Bob Slowik Has Some Work To Do
Whether we are talking about our defense in 2008, last year's defense or last quarter's defense, one thing will always be eminently true: defenses need to adjust. The changes can be scheme, personnel, technique, or even timing or rotations.
But every adjustment isn't perfect. A team tries one thing for particular reasons, such as bringing a safety into the box to prevent the run, while sacrificing their ability against the pass. If you adjust, you open yourself up to other problems, in order to capitalize on some benefit you are keying in on.
In short, adjustments don't happen in a vacuum. They all feature various levels of risk/reward.
For our fledgeling 2008 defense, Hoosierteacher sat down with me to take a look at a handful of potential adjustments the Broncos could make to even off the Broncos defensive performance after two weeks that featured concerning lapses, with the latest lapse leading to a shootout where either team had equal shots at the win. In looking at these adjustments and how they would affect the Broncos we found ourselves asking questions about the Broncos current scheme, their long term plans, and their weaknesses. The results are intriguing.
Adjustment #1: Jack Williams
It is almost never a good thing to hear a cornerbacks name getting called, throughout the course of a game. Their work occurs offscreen for the most part and a successful play from them is predominately a non-play.
So when Karl Paymah features extensively in the Charger's gameplan, including a critical play on the Charger's final drive, where but for a slightly errant pass that carried the receiver out of bounds, would have surely put the Chargers within distance of a makeable fieldgoal, an adjustment needs to be made.
Within the game itself, and particularly on that drive, where the sideline is such valuable territory, switching Bly to the outside WR from his slot/zone coverage in the middle of the field would certainly have seemed like a viable move. But over the longer term we have to ask ourselves what is missing on the edge, and how we can keep Bly where he is more effective, swiveling in space and staying with receivers out of the slot. Paymah brings a height and weight matchup that looks good in one-on-one matchups on paper, yet he is asked to play off, allowing receivers to drive him off of their routes, opening space for quick completions underneath. Paymah reacts as well as one could ask of a DB against whom completions are being consistently made, but what is missing?
Hoosierteacher: Williams has the quality I love, which is speed. For a CB, speed does so many things. It helps to prevent being outrun for one. It also helps for covering mistakes. It also helps a CB to get position to break up a pass. It has many applications that one might not have thought of on first glance. For example, speed is momentum, and can add force to a tackle. Speed allows for errors, since a fast player is more likely to get back in the play if he has been tricked. Speed means less time for an opponent to make decisions. Speed means less chance of being seen during a play. Speed on defense means a greater opportunity to be involved in ending the play.
Williams also brings an adjustment to the defensive side of the ball that could help in terms of bringing about more aggressive playcalling. He has the traits of a good man corner, even though his background is in zone. Like Champ and Bly he has great "swivel speed", and excellent acceleration. His preseason work indicated that he is aggressive around the ball, with great hands and vision, and an ability to get involved in the play. And like the young players we have brought in on offense, he has that exciting drive and tenacity that not only energizes fans, but intimidates opponents. By playing him up close to the receiver, knowing that he can compensate with his speed, opposing offenses won't get an automatic checkoff on the outside when he lines up, and the QBs will be forced to take their time and go through their progressions normally, which can aid the pass rush.
But there is a tradeoff. Paymah has experience running Slowik's plays, and though he often backed off of the line, he had a size mismatch on medium and smaller receivers. Additionally, Williams size is what led to his status as a second day pick rather than a first day pick, and his recognition was considered weak against double moves. To assuage those concerns somewhat I would merely point out that as a successful zone corner in college, he could recognize plays and that most of us would agree that size is overrated in a corner. But these are still tradeoffs and should be considered.
Adjustment #2: Jarvis Moss
The pass rush is lacking. Understatement? Perhaps. It was lacking last year as well, and we seem to be asking the same guys to do the same things as we did towards the end of the year. With DOOM still waiting to have pins removed from his thumbs, and a run specialist in Engleberger getting the only DE sack, some kind of adjustment, even a temporary one, is in order. And again, I advocate speed. By stretching the boundaries of the oline, we can create a soft-center to aid our, to this point, unproductive DTs. But Moss' deactivation in two games thus far indicates that we would take a SERIOUS hit against the run.
Hoosierteacher: Tough call. Yes, we need a pass rush very much. But I'm thinking Moss is not making a good impression on the coaches, or he would be out there. EK is at least a known quality. Despite his run stopping role, he was pretty decent in hurry ups last year. I may be overly simplistic, but I'm thinking Moss must be looking terrible in practice to not be seeing the field.
Concerns about a D-Lineman's "bust potential" in only his second year, and after only his eight potential start, merit some serious deliberation. What has he shown to cause such concern? The answer is "Nothing." And that is the problem.
