Broncos @ Chargers Notebook

SAN DIEGO - NOVEMBER 22: Knowshon Moreno #27 of the Denver Broncos rushes against the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium on November 22 2010 in San Diego California. Chargers defeated the Broncos 35-14. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Notes of Interest, Intrigue and Insight from Monday's matchup.


A Perfect Start

Offense, Defense, Special Teams, the Broncos couldn't have asked for a better start.  The Gameplan against the Chargers obviously called for a healthy does of up-front, physical football, lots of heavy personnel, lots of attempts to physically outmatch and overload the Chargers defense, mixed with the 2010 Broncos heavy dosages of playaction and fakes.  The result?  A quick lead, and with a great STs tackle and a solid 3 and out by the defense, the opportunity to start socking the game away early.

  • Broncos opened the game with yet another play that they haven't used all year, designing it specifically for the Chargers.  Basically a fake end around, that lets them complete an easily wide open pass to Royal.  Most interesting aspect of this play?  It was a receiving formation with no Lloyd or Gaffney.  The Broncos were definitely looking to cause confusion with the personnel groupings.
  • Immediately the Broncos do a mass substitution, bringing in about 5 different players, quickly.  This included Lloyd and Gaffney coming on the field, but also featured a heavy, 2 TE set.  They run playaction, and find Lloyd on a deep pass.
  • Out of a heavy style wing formation, they run a little flea-flicker style play, but San Diego calls the perfect defensive play, a blitz up the middle of the formation.  Orton reads the blitz and before getting the ball back is already shifting his feet to the left, to get more room for the throw, and then he gets rid of the ball very quickly, completing it to Lloyd.  A great play by Orton, and it feels like the mojo from the KC game is lingering...
  • Out of the same heavy 2 TE set, Denver runs Moreno right up the middle, who breaks two tackles and gets 9 yards.  The handoff is very quick, allowing Moreno to hit the hole immediately.  On the next play, they run a similar quick hitter, this time over Kuper and he gets another 9 yards.  Broncos are lining up and pounding the Chargers in the redzone.
  • On 1st and goal the Broncos go with a cutback zonerun, and Moreno jukes by some nifty blocking by Walton, Kuper and Harris, for the score.

  • On the ensuing kickoff, McBath gets a shoestring tackle to bring down Sproles who had a full head of steam and good blocking.
  • SD opens with a passing formation, and the Broncos go man to man coverage with base personnel, with DJ getting a stop on the TE underneath, but 8 yards deep.
  • Joe Mays would get a good hit on Tolbert for a loss on the next play, beginning another game where Mays would be a huge spark.
  • Great coverage by Nate Jones on 3rd and 3, who gave Floyd no room to work on the sideline, and was in position to challenge the pass.  3 and out for the defense!
  • On the punt, Broncos would go for the puntblock, but somewhat halfheartedly, as if they suspected San Diego might try to take advantage of them.  Royal fields the punt and does some nifty running to get  a short upfield gain.  Note that I don't mind decisions like this in the punting game (i.e. Royal fielding instead of letting the ball bounce) because denver has demonstrated an excellent "coming out -15" offense, which is a situational measure of how well the offense can maneuver themselves out of the shado of their own endzone.

Momentum Up For Grabs

At this point, the Broncos have earned the opportunity to really grab momentum and hang on, just like in the KC game.  One lucky defensive play, however puts that opportunity on hold, as the offense turns the task of holding onto momentum over to the defense, which answers in admirable fashion, overcoming a explosive running play from Tolbert to force a 4th down.  But when San Diego pulled the fake out of the bag of tricks, a failed redzone stop firmly shoves the pendulum back to San Diego.

