MHR Chalk Talk - Some Thoughts Before The Broncos Face the Redskins at Midseason ('09)

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I'd like to breakdown the upcoming game against the Redskins, but I want to put in my two cents worth on the state of the team as well.

Let's start with the fan base.  That's right, let's start with the fans.  Home field has several reasons for being advantageous, including elevation (Denver), facilities, rest, and N-O-I-S-E.  I was disgusted at the number of Terrible Towels in the stands during the last game - a clear indication that many Denver fans had sold their tickets to the enemy.  With a 6-1 team, does that really make sense?  I won't buy the economy as an excuse, since the PIT fans buying the tickets are likely no better off than the Denver fans (and have to add in the cost of travel in many cases).

By the way, factoring in tie breaks, are you aware that the Denver Broncos are #2 in the AFC right now?  We are ahead of CIN and NE (we beat those 6-2 teams head-to-head) and are ahead of PIT (they aren't first in their division and we have the better conference record).  Before jumping off the bandwagon, realize that if the playoffs were today, we would have 2nd seed and a first-round bye.

Dr. Smith wrote in yesterday's front page article at MHR about the bandwagon fans.  At the start of the season, they run away in fear because of a poor preseason, a new coach and a new QB.  Then the team wins 6 straight, including games against current contenders DAL, NE, and CIN (to name a few).  Those bandwagon fans come back, only to start crying when the team drops one or two games.  Both of those games were against good teams (including the current champions), and one was on the road.  Like our good doctor points out, those fans will want to hop back on when or if we start winning again.

That's not fandom.  When I was in the army many decades ago, I didn't want a guy next to me that was going to quit if the going got tough.  I wanted to be surrounded by men that would work together under the worst of circumstances.  When I was coaching, I could understand losing, but not quitting.  In law enforcement, I expect my peers to "have my back" just like I'll have theirs.

Does that mean I won't have complaints?  Not at all.  But there's a way to go about it.  For example, I couldn't stand my 1st Sgt. in the army.  Hated the guy.  My comrades and I spent a lot of time griping about what a tyrant he was.  But he was OUR 1st Sgt, and we didn't put up with someone from another unit bad mouthing him.  I have issues with some of the things I see with our team this year, but I support our coach and our players 100%.  I'll discuss some of those issues after the jump, but you'll notice the tone of respect I have for our team, even in disagreement.

 

Team Issues at Midseason

 

The Fans

The fans are the first issue.  The team and the front office have done their jobs.  Halfway through the season and this team is 6-2 with a lead in the AFC West.  Fans should be proud at this point.  I pegged our team as improved going into the season, but only with an 8-8 record.  In my own view, the team has surpassed expectations.

But what kind of idiot fans do we have that boo our own QB during the preseason?  Okay, let that one go.  How about this: what kind of fans sell their tickets to the opposing fans for a Monday Night game after a 6-1 start?  Did it affect the crowd noise?  I don't know for sure.  But it DID affect morale.  At least one of our players commented on it after the game, wondering what had happened to our fans.

Do you believe in the Broncos, but only when they are winning?  If you answered yes to that question, then you don't believe.  I may have mixed grades on the team right now, but they are outperforming the fans by a mile.  Frankly, I'm disgusted at some of the attitudes I hear and read about.  Thankfully, MHR remains a positive place where the vast majority of fans love their team, whether they agree with everything or not.  But those missing ticket holders, and many of the "fans" in some of the old media message boards just don't get it.

Well, here's where I stand.  Denver is my team, whether they are 16-0 or 0-16.  They always will be my team.  It doesn't matter who the coach or the QB is, and the record doesn't matter either.  This is my team.  I hope that they are your team too, in good times and in bad.

 

The Running Game

We are 18th in the NFL right now in running the ball.  That's not very good.  In our last two games, we couldn't even total 100 yards altogether.  Why is this?

Here's my respectful opinion.  We have a great OL coach and a great RBs coach.  We are a team known for 1,000-yard rushers, regardless of the player.  And why?  Because of the commitment to plugging in one-cut runners behind a zone-blocking scheme.  At the start of the season, I was pleased to see a lot of zone blocking.  As the season has worn on, I've seen less of it.  In fact, we are trying to use more of a "power running" gap block scheme.  I don't like this move.

Denver doesn't have to be a zone-block team forever.  If a coach comes in and wants to change things, it is his prerogative.  But for now, we still have offensive linemen that are built to zone block (smaller, athletic, agile) and not to gap block (we call standard blocking "gap blocking").  If we are going to transition, can't we at least keep the ZB while the current people are in place?  I would rather keep the zone block, but if we don't, let's phase in the other scheme.

Before we jump all over the head coach, let's consider why he might be abandoning the ZB so quickly.  There is a school of thought that the best way to make a scheme transition is by immersion (instead of phasing in the changes).  The thinking is that the team suffers in the short term, but when the final personnel are in place, the change is quicker and more efficient.

