Grading Out Broncos (1-0) vs. Bengals (0-1)
Before moving on to Week Two, a quick review of the Cincinnati game, and a report card for both teams will help us to put the Win in the rearview mirror, after which we will look at the season's storyline as it continues to develop.
Correll Buckhalter showed great burst and acceleration, while Knowshon Moreno looked like a favored choice to get key reps in his development. This is a trend that will likely continue, with Cleveland's defensive front being quite similar to Cincinnati's. The line is still working on perfecting some of the new techniques, and the cutback lanes haven't been totally clean, but against a defensive front featuring Tank Johnson they still managed a healthy yards-per-carry and protected the ball well. The offense featured two-back sets with Peyton Hillis leading the way as a fullback. Hillis actually got more plays than he has in the past, but fewer individual looks, seeing only one carry and two targets.
Cedric Benson continued to struggle with consistency, and this game marked the first time he had over 20 carries in a losing effort. 10 of his carries were for 2 or fewer yards and he was far too tentative to the hole. He started picking up steam late in the game, a signature of Benson's. The Bengals' short-yardage game looked good, however, and could be a strength for their inexperienced line going forward, and a great source of confidence.
Just missed making the A grade in this category due to late-game mental mistakes that allowed cutback lanes to open a few times, including Benson's longest run of the night. Overall the timely run support from the safeties was topnotch, and the defensive line looked terrific, stacking and shedding consistently and allowing the Broncos to keep one and even two players in coverage. Despite entering Denver territory on every drive, Cincinnati's inability to rush the ball led to most of the mistakes that earned Denver's D the stops.
Great hitting and fast linebackers set the tone early, and despite a number of quick gashes, the D-line was very effective and the run support was excellent. Rey Maualuga and Keith Rivers both looked terrific, while the D-line got good penetration to break up many of the plays.
Several receivers had drops and Kyle Orton had a number of poor and late reads, but the performance edges towards the positive when the morning's scheme is considered, where the Broncos effectively protected the ball and avoided turnovers. Cincinnati's DBs played very well, which they are more than capable of doing, and even Roy Williams was tackling well. The maturation of the offense was expected to take time, and with Cincinnati's particular matchup problems, unfortunately the passing game was asked to take a backseat to ball protection in this game. The brunt of the negative in this grade comes from inconsistent execution, as many plays were left out on the field in the passing game.
The overall scheme seemed to suffer from a lack of vision, with far too many third downs thrown short of the 1st-down markers. With the long ball effectively taken away, the Bengals didn't look prepared to work underneath and Carson Palmer was mostly ineffective at threatening in the short passing game. He did, however, move well in the pocket, and the line was adequate in protecting Palmer, a critical area for this game. A few bad passes from Palmer and a few drops by his receivers left many plays on the field for the Bengals as well.
Denver played this according to plan, leaving deep safeties deep and giving the underneath coverage a chance to shine. The pass rush wasn't as consistent as the preseason promise it showed, but flashes were there, and from unexpected sources, including Andra Davis, Mario Haggan and Darrell Reid. Cincinnati's talent was a good test, but with doubts about how well the Cincy team has gelled to date, greater tests loom, especially the Dallas matchup in three weeks.
The weakest area of a strong defense didn't fail catastrophically in any way, except for failing to play the whole field on Denver's final play; but they had numerous short area breakdowns that allowed Denver to twice press into FG range and convert for points. In most games that would be enough to keep Cincy in it, but they needed to clamp down with more consistency in Sunday's unexpected field position battle.
Matt Prater continued his regular-season kicking streak to 12 straight FGs, in addition to his perfect record for the preseason. He has yet to kick a de facto game winner for the Broncos, though; so his toughest challenges are still yet to come. Brett Kern outkicked his coverage a number of times and didn't force any fair catches. In a game that was quickly and completely turned into a battle for field position he was less than perfect, and the Broncos know they have other options if they need them; and they are looking at them. Eddie Royal did as well as he could against an above-average punting and coverage team, but the Broncos' coaches will keep looking for more help to take some of the load off of Eddie. Failure to recognize a fake punt early is a downgrade, but is also a factor of coaching as well.
Long snapper Brad St. Louis is the sole source of downgrade on this unit, though the unit as a whole played mostly average. The ineffective snap to the holder was terrible on many levels, and ruined an otherwise decent day for the STs unit where they converted a long fake punt for a first down, and where punter Frank Huber posted an expectedly-good showing.
