Welcome to 3-0, Denver! The team that destroyed the raiders on the road will still not get as much respect until they beat a few of the teams in the upcoming stretch. I'm not worried about that happening. We have had a series of things in our favor over the other squads that we've taken been able to use. Those advantages have involved personnel matchups, coaching matchups, scheme, attitude and execution. In today's effort, I'm going to start with the biggest among them.
Carving Them Up
The Broncos had a 12th man on the field all game against the raiders, and it was perfectly legal. It was Josh McDaniels. Last year, he laid 49 points on the raiders when he was with New England. This year, he destroyed both their offense and defense. Credit Mike Nolan on defense, but the offensive side was all Josh McDaniels.
One of the tricks was simple - the raiders don't make accommodations, and in today's NFL, that's not going to get you very far. They play the defense that they always play, essentially with 4 rushers, man-to-man coverage on the receivers and 5 players in support of whatever they see, pass or rush. They are, in this respect, the antithesis of the Amoeba-based Broncos. The Broncos made adjustments and conquered. If this was a contest between the old and the new, it was the horse and buggy against the modern hybrid. Their horse didn't make it out of the stable. The Broncos, however, did.
One of the simple techniques was to run underneath and to use crossing routes to defeat the coverage. Time after time, Denver's receivers came open. Brandon Marshall consistently got a matchup underneath Kirk Morrison, which is going to go in Denver's favor 9 of 10 times. Ryan Clady and Company frustrated the defensive line of the raiders, not giving up a sack and opening huge lanes for the running game. Rumors that Kyle Orton was back there with time to make espresso are in error - it was actually cappuccino, and he shared it with the receiving corps. As I'll discuss later, the O-line was nearly faultless.
This is a simple example of a more far-reaching principle. The Broncos are headed by one of the finest minds in offensive strategy - again. This time, it's the modern offensive strategy. Even Mike Shanahan has commented on all the great things that he finally has time to study now that he's 'retired'. The game is constantly changing. Coach McDaniels is at the tip of the spear, so to speak - an innovator as well as a student of the history of the game. This is the man who was the coordinator and called the plays for the most prolific offense in NFL history. That's not a small thing.
But this is also a man who got his start in the NFL on the defensive side. He was successful on offense in great part because he understood defenses and designed strategies to defeat them. He now has Mike Nolan, designing and carrying out the best defense he can and Brian Xanders, constantly looking for players to make the team stronger and managing the contractual side. Xanders is an often-missed piece of this puzzle. Those members who are currently concerned with how the team will pay for its players in a possibly uncapped year aren't aware of how Xanders is already constantly working on the puzzle. I'm looking forward to watching his efforts play out.
I'll talk more about this later, but those who question if our offense is up to the Cowboys aren't really thinking of how much Josh McDaniels is aware of the team's strengths and weaknesses. At 6:00 of the third quarter Monday night, the Cowboys had scored exactly 3 points against a Carolina team that in no way reflects the performances of last season. Dallas got their final touchdown on a pick-6 INT, or they would have been vulnerable to losing over a single score - while at home and playing against a team that is now 0-3 and seems to be self-destructing. This isn't a juggernaut bearing down on Denver. McDaniels was watching the game and he was seeing the coaches' film the next day. I'm not concerned.
When I was watching the preseason, I listened to a lot of folks who were deeply concerned when we didn't click immediately on offense. After a single half of the first game, there was a resurgence of the 'Fire Orton' contingent. McDaniels wasn't as smart as he thought he was, right? Was he? But after three games in which we've scored 62 points and given up 16, fans should know that this is a team that, for a change, you can trust. The pieces are there, the coaching is there, and the level of play is something that is currently new to this fair city. It's been a long time. Perhaps that's why it's hard to see at times. We still see through the eyes of the last few years.
Cincinnati is better by far than folks thought. We held them scoreless for how long, and in their home stadium? Our offense hadn't started to click; but since then, each week we get better with 27 and 23 points in the past two games, respectively. In fairness to this team, I think that you have to look at both where the defense is and where the offense is going. That's normal, with a new scheme and many new players. We do better each week. Last week, our rushing attack fully came of age. The week before, we gained a total of 449 yards and took apart a team that wasn't close to as good as us. This week we embarrassed a division rival who had defeated Kansas City in KC. I'm starting to look at each new game like it's Christmas, wondering what will be our present this week. I look forward to seeing what we'll open up on the Cowboys.
Hanging Them Out to Dry
During Week 1 of this season, Kyle Orton had a couple of passes that the fans wanted him to take back. Coming across the middle against Cincinnati, two pass plays resulted in receivers - first Eddie Royal and then Brandon Marshall - getting clocked by Rey Maualuga. There were groans and cries that he stank, that he would get our receivers killed. Was that the case, or was Orton doing his job and the receivers living with theirs? There isn't a clear answer, but here are some perspectives that may help you understand what happened.
After that game, I went to Professor Hoosierteacher to ask him about the issue. Was Orton misguided in throwing those passes? Did he really hang those players out to dry? Here is the response he was kind enough to tender:
"You raise a good point about the QB making the call on a completed pass versus laying out the receiver. Here's my view...
