The Broncos are 2-0. They lead the NFL in offense. They lead the NFL in scoring. Denver though, is a young team still learning how to put games away and win in tough situations.
The following list isn’t meant to be a buzz-kill, it is meant to highlight things that have developed during the last two games and things that prior to the season starting, are points that most of us would have pegged as "something to watch" on Sundays. Let’s take a look at our progress.
Red Zone Scoring
Albeit a small sample size (2 games), the Broncos have not only improved but imposed their will in the Red Zone. They have scored a TD 80% of the time (8 of 10 trips) they’ve reached the Red Zone this season. Last season, they scored a TD 49% of the time. Denver has scored 4 TD’s through the air and 4 TD’s on the ground (in the Red Zone – Denver has 2 other passing TD’s that came from outside 20 yards). Last season, Denver scored 10 rushing TD’s total and one of those was Cutler’s. Denver hasn’t been above the 60% TD mark since 2005, when they earned a shot to play for the Super Bowl. Denver is ranked #2 in the NFL in TD percentage so far in 2008.
2 (potential) Red Zone turnovers in the last 5:30
Lost in the adulation that comes from winning the first ESPN Classic game of the 2008 season is the fact that Denver’s star QB turned the ball over twice in the final minutes of the game on arguably the two most important offensive drives of the game. Cutler tried to get the ball to Eddie Royal on 3rd and 3 from the 4 yard line. Royal darted in, then up field into the back of the endzone, but Cutler floated the ball to where Royal would have been had he stopped or slowed his route on the "in" portion. It was a miscommunication, a poor pass, or both. It led to a touchdown and 2 point conversion for the Chargers. On the following drive, we all know what happened. The ball was slick but the bottom line is that it was fumbled and Cutler and Denver were the beneficiaries of a misjudgment by a referee. Not to say Cutler had a bad game. He threw the ball 50 times; 48 of those times he was just about perfect. The fumble was a freak play that frankly, you can NOT blame on the young QB. These things happen. BUT, the interception is a huge play and Jay needs to either run or throw that ball away. I felt as though he twisted during his throwing motion indicating to me that he knew he didn’t want to throw that ball or that he tried to change the speed, trajectory, or target of his throw mid-way through his motion. We need to remember that this is his second season and it won’t come without heartburn at times.
DJ Williams, Champ Bailey, Dre Bly, and Boss Bailey
These guys are all playing very well on a much maligned defense. How many times did you hear Dre Bly’s name on Sunday? Boss Bailey? Champ had Chris Chambers covered but (although it’s killing me to say it) Phillip Rivers made a gorgeous throw and hit Chambers in stride, just over the outstretched arms of Champ. Other than that, Champ was locked in, played well, and as always, tackled just about everyone that came near him in the running game. DJ Williams is starting to get noticed again. He is playing with confidence, speed, and maybe most importantly, decisiveness. He was everywhere on Sunday afternoon. Anytime someone got the ball in the backfield, you saw a number 55 chasing him down or filling a gap or shedding a blocker. San Diego runs weakside more than any team in the NFL. DJ Williams plays weakside linebacker. San Diego picked up 80 yards on the day and Tomlinson only accounted for 26 of them on 10 carries.
Jarvis Moss, Karl Paymah
Jarvis Moss has been inactive for the entire 2008 season. Okay that sounds more dramatic than it is but for both games played, Moss has been out of pads. All I can say in his defense is both teams Denver's played are rushing oriented teams. However, a 1st round pick cannot be inactive for consecutive games in just his second year. If he his, then he’s either hurt or a bust. He’s not hurt and therefore must be a bust. The only way Moss contributes at this point seems to be if he becomes a specialty 3rd down pass rusher. Who knows, maybe because the Saints can’t run the ball Moss will get lots of playing time this week. Unless he makes an impact in the first half of this season, and a noticeable impact at that, I can’t imagine Denver will keep him on the roster. I’d rather put new talent that fits the scheme in the lineup than talent that doesn’t fit the scheme. Karl Paymah is Denver’s #3 corner but he was Phil Rivers’ #1 target. Paymah looked overmatched and out of position all day. He didn’t look confident. The only thing I noticed is that he was playing off the WR at the snap and giving a short to medium zone to the WR and protecting himself from a the deep pass (his Achilles heel as a pro). He was misjudging routes and timing. People like to bring up Foxworth here but Foxworth made the same mistakes Paymah did except Foxworth is 2 inches smaller and 20 lbs lighter than Paymah. I’ll still take Paymah, but he must improve and fast. He will be tested this week by Drew Brees who is a smarter, more accurate version of Rivers.