  • This is a great playcall here, a quickout to Lloyd, normally a very safe, easy, short completion, just a good way to once again start establishing momentum.  But on this play, Cason jumps the route, and nearly intercepts the ball.  Whether it was filmwork or just a lucky guess, Cason got away with an incredible gamble on the play, because ANY other route would have burned him bad on that jump.
  • Chargers line up with a jailbreak blitz, but then only rush three, while the Broncos run only two WRs into routes on a playaction fake.  With no one coming open, Orton quickly throws the ball away.  This is one instance where the scheme that Denver runs on offense has flaws.  One unique thing that Denver does is to create pass protection that looks exactly like run blocking, which creates "defensive snapshots" i.e., clear pictures of the defensive coverages which Orton can break down in the moment when they are switching from run defense to pass defense.  However, because of this, Denver has a lot of players committed to "faking" the run play, and so don't always have the checkdowns and underneath throws.  Orton did a good job throwing the ball away here, but it can be frustrating as a fan watching a play be essentially a "throw away" because of the defensive call on the field.  I don't mind because I recognize every scheme has its flaws and weaknesses, so I'm not prone to a "grass is greener" attitude when mistakes are made, however, for someone who doesn't like or prefer this scheme, this is a valid criticism.
  • Against a 4 man rush, Broncos look for a little YAC from Buckhalter, with the WRs pushing defensive coverage downfield, but Buck can't shake hsi defender,a nd is caught short of the first down.
  • With momentum up for grabs, SD, opens their drive by trying to pick on Mays, like KC did last week early.  Mays makes a great read and tackle on a quick toss to Sproles.
  • Broncos then lineup showing a big blitz look, and manage to get a false start out of the LG.  On the ensuing 2nd and long, Norv makes a great call with an underneath ahndoff that gashes the Broncos up the middle, bulldozing Renaldo Hill in the process. 
  • San Diego immeditaely tries to single up sproles ona  classic Norv Turner swing pass to the back, where the LBs get chipped and the edge gets blocked down, isolating the back against a corner.  But in this case the corner is Champ, who reads teh play perfectly and brings down Sproles for a loss of 4.
  • On a 4 man rush, Haggan whips out his speed rush (His what?  Yup.) and gets around the edge to force Rivers up into the waiting arms of Bannan, who forces the incomplete pass.  This is what 3-4 defensive pressure is supposed to look like, with a physical front 3 and a 4th rusher from who knows where.  Well executed.
  • Against 3rd and 14, Denver's nickel package now features Kevin Alexander in the rush OLB role that Jarvis Moss used to occupy, and Alexander gets a batted down pass in his first official rep.  The pass was a checkdown, indicating great coverage on the back end.
  • 4th and 14, and this time when the Broncos bring pressure, San Diego goes to the bag of tricks and tries to , gasp, do something good with their STs.  Very risky, and actually on the play, Eric Decker appears to have it read perfectly, and is in position on Tolbert to defense the pass, but when Scifres double pumps, Decker shuts down like an android who just got his power supply cut off.  He clearly didn't know whether to stay in coverage or pressure the punter coming out of the backfield, but on 4th and 14 there is no excuse for that kind of confusion.  I don't doubt that denver considered something like this might be attempted by SD, but Decker's confusion reflects poorly on their play by play preparedness.
  • San Diego then proceeds to pick up 9 yards on a quick runa nd then a quick pass, before facing a 3rd and 1.  They go with the upback handoff, very simialr to the same play Denver ran on their first drive against KC last week, and once again, Tolbert cruises over Renaldo Hill, picking up 14 yards.  It is hard to get lower than Tolbert,but you have no other choice, because at 240, shoulder tackles do not work.
  • On 1st and goal, Mays gets it right,a nd puts a big hit on Tolbert, stopping him for no gain.  On 2nd and goal, River's spread the defense with a 2x2 formation, and against a 4 man rush, Hill and Mcbath combine to knock down the pass in the endzone.  So far a decent redzone stand is brewing.  However, on 3rd and goal, the Broncos make a huge mistake, choosing to try and confuse Rivers, who isn't remotely close to being confused on the play.  After showing heavy blitz, Denver rushes only three, and Rivers easily waits for his receiver's to drift into the soft spots in the zone.  This particular soft spot consisted of DJ drifting, drifting, drifting to his right, while the receiver snuck out of the zone above him into the void to DJ's left.
  • Momentum is clearly shifting to San Diego at this point, despite only tying the game, but a penalty on the extra point helps to reinforce the mindset that things are going SD's way...

Orton's Confidence Rattled, But Defense Hangs Tough

Denver sticks with the gameplan going in, going with their 2TE sets, plenty of playaction, a dash of swamp, and a concerted effort to get Thomas involved in some mismatches to physically pound on the Chargers.  But while Orton has played a near flawless game up to this point, one mistake here seems to shake him to the core.  But this is a team game, and despite a huge error by Orton, the defense has his back, again.