The QB's only job is to get the ball downfield. Sure, if he can protect his receivers, that's a bonus. But I think that a QB has enough to deal with, and probably can't see everything.
In the case of floating a lob pass (when a bullet might have been better), it is probably fair to blame the QB. But in the case where a LB is charging the WR from the side, it is just too hard to second guess the QB. Orton may have led a receiver or two into a LB, but like I write in an earlier e-mail, no QB will do that on purpose, so it is fair to assume he didn't see the threat. And even if he did, he's paid to move the ball down the field, and the receiver is being paid to sacrifice his body to an extent.
I may be biased as a coach (I was never a receiver or a QB), and may be ignorant since I never coached an offense or an entire team. But that's how I imagine the thinking goes."
That put things is a slightly different light for me. If you watch both plays that most folks objected to, in each Maualuga is on the weakside, screened from Orton's view by the scrum at the O-line. Rey moves perfectly and hits like a grizzly, but that's the nature of the beast, so to speak. Going over the middle in the short zone takes a certain mentality. You've potentially got safeties, LBs and corners available to hit you, and frequently, it's a group-slam situation. Some players never master what it takes. Others take a certain fierce joy in it, reveling in the competition and anxious to prove that they can take the hits and bounce up.
In both of these cases, the pass was just high enough to get over the LOS, fast, fairly well thrown. Rey seems to have an innate sense of timing about this play and a lot of receivers will rue that fact, but it isn't necessarily Orton's fault. He has a half second, no more, to see the receiver, chose his read and get the ball moving. Football is, by its nature, a very tough sport and this is a great example of that fact.
Could Orton do better? Sure, and from the past two games, he already does. I wouldn't suggest that he did the right thing. I'm suggesting only that he is paid to complete passes and that's what he did. They weren't lobs. It wasn't a high pass that exposed the receivers' kidneys to the pile-driver of the safety. It was two passes, thrown fairly well, that resulted in a couple of massive hits by a player who may well be exceeding most folks' expectations at his position.
I always liked Rey and I thought that he'd do well in the NFL. I didn't think that the Broncos would like him only because of his style of play. He can be undisciplined at times and it was and is my impression that Josh McDaniels would not be interested in him for that reason. That's been true, and Andra Davis and Mario Haggan have let me be happy about it. Davis and Haggan are big guys who can hit very hard, but they both are playing tight, disciplined football. That's one of the hallmarks of our defense - everyone does his job and everyone trusts the guys next to him to do theirs. In a different system, a player might have more opportunities to freelance, to make decisions that might not fit the Broncos but might work well for another team. That's among the reasons that I didn't see Rey in predominantly orange, but as a Bengal, he's doing a very good job. Sometimes, that means he's able to make other players pay for doing theirs. More power to him.
By the way, I'd be remiss in talking about Orton today without giving a few more points on his work. Orton is averaging 7.5 yards per pass play and has a very respectable 91.2 QB rating with a 55.7% completion percentage. That probably won't get much higher, overall - Orton is a smart player who takes care of the ball. He'll throw it away to save the play and avoid the sacks and he knows that stats don't win ballgames. The Marshall TD in the first quarter was the 110th consecutive pass for Orton w/o an INT. By the end of the game, it was 128 passes for Kyle since throwing an INT (he threw two last December versus Green Bay). He also hasn't had a repeat of those throws that Rey defended so well. Whatever the wrinkle was, it's ironed out now.
I also enjoyed Josh McDaniels taking head-on this business of Orton as a 'game-manager' when talking to the press. That's a criticism that usually comes from those who don't know quite as much about football as they think they do - they talk about stats and completions as if those are the keys to a QB, and that's just not true. What else is there? Listen to McD, who gave some examples of the 'more' that a QB must have:
"We don't ever talk abut our quarterbacks as game managers, but you want a quarterback to be efficient, you want them to run the line of scrimmage and the huddle. He got us out of a bunch of plays (by calling audibles) yesterday at the line of scrimmage and in the running game which - you know, nobody ever talks about the quarterback when you run for 215 yards, but when he gets you out of a play that's going to go nowhere and you gain, you know, 26 on the play, he plays a part in good running, you know? So, not turning the ball over, you know, finding the open man when players are open and just being effective. Kyle certain could have done better yesterday but played well. And we're going to work to fix the things that he didn't do well. Once the game declares itself and you have a 17 point lead in the third quarter, you're not going to do things that could put the game in jeopardy.
"The quarterback has 12-15 things he has to go once the play is called (emphasis is mine). There's a lot of responsibility on his plate from the time he claps his hands to break the huddle to the moment that the ball is snapped. He has to call the cadence, to the identification of protection to 'Which running play should we go to', to reading the blitz, to figuring out if he has to get rid of it, to reading the overage to determine where he's going to throw it to reading our receivers to determining who's open. There's a lot of things that he has to do and Kyle does a lot of them well."