The RBs, WRs, TEs
It’s no secret already in the 2008 season that Eddie Royal, Brandon Marshall, and Brandon "Slot Machine" Stokley are the best WR corps in the NFL. They are, two games in, this season’s version of Moss, Welker, and Stallworth. Everyone’s two questions were: 1) Is Eddie Royal ready for a starting job and able to compete at the highest level against the best talent on a consistent basis and 2) can Brandon Marshall pick up where he left off last season? The answers were both a resounding YES! Royal dominated the Oakland Game and caught the (potential) game winning TD on Sunday as well as the game winning 2-Point conversion. Marshall on the other hand, leads the NFL in receptions but has only played one game. He came up two receptions short of T.O.’s NFL record of 20 in one game with his 18 receptions. The RBs have been as advertised, maybe a little better. The Broncos RBs are on pace for 32 TDs this season. While we know that won’t happen, Michael Pittman has proven he can get yards when it counts. Andre Hall and Selvin Young have also done their part picking up tough yards but also gashing the defense in this new pass-first offense that Denver has employed. The TEs are all seeing the ball but as expected, Tony Scheffler already has 2 TDs and a per catch average over 15 yards per reception. He’s been flexed out with regularity. Dan Graham has been utilized differently this year and has caught a few balls this season as well. He has been in motion a lot this season as evidenced by playing from five different spots on the first five plays vs. the Chargers.
This is obvious. Specifically, Kickoff returns. Prater must find a way to get more touchbacks out of his leg. Denver’s personnel on kickoffs has changed a lot already this season because of injuries to Louis Green and Hamza Abdullah but it’s not an excuse for letting Darren Sproles average nearly 39 yards per kickoff return and bring one back for a TD. Against the lowly Raiders, Johnnie Lee Higgins averaged almost 26 yard per return but almost brought one back, being corralled by Champ Bailey well into Broncos’ territory. You would think with Niko, Larsen, and some of the young athletes that Denver sports, that the kick coverage unit would be physical and dominant but that is not the case. There have been huge, gaping holes in the middle of the field for returners to find in each of the two games this season. This problem must be solved or Denver will be giving away at least a field goal once a game this season.
Matt Prater has exceeded expectations. He nailed a 52 yarder on Sunday and would have been the goat of the game had he missed the kick. The last time I heard Jason Elam’s name uttered by a Broncos fans was my fantasy draft and that’s a very good thing for Matt Prater. Brett Kern has also been good but not spectacular. He’s put the ball where Denver wants it but needs to work on NOT outkicking his coverage. He’s netting over 40 yards a punt. He’s punted five times; two have been kicked inside the opponent’s 20. The average punt return is 4.5 yards and he’s grossing 48.2 yards a kick. I’m impressed.
We saw Oakland players get open a handful of times on misdirection plays targeting Denver’s aggressive and fast LB’s and Safeties. But, we saw San Diego absolutely punish Denver’s secondary to the tune of 377 yards and 3 TDs on 33 attempts. Who’s to blame and what’s to fix? Problem number one is the pass rush. Where was it? Denver sacked Rivers only one time and didn’t really pressure him into many bad throws. Denver played nickel and dime most of the game and only rushed three in the late 3rd and 4th quarters but that’s no excuse. At some point, Denver needs to bring more pressure at the risk of sacrificing big plays, which they were giving up with regularity anyway. They had nothing to lose by bringing an overload blitz on Rivers, who isn’t a speedy player. But they never did it. Denver is going to have to adjust their strategy. Again, Brees will test these guys this Sunday. The difference is that Denver sold out to the run for most of the Charger game and will not do so against New Orleans. Denver needs to find a way to get pressure SOME of the time because right now they are getting pressure NONE of the time.
I’ll make this one quick. Denver is the #1 offense in the NFL after 2 weeks. The Oakland game was a gimme (not that we knew that then), but San Diego’s defense is no slouch. The Oakland and San Diego cornerbacks are 4 of the top 15 or so corners in the league. That hasn’t stopped Denver’s dynamic set of pass catchers from mauling them physically and statistically. Denver is #2 in the NFL in pass yards per game (Philly). They are #10 in rush yards per game (not bad!), but Denver has thrown for more TD’s than any other team except for the Chargers (see above). Cutler’s rating is 118.6. The offensive line has NOT allowed a sack this season (technically they have – the 4th quarter fumble by Cutler that was ruled an incomplete pass counted as a team sack for San Diego). They have protected Cutler and done an amazing job getting their teammates time to execute. The field personnel aren’t the only group doing its part though, the coaches have stepped up as well. Mike Shanahan and Jeremy Bates have set their opponents on their collective ear. The play calling has been innovative and the results have been extraordinary. The players really seem to be having fun and Cutler, Marshall, Royal, and Scheffler all seem to be on the cusp of stardom.