"Fire is the test of gold; adversity, of strong men." Lucius Annaeus Seneca, 4 B.C.E.-65 C.E.
The Denver Broncos are off to as fast a start as anyone could have predicted. The new management has done a remarkable job in finding players that fit the scheme, looking for leadership qualities as well as playing skill and suitability, drafting the exact players they needed and instilling both scheme and attitude to win games right away. This weekend will bring about a contest that Broncos fans everywhere look forward to - going into the Black Hole to fight the Raiders in an old grudge match that's one of the great rivalries in the NFL. It's a great weekend for football!
I've spent a few days breaking down film and putting together some notes from the past two weeks. I hope they'll help some of you to enjoy the games a little more - here are some Thoughts and Musings for Week 3.
Quinn, Quests and Quality
In the second half, the Broncos went to far more two-tight end and three-tight end looks and wore down a Browns defense that had cracked against the run in the second half the previous week.
The extra tight ends pushed out the edges of the Broncos' offensive formation, and the Browns had less success running plays down from the outside in. As a result, the Broncos rushed for 133 of their 186 yards in the second half, with Correll Buckhalter going 45 yards for a touchdown in a two-tight end set
Knowshon Moreno also ran for 17 yards out of a two-tight end formation to go with a 14-yarder with three tight ends.
"We got tight ends that can block, they're aggressive," Moreno said. "(The Browns) knew we were going to run the clock out. They put as many people down there as possible. We broke some runs on that."
Is anyone still wondering why we drafted Richard Quinn? If you think about it - using a late 2nd-round choice for exactly the player you want makes a lot more sense than waiting a few rounds and 'seeing' if he's still there (and wondering what to do instead if he's not). I was one of those who believed that Josh McDaniels was going to a 3TE set very early on, and I'm glad to be right this time. Quinn is perfect - Daniel Graham and Tony Scheffler can be great options in the receiving game, and Scheffler can be split out as a WR just as I suggested that he would be. Sorry to toot my own horn, but I've heard a lot of grief aimed at McD over how he isn't going to use the TEs and why did we 'waste' a draft pick on Quinn and the like. After a time, it got me to wondering about a kind of bottom line issue.
Why do some fans assume that there's no reasonable explanation to the actions they're seeing? It gets back to something that might be worthwhile: I didn't suddenly get a crystal ball and I'm certainly not a genius about football. I just looked at what McD has done in the past and considered why he was doing what he was, as much without prejudice either way as I could. Assuming that a guy who grew up around football (and who likes order and logic so much that he has a degree in mathematics) doesn't have a reason for the things that he's doing is arrogance of the worst kind. He did, and his decisions now make perfect sense.
This happened in regard to Eddie Royal last year. Eddie, according to the Goodman's, ran the best routes in the draft. When he was selected, most folks assumed that we had used a 2nd-round pick - our only one - on a specialty role player who might turn into a slot receiver down the road if we were lucky, despite Mike Shanahan's quotes to the contrary. Few people read what Shanahan said about Eddie's routes and believed it - it was often considered 'spin'. But Shanahan was telling the truth and now we are thrilled to have him as a Bronco.
The same, I believe, is true about Alphonso Smith. He is already a killer nickel cornerback. Due to the number of passing advantages in the NFL, you have to play nickel a lot. He's already making that work to our advantage and, eventually, Champ and Andre' Goodman will need to be replaced. Some folks will always complain that it wasn't worth a first-round pick, but they're not really thinking. We want to win NOW - not next year. Next year he'll be even better, just as Royal is now.
That said, so far the draft looks awfully good to me. Darcel McBath wasn't greeted with cries of joy, but he got his first special-teams tackle and his first INT this week amid reports that the Broncos are happy with his skills, dedication and performance. He, too, is going to make us glad that we took him. Robert Ayers was around the ball far more last weekend and made a few very nice plays - it's his second game and you can see the progress every week. Of course, everyone could see this week that Knowshon Moreno is likely to be a beast for years to come. Friends, we had a very fine draft. I'd suggest that we start trusting the McDaniels team until they give us a good reason not to. So far, he's done a heck of a job.
The Raiders Max Protect
Lost in the jumble of news from around the league this week was the reason that the Raiders offensive line has looked as good as it has. Against the Chargers, for example, they used 8 protectors on 2 occasions, used 7 players 6 times, and 6 protectors (plus a TE or running back chipping) on 10 plays. They also used a 3-step drop with a quick throw 5 times, so they're aware of their issues on the line. Their approach so far has been to throw bodies at the defense, stymieing the attempts to take advantage of a weakness in the front 5.
