Broncos Thoughts and Musings - Indy Week

There's nothing quite like back-to-back wins to put a shine into the work in the film room. The glow of the past two wins hasn't faded at all, but the upcoming contest against the Indianapolis Colts  is starting to loom large. Before we get into our matchups and needs against the next foe, let's take some time to look back over what we've accomplished. Special teams, the nose tackle position and even raiderology are on today's menu. Let the feasting begin!

The Film Room I - KC Autopsy

A moment of silence for a team that has passed away, out of contention for the season and fighting for respect. It's a tough time to be a Chiefs fans, and I want to thank them for a week of intelligent football talk and good-spirited fun. Nice guys, over at Arrowhead Pride. But the nice guy's team, in this case, is finishing near last (if they don't awaken right now. You couldn't miss that on the tape.

I had mentioned that the game this past weekend, like most games, would come down to how Denver played in the trenches. The Broncos responded with a solid performance by the O-Line, prying open gaping holes more than large enough to pass a running back through. When Ryan Harris stepped out in the early second quarter and Tyler Polumbus replaced him, I wondered for a brief moment if we were seeing a very bad thing but there was no dropoff that I saw. Polumbus seems to have stepped up his game, as has Russ Hochstein. Both improvements are timely - and much needed.

 

Mistakes - Orton had an uncharacteristically bad red-zone play on the first drive, but he moved them well on the next drive. He was blindsided twice and lost the ball, but let's be real - if the defensive player hits the arm right, every QB loses those. Over his career Orton hasn't tended to that issue, so I'm not worried. I want to see those blindside hits stop, though. Orton was 'burping the baby again, an old and bad habit, but the O-Line doesn't get off scot-free, either. They bear some responsibility for the sacks and the one fumble. They really stepped up when they had to though, and that was the name of the game. They let KC get to the one and held them to a FG. INTs, negative plays, pressure and domination go a long way. They took us to an eighth win.

I've wondered about the progress of Richard Quinn of late mostly because I hadn't had the time to break down the ST work as well as I should. That's being fixed, and the guys on Upon Further Review have been kind enough to help me out. As I result, I've been seeing a lot of good things with Quinn and I'm pleased that he singlehandedly made a huge play on the faked punt. KC must have assumed that since others have caught the Broncos with those kind of plays, it would work again. Here's what Josh McDaniels had to say,

They went to a gadget-type formation and I know that there was a guy leaking out the other way and they had an opportunity to get that ball out there but TE Richard (Quinn) made a heck of a play. I don't know what happens if the ball gets thrown but it probably wouldn't have been too good for us. Whenever you break the formation and have a gadget-type play, we were prepared and we split out with them but you are never sure who they are trying to pick for or who they are trying to spring free. That was a big play in the game because we obviously took possession of the football in their territory.

It wasn't the only big play, either. The Broncos were unstoppable in the running game and despite some errors, still used the pass to score 2 TDs, which would have been enough by itself. The game was over when Cassel's QB rating hit 3.1. There isn't a mercy rule. Perhaps there should be. This was a good reminder of that fact.

The Broncos won despite some sloppy play that won't work in the upcoming weeks. In the final analysis, the Broncos committed too many errors and they can't win against the best if they do. But still, you get a sense of how the team can play, and there is a heck of a team in here. You have to balance the bad with the fact that we're seeing a lot of things getting fixed in the new systems the team has learned. When I go back to what I wanted to see from the team this year, that was at the top of the list. Nice work, guys.

Film Room II - The Special Teams

The emphasis on this week's review was the play of the Broncos' special teams this season. Everyone is in agreement that the STs can play better than they did in the first 10-12 weeks of the season. While there are now some obvious bright spots (David Bruton, Spencer Larsen, Darrell Reid, Darcel McBath), I felt that a major review might be in order. It was a great week to feel that way - wow, what a performance on special teams the Broncos put in place. Huge kudos to MHR favorite Spencer Larsen, who notched a huge 4 special teams tackles and to Darrell Reid, who trailed him with 3. Great job on ST! Eddie Royal looked comfortable and Mitch Berger was a monster - again. I don't know how he avoided the block on that one punt, but I was impressed. Berger has no history of frequently blocked punts; so despite his slower motion, he hasn't let it hurt the team.

How was our kicking game against KC? Take a look:

Extra Points Made-Attempts 5-5
Field Goals Made-Attempts 3-3
Red Zone Efficiency 4-6-67%
Goal-to-go efficiency 2-2-100%

That's the kind of efficient red-zone and ST play that wins games.

Some things are obvious. Royal hasn't had enough room to run on punt returns, mostly due to our tendency to let the offenses get into the 40/40 yard-line range, which lets the teams either punt into the coffin corner or just create a touchback, nullifying Eddie's chances of getting in a good runback. They got over that pattern during the past two games and had two wins. Are they connected? You decide. I'm going to vote yes.

