Broncos Dreams and Musings July 3, 2009

The Denver Broncos and Michael Lombardi

I was meandering through some old materials this weekend when I found a pre-draft set of concerns about the Broncos by Michael Lombardi. I had thought at the time that they were reasonable and a fair consideration, so I kept them around. Here is what he said:


DENVER       

  1. Who is going to be the Broncos starting quarterback? Can they repair, restore and revive the relationship between Jay Cutler and the head coach?
  2. With the switch to a 3-4 there are plenty of positions up for grabs, but the essential question is this: Who will rush the passer from the outside? 
  3. Denver forced only 13 turnovers last season and clearly lack speed on every level of their defense.  Who is going to be their playmaker?
  4. The Broncos struggled to cover anyone, even with Champ Bailey, and finished with just six interceptions for the season.  Who can cover?
  5. Can they expect to get another year out of Casey Wiegmann at center? They struggled when they played physical defensive teams

I thought, even then, that these were excellent questions. There was not doubt that pre-draft, the Broncos had reason to give pause to even the most voracious fans. This led to a lot of musing on what happened and dreams of what might be. That being said, let's take them one at a time and see if Denver did anything to work out those concerns.

Question 1: Who will be the Quarterback?

The Broncos made a decision to give up on the more emotionally fraught and fragile situation with Jay Cutler, cut their losses and make a deal that would yield a starter in Orton and kept their backup in Simms. That same deal also netted them (in essence) Knowshon Moreno and Alphonso Smith and 'half' of Richard Quinn, with a caveat involving the trade of a 3rd-round pick for a 5th-rounder (There are different ways to parse this, but this one seems most accurate to me). However, the issue of who starts at QB, although important, is secondary to the issue of whether or not the Broncos got good value in a trade that most industry people agreed that they had to make. While it’s easy for fans to argue (as I have myself) that it would be grand and emotionally satisfying to see them sit Cutler on the bench for a while, that kind of thing can poison a locker room and distract a team already facing huge changes. It isn’t reasonable and it wasn’t going to happen. I have to say that they seemed to do very well with a tough situation.

In addition, the arrival of Tom Brandstater, who will probably suit up as an emergency quarterback and who will begin his apprenticeship under Head Coach Josh McDaniels and the two QBs ahead of him is a very good sign. Brandstater has all of the tools to become a very good backup or even a starter in the NFL. He needs time and work, and should be able to receive both.

Question 2: Who will rush the passer?

This is a great question. It was then and it still is now, prior to training camp. One of the many areas of weakness last year was the inability to get pressure on the QB (or the running back or the receivers, for that matter). Part of that will shake out from the front 3, and other than Ronnie Fields it seems open right now. But the draft yielded one Robert Ayers, lately of Tennessee, who was one of the best young DEs in this year’s options. Will he rush the QB well? This could be 
one of the questions that determines the outcome of the Broncos season (The production of Knowshon Moreno is the other).

A change in scheme is also letting them move Elvis Dumervil, Jarvis Moss and Tim Crowder to the outside and will let them create a wide variety of looks and options. Moss's and Dumervil's weakness against the run made them less effective coming in from the outside - the change in scheme could create a better disguise for what they are going to do. Denver will be moving towards a full time 3-4 defense, but will give a lot of different looks over the course of the season. See here for SlowWhiteGuy’s helpful look into one way to view this change.

We're going to rush the passer with scheme as well as players, as hoosierteacher pointed out with his excellent series on the Ted Blocker.

Question 3: Who will be the playmakers and create turnovers? Do we have enough speed?

To me the first section was and is the biggest question. Who will be the playmakers? You need to look at this question from two angles. If, by this, you mean to create turnovers (And it seemed that was the thrust of the question) there was a quick response by the Broncos. The answer was to redo the entire secondary, with only a scant few holdovers. They are looking to Andre' Goodman and Alphonso Smith as well as Champ to knock down and pick off passes, to Darcel McBath (David Bruton may take longer to mature, but he has the potential to be a lot more than a special teams player) to learn centerfield and look for opportunities, and Brian Dawkins and Renaldo Hill to prevent the kind of repetitive big plays that hamstrung them in the 2008 season.