This isn't a seamless approach. They still have to win some battles one on one, and the loss of Robert Gallery (who's done a nice job at guard and has been a strong point along a less-than-optimal line) will still hurt them.: he'll be replaced by Erik Pears. I'll look for them to continue this approach against the revamped, aggressive attacks of the Broncos D. The Broncos will have to stunt and twist, finding gaps in the wall to pressure JaMarcus Russell and make him nervous. He doesn't usually throw well under pressure, so Mike Nolan and company will have their hands full with that this week.
I had wondered about the issue of using that many players to try to protect the quarterback, so I asked our own hoosierteacher to chime in. If that's their approach, how do we attack it? His answer intrigued me.
"In an odd twist, Oakland beats themselves by resorting to max protect. Teams WANT to force offenses into max protect, because it limits the players that are able to go down the field and score points or gain yards. Teams resort to max protect because they are unable to protect their QB, not because they desire to.
This is exactly what Denver wants. Consider - Denver rushes 5 on most plays (the 5 DLmen) and feature an elite DB corps. We want to force opponents to keep their TEs and any RBs in on pass plays, because this allows the SAFs an easier (hence quicker) read on plays. The only advantage for the offense is that it allows the QB more time, and the WRs get more time to break away from their coverage.
The rule of thumb is that a defense will eventualy get to the QB, regardless of the protection. The added time that the offense gets is mitigated by the defense, since the defense gets easier reads, less scoring threats on the field, and they still get the "1.5" advantage (1 OLman is equal to 1.5 defensive rushers). This equation means that the more players that have to be used to protect the QB, the less value they have proportionate to a defensive player. In other words, for every 3 defenders added to protecting the QB, the defense only has to add 2 rushers for balance.
Hope that gives some perspective. Oakland is going max protect because they have to, not because an offensive coordinator wants to use it so much."
Many thanks, Professor! Given the level that our secondary has played at and the relative strength of the Oakland receivers - not the strongest club, but some decent ones - I'll give the advantage to our side. I suspect that Nolan has a few wrinkles in mind with the front 7, too.
Oakland managed to beat KC in KC. That's never easy, so we can't look past them next week. They put up a good fight for San Diego before inevitably succumbing - San Diego has had their number for years. I don't get the impression that the Broncos are set up to look past anyone, though - listening to Josh McDaniels' mournful recitation of how hot the Browns weapons were, I was starting to think that I'd woken up in an alternate universe. Not so - any NFL team can have a good afternoon and beat you. McDaniels will have them prepared, Brian Dawkins will have them worked up and inspired and Kyle Orton will keep them steady. I'm starting to like the combination.
The Sack Attack and the Offensive Line
There was a lot of understandable consternation regarding our offensive line last week. Antwan Odom has been taking mean pills - he looks bigger, stronger and very effective. The full story wasn't clear until he dined on Packers linemen in Green Bay last weekend - the Bengals had 6 sacks on Aaron Rodgers and he had 5. The Cincinnati defense is aggressive and effective, and the Broncos did fairly well against them. While it's true that the Broncos were substituting Russ Hochstein for the redoubtable Chris Kuper, there is still the fact that the Bengals right now look like they're bringing pressure effectively.
The Green Bay offensive line isn't stout, but the Broncos line is. Some of the trouble was probably communication, since the line isn't used to having Hochstein playing, but the Bengals did exactly what they should have - take advantage of every weakness they could find. They made Green Bay pay in a big way, beating them badly while on the road. While I won't hold my breath waiting for the media to discover that the Bengals may be better than advertised, seeing what happened when Kuper returned to the lineup against Cleveland has gone a long way to assuaging any doubts that might have arisen. The Broncos will get a good test this weekend in Oakland - Richard Seymour has been an instant upgrade to an Oakland defense that badly needed one. I'm still looking for the Broncos to win this one, but the victory may be hard-fought.
The Rush Job
It was nice to see Correll Buckhalter show the fans just why Josh McDaniels was so eager to bring him to Denver. Buckhalter used the field perfectly, confounded the defensive backs, and won a pro wrestling match in the last few yards to notch a rushing TD for the Broncos. He had come back to the sidelines just before to tell the assembled running backs that one of them was going to bust a long one against the look the Browns were using, and then he went out to prove it. Buck ended up with 9 carries but racked up 76 yards, an 8-yard average carry. For a guy who was often described as being injured and over the hill, he looks remarkably spry. It's easy to see why Josh McDaniels wanted him.
