The Broncos kickoff coverage unit dodged a bullet last week.
After two wholly average returns, the unit allowed a 98 yard return to Mariani after losing discipline and a physical battle on the interior seam. However, they got the chance to redeem themselves on the next play, when a short kick led to a solid play by Bruton, Vaughn and a number of other Broncos. No doubt that play helped to lessen the blow that the coverage players were bound to feel in meetings this week.
Well, most of the players anyways.
Mcdaniels comments after the game lead one to believe that despite the turnover, the Titan's game was the proverbial burdensome straw, that bane of bedouins. Something was going to change.
"It's something we're going to address this week," said Mcdaniels. "Who we have out there, how we are going to cover guys. It'll be different because we are giving up too many easy drive starts in the kickoff coverage right now."
Was he talking about anyone in particular?
Prater certainly isn't the issue there. Unless there is something to the claim that covering too many touchbacks leads to a lazy and complacent coverage unit. If so, coaching would be at the heart of the issue, but that isn't what I saw vs. Tennesse. Prater kicked a touchback to open the game, and as the runner downed the ball, everyone except Prater was crossing the goalline, in a great overall effort to hustle downfield. There is no doubting the effort that the unit is showing.
Guys like Bruton, McBath, Vaughn, they are all getting it done, and as the "speedsters" on the unit, it is important that they continue with their consistent play. Willis was replaced by McBath, but he will probably be the first sub called in if replacements beyond the injury subs are required. Jones is solid as an interior seam defender, and Mays is doing well in a critical role as one of the heavier tacklers. Gronkowski, replacing Larsen (who looks to be out this week) on STs, has done well, also.
After those guys, though, the performances are a little less consistent. Cox has been playing well, and is the innermost right side defender responsible for the interior seam. However, it was his choice to veer out of his lane that led to the open seam that Mariani exploited for the TD.
Also, Jarvis Moss struggled on every return play, and missed a tackle on the Mariani return. If you haven't noticed or guessed, he is the other guy, opposite Cox who is responsible for the interior seams. On the other 4 returns he either fell down or got clobbered by a block. On the final 28 yard return at the end of the game, it was Moss getting driven out of his lane that gave up the room for most of the yardage.
But of most note are two players who saw their numbers called, and benched over the course of the Titan's game. One was Syd'Quan Thompson, who was starting in place of the injured Woodyard (who looks about 50/50 for returning this week. Thompson should be viewed as the 12th man, or injury sub for the special teams unit (along with Willis, based on the gameplan). But after the long return he was benched and Champ Bailey came in and took his place for the final two returns. Also, Eric Decker, who has been on the coverage unit since the beginning of the season, and who I mentioned before in an article diagnosing STs problems (he didn't receive a high grade then either) was benched after the touchdown return. Hunter, the starting outside linebacker replaced him on the next two returns. Now, I have to admit that I didn't see any egregious errors by Decker in the first 2 returns, nor in the touchdown return (unless he was so far out place that he didn't look to be involved...)
Unlike Thompson, who was moved back onto the unit for the final kickoff of the day to replace the injured David Bruton, Decker was on the bench for good the rest of the day. Will he be on the outside looking in next week when the inactives are declared?
Decker was an extremely popular player before and after the draft, but because he was expected to be a WR reigniting the torch that Ed McAffery used to carry within the organization, as a tough, physical, smart WR. Many even expected that he would be playing and making an impact before Demaryius Thomas (which was almost right...he did get on the field first, but not on offense). But so far Decker hasn't managed to carve out a role for himself on the team beyond STs body. And if things continue as they have, he may find that his as yet unrealized dream of honoring the #87 as a Bronco is impacted by special teams in ways he never could have imagined.