I'm not huge on extrapolating stats. The players get injured or have a career year, the scheme changes and with few exceptions, rookies aren't going to get what they did in college. Still - you have to look at the overall stats to see where you were and what needs to change. When you add up last year's turnovers versus our new starters, the new players so far outdid the Broncos measly 13 defensive turnovers that you have to be impressed, and Alphonso Smith was brilliant at creating turnovers in college - fumbles as well as interceptions. The emphasis in training camp has included new drills on how to function if you're the 2nd or 3rd player to a tackle - you generally ignore the man (if he's going down) and hammer on the ball. It wouldn't even matter if he's getting away from Tackler 1 as long as you get the ball loose. Watching film from last year, it was clear that we did that erratically, but not with any consistency. We lost several fumbles to teams that used this practice. Will we be better? I hope so. Are we better prepared via personnel and approach. Assuredly.

If by playmaking you mean 'coming up big with plays to stop drives' you would have to include the massive restructuring of the front 7 as well. Ayers, Doom, Moss, Woodyard, probably Reid and certainly Williams in some degree of rotation, probably with A. Davis at LILB to start, will have to step up. I'd expect Spencer Larsen to be a backup to start and to be moved around from special teams to fullback to inside linebacker, although he may well take the job at linebacker later in the season or in next year's training camp. Fields has been noted by a few writers as the steal of the off-season, and there's reason to believe that since his explosion off the snap was the best on the 49ers D-Line last year. There are too many options for NT and DE to cover here, but that fact in and of itself makes my point. There will be no shortage of folks who can step up. The question of whether they will step up will begin to be answered in training camp.

I did look with interest on the part of this question that involved speed. I'll concede part of the issue - Shanahan drafted for speed for a long time, but we ended up with a smorgasbord of players, styles and abilities due to the revolving door at defensive coordinator and the accompanying revolving personnel door. We became neither fish nor fowl, although we managed foul pretty well.Many of our most recent pickups aren't incredibly fast nor incredibly slow. Bruton looks to be a backup - he's incredibly fast for a safety. McBath is just fast. Smith - there will always be an asterisk in my mind around the players from this year's draft. The timing was flat-out off. He's not a burner, but neither is he slow.

Most importantly, the scheme that we are setting in motion will use more zone coverage to minimize the issues of speed. We drafted fairly well for speed as well - Darcel McBath is in the 4.58 range, Bruton  was in the 4.46, A. Smith was 4.51, not a burner but very quick and agile. Ayers only had a 4.9 40 - slow for a linebacker, but good for a defensive end. Jarvis Moss, on the other hand, is a 4.7 40 guy. Overall, I'd still have to say that Lombardi has a point. Scheme will have to help us here or we'll see issues from it, but I'm Ok with that as we stand now..

Question 4: Coverage and Interceptions

This is a great question. My own feeling is that they had answered it in spades at both the cornerback and the safety positions before the draft and filled out the answer sheet in depth during the NFL draft. Champ is healthy, they added Alphonso Smith in the draft  and Andre Goodman in free agency. Jack Williams or Josh Bell will have to step up to stay on the team. They also did 'a little' at the safety position, with Brian Dawkins there to anchor the team and Renaldo Hill to start. Behind them are three young players, all distinct and with different skillsets.

Jerry Angelo got my honest appreciation for this comment in a recent National Football Post article by Matt Bowen. It brought out some issues on our safeties. 

"...it's obvious that Angelo sees the safety position as a concern heading into this summer, and not just in Chicago.

"It's the poorest-played position in football right now," he said. "It's very hard to find a safety that can tackle high to low," meaning players who can tackle from the free safety spot in the open field.  As Angelo said, there's so much emphasis placed on athleticism and ball skills at the position that sound tackling has become a thing of the past. "

This is one area where Angelo and I are in full agreement, and when I read it I suspected that our own Hoosierteacher wouldn't argue much with us either. In fact, I took this chance to ask him about this remark and appreciated his reply so much that I wanted to include it here:

"The big problem with safeties (in my opinion) at many levels of football is the mistaken belief that they are just extensions of the cornerback position.  This line of thinking has safeties valued for the ability to race to a passed ball and intercept or disrupt.  But this is not the classic role of safeties, and the effect of this type of thinking is what has hurt the position.

Safeties are, above all else, the last line of defense.  They must be sure, open field tacklers because they are intended to stop any ball carriers (runners or receivers) that get past the front seven and corners.  The ability to tackle, speed, and read plays are the most important ingredients.  When one of those skills (almost always "tackling") is sacrificed to get a safety with "good hands" for interceptions", the position suffers.  Good hands should be seen as icing on the cake for a safety, not as a requirement."

In addition to the pleasure of a chance to learn from MHRs master of Xs and Os, the other thing I love is that along with Josh Barrett, the Denver Broncos now have three young, hard hitting safeties (Barrett, David Bruton, McBath) that can play on special teams and who love to make tackles. Having lacked a decent backfield general for years, the Broncos suddenly find themselves with a plethora of riches among the veterans and the youngsters. Will they keep all of them, or will Vernon Fox make the team. I'm better that Fox falters in training camp, but I could be wrong.