I think that folks may have missed that McDaniels has had several chances to see Buckhalter close up and to see how New England had to game-plan him. Like Renaldo Hill and Andre' Goodman, McDaniels likes players who were hard to scheme against or created mismatch issues. Typical of how this team seems to operate, Buckhalter gave most of the credit to his linemen.
"Any time a back can break out like that, first of all you've got to thank your linemen, because without them it isn't possible," Buckhalter said. "But it kind of gets you into a groove and makes you feel good, and it carries over to the next week."
Knowshon Moreno has made huge strides and will only get better - it was nice to see him catching on. While Peyton Hillis will get lots of touches over time, I'm not (surprise!) concerned with how often he touches the ball. He's going to be out there on special teams where he's making tackles, he's also blocking, he'll see receptions and he'll carry the ball. Added up, it's a sizable presence. If Moreno and Buck get the majority of touches in this game or the other, that's fine. As long as we're productive, that's all that counts. I think that you can assure yourself that Hillis feels the same way - he's always been team first.
LaMont Jordan has showed that despite being a distant 4th on the depth chart in many ways, he can receive and carry the ball late, which are the two things I've always envisioned him as doing. Role players are a big key to the depth on the team.
Home Sweet Home
You might have noticed that the Broncos are a very solid 22-3 in home openers since 1984. In addition, they've got the right QB for the job - Kyle Orton is 16-2 at home over his career. That's a combination that bodes very well for the future, so congratulations to both. After watching the NFL Rewind of the performance Orton gave, I can honestly say that if you spend time breaking down the film, you'll be very impressed with his poise, performance and skills. While I sympathize with those who complain that he doesn't look good enough while winning, I'm a lot happier with a guy who wins nearly twice as many as he loses than a guy who looks great while losing more than he wins. Ever since Orton was in college, he's been a winner, and it shows.
Kyle Orton is calm, confident and sure of himself and his team. In his post-game interview, Orton said matter-of-factly, "We've got one of the best groups of guys in the league." He's right, too. Orton was just 11 of 27 in the first half, but a number of those were the throwaways that the team wanted him to take against Cincinnati. In the second half, he was 8 of 10 for 142 yards - a more than average performance. Like the rest of the team, Orton continues to improve.
What is it about Purdue QBs? Orton is growing into the system and impressing those who had an open mind on the issue. Drew Brees is ripping up the league. A.J. Smith just didn't see it coming - he isn't at all unhappy with Philip Rivers (Nothing but his attitude to be unhappy with. I understand that he still claims that he didn't do anything wrong in bending over the Ravens player and yelling in his face. Stay classy, Phil). Rivers, for all his apparent attitude issues is one of the best young QBs in the game, but you don't use a 1st-round pick on a player if you believe that your current man at the position will be one of the best in football in a couple of years. It's another reason to be happy that our head coach knows QBs so well.
I was following Daniel Jeremiah on Twitter (thanks to a recommendation by TedB) and here's what Jeremiah had to say, "Drew Brees has rubbed off on his teammates. Sources told me his leadership in the locker room is even better than his play." That's an impressive statement, given what Brees is doing on the field. Orton's teammates loved him in Chicago and do in Denver - must be something in that Purdue water.
Notes from the Legion of Doom
"Time discovers truth" Ibid
Okay, it's not original, but it describes our team well. There's only one problem with that name, really - the fact that the players wouldn't ever mention any one guy. How to know? When Elvis Dumervil was being asked about his 4-sack day, what he wanted to talk about was the performance of Andra Davis, with 10 combined tackles. Doom said of Davis,
"Ah, man. That's one guy I thought had a great game. I think the four sacks kind of overshadowed it a little bit, but my MVP is 'Dre Davis. He's been our emotional leader since he came on board."
Davis was equally modest and wanted to talk about Doom. His comment was succinct.
"He really showed everybody why he is definitely one of the best rushers in this game," he said. "The sky is the limit for Elvis."
Dawkins summed up the approach that is starting to show so clearly. I love what he said,
"When 'E' is having the day he is having, it's like I'm making those sacks," Dawkins said. "That's my guy. That's when you have a defense, I think, that excels. When everybody is not (playing) a selfish brand of ball. It's complementary -- anybody has a chance. And when you make that play, we're going to celebrate with you."