This is a two-sided argument, and I respect both sides.  In our case, I would rather make the switch slowly, since any new linemen are going to likely be used to gap blocking anyway, so there's no need for a major adjustment period.  The counter is that we won't turn over the entire line in one season, anyway.  So perhaps we are sacrificing a little bit this season for a stronger run in 2010.

For me, it is all really a moot point.  I'm a big fan of the zone block, and would rather not change it at all, whether incrementally or suddenly.

 

The Passing Game

Kyle Orton has hovered in the low 100s and mid-90s with his QB rating this year.  After two very rough games, his rating has fallen to 88.2.

As a team, we are ranked 16th in the League.  Not very good.  Let's face the facts, and see where we stand with Orton.

First, I like a lot about Kyle.  He is a good leader, and the players respect him.  He has a good personality, and shows a lot of maturity and poise when he addresses the public.  With the exception of this last game, he has proven that he protects the ball.  I've seen some very fast passes, including some where Kyle threaded the needle.  And despite reports to the contrary, I've seen some good midfield and long passes.

The problem is that Kyle isn't tearing apart defenses, and this is either a product of Kyle's abilities or play calling.  Let's look at how good Kyle is.

First, Kyle's QB rating last year was 79.6.  This year, Kyle has been well above that mark, but is at least at 88.2 for now.  That's improvement.  Second, Kyle was sacked behind a poor Bears' O-Line 27 times last year.  At the halfway mark, Kyle has already taken 13 sacks in Denver.  Kyle's completion percentage was 58.5 last year, and this year it is 63.2.  Kyle is halfway to his TD total last year (9 this year, 18 last year).  He is well behind being on track for INTs (12 last year, only 4 so far this year).  My point is that Orton is young (only 27 tomorrow) and continues to improve.  That's what I like to see.

Kyle is improving.  He's better than he was last year.  But is he better than what we had last year?

Let's take a look:

                        RTG                  TD                           INT                               YDS                     comp%              wins

Orton             88.2                   9                             4                                  1,838                   63.2                     6

Cutler            83.8                   14                           12                                2,046                   63.6                     4

Here is how I see these numbers.  First, the rating takes everything into account (TDs, INTs, etc).  Orton wins here.  Then I look at completion percentage, which is roughly even.  In my mind, the higher win rate that Orton has is because of less turnovers.  Denver has won some tight games, and the lack of INTs made the difference.  Jay Cutler will win some games, but he will lose some games, too.

Yards (as we learned last year) don't mean a lot if the team can't score.  Cutler put up a very impressive 369 yards against the Cardinals, only to fall short 41-21.

But where we have regressed is in yards and TDs.  This needs to change.  But how?  We can't change the players we have (this year), but we can change how they are used.  Let me explain.

Take Tony Scheffler.  The "Patriot Way" is not a system that favors throwing to TEs.  That's fine.  There are advantages and disadvatages to every system, and NE has had their share of success.  However, perhaps our coaches should consider a few things, starting with Scheffler.

When we got him the ball against SD, Tony had 6 receptions for over 100 yards and a TD.  One of those receptions was for over 50 yards.  Against PIT, he got the ball only one time, for only 6 yards.  This would be understandable if we feared the coverage by Troy Polumalu (PIT SS), but then the deep field could have been cleared for Marshall and Royal, right?

I wrote about this last week, too.  Eddie Royal is the kind of guy who is dangerous when he catches the ball in mid-stride.  If he is full speed with the ball, he is hard to catch and very agile.  But we throw a lot of short routes to him, few of which play to his strengths.  We can play hitches, posts, and curls all day long, and Eddie will catch them and take the tackle.  But a slant would play more to his natural abilities.

And then there's Brandon Marshall.  He's a big guy, and the short stuff we throw to him is perfect.  Brandon can make the catch, and then knock over the nearest defender.  As he showed against Dallas, he can also put on a few moves.

Am I being critical of the schemes?  Sort of.  I'm not going to claim to be a pro-level coach, and the Broncos coaching department would be foolish to hire me.  But all I can do is write what I'm seeing, and what I seeing seems to indicate that we could do a few things a little differently.

If we are getting gutted by the middle pass rush of teams like BAL and PIT, why not keep a RB in to block the interior and use the TE as the safety valve?

 

There are Offenses, and then There are Offenses

I'm a defense guy; I always have been.  But one thing I've noticed is that there are several levels of offenses.  First, there are the terrible offenses.  These are the offenses that self destruct, and a good defensive coordinator doesn't interfere with any fancy plans of his own.  "Don't interfere with another team's self-destruction" was one of my old HC's sayings.

Some offenses are just plain bad, or even average.  You deal with those.  And then there are good offenses.

Good offenses win games, and don't lose games.  You have to spend a lot of work bringing down a good offense.  Perhaps my favorite quote from my old HC boss was "Hard work beats Talent when Talent doesn't work hard".