  • A quick hitting run out of the 2TE set gets 3 tough yards up the middle, and on 2nd and 7, Denver isolates Thomas against Cason, and DT physically wrestles position and the ball away to convert for the first down.
  • A quick swamp sighting occurs near midfield.  In my swamp package analysis, I have been showing how the Swamp has lost effectiveness at midfield, yet still should remain in play for how well it performs against certain defenses in goalline work.  I should however note that one area in teh middle where the swamp has been effective is when Tebow hands off the ball in the inside running game.  Which was the call here, but Moreno slips while trying to cut back on the sloppy field, and the play goes nowhere.  Not all fields will be that tore up, so don't be surprised if we haven't seen the last of the inside handoff at midfield by Tebow.
  • Orton continues his heads up play on 2nd and 9, when they once again try to isolate DT against Cason in a physical mismatch, but Cason jumps the route and Orton wisely throws the ball away at the last second. 
  • That patience paid off as Orton hit Lloyd on the next play for the first down.  The catch put Lloyd over 50 catches and 1000 yards for the season. Take note of the following on the play:  Moreno would be part of a fake counter run on the play, and then would have to hurry to the edge to block Phillips, who was squeezed in tight to the line.  That block would buy Orton the time he needed to throw.
  • Next play is back to the heavy formation, 2 TE set, and here they are featuring DT as the second TE, which speaks to how much of this offense is being designed to accomodate his unique attributes.  Behind great blocking by Kuper, Moreno rides Kuper's hip for a tough, solid 7 yards.
  • This is the point in the game last week when Denver opened the game up wide against KC, and here it was a perfect opportunity to establish who was in control.  On a 2nd and short playaction, with a perfect pocket and great protection, Eric Weddle slips and Lloyd uncovers wide open in the endzone.  And Orton underthrows him.  Weddle will get credit for defensing the pass, which amounted to the ball hitting Weddle in the back of the arm, while Weddle flailed blindly, but it did prevent Lloyd from catching the ball on his adjustment.  This play was the turning point for Orton in this game.  It may as well have been his mojo that he chucked down the field.
  • On the very next play Orton would throw a hot ball to Gaffney as Phillips tore around Clady on the edge, and Cason would step in front of the route for the INT in Broncos territory.  Kyle was visibly upset with himself after the play.
  • The defense, however, rose to the occasion.  After allowing a 6yd gain up the middle against a heavy set, San Diego tries to seize the game for themselves, with a little pitch and catch trickery, but Champ perfectly covers Sproles on the wheel route, resulting in an incomplete pass.
  • On the following 3rd and 4, the Broncos bring Dawkins and Jones flying on the edge blitz, with Hill, Champ and Cox in coverage.  Rivers is forced to throw the ball away quickly to avid being completely out of FG range.  But the injured Kaeding can't put enough on the 52 yarder, and the end result is a net change of +2 yards for the Broncos offense after the turnover.  Great stand by the defense, now it is time for the offense to take over.

Orton's Shoulder's Slump, Rest of Offense Not Far Behind

This would be Denver's best starting field position of the game, and a great opportunity.  But after a hot start, Orton would end up taking a pounding, as Shaun Phillips started heating up in the pass rush.  And as Orton struggles to keep his head up, the rest of the playmakers on offense start to crumble around him.  At this point, credit goes to San Diego for finding coverages that would slow down Orton's release, but Phillips would start a reign of terror that would do more to demoralize the offense than the rest of the defense combined.

  • Denver opens with the 2TEset, again with DT as one of the TEs.  Still sticking to the gameplan in a tie game.  The inside run gets stuffed by the surprising new NG addition to the Chargers, Garay.
  • This is a terrific call on 2nd and long.  A perfectly executed screen call with great blocking downfield almost gets Moreno loose, but a great tackle by the DB to catch up behind the play, should have Moreno cursing in film study.  The play got a first down, but it could have been a TD.
  • Ball sees his number called in relief, and gets a decent gain running off Kuper's hip.
  • Out of the heavy formation, Denver runs playaction, and Orton gets pounded into the turf by Phillips.  This was a similar counter playfake, with Larsen in the backfield, very similar to the one I mentioned to note earlier.  Phillips adjusted to the protection by keeping his pass rush wide, instead of tight, and as a result, Larsen, depsite an admirable effort and last second lunge, could not get outside quick enough to throw the block.  This protection may not get called again for the rest of the year, if ever.
  • Denver called a timeout prior to running the next play, and then on 3rd and 16, Phillips would switch sides, and get a false start out of Clady.  Cmon man.
  • The goal at this point (3rd and 21) was to get back into long FG range and break the tie in favor of Denver.  To Orton's credit, he responded to getting pounded by tossing a pinpoint perfect pass, right into Thomas' hands.  And Thomas dropped it.  As Orton headed to the bench, his head was hanging.  One leader for Denver down.
  • When the defense got back on the field, Mays looked like he was still pumped up.  On the first run, with Fields and Thomas holding the line, Mays crashed the A gap and met Tolbert head on, stopping him at the LOS.
  • At this point we begin the defensive refrain of beating Cox like a drum.  After Crayton beats Cox in man coverage, McBean plays it safe and adds one of his classic facemask penalties, which doubled the yardage on the play, for a nice total of 31 yards.
  • And Norv, being the "rhythmic" playcaller that he is, you had to know they would go big.  They brought Crayton across the field on a crossing route, with Cox once again in man coverage, and burned him for another 49 yards.  This was a bad defensive call as well, with one safety free, which left Cox without outside help.
  • On the 1st and goal, Big Vick let his frustration continue after the snap with McNeil, and after bumping a ref, gave the Chargers and extra down.  The pushing and shoving showed that the Broncos defense was right on the brink of following the offense over the edge.  This is where a defensive leader is needed.
  • On the next play, Mays reads the iso perfectly, and pounds the FB out of the way and makes the stop on Tolbert, with Dj helping to clean up the tackle.  But SD runs the same play again (why not, they have a free play after all) and this time they pound it in just barely for the TD.  SD has the lead, 14-7.  Can the offense answer?