Coach McDaniels never claims that the team couldn't have done better and he probably never will. But the intelligence of Orton, his knowledge of the game and his abilities in the huddle and at the line have been underestimated since he came out of college, as have his arm strength and accuracy. Hopefully, that will diminish over time as people see more of him and learn more about the game from the head coach.
Fitting into the System
It's a principle that has been exposed this season - sometimes, it's more a matter of the fit between the player and the coach/system than it is a matter of how 'good' the player is. Almost all of the NFL's players are fairly 'good.' The big question tends to be - how well do you use the players that you have?
That fact is a major reason why most folks missed the boat on the Broncos' revival. It doesn't fit well into the quick, short, rote preconceptions that tend to pass for analysis and commentary, but it's an essential part of putting a competitive team on the field. In the first year of Josh McDaniels' head coaching career, McD has identified his needs and scouted his players to a 'T'. If you carefully ascertain the qualities that you need in a player and analyze the skill set of the player in a thorough and rational way, you can get a good fit and a good team relatively quickly.
There are limits, of course. Ray Lewis might be good in any system, but even then, a lot of folks questioned his desire to move to a 3-4. Would he fit? There are, as we can see, a lot of different 3-4 systems. Coverage LBs or not? Zone blitz? Bigger players, Bullough-type scheme? 5-2? Hybrid? As always, I recommend reading HT's classic, the Modern 3-4 Defenses. It never gets old. HT talked about what qualities (even though it's a fairly general article) are needed in players from different types of 3-4 schemes. He also talked to me more than once in emails about the smaller, lighter 'coverage' linebackers and how they might be used, even though that's not the approach that our team has taken. McDaniels and Nolan decided to go in a very specific direction. They found and molded a series of linebackers who have shown themselves to be excellent as individuals and adroit and effectual as players within the system. Intelligent, tough and physical was the yardstick. It's working.
The linebackers are very much of a type. Each of them is big and most are bigger than average, with the exceptions of D.J. Williams and Wes Woodyard. Darrell Reid's precise weight is a mystery, but it's above 260, probably about 270. Robert Ayers clocks in at 274. Doom is only 248 and you can see why he's beginning to flourish as his skill set and his position converge; he doesn't have the size to fight the tackles at the line and stop a ball carrier, but his leverage is unusually effective. With his 'running start', that's changing. Jarvis Moss is up to 257 and needs every pound; Andra Davis is comparatively light at 251. We only have one LB under 242, and Wesley Woodyard (who is ostensibly 222) hits like he's 265. Even so - he's a nickel LB and perfect for the position he plays. He is showing skills in coverage, a nose for the ball, and his special teams work is admirable. By the way, did you notice that Andra Davis and Mario Haggan asked to stay on special teams? Another consistency is that our players don't want to get off the field. They are versatile, able to handle multiple responsibilities, are generally more intelligent than average (and have a high Information Processing Speed, or IPS) as well as leadership qualities that stand out.
One of the things that has created such a remarkable performance on the Broncos' side of the ball has been the fact that McDaniels understands exactly what he wants from each player on the field. That sounds awfully rudimentary, doesn't it? Every head coach should know that about every player. The fact is (from all the reading I've done), that it's not as common as you would think. I tend to use Mario Haggan as a defensive example, so if you've read this before from me, I apologize.
Mario Haggan was a classic 'tweener'. Back when he was drafted, relatively few teams were using the 3-4, but he fit the bill as a 3-4 strongside LB perfectly. The only thing is, he was drafted as a middle linebacker in a 3-4 system, and was then asked mostly to play Sam. Not a problem, really - when he was on the field, his production was good. His special teams work was excellent, too. But in the Broncos' 'Oklahoma' variation 5-2/3-4 defense, he's become a mainstay on the field and his leadership has brought him a Captaincy and the admiration and respect of the entire team. What's the difference? Scheme, and taking advantage of the skills of the player..
At Mississippi State, Haggan showed that he's all about the team. Talking about the 1999 season, he once said in an interview, "That year was special because we played together as a team." Even then, Mario understood what it really takes to win. This is perhaps the first year he's had a chance to put all of his skills into effect on the field. He doesn't always get credit for what he accomplishes - he's already got a sack, of course, but when scoring they only give tackles and assists to so many players. When I'm watching film, I'm finding a swarm of Broncos piling into and onto the ball carrier. Haggan is usually one of them - along with Brian Dawkins, Andra Davis and several other Broncos. Give the right man the right role, make him believe that he's a part of something greater than himself and stay back. If you get too close, you'll end up in the scrum. Haggan did a great job in ripping the ball out when the raiders threatened at 7:38 in the second quarter, getting a fumble from Darren McFadden. Ryan McBean was holding McFadden's legs and Haggan just grabbed the ball and tore it away. Heads-up play, and typical of him this year. It took them from an advantageous position to 3rd and 16, holding them to their only field goal.
They also did what coaches everywhere tell their defensive players - there are three points of contact: the hands, elbow and ribcage. If you attack those, you can create fumbles. the Broncos are doing it, they study and practice the basics, and it matters.