Not all will agree with the gameplan going in, but based on Cincy's strengths and weaknesses, the Broncos made a great choice for how to combat them. There are a lot of ways to skin a cat, and the Broncos chose ball control and time of possession on offense. With no real true weakness on the Bengals' defense, the Broncos chose instead to try to wear them down and force weakness upon them, to mixed results. Unable to consistently execute in the return game, the offense was usually starting from square one, with no clear advantage. On defense, the choice to prevent quick strikes was a perfect complement to the ball-control offense, and with the Bengals needing 59 minutes to score their first points, it was executed nearly flawlessly. The choice to protect the cornerbacks earned a couple of plays from Alphonso Smith and Champ Bailey, which will work out more times than it fails for the Broncos. Cincinnati was able to refocus and drive on this defense late in the game, something they are eminently capable of doing, and it would have been nice to see the defense earn a couple more shots at the ball on that drive; but overall, it was a terrific scheme that put the team in a position to compete for 60 minutes.
The Bengals stated before the game that they were expecting a finesse, pass-happy team in the Broncos. While the defense adjusted accordingly to Denver's ball-control rushing offense, with only a few minor setbacks, the offense failed almost completely to adjust to the Broncos' choice to take away the big play. The further decision to abandon the run in the second half was also questionable. It wasn't until the Bengals moved to a more-spread-out offense that they started having success finding open men underneath, but by then it was nearly too late, and when they did score, the Broncos were looking at having a decent amount of time on the clock to set up a winning FG.
Week 1, Win at (0-1) Cincinnati: Nothing wrong with a miracle to help get that first win of the season, especially when it comes in a way that teaches so much, and on the heels of a team effort and coaching gameplan that was admirable in its quality. But as far as the Bengals are concerned, Denver earned nothing.
"We played pretty well, regardless of that play," Bengals safety Chris Crocker said. "That play was a miracle. I'm not going to give them any credit and they didn't do anything to deserve that play. We played our butts off."
Crocker may or may not give Denver any credit for how the game ended, but he is certainly within his rights to point out how well the Bengals played. The closest their defense allowed Denver to get was the 24-yard line, and they didn't allow a single passing first down until Denver ran their 2-minute drill late in the first half. What they need to recognize is just how in situ Denver's current offense is, and how limited it was by design. They will need to play much better to have a chance at Lambeau Field, where they have never won, and where the 1-0 Pack brings a much more mature and cultivated offense to the table.
Their offense will also need to do a much better job of limiting mistakes, such as Chad Ochocinco's two fouls, an offensive pass interference and a holding call, both on plays that resulted in negated third-down conversions. And while they managed 4.5 yards per first-down carry, that tapered off dramatically to 2.6 yards on second and third downs. The offensive line still needs time to gel, but the skill players need to start holding up their end of the bargain as well.
- Laveranues Coles needs to get over the drops. He showed #2 potential to get open on Sunday, but he contributed next to nothing to the bottom line.
- DE Antwan Odom had an unlikely day, recording 2 sacks, 3 tackles for loss, and one pass deflection. If the Bengals keep rotating him with DE Michael Johnson, he may keep getting the looks he needs to stay fresh and be successful
- Roy Williams continues to be a double-edged sword. His 9 tackles were a key part of the defensive effort that held Denver short multiple times, but his boneheaded choice to lay out Marshall instead of play safety at the end of the game was costly. Too costly. He may never change his stripes, but the Bengals would like to see something different, and they won't get it.
- The O-line could be in even more trouble, and if Cincinnati struggles more post-Denver, this could be the biggest reason why. Their LG Nate Livings hurt his knee in the second quarter and may need to be replaced. The only upside is that he didn't have any more time to gel than anyone else at this point...
Week 2, Home Opener Against (0-1) Cleveland: QB Brady Quinn looks like he is going to challenge Trent Edwards for the "Captain Checkdown" label, as his first-half numbers (7-of-11 for 47 yards, 2 sacks for 10 total yards lost, and a net production of 37 yards) should tell you. He was quickly reduced to a game manager in a game where the Vikings pulled away with accelerating boredom.
Blame it on the Vikings defense, a tough card to draw in your first regular-season opener.