Two names that I wanted to look more closely at this week were Richard Quinn and Russ Hochstein. I recalled Hochstein making a couple of serious errors on ST while we were losing and while I'd heard good things about Quinn's ST work, I hadn't caught him on film enough to develop an opinion one way or the other. that obviously changed in KC - his play on the fake punt was perfect and his blocking on kick returns was excellent as well. Nice to see!

The balance of veterans like Mario Haggan, Champ Bailey, Darrell Reid and Andre' Goodman with younger players such as Bruton, Larsen and McBath seems to have found an area of comfort. Lanes are being filled, discipline has improved, tackling is much better and, just as importantly, we haven't been pinning Royal back in coffin country. This is the first time I've seen us playing the way we need to on special teams in a long time. I can only hope it continues.

Safety in Numbers: It's also obvious that David Bruton was a heck of a 4th-round pickup and that Darcel McBath was a great investment. Over the next 5 years, with those two and Josh Barrett, we're in good shape at safety. There was pre-draft talk of moving McBath to CB if certain teams drafted him - McBath can cover very well and can tackle, too. Denver will keep him at safety, though, and for good reason. He won't replace Renaldo Hill anytime soon, but I love that our chances are that good at when we're covering folks.

The response to the recent rise in short-passing offenses (much like our own) has been a switch to fast, coverage safeties. I believe that McBath can be smoothly moved into the slot currently well-occupied by Renaldo Hill when Hill finally slows. Keep in mind that Hill, too, was a CB/S tweener who played CB during his first 4 years in the NFL. McBath seems to be very much in the same mold - he's also bright, like Hill, and was a team leader in college.

We can also go with two smart, effective covering safeties, and although I will miss Dawk's aggression and leadership when the time comes, Hill is an excellent leader and as mentioned, McBath was also a captain in his own right. I believe that David Bruton has the power to later fill many of B-Dawk's roles, although few will ever do so as well. Bruton was also a defensive captain, a pattern in McDaniels' pickups. Finally, Barrett's ability to cover the best TEs one-on-one and to interchange with Wesley Woodyard when needed is a nickel option that few teams can match. Although everyone, myself included, would love to see an Eric Berry on our team, we can establish safety as a lower-cost, high-return group at any point. The fact that all three have done good things on ST makes me even happier - that's a seventh of the game that we need to win, week in and week out. We're finally starting to win at it with a good mix of veterans and younger players. No surprise, then, that we're back to winning.

By the way, we've scored exactly 70 points in the past two games. Things have changed, and for the better. We still need to improve on our mistakes, but I like the direction things are going in.


raiderology

If I'm Al Davis, which is unlikely in the extreme, I'm having a contract meeting with Bruce Gradkowski's agent tomorrow. Gradkowski is on a one-year (2009) contract for $535,000, and in 2010 becomes a restricted free agent. That is one tough, talented guy and the raiders should get a clue: He's a good option right now and a good backup in the future. When's the last time they had a guy come on and win them games? It's ironic that he's the polar opposite of JaMarcus Russell - smaller and lighter, only 6'1" and 220 lbs, but he's smart, tenacious and can play this game. You don't need to waste a pick in the 1st round - you've got your QB in-house for this year and even next year if you want to make the effort to rebuild the team. The young man earned it. Consider his game against PITT:

Att/Comp Yds YPA TD INT QB Rating
20/33        308 9.3   3     0      121.8

Those are numbers that work for me. He has accuracy issues, no question, and his arm strength isn't what the team would like. I don't think that he's a long-term answer - he's just a heck of a lot better answer than Russell and they can keep him on as a backup when they find someone better. The Raiders love the vertical game too much to have a starting QB that doesn't have the arm for the long ball, but they still need one that has some common sense and drive. Mark Twain mentioned that the problem with common sense is that it ain't. That's been Problem 1 in raiderville for a long time and Russell is a perfect example of why. Right now, Gradkowski is a step up.

The raiders have some good running backs in Justin Fargas and Michael Bush. Darren McFadden fumbles too much, has always had issues with his upright style and injuries; he may mature well, but hasn't shown that consistently yet - so I don't count him. They have a fine young TE in Zach Miller, too. Their receiving corp will be mediocre or worse until they catch onto the fact that running fast is of no use if you can't catch the danged ball. They need a couple of possession receivers badly, preferably veterans who don't need to be bottle-fed. They also need to patch a couple of holes in the O-Line, as in much of it. If they can put together a couple of drafts that actually match their team needs, fine, then they can drop big dollars on a QB. Until then? Gradkowski is fine.