With Renaldo Hill starting as the season opens and both McBath, the current heir apparent and David Bruton behind him both having great scouting reports as bright players and sure tacklers, the Broncos are finally paying attention to the defense as a unit, rather than to one position (cornerback, for example, or DE) during one draft and a second position (DL) the next. The upgrade of quality, with new FA players brought in at all positions and a lot of great young talent there from the draft and an unparalleled CFA class, is pointing towards a huge change from the past two years and brings a smile to my face.

By the way, this article on safeties and on Rodney Harrison in particular, also by Matt Bowen is a better than average look at the position and the skills it requires. 

I've mentioned this, but have you noticed that the Broncos have more talent in the defensive backfield than at any time in modern memory? Think about it. With Champ Bailey and probably Andre' Goodman starting and Alphonso Smith able to bring his zone coverage skills to the table as a nickel back, we finally have a decent crew at cornerback. Even better, Goodman and Hill have played well together in the past so we've got some built-in continuity. There will be changes in scheme and terminology, granted, but these two know and understand each others tendencies. Even better, they are paired with Champ and Brian Dawkins, who brings instant leadership and drive to a secondary that last year was best described as ‘porous'. We are much, much better than we were last year.

Question 5: Can Casey Wiegmann play, and can the Broncos play physical football?

Let's move on to the second issue right away. I know that Lombardi meant this in terms of the offensive line, but it's such a good question that I though we should look at the entire team this way. The Broncos gave up way too much to other teams in terms of physicality last year and prior to that. Shanahan preferred speed to size; there are arguments both ways. I'm of the school that wants both, but will take the speed guys if they (and Wesley Woodyard is my favorite current example of this) like being physical, regardless of size, and enjoy taking on the challenge of a team trying to out-muscle them.

It's not necessarily a situation of preferring one or the other. Lots of players give you both - look at Ryan Clady on offense or Ron Fields on defense, each of whom is very fast /explosive/agile for their position. We have quite a few examples of getting both now - David Bruton ran a 4.46 40 at Combine and had the third highest number of tackles on Notre Dame in 2008. NFLDraftScout.com calls Bruton a playmaker "with the size, speed and athleticism to potentially be a good starter and very good special teams player." (There's video at the link I provided).  Then there's the physicality of players like Robert Ayers, Alphonso Smith (who was referred to by Jonathan Hull of fantasyfootballjungle.com as the Steal of the Draft) and Jack Williams, all of whom are fast but not burners, yet incredibly tough players.

It's interesting to me that Buckhalter is still our fastest running back (Yes, even despite his knee surgeries) and that Hillis is just slightly (.02 - .04 seconds) faster than Moreno, yet Moreno's nimbleness has astonished people, while Hillis just runs them over like gophers in the road. Toughness - would anyone out there take Selvin Young and Andre Hall over Moreno and Hillis when it comes to toughness? I'm just asking. Toss in Buckhalter and Jordan and our squad is even stronger. I know - the injuries last year did seriously hurt the Broncos RB squad, but even so... Top to bottom, we just have a much better group at RB. We have a question mark at Torain, but we brought in a couple of young guys to cover us if Torain doesn't get well (don't be surprised if they get him on IR to start the season and to give themselves an option later when there are 2009's injuries to deal with). But toughness? It's a very new year, and for that I'm thankful. This is a tough bunch of guys.

When Parcells won the Super Bowl against the LA Rams in January of 1991, he leaned over to Will McDonough for the Boston Globe who had also been a long time friend, and while waiting for the post game press conference to begin he loudly whispered two words: "Power Football!" During the days following conference, he noted the same thing twice more:

"...I've coached this game for a long time, and I know one thing," said Parcells, two days later. "Power football wins games." He then repeated it, just for emphasis.