Regardless, until the Vikings' lead had increased to 14 points, Quinn found zero traction, and failed to find the end zone until there was only 30 seconds and a 21-point deficit left. Despite this, he has the blessing of his coach, Eric Mangini, and the spectre of the "Offseason of Doom" Denver Broncos to look forward to. How bad to you have to be playing for the media to declare that this is a "winnable" game for the Broncos??
- As Jamal Lewis goes, so will this offense go, at least as long as Quinn is starting. The good news is that that isn't such a bad thing. In limited carries he was excellent with a 5.7 yard average and 47 yards receiving, but the bad news is that with James Davis' shoulder injury, he may be asked to take on even more reps. He is confident that that won't hamper him. The history of RBs 30-and-over says otherwise.
- Replace Quinn with Derek Anderson? Always a possibility, but in particular it becomes an issue if the team is in desperate need of a quick strike score, which DA brings to the table.
- There doesn't appear to be any chemistry in the WR group with a miscommunication between Quinn and Braylon Edwards leading to an INT and Edwards catching only one of 6 passes thrown his way, and with Josh Cribbs running incredibly athletic, but wholly unsuccessful receiver routes. Robert Royal at the TE position is inconsistent and dropped two passes that the team really needed. Watch for Mike Furrey to replace Cribbs at #2 WR, and for the receiving to instantly begin to gel. Hopefully this is a decision that gets put off until Week Three at the earliest, as Denver's DBs could have some fun baiting Quinn...
- Not that Cribbs is all bad... :) What is the best way to handle the league's best kick returner? Some say kick it away. Some say kick it smart and give your coverage the best chance for a stop. I don't know what to say. He is a bad dude, and in his own way, better than Hester was. They just need to stop forcing the issue of having him in the base formations. He is good enough to execute trickery even when teams suspect something. For the good of the team, the Browns should just leave it at that.
- How are the Browns going to protect Quinn? They allowed 4 sacks and numerous hits on Quinn against Minnesota's 8-man fronts, and Denver brought pressure from 6- and 7-man fronts with their numerous disguises. At best, more sacks are on the menu; at worst, the INTs might start racking up...
- With that said, Denver needs to choose their battles. LT Joe Thomas dominated Jared Allen, and Denver will be hard-pressed to face him with someone who can get around him. Elvis Dumervil (DOOM) may be our best choice, due to DOOM's unorthodox style, but it is one heck of a challenge.
- Did anyone else see Shaun Rogers lined up at MLB last week?? How scary is that dude with a running start?
- For the second time I'm bringing up Kamerion Wimbley. With 1 sack and multiple pressures he is making good on the option of moving him around. Denver needs to watch him before every snap and get the right calls out for him.
- Eric Wright is an excellent cornerback, but he could be the source of a terrific offensive matchup for the Broncos offense. Runs to his side can see success, and any RB worth his salt can break an Eric Wright tackle.
@ (0-1) Oakland: "They're very hurt," Tom Cable said. "I've been a Raider since 2007 and it felt like that was the first time in the locker room after a loss where it really got us in the gut, and that's a good thing. That's the way you're supposed to feel about this game. So I'm proud of them. Very proud of them."
Gotta start somewhere, right? I described this as a culture of losing, and so I can kind of understand where Cable is coming from, but as far as addressing this culture, well, this isn't exactly what I had in mind... That said, they had a chance to win the Monday Night game against the Chargers, and the difference maker was Philip Rivers. (If we want to go through the agonizing process of defining a "franchise QB" we can make it even more agonizing by starting the discussion with a look at Rivers. He stacks up in a lot of ways, it pains me to say...)
Oh, and Al Davis needs to stop calling plays down to the field. That would help, too.
- Richard Seymour makes a pretty good Raider. 2 sacks, 6 tackles and an unrelenting pressure on the pocket. Bastard.
- The Raiders held the Chargers to 151 yards for three quarters... and then gave up 166 yards and two TDs on two drives. The difference between playing your heart out, and playing your heart out for 60 minutes. Glad Denver seems to have learned this lesson.
- The Oakland running game is missing Justin Fargas for now, and even on returning he may not be 100% with a hamstring pull. He is the most gnat-like of the raider RBs: effectively annoying. His absence is a huge reason why the running game started hot but sputtered quickly.