'Complementary' is the word of the season in Denver. This team believes in itself and they believe in each other. It's easy to spot - look at the comments, and notice how they talk about each other. That's one mark of a champion - a team that plays for each other. There is a certain chemistry on a winner that you just don't see anywhere else. More power to them.
The other thing that a winner has is confidence. Not arrogance, although some get to that point, but confidence. This team has confidence in each other and in the work that the coaches have done and are doing. Mike Nolan commented,
"We've started to build some confidence. When the players have confidence in it, then it starts to breed its own success." It has, and it shows. Brian Dawkins said that the team has felt it since the game against Arizona.
Of confidence, Daniel Graham said, "We're not surprised at all," by the 2-0 start. "We knew that a lot of people would doubt us, but we're being one as a team in here, we don't care what people say about us or what they think, we're going out and getting wins as a team." I love how this is going.
Sometimes It's Better to Receive than to Give
Among the stories right now is the discussion about why Brandon Marshall isn't a bigger part of the offense. I'd suggest a couple of things - first, despite his protests, it's possible that he still doesn't know the playbook well enough. If true, it's a crying shame. It's Week 3 of the regular season, for heaven's sake!
There's another reason, though, that makes more sense to me. SlowWhiteGuy was talked about receivers this summer and he noted something that I put into one of my databases, because it seemed so obvious, yet so overlooked. On the idea that a WR is the same in any system, SWG wrote:
Not Quite True:
- Some systems require very precisely timed routes - e.g. WCO, because the QB actually throws before the cut.
- Some systems require the receiver to get separation after the cut because the QB waits until the cut has been made.
- Some systems require the receiver to get to a precise spot on the field because the QB is reading the coverage not the receiver; this requires precise route running.
- Some systems require the receiver to read the coverage and adjust the route on the fly; close coordination with the QB is essential.
- So, there are subtle but profound differences between systems. That's one of the reasons why a receiver may look unstoppable for one team, then disappear with another. (The italics are mine)
I think that part of the reason that Brandon Stokley is getting so much attention from Orton and Marshall so much less, is that Marshall has always had issues with his route running. He can be sloppy, doesn't always come out of his cuts smoothly and will round off at times. It's my perception, after watching both games carefully, that we are still having issues with receivers (or, at times, perhaps Orton) not agreeing on what route they are running and where they should be and that looked obvious with Brandon. Stokes runs such good routes that Orton can trust him, as I noted above. If Brandon improves, so will his receptions and yards. It's really up to him at this point. He needs to develop a rhythm with Kyle Orton and that takes time.
If Orton continues to protect the ball, play within the system, and the team continues to improve their communication and performance (all of which I expect to see on Sunday), they can play with anyone in the league. There are no games that are out of reach right now.
Notes around the AFC
Since I've already talked about the Raiders, I wanted to catch folks up on the Chargers. Once again, the Chargers are being picked to win the Super Bowl. Once again, they're starting slowly, but at this point, they have some serious injury issues that may not permit them to suddenly pick up their pace.
I was surprised at some of the performances during the raiders/Chargers game. On Oakland's side, I was disappointed that Richard Seymour decided to play for Oakland - he instantly makes them a much better team. Both their offensive and defensive lines played better than I had expected, especially the offensive group. As discussed, that is misleading and much is due to max protect. San Diego, for example, only blitzed 11 times in 30 passing plays. Oakland can make the running game much more effective unless the defense is able to take them out of their comfort zone. JaMarcus Russell looks like he is still a hit-and-miss QB with a massive arm and inconsistent accuracy. He doesn't make the best decisions, but at his best he's going to be what Al Davis and Tom Cable apparently want - a big-play QB who will be a bigger advantage than a detriment. San Diego left too many receivers wide open - Steve Wilks, formerly of the Chicago Bears, is now the secondary coach. The Chargers had only 8 interceptions last season. Wilks' group in Chi town brought in 42 over the three seasons he was there, but you wouldn't know it from the Chargers' performance so far.