By the way, Andra Davis is another great example. He was used in a 3-4 in Cleveland, but without the kind of scheming that Nolan uses in our '5-2' variation. Davis' weaknesses were more exposed in that scheme. He wasn't the right player for that system, but he's apparently nearly perfect for ours. A year ago, I mentioned that I hoped that Bob Slowik would develop a different approach to the defense, using the personnel to maximum benefit. It didn't happen then, but it has now. It's easy the see the difference. Davis is all over the film, play after play. D.J. Williams and he are a fierce pair at ILB.
You can also look at the transitions made by Elvis Dumervil and Darrell Reid. Both have adapted quickly to becoming productive in their new positions. You can see that as a merging of player effort, coaching expertise and the vision of the coaches to see where they could become more effective. Of Dumervil, Champ Bailey said,
"I think he's made the best transition from one position to completely another position that I've ever seen. He's showing his versatility. The guy wants to win and he does everything that we ask him to do."
It's one thing that has turned the Broncos' program around so quickly. The level of organization that Josh McDaniels learned - first from his father, next from his own training in mathematics and then from Bill Belichick, as well as his intellect and innate sense of logic and order - has permitted him to make far fewer mistakes than most first-time head coaches. The functions of the organization have been carefully planned and painstakingly executed. Given the offseason distractions, I won't say that McD 'makes it look easy'. I will say this - he's doing exactly what this organization needed.
For what it's worth, those who claimed that McDaniels would fail because other Belichick disciples have have committed a common logical fallacy. Every situation is unique. Many things have never happened - until they do. You have to judge on an individual basis.
McDaniels blew everyone away this week in his post-game remarks. His comments on coaching, teaching, tackling and communicating were a thing of sheer beauty. They also got me thinking. McDaniels, unlike many coaches, isn't intimidated by having the best around him. In fact, from Day 1, that's what he's worked to bring into the organization. I decided to look over the areas that our new coaches are responsible for, the teams that some of our coaches came from and how those teams are doing in the area that our new coaches left vacant. The results were impressive.
These are just a few of the results, but to me they are representative of the pattern. Josh McDaniels himself left the New England offensive coordinator's job. The Pats are struggling on offense. Part of this is natural - Tom Brady had a tough surgery last year and the adhesions still haven't broken down. They also are dealing with turnover on a large scale. Brady's not stepping into his throws the same way, a common post-surgical issue. Would Josh's coaching help? Perhaps. Is the Pats offense struggling a little more? Yes. No conclusion, here - just a fact.
Mike McCoy came to us from Carolina. I don't know what's gone on in Carolina, but this isn't the same team that played so well last season. Their offense is terrible. Could McCoy have been a factor in their success? Quite possibly. Has the offense diminished? Yes.
Mike Nolan came to us after being fired from a head coaching job in San Francisco. Mike Singletary is doing a heck of a job with them and starting to see results. I love Singletary and have since his playing days in Chicago as 'Samurai'. Nolan has changed the Broncos' ideas about defense and if there was a 'Coordinator of the Year' award, he should have gotten it already. No conclusion here, either, but Nolan deserves a lot of admiration right about now.
Wayne Nunnely vacated the defensive line coaching job in San Diego. He says that he wanted something new and we were lucky enough to get him. At the beginning of training camp, he was interviewed and in his terse, simple style he pointed out that it wasn't his job to pick the players - it was his job to tech them the techniques that would make them successful. He has. Our D-line is shocking people. I'm not at all surprised. I picked up a copy of Nunnely's teaching video on stunts and was instantly entranced. That man can teach. SD has suffered some injuries, but their D-line hasn't looked good, even before losing Jamal Williams.
Scott Priefer comes to us from Kansas City. They are struggling on special teams, but they are struggling everywhere. Still - he's been a godsend for the Broncos, who needed special teams help like a dying man in the desert needs water. Welcome, coach. Has the change, from where we were to where we are, been anything but a tribute to this man?
Don Martindale came to us from the depths of Oakland and is our linebackers coach. Hey, how are our linebackers doing this year? Anyone changed positions and found success? On the other side, how did the Oakland linebackers play on Sunday? Not so well...
Okay, their whole team melted down, but the point is still relevant. There is a pattern here - we are finding great success and the teams that lost out on our coaches are consistently not doing well in the areas that they vacated. Is it due to the coaches? I can't swear to it, but there is one heck of a coincidence going on if that's not the case.
Congratulations to Josh McDaniels for putting this team together, driving the changes to the Broncos and teaching them how to be winners. My hat is off to the man. He's only 33? Amazing....
I'll Trade You
Congratulations also to Renaldo Hill on his INT against OAK. It couldn't happen to a more deserving player.
Okay, what do you think? That the Miami Dolphins are happy that they refused to pay up some guaranteed money on Renaldo Hill to keep him around? Or do you think that they regret giving the cash to Gibril Wilson? Renaldo Hill has been part of one of the best secondaries in the NFL, with cornerbacks Champ Bailey, Andre' Goodman and Alphonso Smith and Hill joining the still-young Brian Dawkins at safety in front of newcomers Darcel McBath and David Bruton, while Wilson has become a target for opposing quarterbacks. Wilson's weaknesses were displayed for the nation on the Week 2 Monday Night Football contest between MIA and IND.