- TE Zach Miller was a legitimate threat as expected, but for now he is the ONLY threat. With Chaz Schilens battling an injury, Johnnie Lee Higgins leaving the game after taking a serious hit and Darrius Heyward-Bey dropping 2 and catching none of his 5 targets, there doesn't appear to be any help on the horizon. Javon Walker continues to be a healthy scratch.
- The Raiders allowed 66-yard and 59-yard returns to Darren Sproles. Now we'll see how they do against the Kansas City return units, but it is shaping up to be an opportunity for Denver to establish or gain some momentum on special teams when they face them.
(1-0) Dallas at Home:
- Despite the hubbub surrounding Romo's great start, the Cowboys still gave up 174 yards rushing. Next up is Brandon Jacobs. They also gave up 276 yards passing and recorded no sacks. There could be opportunity here...
- The Cowboys appear to have officially upgraded one key area. I talked about how STs is devastated when team building is conducted in the manner that Dallas appears to be caught up in. Well, Dallas took the Shanny approach and fired the coordinator and hired a new one...and so far the dividends are positive. Outside of a blocked kick, multiple touchbacks and good FG kicking, the coverage units held Pro Bowler Clifton Smith in check all day.
- The Cowboys are insisting on using TE Martellus Bennett to challenge defensive coverages by splitting him out wide. It's not the passes he catches that hurt you in this situation, it's the attention he forces his way, with the other weapons on the field. If Hillis is kept secret, the Cowboys may be in for a dose of their own medicine in Week Four.
- The battle between Orlando Scandrick and Mike Jenkins for the #2 CB position is still up in the air. They both played well, but they both failed to cash in on multiple opportunities. The longer this battle plays out, the more it benefits Denver.
- I continue to see gratuitous similarities to the Denver of Shanny's final days. Lots of talking up the offensive brilliance while ignoring the defensive failures, though that isn't rooted in the personnel issues and is more an "option". Under this type of team building, units on the team suffer, while other units get saddled with increasing resources but increasing responsibilities - ones which exist in conflict with their primary responsibilities. For example, a stellar offense is charged with not only using its loads of talent to score quickly, but is also charged with keeping a weak defense off the field. But that is an either/or proposition, and contradictions will always come back to bite you. All units require the same amount of attention, or the whole thing becomes so unbalanced that it tips over. It just needs the right kind of push...
(1-0) New England @ Home:
- Laurence Maroney is once again no lock to be the go-to guy. Fred Taylor on the other hand is a perfect fit...
- Right now the Pats are exhibiting a weakness against the screen, a staple of Josh McDaniels' offense. We'll see how long it takes them to get the issue cleaned up.
- Newly-acquired cornerback Leigh Bodden might've been the most excited player in the Patriots' locker room following Monday's win. Bodden played for the winless Lions last season and hadn't been on the winning side of a professional football game since 1997. "It feels good," he said. "It's just amazing to me the resilience that this team has, just because you're down it doesn't mean that we're going to go in the tank. Other teams that I've been on it's like, 'Here we go again.' But here I didn't hear any of that. I just heard, 'We're going to get this done,' and we got it done."
@ (1-0) San Diego:
- RG Louis Vasquez and C Nick Hardwick both left the Monday Night game with injuries. Hardwick may be out for an extended period of time.
- The Chargers are looking at the Ravens, Dolphins and Steelers in the next three games... they allowed 148 yards rushing to the Raiders, and you can bet that these three teams will make every effort to establish the run, and quickly. Unlike the Raiders, it is doubtful that these three teams will snatch defeat from the jaws of victory...
- The secondary is showing some holes. Watching Antonio Cromartie and Clinton Hart screw up their coverage to allow a TD is like a symphony in motion to this Broncos fan. The McDaniels Offense is designed to take mistakes like that and make teams pay, so hopefully Orton has it down by then. Quentin Jammer is still the real deal though....
- Say what you will about Norv Turner and the slow starts and playoff losses... the dude doesn't seem to ever lose patience. Maybe he should...
@ (1-0) Baltimore:
- 501 total offensive yards against KC...
- Terrell Suggs doesn't look like the same player. No sacks, no pressures, no hits on the QB.
- TE L.J. Smith may not be ready to go; but then, he may not have to, what with Todd Heap's reappearance after an injury-riddled 2008. He looked like a quality target and was able to go after the ball, and Joe Flacco seemed to gain a lot of confidence in him as the game went on. A blast from the past for the Ravens...