On the San Diego side, while it's just the 3rd weekend it seems to me that LaDainian Tomlinson is exactly where I thought he'd be. He's aging, often injured and seemed to be experiencing the inevitable diminishment of his skills. That isn't to say that I don't recognize that a less-effective LDT is better than a lot of healthy running backs - the man has always had a lot of talent and is a fine receiver and a tenacious blocker. His hands and receiving skills have always been a huge advantage to the Chargers and he can still run some, but the loss of effectiveness seems obvious. I'll be interested to see if they keep Darren Sproles after this year - if not, they may have to end up going RB in the first round of 2010. As a second option and a returner, Sproles is extremely valuable, but the franchise tag is an expensive one, even so. He seems to be taking over for Tomlinson effectively, but I'm concerned about how long he can do it for.
As I've reported, the Bolts' biggest problems seemed to be on the offensive and defensive lines. On offense, the loss of rookie 2nd-round pick Louis Vasquez is a big blow to a team with multiple injury problems at the O-Line positions. Nick Hardwick is out for a while and Scott Mruczkowski is going to be asked to carry the starting center position. Left tackle Marcus McNeill had two surgeries in the offseason, free-agent acquisition Kynan Foley was cut and the Lightning Lads are scraping the bottom of the barrel. They struggled most of the game and looked flat and uninspired, despite playing a team that they have owned for over half a decade. They played much better at home against the Baltimore Ravens, but still lost with a failed drive in the final minutes.
The Chargers defense wasn't the same squad that won out last season. DE Travis Johnson, a free-agent acquisition, has a history of injury and a tendency to play as if he's less than inspired. He went down with a groin injury. DE Ryon Bingham is out with an injury and Jacques Cesaire is just coming back from a calf injury. NT Jamal Williams is on injured reserve with a triceps injury and had multiple surgeries in the offseason. Canadian pickup Vaughn Martin isn't ready for the NFL yet. The Chargers picked up career backup Alfonso Boone out of Chicago, where he played for Steve Wilks and Ron Rivera in a 4-3 front scheme where he's spent his career. They didn't try to play 4-3 defense in the first two games as they did in preseason, but the line looked as if losing Wayne Nunnely was as big a blow as it was a boon to Denver. The secondary is struggling, too, and Shawne Merriman (like most players who come back from reconstructive knee surgery), isn't yet the player that he was before the operation. San Diego is a team in trouble. The Broncos should gain ground on them while they can.
I haven't watched the entire Chiefs/Raiders game, so I won't comment much, but if Kansas City drops divisional games at home, it's going to be a long, nasty season.
"Let each man exercise the art he knows" Aristophanes, 450-385 B.C.E.
Oakland hasn't shown that it can score consistently over the first two games. They have a good secondary and the revamped defensive line looks good, but even without the homer in me coming to the forefront, I think that the Broncos offense is obviously better. It won't be an easy game on the road, but with Chris Kuper back, we should do well on the O-Line. We have shown that we can move the ball effectively in both the passing and rushing attacks.
This defense is the best that the Raiders will have faced, given the weak sister performance by San Diego. I was watching the nose tackle position a lot while breaking down film this week - Ronald Fields is everything that I hoped he'd be right now and seemed to be getting better as I watched. Marcus Thomas rotated in when he got a breather or the matchups were favorable; and despite being stood up by double teams, he kept both me busy and still clogged the middle on some of the plays. I thought that Thomas played better than I expected. Chris Baker is still being groomed, but the Broncos are deeper at NT than I expected.
Vonnie Holliday was a heck of a pickup. He was all over the ball consistently this week and will give the Broncos another good option at DE. The matchup I like best is Elvis Dumervil against the Oakland right tackle, ex-Bronco Cornell Green (backed up by former Bronco Erik Pears). Our other old Bronco friend Cooper Carlisle is at guard next to him and playing inconsistently. I expect to see him moved strongside at least part of the time. Ryan McBean has shown that Josh McDaniels' faith in him was justified, Kenny Peterson is playing well and is a vocal locker room leader. If Le Kevin Smith can come back from his knee injury, this becomes a deep, highly effective line. The folks who bashed it forgot that a lot of players aren't well known - until they play well in the right system. I have to take off my hat to the personnel choices and the job that Mike Nolan has done with them. The defense is on the same page and their leadership is keeping them there.
Darrell Reid likes his new job and is playing his heart out. Doom? Yep...Dre Davis has grown into what the Broncos need from him and his leadership is unquestionable, Ayers stepped up against the Browns and the list goes on and on. If I talk about the secondary we'll be here all day - and I'll be out of superlatives. I just don't see the Raiders being able to score effectively against this group. I make it Broncos, 24-14 in Oakland and a bigger rout wouldn't surprise me at all.