This is one example of how a person's feelings on the theory of team building color their approach to decision-making. I personally believe that you need an offensive line more than any other single factor in football. To me, there's no point in arguing about how to win a Super Bowl until you at least have a team that can contend for their division and I think that you start that with the O-Line and move on from there. The raiders seem to do everything backwards, so this is no shock, but they can buy a few wins for relatively few bucks with Gradkowski and they need to develop a longterm plan for a change.

Speaking of the dead, I found it interesting last week when Nnamdi Asomugha went on record as being against the moribund system that Al Davis has in place of not making defensive adjustments for other teams' systems. Davis stills lives and refuses to die on the theory that you play your own system come drought or flood and you ignore what other teams are doing. We all know how that's been working for Oakland. Since this is a team that we play again soon, I'm content to watch them ignore reality with aplomb, but it's interesting when your best player calls out your system in the media. In other cases, I think that kind of thing smacks of ego, but in this case, it smacks of a legitimate cry for help. One that will be ignored, though, like all the rest.


Concussions (briefly) Continued

The NFL is considering a rule change that involves the running back position. The idea behind it is to prevent the RB from using his head as a battering ram, a style of running that has become increasingly common. Running backs like this maneuver because it permits them to deliver a blow rather than just take them.

I'm torn on this. I'm greatly encouraged by the new guidelines for dealing with concussions, and I support rule changes that will reduce the number of head injuries and simply 'blows to the head', which we now understand to be equally bad or even worse, over the course of time. I recognize the the running backs have a legitimate point regarding this approach - they take so much punishment that it seems harsh to take away one of their few options in return.

However -- running in that fashion is going to increase the number of blows to the head that the athlete experiences. It's really that simple. Research has shown a link between frequent blows to the head, even if they do not induce a concussion per se, and increased brain damage. That's a huge problem - the cumulative effects of those blows are increasing the number of retired players who are experiencing loss of their cognitive faculties. What number of yards makes up for that?

From my admittedly-biased position as a retired doc, I'm in favor of this rule change. Using your head to hit people isn't, well, using your head. I'd like to see alternative techniques taught and coached. I'd like to see an end to the kind of problems that hits like Adrian Peterson's created when he used his head to smash into Detroit safety Louis Delmas. By bending down to where his head was only a foot or so from the ground, Peterson smashed his helmet into Delmas' helmet as Delmas came in to tackle him. It was deliberate, and damaging to both men, if more so to Delmas; the hit left Delmas on the ground. I also would like to see it prohibited to use the head to deliver any kind of hit by any player and would support considering a change in the way that tackling is taught. These changes will not greatly change the way the game is played - just how the players are taught.

I understand that many fans will think that if you change the way the game is taught, it's "not really football" anymore. I'm sympathetic, but let's be real here - no amount of money is worth becoming a walking vegetable in your later years. Demanding that players be willing to trade their own abilities in consciousness for the experience of the NFL is, frankly, barbaric. Yes, it's a tough sport. Yes, it's impossible to prevent all injuries and you shouldn't try. However - dropping some of the gladiatorial fervor in the name of living a normal life beyond football isn't an unreasonable approach. We shouldn't ask anyone to be willing to increase their chances of living with brain trauma just for the chance to be a professional football player -- or for any other sport's sake. I hope that we, as a culture, are willing to move beyond that kind of lower-consciousness belief.


QBs and Ratings

While we're considering the media, consider this from Kerry Byrne at si.com:

16.13 yards per attempt -- This is the number that truly leaps off the stat sheet to those who understand the Cold, Hard Football Facts.

Passing yards per attempt is probably the single greatest individual statistical indicator of success in football, and maybe in all of sports. Teams that win the passing yards per attempt battle win nearly 75 percent of the time and the great quarterbacks almost always have high averages per attempt, from Bart Starr and Johnny Unitas to the greatest winner of all, Otto Graham, whose career average of 8.63 YPA is the best in history. to

So, when you see a number like 16.1 YPA, it pays to investigate a little further. Turns out Brees is just the fifth player since 1960 to average more than 16 yards per pass attempt in a game (min. 20 attempts).

It brings up an interesting point: Many teams - most, in fact - have moved to a NE-style offense with an emphasis on the short pass. That doesn't exclude throwing deep, but it does mean that teams will see more of the short passing game, which will tend to skew that number in the statistics. Since many of the offenses that emphasize the short pass use it much as teams used to use the ground game -- picking up 2-8 years at a time, keeping the clock moving and controlling the ball -- you will see the numbers on yards per attempt lessening. It's still true, however, that yards per attempt can be increased by yards after the catch, and that's an area where the Saints have excelled.

The Broncos are starting to throw deeper passes more often, and experience and comfort level between Brandon Marshall and Kyle Orton is a big factor there. It paid off again, and was that Brandon throwing his TD ball to McDaniels? Nice...so much for Brandon leaving. He likes to talk, but they will open the checkbook to keep him (and Doom).