Personally, I love speed but I know that Parcells was often right. I  believe that speed has to be paired equally with the ability to match up, stand up and finish up.  That takes power and strength (and scheme, which we often lacked). Games are usually won in the 4th quarter and we lost too many that way, whether by lack of strength or lack of conditioning. Our free agent acquisitions like Brian Dawkins, Renaldo Hill and Andra Davis are also very mentally tough, as is undrafted college free agent Rulon Davis, for example (Davis also has run his 40's in as little as 4.8, although his combine time was 5.06). Tough wins games. Tough generates the stats that correlate to wins. Given the smaller, lighter DEs that we've found ourselves with (Moss, Doom, etc), turning them into bigger linebackers makes a lot of sense. We also added a little weight, players like Fields, Parker and Askew

Moving back to the first part of the final question - How about Casey Wiegmann and the physicality of the Broncos O line approach? There are two good questions here. Can Wiegmann play another year? He says that he can and the Broncos have responded with a 2 year contract so they obviously believe him. The odds are very good, and yet the Broncos had the sense to hedge their bets. They drafted two good offensive linemen. They have Kory Lichtensteiger as the guard/center apparent, Tyler Polumbus at tackle, new center Blake Schlueter and an assortment of other options. 'Steiger has a reputation for toughness that borders on sheer nastiness and he's down to 295 of rock muscle (from up to 310 lb) and dropped some soft weight. Our new offensive lineman, Seth Olsen, was described by draftcountdown.com as "Very tough...Plays with a  nasty  demeanor" and plays at about 306 lb. Just our new kind of guy - he was also elected as a member of the Leadership Group in all four of his playing seasons for the Iowa Hawkeyes.

Wiegmann is light for his position - listed at 285. The guys behind him are a little bigger - 'Steiger at 295, even Schlueter at 290 - but adequate for a zone blocking center (Denver will add other blocking schemes, and actually used to use some other schemes, but we will keep the predominance of the ZB). The question will be whether they can play with technique and leverage - for the ZB, that's the real issue.

As far as being physical, by the end of last year the Broncos were playing much more physically on offense. Their run blocking was a work in progress last year - by the end, they were hammering out holes for people that you either hadn't heard of or didn't want to, but the holes kept coming anyway. The relative size of Seth Olsen gives us a clue as to the direction they will go in – the retention of line coach Rick Dennison says a lot for the zone blocking approach, but they will be adding other blocking schemes as well. They may be looking at bigger guards than they have used in the past. Ryan Clady’s 325 lb. goes a long way towards creating a bigger, tougher line, and the genius of their zone blocking scheme will always put more of a premium on athleticism than just sheer road-grader size. Olsen is big but not huge at 306 yet he's very strong and late rounder Blake Schlueter is smaller yet very athletic (and mean). He's more of the lineman that Denver used in the past, but something about him drew the Xanders/McDaniels team to him. That 'something' was simple - he's incredibly fast, agile and tough as nails, is a master of the knockdown despite his lighter weight (leverage and technique are big tools for him and wields them like sledgehammers) and was a team captain in his junior and senior year.

I'm still not sure about Ben Hamilton. He just didn't seem quite the same guy. Could just have been the year off, maybe something else was going on. I don't see any signs that it was concussion-based, by the way. I do wonder if he's vulnerable to an in-camp challenge by a younger guy. McDaniels has shown one thing - he's not huge on sentimental holdovers.He needs to win.

You could also question this one issue from Lombardi: I'm pretty sure that Casey Wiegmann, among others, out-played, disarmed  and diffused Kris Jenkins and a host of other players. It seemed, after looking at the numbers and the tape, as if the Broncos O line was pretty physical themselves. I thought that the physicality questions were better asked of the rest of the team, but maybe that's just me.

Conclusions:

Michael Lombardi asked a lot of good, insightful questions regarding where the tam came from at the end of last year and where it's trying to go. What stands out to me is how well these questions were answered. In looking back at the players that we (often mercifully) let go, the free agents acquired and the way that we handled the draft, the Broncos did a solid job of providing players that answer what I thought  were fair, sensible queries.

They ranged from the quarterback to the pass rush, to playmakers at each level of the defense, to the quality of the secondary and defensive backfield and back again to offense. There was one question on Casey Wiegmann and another on the level of physicality on the Bronco, particularly the offensive line.  Frankly impressed at how well they’ve answered them to the extent that they can, pre-training camp. I think that every team has a high level of expectation from the fans during the weeks prior to training camp. A certain allure can abound, sometimes realistic, sometimes false. How do you tell which is which?

I think that there are several means. We cannot truly understand how the Broncos are matching players to scheme simple because we do not, cannot know the schemes. But many of us have done substantial work on the statistics and schemes that our current coaches have used in the past. We've done more analysis of last season than any year in my memory (our available tools improve as does the quality of the people we have researching and writing). We can look at who stayed, who went and who was ushered out the door and consider the background and stats on those who replaced them. Taking all known factors into account, I'm impressed at how well we answered the valid and reasonable questions that were put to the Broncos early last spring. With the onset of summer, training camp is nearly in our grasp.

Bring it on!

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