Putting that performance record into a game is a huge risk. And increasing the speed on the outside pass rush would come at the cost of allowing big runs if Moss were to show a lack of discipline or recognition at this early stage of his career, both better than likely propositions.
But nothing risked, nothing earned. I advocate finding out sooner than later what we have in a player, when he is under the lights.
Adjustment #3: Get the SS out of the Box
Let me be 100% clear here: this will NEVER happen. But lets bat the idea around a little bit.
Shanahan understands what it means to be a team that can't stop the run. You lose things that, at their root, devastate your defense, things that the pass doesn't begin to exploit. HT explains:
Hoosierteacher: One reason that Denver is probably leaving a SAF in the box is the fear every coach has of being run over. Everything else that a defensive coordinator deals with can be fixed in game. But when a team is running the ball down your throat (as happened last year), you lose everything. The opposing team picks up yards, first downs, eats up the clock, gets points, and wears down your players. Worn down players STAY worn down, and are also more prone to injury. And here's another thought:
Denver may be so confident in the offensive attack machine that we have, that they would much rather face a shootout that they think they can win. Opposing teams would be very wise to run the ball to keep our offense off of the field, and that may be what we are doing.
What is interesting is how advocating a move to a much more well rounded defense seems to indicate a deeper defensive trend, or lack thereof. At its root, moving the SS back can stop teams from scoring, and provide opportunities to change momentum, or outright dominate, allowing our excellent ball-hawking man corners to read the play and play between the receiver and the ball, knowing that they have a safety behind them. With the skill of our corners, this philosophy should pay off more than it doesn't.
Yet not only do we not do this, we don't consider it even. And beyond that even, is the cardinal sin of playing a player out of position, the key to creating mismatches for the offense:
Hoosierteacher: I don't like it. The defense doesn't have to be great, but it needs to be at least decent. Without the pass rush, our CBs have no help up front. Without the SAFs playing over-coverage, they have no help in back. If Denver really wants to play a SS in the box, they might as well play a 46 defense. What they are doing now is using the SS as a SAF out of position though, instead of being committed to a true 46 role. I don't like the 46 (at all), but at least it would have us playing in purposeful system.
So what is our purpose?
Defensive Adjustments: Building for the future
We insist on playing a player out of position. The D-Line works in a state of retraction, favoring a steady push over backfield havoc. The LBs spend more time in coverage then they do attacking the offense.
This is a defense that is buying itself time.
The big question is, Time for what? It is obvious that what they are doing right now isn't the end all of Broncos Defensive Philosophy. In fact, it doesn't even resemble a Bronco's defense. What are they waiting for?
One thought is that they simply haven't picked up on Slowik's defensive scheme, and that, like a good teacher, rather than bog them down in pragmatic adjustments that serve no long term purpose, Slowik is drilling them in the fundamentals needed to be a strong second half of the season team. Playing a safety out of position to adjust, rather than a member of the front seven, seems to indicate that this is the case.
But the use of the front seven, the core of the defense, seems to indicate another, much less satisfactory route, in terms of 2008 success. Shanahan spent years rebuilding his offense, and relying on his ability to coach and gameplan in order to remain competitive. The goal was an offense that couldn't be stopped, yet was salary cap friendly. With the LBs not playing to the strength of a scheme (any recognizable scheme) and a dline that prioritizes steadiness over impact, their seems to be an implicit endictment of our current personnel, at least at some positions and some levels. Our defense is being asked to play like a backup QB, manage the game and don't make mistakes, and don't get in the way of the offense.
Whether it is some brilliant scheme yet to be installed by Slowik, or the infusion of a particular level of talent, this is a defense that lies in wait. Not in hiding, and not holding anything back, but just exercising a frustrating (too fans) level of patience when it comes to asserting itself with consistency.
I'll let HT have the last word:
Hoosierteacher: Right now, I think Shanahan is relying on the following long term strategic vision:
1. This is a year to gel young talent on the offense for years to come. Accordingly, Cutler will be given the playbook, and will air out the ball to get the practice he (and the young receivers) need to be stars for years to come.
2. For this year, it looks like we may be a shoot out team on offense which can't rely on total help from the defense. Because the offense is complete, Denver can spend the next several years focused on the defense.
3. Despite not being designed for a SB this year, the team will attempt it. They have an excellent shot at the playoffs, but will struggle if they don't find a footing on defense against the elite teams in the playoffs.
4. Next year, Denver may go "all in". They may use trades, the draft, and FA to attract playmakers on defense. Next year's offense will continue to be elite. In my mind, the real push for a SB (and a dynasty) start in '08.
Many readers won't want to hear that, particularly with the team at 2-0. But an all out offense with little defense is not a good thing. We at least need a good and consistent defense.