering is the state of the Chargers. They are an elite team that has done well recently. But cracks started to show in the pre-season through the first game (a loss to Carolina). Merriman (defense) is out, and both Gates and Tomlinson are coming back from injuries. Even Rivers is in recovery. A little rust is showing here and there. The Chargers, 0-1 are going into Denver, 1-0.
The Charger plan is simple, but deadly when executed. Give the ball to LT, and have him run weakside (not common for most NFL teams). SD like to pull the RG on the OL to block for LT as well.
When a team starts cheating up the safeties to account for the run, Gates and Chambers spread the field. Gates is a mismatch for most LBs (speed) and safeties (power). Chambers doesn't have to be spectacular. He only needs to keep the #1 CBs in the League and the safeties from concentrating all of their energy on Gates.
Denver kept the vaunted Raider RBs (Fargas and McFadden) from breaking out, but they didn't exactly stop them either. LT should be a more difficult prospect. If Denver can stop LT, or at least slow him down, SD will go to the air.
In the air, Bailey is mor than a match for Chambers. The problem is, who stops Gates? Boss Bailey (at SAM) may be able to, but we don't yet know. Manuel isn't a speed demon at SS, and McCree has the speed, but is the primary insurance against anyone covering Gates or Chambers. In other words, who backs-up the safety when the safety covers the TE?
This is Denver's chance to break out the blitz program (if it is going to happen). Rivers has good qualites, but playing under pressure isn't one of them. If Denver can infiltrate the pocket, they can help to cause interceptions. If not, Denver will have to prove that they have a player that can shut down Gates.
Pick your poison. Gates or LT. If Denver can stop both players, they should have a defense to go with their powerful offense. If not, the game becomes a shootout.
QB - DEN
RB - SD
WR - DEN
TE - EVEN
OL - DEN
DT / NT - SD
DE - DEN
LB - EVEN
CB - DEN
SAF - SD
STs - EVEN
COACHING - DEN
Keys to the Game
Denver will win this game if they can do two things.
Protecting Cutler is the most important key. If he has the protection, Cutler will put up Peyton Manning numbers.
Run the ball effectively. If Denver can run the ball, the game is over.
- Get to Culter. Denver has too many weapons to scheme against only one or two of them. They must pressure Cutler, or he'll have a field day.
- If the Chargers can get good running production, they can keep Cutler off of the field, win the "time of possession" war, and gain good field position.
Denver comes into the game with a lopsided victory over the Raiders. The Raiders feature elite RBs, and Elite CBs. Denver's #2 WR (rookie) Royal ran circles around DeAngelo Hall, while the Denver defense hurried QB Russell and kept the game scoreless for three quarters. SD, on the other hand, lost a close heartbreaker to CAR, and didn't look impressive doing it.
The game is in Denver (altitude and crowd noise).
Here's what I am thinking. All during (what we at MHR call) the reloading season, I felt Denver would split the series with Oakland. The more I researched before the game the more I felt that, even without #1 WR Marshall, the Broncos would win this game. Even so, I though it would be close. I was wrong. Denver exceeded my wildest expectations.
Again, during the realoading season, I thought Denver's goal should be to split the series with SD, but the reality might be different. I would have picked SD to win one game for sure, with the remaining game to be 50-50 chances. The more I research, and from I saw in week one, I'm again adjusting my predictions.
Denver is the younger team, and has more potential for growth by the end of the season (when we face SD again). But that game will be in SD. It's too far out to guess on that game.
But this game is different. While Denver made a few first game mistakes (a few bobbled receptions, for example), they looked confident and calm. SD (from the few clips I've seen) don't look like the SD we're used to.
If the week one Chargers play the week one Broncos (add in Marshall), this game is over. Denver doesn't have to change a thing, while the burden is on SD to improve.
I'll take Denver.