A simple, clear stat, courtesy of the Denver Post:
The Dolphins were 11-5 with Hill last year; 0-3 without him this year. The Broncos were 8-8 without Hill last year; 3-0 with him this year. It's simplistic, sure, but there's a kernel of truth. You could also look at the fact that the Broncos now have 8 defensive turnovers in 3 games. At this rate, they'll have exceeded last year's total before the bye. Again, is it Hill? No, not entirely. Has he been a force on the field? You bet. Watching film, Hill is consistently around the ball.
This one looks to me like a 'cut-off-your-nose-to-spite-your face' kind of situation in Miami. Do you think that the Fins would be willing to trade back right about now? Wilson was terrible in the loss to Indianapolis and didn't play well against San Diego, either. While Peyton Manning has made a lot of good players look bad over his career, that game was more than an off day for Wilson and he didn't bounce back this week against Philip Rivers, who is no slouch either. I don't think that it's unfair to note that with Wilson, when Al Davis isn't willing to throw money at a player, they usually often aren't much good to anyone else, either. Another free agency coup for the Broncos.
There has been some conversation in the media recently about a fact that has appeared in multiple sources including the BT&M from last week: Many teams in the NFL are now going to roughly the kind of offense that the Broncos are using, with an emphasis on the short passing game. It is based in an important change in the league - more and more safeties have sub-4.40 speed. With the swiftness and coverage skills that many of them have, you can't go deep as easily as in years past. That has two ramifications for Denver: First, it means a lot of playing time for 2nd-round draft pick Alphonso Smith at nickelback (hurry back, Alphonso).
Second, it explains something about Renaldo Hill of which many Broncos fans seem unaware. Renaldo was drafted in the 7th round (#202 overall) of the 2001 Draft by the Arizona Cardinals as a cornerback. He played left cornerback for them for 4 years and then spent a season in OAK at the same position on a one-year contract. After that, he took a three-year deal with MIA where he was moved to free safety to take advantage of his speed, size and cover skills. He has made improvement at that position each year, and has really just begun to play at what may be his best level. The Broncos are using his intelligence and skill set to best advantage, too - depending on the down, either he or Brian Dawkins may be playing a 'centerfield' role. Usually they divide the field and each is responsible for quarterbacking their side of the defense. The two veterans have no problem in communicating with each other, either, and this is a big reason that the secondary is playing so well.
Gibril Wilson didn't come to OAK until 2008. He'd been a strong safety and (in 2007) a free safety for the Giants since 2004. Still, it's odd how things work out, isn't it? The raiders missed out on Hill's best use and let him go; the Dolphins found it but they, too, let him go and the Broncos smiled broadly and said, "Thank you very much!", giving him a 4-year, $10 million contract to be paired with Brian Dawkins in a great tandem. Knowing exactly what you are looking for - in this case, a safety with speed and cornerback skills, seeing clearly why you want X players and giving them the best position to be successful are all keys to creating a team that wins consistently.
Despite our best wishes as fans, you can't force interceptions. You can only put yourself in the best position to snag them when the opportunity arises. The Broncos went up another plus-two in turnovers this week by doing just that. Congratulations to Andre' Goodman as well on his own INT, a man who is also missed by MIA - he's also playing at a very high level. Goodman is about $5 million per year that is very well spent.
Block and Tackle
I just re-watched the tape of Correll Buckhalter from Week 2, running for daylight to the tune of 45 yards and a TD, and compared that to some of the similar runs he made against Oakland. You know what really stood out? Beyond his skill and his ability to cut back at angles that confused and defeated defender after defender, that play (and several others) started with a hole formed by zone-blocking from Chris Kuper and Ryan Harris that you could have sailed the Queen Mary through, with room to spare. On the same drive at the 6-minute mark, Tony Scheffler took the Will LB out of the play with a great stand-up block. It's happening all over the field. This week, both Russ Hochstein and Tyler Polumbus also blocked well when they came in. At the opening drive of the second half (I couldn't see the number), the RB did a textbook job of picking up the blitz and taking his man out of the play. Daniel Graham had time to go underneath, over the middle and picked up yet another first down because of that block (with a nice throw by Kyle Orton).
As I looked through the tape of the games so far, one of the things that stood out was the improvement in fundamentals and physicality on both sides of the ball: blocking by the offense and tackling by the defense. Our blocking was usually good in 2008 but even with some of the goal-line breakdowns, it's been more physical than last year. It's true that the Broncos O-line was fairly brilliant in pass-blocking last season and by the latter part of the season, they were run-blocking almost equally well. But non-line individuals - and Tony Scheffler is a standout among them - have continued to improve. Brandon Marshall, of course is another fine example of a non-line player making the blocks for us, and he did it last season, too. The blocking has opened the road for Buckhalter, who is currently third in the league at 7.2 yards per gain. Buck also picked up the blitz at 4 minutes to go in the 3rd quarter - no one was open, but there was no sack, either. Solid, solid play.