How many more longer passes? It isn't a vertical game onslaught, but this is from the list of the Broncos top-10 long plays each week:

49 4 3-6-DEN 24 (14:08) K.Orton pass short left to B.Marshall pushed ob at KC 27 for 49 yards (J.McGraw).
19 4 1-10-KC 41 (11:26) K.Orton pass deep left to T.Scheffler to KC 22 for 19 yards (C.Mays).
18 1 1-10-DEN 33 (14:55) K.Orton pass short left to E.Royal to KC 49 for 18 yards (B.Flowers).
17 2 2-6-50 (10:18) C.Buckhalter left tackle to KC 33 for 17 yards (M.Vrabel).

Orton added three plays for 14 yards, two to Marshall, one to Royal. The mid-range game is starting to work better and the running game was money all day long. Then there's the kind of rushing dominance that I hadn't seen in too long. The combination gives us a puncher's chance against anyone, if we can control the line of scrimmage.


Final Note: NTs come Full Circle

Pat Kirwan of NFL.com posted this last week:

3-4 nose tackles are scarce

Any team that plays a 3-4 defense knows that success starts up front with a massive nose tackle that plays over the center's head and forces double teams. In the NFL, 3-4 nose tackles are an endangered species. The Chargers lost Jamal Williams and somehow keep winning. The Jets have dropped three of four games since Kris Jenkins went down. Jason Ferguson of the Dolphins just found he is heading to IR, which leaves Paul Soliai to replace him. All three teams have playoff aspirations, but the lack of a quality nose tackle hurts their chances. So far, the Chargers have adjusted best.

He brings up an interesting point. Increasingly, we are seeing smaller NTs coming in and being effective through leverage and athletic ability -- as well as getting penetration. While it is essential that the NT be able to take up 2 or more blockers, it's not really important that he weight 365 lbs. when doing so. The ability to move other people, great technique and an explosive first step are even more important than size.

Since we are now at 12 teams using the 3-4 in some form full-time and many others that use some hybrid variation at least part of the time, we're not going to necessarily see every team moving to the traditional kind of huge player at NT. Players with skill, stamina and unusual strength and/or leverage as well as a scale-tipping 340 lbs will probably continue to be relatively rare. But as Marcus Thomas (314) has shown in Denver when playing behind Ron Fields (314), as the combination of Travis Johnson (311) and Ogemdi Nwagbuo (303) have shown in San Diego since their massive NT, Jamal Williams (348), went on IR and as Jay Ratliff (304) has shown in Dallas, there is more to the NT position than sheer size. Jason Ferguson comes in at 305, no larger than many 40-front defensive tackles. There's a pattern here.

One of the advantages that Denver has shown this season is that Ron Fields is obviously as good as the commentators who called him a steal believed. Even better, Marcus has shown considerable ability in coming in and handling the NT duties when Fields sits down. Thomas is a serious penetrator who obviously plays by relishing of the chance to compete at this level. If Chris Baker (329) develops this off-season, we may get to see Baker or Thomas showing us their skills at DE - personally, I'd love to see Marcus handling that position, but right now he's the second-best option at NT and a very close second at that. He is also said to really enjoy the position, so perhaps he stays there. An eventual flexible rotation that uses Fields, Thomas and Baker at NT, with Baker or Thomas rotating at DE at times isn't beyond possibility, either. That would be flexible and versatile, hallmarks of the amoeba approach.

Regardless of which one slides over (or whether they do - I'm suggesting an option, not predicting that we'll use it), the fact that we have some solid options in the pipeline at DL speaks well to the way the team will play next season. It also frees up a position in the draft, which always is a comfort. What I'm seeing is that we don't need a NT, thanks to good player evaluation last offseason.


Taming the Colts?

How will we handle Indy? Tough question, since they look like the cream of the league to me right now. If we do, we will do it much as we did against KC, even though Indy is so much better. We need for the running game to keep Peyton Manning off the field. It's the only real way to limit him - he's just too good. We need our coverage to be what it's been the past two weeks - or even better. I don't know if even Champ and Goodman can shut down Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark and friends, but for us to have a good chance, they will have to. It will be up to Ryan Clady and the offensive line to handle Dwight Feeney. Giving Orton time to throw and the right holes to our newly-empowered running game gives us the best chance. We will be mixing the zone blocking and gap blocking again - over the past two games, that has really begun to gel, right on time for a run at the wild-card slot.

We can't keep committing unforced errors. I suspect that our game will hinge on that -- too many players have contributed cognitive flatulence by taking stupid penalties this season. If we beat ourselves, we're toast. We need to show that we can play like a playoff team and make them beat us. Indy is a predator - always ready to pounce on the weaknesses a team manifests. We're moving two time zones and Indy is murder at home.

It's our toughest game of the year. I look forward to seeing where we measure up.

Go Broncos!

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