But there is another level of offense, and this is what I call "dominating".  Few teams win SBs without a dominating offense.  Guys like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Ben Roethlisberger can run up points on most teams.  Those are the teams to watch out for.

Here's the problem.  The Denver offense finds ways to win, and that's great for the regular season.  We have a reasonable shot at the playoffs right now, as I wrote in the introduction (2nd in the AFC currently).  But we lack a dominant offense.  Teams don't fear our short-yardage running game.  They respect our receivers, but they can afford to bring the safeties forward a bit because they know we will screen and hitch all day long.  This, in turn, hurts our running game.  (Of course, the lack of a solid running game hurts the pass, too).

Denver needs points.  We can move the ball, but we can't strike quickly.  If we want to push back safeties, we'll need to challenge the deep field more.  We've seen Orton throw deep, just not enough.  If we want to stop the pass rushes, we need to sell the running game.  Teams have seen what we've been doing, and they've adjusted.  Now its our turn to adjust.  Will the "Amoeba" system allow us the adaptability that it is known for?

 

Defense

I'm very, very happy with our defense.  While our offense is in the bottom half of the League in every major category, our defense is in the top ten.

Points allowed?  3rd.  Yards allowed?  3rd.  Pass yards allowed?  7th.  Rush yards allowed?  8th.

We have an excellent DC, and he has head coaching experience.  He knows what he is doing, and I feel that he will make adjustments as needed.  Do I have any concerns?

Well...  About this Ty Law guy.  Don't get me wrong.  I've heard and read the arguments for bringing him in, and I'm on board.  That's out of the way.  In the first game he had one tackle.  I don't know how many passes he broke up, and have no other stats available.  But I was bothered to see him out of place so much, and saw other players trying to line him up.  This is understandable, since the guy was only unretired for a day or two before playing the game.  But still, with a 6-1 record, do we really want to rush in the guy when another player (even a lesser player) that knows that playbook is available?  Every time I saw Ty looking around I cringed.  He looked terribly lost out there.

But that's a minor issue.  Ty should be good for the Washington game, and even better beyond that.

That reminds me, we have a game against Washington!

 

Denver at Washington

I'm going to abbreviate my thoughts on this game, having spent so much time talking about our team as a whole.  Here are the highlights to watch for in matching up these teams.

1)  The WAS O-Line gives up an awful lot of sacks.  Denver has done a good job against some great OLs this year.  Oh, and the WAS O-Line is riddled with injuries.  Doom should have a great day.

2)  Star RB Clinton Portis is out, Ladell Betts didn't practice at the time of this writing.  WAS's run game is in trouble.

3)  Watch out for Albert Haynesworth (DT).  He's been doing a fantastic job on the interior of the WAS D-Line, and will be a danger to our running game.  He isn't as much of a pass rusher, but has to be accounted for.

4)  WAS ranks 20th or worse in each of the four major offensive categories.  I expect our defense to have a big day.

5)  The WAS defense is strange.  They are the best pass-stopping team in the NFL, but only 25th against the run.  Albert Haynesworth can't do it all by himself.

6)  Washington is a team full of injuries and controversy.  Recently they had the on field (well, "sideline") scuffle with the Falcons.  There is also controversy about how good (or bad) Coach Zorn is.  The owner spends a lot of money on big names, but doesn't seem to put together a good "team".  The record is 2-6.  This can't be a happy locker room.  Imagine being a team that is 2-6, sharing a division with teams that are 6-2, 5-2, and 5-4.  Almost as bad as the Raiders (who are at least ahead of KC).

The bottom line is that this is a game tailor made for the Broncos to win.  They need to win, but a big win would be good for morale.  Denver has dropped two games, and the doubters are rearing their ugly heads.  A big win won't satisfy a bandwagon fan; nothing will.  But it could send a message to the rest of the League.  Denver isn't back; they never left.  They're still one of the top teams in the AFC, and they have the time to make the adjustments necessary to stay there.

This is the time to send a message, before the hungry Chargers and the angry Giants come to town in the next two weeks.

What are your thoughts?

[Updates from the author]

1 - Word is out now that Betts WILL start at RB against the Broncos, despite an injured ankle and not practicing most of the week.  This would seem to portend serious problems for the Redskins rushing offense.

2 - Jeff Legwold writes in the DP that the Broncos are still using some zone blocking in their run-block schemes, which is true.  When I read his article I saw the title "Q&A: Broncos still use zone-blocking schemes", which made me do a double take.  "No we're not!" I thought to myself.  However, the article makes clear that we still run some zone blocking.  My contention remains that Denver continues to set aside the zone block, and that the running game seems to be having a rough time because of it.  Jeff's first paragraph is more accurate than the title some editor attached to his story (emphasis mine):

John, it would be a misconception to say the Broncos have totally abandoned their zone-blocking scheme of the past. They still use some zone concepts at times in their running game, but they have more situations where they are man-on-man up front in some run situations.

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