After the game, Josh McDaniels commented, "I think a part of good tackling is angles. We do a lot of angle tackling drills in practice; most of the time we don't go all the way to the ground, now. We did in training camp. But when you're taking the proper angle, that's kind of half the battle to me...I think our guys understand leverage and angles..." Apparently so. "Draft picks? We always want to make sure that we're getting real good tacklers." Alphonso Smith was singled out - and for good reason. Tackling is being taught properly. There is a constant emphasis on fundamentals that seems 'new'. I loved learning Josh's thoughts on the technique of tackling and apparently, from the articles, a lot of us did. He's a heck of a communicator.
By the way, another draft pick, Darcel McBath has a team-high six special-teams tackles through three games. Another draft choice, another excellent tackler. He's going to fit right in. We're also co-leading the league, tied for first, with 10 sacks.
Tackling and blocking have a lot in common - physicality, a basis in attitude and the importance of technique being among those similarities. The improvement in defensive personnel certainly stands out, but the level of tackling by our team has shot up by tenfold this season. Whether it's Nolan, McDaniels, personnel, attitude, all of the above or something else, Denver is looking like a different team, and playing like one as well. What a great season!
I've decided to give a little extra love each week to the player(s) who lead the team in tackles by establishing the weekly SquashMaster Award. This week, D.J. Williams took top honors with 7 tackles and a forced fumble that was recovered by Brian Dawkins. Congratulations, D.J.! In second place was Elvis 'Doom' Dumervil, who raised his season sack total to 6 and added 5 solo tackles for the team. Can Elvis extend his streak of sacks against the Dallas front five? Don't bet against him. By the way, Doom did just what was predicted in attacking the strong side and right tackle Cornell Green. He also moved around on both sides.
Many fans wondered at the beginning of the season how D.J. would react to moving into yet another position and whether he could bounce back after the less-than-stellar performance of 2008. Not to worry - D.J. is tearing up the league right now. It's also gratifying to see that a different player leads the team in tackles each week so far and all three have been among our veterans and leaders. Veteran leadership - what a concept!
Some may have missed a small thing that made a big difference - when Doom went after the fumble in the 2nd quarter, he couldn't pick the ball up but he did manage to tip it backwards. OAK recovered, but they were farther back and had lost more ground due to Elvis' heads-up play. Another play that reflects the principle of tipping the ball to control the game - we've had at least one each week.
After 3 games, the theoretically immobile Kyle Orton has taken 3 sacks. Another perfectly good snarky theory bites the dust...Considering that both Cincinnati and Oakland's defensive fronts have been good at getting after the QB in their other games, that says a lot about our line. This isn't hot news, but it's nice to see, especially with the number of plays that our starters have sat out with one injury and another. Congrats, by the way, to Tyler Polumbus who played well in reserve, spelling Ryan Harris and to Russ Hochstein who spelled Ben Hamilton. The solid play of the line is an old Broncos tradition, by the way. Look at the stats since 2003:
Fewest sacks allowed in the NFL since 2003:
Team ... Sacks ... Yards
- Indianapolis ... 107 ... 643
- Denver ... 141 ... 854
- Green Bay ... 147 ... 1,019
- San Diego ... 163 ... 1,095
- New Orleans ... 172 ... 1,034
Iron Clady Redux
For perspective on Ryan Clady's streak at left tackle, there were 1,036 sacks in the NFL last year, or about 6.5 for every starting offensive lineman in the league. An average NFL offensive lineman gives up one sack about every 10 quarters. Clady has played every snap this season and last for the Broncos, who have passed 708 times over the past 80 quarters. He has given up only a half-sack, to then-Patriots end Richard Seymour whom he blanked in this week's contest, frustrating him in a way that lead to the 1st ever NFL Hair-Pulling Award. Stay classy, Richard. Asked about his actions, Seymour replied: "It was not a mistake, brother. Next question." Funny - I'm pretty sure that on the Broncos, costing the team 15 yards is considered a heck of a mistake. But that's the difference in the two teams.
Far more importantly, though, it's been 80 quarters since Clady's first regular season start and Ryan has given up 1/2 a sack? That's quite a stat. He has also tied the record for games without a full sack at 19. What a player he is!
It goes beyond his quick feet, size and long arms - Clady is both a brilliant technician and a brilliant tactician. Head Coach Josh McDaniels offered some unique insight on his intelligence. He said what impressed him about Clady was how he changes his approach from play-to-play; attacking the end on one play, then sits back and rides him away from the quarterback on the next.
"He's a smart player," McDaniels said. "He understands what the guy has seen from him already and what he hasn't and he mixes it up pretty well. A lot of people might ask, how much can a left tackle mix up his protection? You can and it's effective."
Clady commented (see below) that he didn't think that he played that well against Oakland. I don't even know what to say to that. The offensive line didn't give up a sack, didn't commit a penalty and blew open huge holes in the line for the running backs while giving Kyle Orton lots of time to throw. I guess that other than that, they probably didn't do that much. They didn't invent a perpetual motion machine on the sidelines during the game, or anything. Come to think of it, they didn't need to - the Broncos already have Dawkins.