(1-0) Pittsburgh @ Home:
- Expect Troy Polamalu to make the Denver game his first game back from injury for PIT. He could possibly be back sooner, and he is a competitor so that shouldn't be ruled out, but without setbacks, the expectation is 6 weeks to heal from the MCL sprain.
- The running game from 2008 didn't look great, and so far, it isn't looking like anything special in 2009 either (and may have gotten even worse). And yet, the Steelers still managed to find a way to win. There is that franchise quarterback discussion that we all love so much...
- The pass defense looks porous, but the run defense looks stout as ever. That is something that can be built on, at least.
@ (0-1) Washington:
- Albert Haynseworth isn't racking up the stats, but that doesn't mean his impact isn't being felt. He played very stoutly against the run in limited playing time, and that is where the Redskins wanted to start with him. But they will need to get some wins under their belt or they may be facing a classic Haynesworth inversion, where he disappears completely on the field. It may not be a fair criticism, but it is always threatening, based on his past history.
- DeAngelo Hall and Fred Smoot are incredibly weak links in the Redskins secondary. Whether those links hold long enough for Denver to get a turn taking advantage of it in Week 9 is anybody's guess though...
- Jim Zorn needs to get the college ball out of his system. After opening with a very unlikely 34-yard rush from Clinton Portis, he followed with an embarrassing option pass from Antwan Randle-El. That is how you destroy healthy momentum in the NFL, and from that point forward (outside of an excellent fake FG that the Redskins had stored in the hopper for the Giants), the Giants had the Redskins right where they wanted them.
(1-0) New York Giants @ Home:
- Giants WR Ramses Barden should see the field next week, and I will definitely be watching... I wasn't a big fan of his, but it will be interesting to see what a team like NYG can do with him.
- So far, the running game isn't all that it has been touted as, with only 3.3 yards per. Part of it was going against Albert Haynseworth, but part of the blame rests firmly on the Giants' O-line. They get Dallas next, who are having trouble already with stopping the run, so the proof should be in the pudding after next week's game.
- They got burned badly on a fake FG before the half that allowed the Redskins to gain new life. Don't expect it to happen again...
@ (0-1) Kansas City:
- Against the Ravens, the Chiefs unveiled a new strategy: don't beat yourself. They committed zero turnovers and committed only three penalties. They did, however, consistently miss blocks and assignments on offense. So I guess it is more like, "Don't beat yourself...too badly."
- The Chiefs' run blocking really struggled, but that is mostly a testament to the Raven's D-line which spent most of its time in the backfield. Still, this is something to watch for a (hopefully) lack of improvement.
- If KC can get production out of its "odd man out" D-line prospects (notably Tamba Hali and Tank Tyler) then they can consider themselves ahead of the curve for their rebuild. Both Hali and Tyler were supposed to be casualties of the switch to the 3-4, but they are producing - Tank as a converted NT and Hali as a converted OLB (though to be fair, Hali's production comes when he is lined up as a DE).
- CB Brandon Flowers is not back on the field yet, but will be soon. He is an excellent young corner who is hard to replace (though Maurice Leggett did a decent job against Baltimore).
@ (1-0) Indianapolis:
- At this point, Denver can expect that WR Anthony Gonzalez will be back by the time they play Indianapolis. More weapons for Peyton Manning is never a good thing.
- DT Antonio Johnson, acquired off of the Jacksonville practice squad by Bill Polian, earned a gameball in his first start. He stacked and shed like a vet and got 9 tackes (5 solo) for his efforts. Could be another solid find by the Colts... Also Rookie CB Jerraud Powers was impressive in his first start.
@ (1-0) Philadelphia:
- The Philly defense hasn't lost its edge with the passing of its architect, the late Jim Johnson. With 7 turnovers and 5 sacks, it shows the kind of aggressive promise that it always has.
- Despite the convincing win, the passing game was struggling, earning barely over 4 yards per attempt.
- DeSean Jackson, who was widely regarded as a much better receiver than Eddie Royal before the draft, is starting to show some of that promise again. He isn't the pure receiver that Eddie is, but he is finding ways to be productive out of the Wildcat, on reverses, and in the return game (where he had one return for a TD against Carolina).