By the way, on Buckhalter's huge run of 34 yards at 6:13 in the 2nd quarter, Hamilton and Clady sealed off their men perfectly, but the run was freed up with Harris, pulling all the way over to take out the weakside linebacker that freed Buckhalter on the play. Our run blocking is becoming a thing of great beauty. If you can, go back and watch the play. Wow.
Humility and Honor
There is a pattern to these Broncos that stands out when you look for it: Every player on the team gives the credit for their performances to others. Last week it was Dumervil and Andra Davis, each of whom was asked about their own performance and each of whom wanted to talk about the accomplishments of the other. When you talk to Alphonso Smith, he tells you about Champ Bailey and Brian Dawkins. Whether it's Kyle Orton giving credit for the offense to his line, backs and receivers, or Eddie Royal deflecting questions about his production by pointing to the plays it's opening up for the other receivers, this team seems to be the anti-ego. It's the antithesis of the me-driven locker room, the group that looks to their own stats before they look at their team's wins. It's a big reason that they have three wins to count. After the game, Darrell Reid was talking about the things that the defense didn't do well and how they need to improve. This is after holding Oakland to 3 points and 137 total yards. Perfection may not be attainable, but these men are going to try.
This week it was Dumervil again, this time giving credit to Ryan Clady for his own performance and sack totals. This is what he said:
"You know one of the reasons I get sacks on Sundays is (Ryan Clady). Going against him every day is hell," Dumervil said. "There's no other way to say it. He's athletic, long arms - pretty much the toughest tackle I've ever gone against. He's just special. He's going to be on that side for 20 years. He's athletic, he's smart, he has poise - he doesn't get rattled. There's not much you can beat him with."
Ryan's replay? "The way we practice, that's what I do (in games)." He then said, "I don't think I played that well." Well, only good enough to have another zero-sack day and to open huge holes for the running game. But, Dumervil got the last word:
"Both those guys - Harris and Clady - are tough, tough guys, but Clady is the guy I see every day, and if you break even sometimes, you think you won," said Doom. "I come into game days thinking the guy I'm playing isn't going to surprise me with something I haven't seen before because I was banging against Ryan Clady all week. We always go against each other; he doesn't go against anyone else and I don't go against anyone else. He gets me better, and I hope I get him better."
This is the kind of thing that defines a successful team. We know from various sources - mostly players, speaking later on condition of anonymity - that the locker room the past few years had been cursed with a kind of me-first attitude, with players showing a preference for their own individual stats over the outcome of the games. That has gone away. What you see now is a tendency to recognize the benefits of the team over the individual accords. Ironically, it leads to more and more individual as well as team accords. The way this team was designed and built constantly amazes me. It's also interesting to note that one of the best qualities of Kyle Orton - that he stays calm and doesn't rattle - is equally reflected in his left tackle. Those two aren't alone in that, which speaks very well for the team's ultimate potential.
Following the game, Josh McDaniels was asked how the Broncos could improve. On how to motivate his players this week, he said, "Just show them the film. We've got a 50 play cut-up that we'll watch during the squad meeting." He then gave a wry smile. "It's not all ribbons and bows...They saw it every week we played so far. 'Boy, if we'd only done these five or six things better, it could have been an even a better performance.' You don't have to convince them that they need to improve. They know they need to get better." That's the kind of thing that keeps a team grounded in reality, striving to get even better and ready for any opponent.
Ayers and Perception
Robert Ayers hasn't burned up the field in this, his rookie season. Coming late into training camp, as so many 1st-round rookies do, he quickly found himself behind the curve. He didn't play all that well at first and looked tentative. Following up on a comment to the effect that he 'hasn't shown up', I spent some time watching film from last Sunday. I had started to notice Ayers during the Week 2 game against Cleveland - he helped collapse the pocket, was in on some tackles, and seemed to be starting to find the ball. It's true that he only has one tackle, but there's more to playing than stats. Sunday, my initial impression had been that his play was even better. I went back to find a few examples. It didn't take long...
On the third play from scrimmage, 3rd and 13, it was Ayers who collapsed the pocket, hurrying Russell who completed the throw to his outlet for 8 yards when he needed 13. Nice play. Ayers had been contained by Cornell Green on the play before, but not this time. Interestingly, on this occasion he was lined up as a defensive tackle in a 4-3 set, going up against the double team of the center and Cooper Carlisle. He defeated it to pressure Russell, which is asking a lot of a 274-lb. rookie. By the way, I love the way we're using the 4-3 in long-yardage situations.
He came back in the second quarter, running across the field in a heads-up play to help tackle Zach Miller for a 12-yard gain on 3rd and 16. Without Ayers it could have been a first down. Ayers did have help on the tackle and wasn't credited it, but he hit Miller high while someone else (bad camera angle) held his legs.
But that was it for Ayers in the first quarter. Is that a problem? Not at all. Davis, Haggan, D.J., Reid and Doom are playing like champs. Ayers will only get time in rotation - we're playing so well that if he gets in, great. If not, great. I don't think that it's a knock on Ayers. He's behind a lot of guys in the depth chart who are just playing at a very high level. That's not a bad thing. It means that we're deep and strong.
He also came in for the last series in the half when we were in the nickel - both Ayers and Wesley Woodyard were in. Woodyard stuffed Michael Bush for a loss on the final play of the half - Ayers stayed at home, held his gap and did what he was supposed to. The play just didn't go at him. He also made a nice stop (see picture above) on Bush. Give the man a little time.
Orton, McDaniels and the Goal Line Stand. While I was watching the replays of the game on NFL Rewind, I noted something: Orton is becoming deadly over the middle. It brought up an interesting point that sent me back to the film and statistics from last season: Chicago didn't believe that and wouldn't call much in the way of passes over the middle when Orton was there. Out of 455 passes he threw last season, only 54 were thrown over the middle, which might have, in part, been a personnel issue. I've mentioned before that Orton at times throws a flat pass, but look at these numbers. Go figure. In one way, you can understand why they thought that - Orton was only at a 53.7% completion rate over the middle and had a 5.56 INT rate there - but there must have been a scheme and/or personnel issue that influenced this. Orton has been excellent over the middle all season, and seems to be getting even better each game. His passing has always been strongest to the left side/weak side, by the way. It will be interesting to watch his distribution as the season progresses.
Some folks have questioned Josh McDaniels' call for four rushing plays down on the goal line on the first drive and I wanted to touch on that quickly. I liked his response and wanted to include it here:
"We were all disappointed," McDaniels said about the series. "When you're down there that tight, you want to give your football team an opportunity to get it in. And if we have that same opportunity come up next week, we'd do it again, and we'll get it in. We'll work hard to fix the things we didn't get right there and push that thing in."
That covers it. Hochstein, by the way, was the lead blocker and never got to the goal line, so the RB could not, either. We'll need to fix that. Statistically, by the way, you score on such a series about 50% of the time, although you strive for more, and therefore you can get 7-14 points instead of the 6 if you kick both field gals. There's another reason, though, that you go for it - this team doesn't believe that anyone can stop it twice. They were right and got the next one with a passing route underneath by Marshall in that same mismatch with Morrison. I like that attitude.
Home against Dallas - In the upcoming contest, Dallas will be a good test for the Broncos, but I'm taking the home team. Dallas isn't strong enough on both sides of the ball to convince me otherwise and it's my impression that we match up well with them. Consider this:
While they have a good offense, they can get rattled. Tony Romo still needs to prove that he has the calm that Kyle Orton is known for. While I have a lot of respect for the Dallas offensive front line, I have just as much or more for Doom and the Devastators. Felix Jones is a great running back but apparently won't play, We've played the run quite well overall so far. I'm not as impressed with their pass blocking. Our secondary is playing well, despite the fact that other teams are constantly throwing the ball and playing catch-up; they're tackling well, covering well and starting to see the inevitable INTs. The Dallas secondary has weaknesses that can be exploited. Our offense is doing well in the passing and rushing attacks, and special teams have been very special. We could get more long run-backs if we don't seal the edges, but other than that, I've got very few criticisms.
They have a good D-line that isn't producing - we have Mt. Clady and Friends. DeMarcus Ware has continued to disappear, even against Carolina. The 'Boys finally got a few sacks against a woeful O-line of the Panthers but they haven't shown me that they can dominate even a weaker team. Rookie linebacker Victor Butler broke out with 2 sacks and a forced fumble and the Broncos will need to account for him but he was only on the field for 5 plays. I'm comfortable with this Rick Dennison-coached group. They are on the road and Orton is what - 16-2 at home? This is a new Broncos squad that can take on the best and at least be competitive.
Romo can be deadly in a single game. Against Carolina, he was efficient but not showy and he didn't get a single TD throw. The Cowboys only put up 13 points on offense. Ronald Fields has been clogging the middle effectively against the run. Marcus Thomas has been a more than serviceable second-string NT - he has been in for rushing as well as passing downs now. They will be game-planning for Doom, but seriously - that gets you Davis, Dawkins, Reid, D.J. and Haggan with less obstacles.
On the other side - the holes that Kuper and Harris are opening have been enormous and Russ Hochstein and Tyler Polumbus played just fine in relief. Right now, we expect Harris to play. If Harris is not in, they will game-plan to put pressure on Polumbus/Hochstein and to be honest - I'm looking forward to see how they handle it. Polumbus in particular has looked great in the small amounts I've seen him. I've love to see him in a test game. The Dallas D-line and front seven are noticeably smaller than our squad. Dallas committed 9 penalties against Carolina and gave up 3 TDs to Tampa Bay. These numbers don't scare me.
I see it as a potentially tough game, but very winnable. McD is famous for making great adjustments during gametime, and that's a big advantage. I don't think that Wade Phillips is in Josh's ballpark as a head coach. We now have an advantage in McD and Nolan that just doesn't quit.
Prediction: I'm calling for a win, but it could still be a close game, perhaps about 27-20. IIf they put their team together on the road they can give us a run for the money, but I expect them to fall short. If our defense plays as well as it can, we'll win going away.