Orton Under Pressure, Defense Still Hanging In There

I will say this about Norv Turner.  His "feel" for the momentum and psychology of a game is terrific, for better or worse. (I think McD has a similar "feel").  At this point, i think he was telling Rivera that Orton was ripe for the picking.  They had made some adjustments to slow down Orton's decision making, and as a result had managed to pound him a little.  I think they made a commitment at this point to pressuring Orton at all costs, and complete the process of demoralizing him.  That is the kind of thing that Norv has a good feel for.  And it worked, here, but the Denver defense once again managed to stand tall and earn Orton another chance.  But could Orton take advantage of it?

  • One of the benefits to using DT as a TE is that he can also be stood up in that tight split end position, and either block like a TE or run true WR routes.  Where this benefit shows up is in increased efficacy for the outside tosses and end runs, and Denver opens this next drive with a nice little outside run for Moreno, where DT effectively seals off the DE from a standing split end position.  Sticking to the gameplan so far...
  • On 2nd down, the plan to rattle Orton continues to find success, as the pocket begins to breakdown and Orton scrambles only to be brought down from behind by Phillips.  Then on the next play, a 3rd and short, Denver tries a little trickeration, with a toss to Moreno who laterals back to Orton, but Phillips is again a one man wrecking crew diagnosing the play perfectly and bringing Orton down with another solid hit.  Colquitt would put the finishing touch on this pitiful attempt at a drive with a meager 30 yard punt, one of three he would have on the day.
  • When the D took the field again, you would have to worry, because on a counter simialr to one that Tolbert rattled off earlier for 14 yards, he once again faced Renaldo Hill, he of the quaking boots, in the hole.  This time however, Hill got low, and brought Tolbert down for no gain.  Good to see.
  • On the next play Rivers spreads the field with a 2x2 but doesn't have time to find the open man because Bannan crushes the pocket and brings Rivers down for a quick sack.
  • On 3rd and very long, the Broncos bring a 4 man rush, Rivers finds Champ in man coverage against Floyd, only to get picked off by Champ, with 4 minutes left to go in the half.  This is the perfect opportunity for Denver, as their 4 minute offense is one of their best situational offenses, and the defense just earned a shot at some great momentum.  With SD getting the ball after the half, it is very important for Denver to get some points before the half.  They couldn't ask for a better situation.
  • Right off the bat, it is clear that the offense is struggling to get its bearings.  The play is an interior run, and the only thing odd about it is that it is a SD safety that makes a big hit at the LOS.  That isn't good.  It means that the defense isn't treating your passing attack as credible, because they are choosing to leave options open there.
  • The next play is a quick WR screen, taking advantage of the defensive cockiness.  The play pushes downfield well for 7 yards, and should re-establish the gaps in the defense.
  • On 3rd down, it is clear that the pressure has gotten to Orton.  With only a 4 man rush, Orton hurries the throw, a slant route to Royal, that would have been an easy first down.  The ball is out early and off target as Orton feels phantom pressure in the pocket.  Denver barely managed to run 60 seconds off the clock, and now San Diego has an opportunity to run their 4 minute offense, and get the ball back to start the half...
  • And since that apparently isn't challenging enough, Colquitt adds another 30 yard punt to the ledger.

 Defensive Leader's Shoulders Slump Too

Is it too much to hope that the defense will step up again and at least get Denver to the half only down by one score?  Apparently so, and it goes downhill in worst possible way...

  • Denver's coverage gets mixed up on the first play, and even though the primary WR Floyd is wide open, Rivers takes the easy checkdown to Tolbert for an easy 14 yards.
  • This play was a backbreaker for a defense that had played pretty stout despite the situations it had been put in.  The short screen call, ends up going to the house, a 40 yard TD play made possible by the defensive leader, Dawkins, who went for a high tackle, and ended up getting swatted away like a fly.  The saddest part was that Denver had the perfect defense called for the play, and Dawkins read it perfectly.  Seeing their leader humiliated like that had to have been hard on that defense.  It was certainly hard on Dawkins who watched the replay above him, and could only hang his head when he saw what he had done.  Two leaders down.

Without A Leader, Things Can Get Messy

 The quick score had one unintended benefit, it allowed the Broncos to attempt to run their 2-minute offense to attemtp to get the game back within striking distance.  What followed was a series of short passes called out of the no huddle, that were designed to get Orton back into a smooth rhythm, to get his mind back in the game.  But why they were focused on rebuilding Orton's confidence, Orton's team was falling apart around him.

  • Orton's first pass comes out on time, and though incomplete, Lloyd draws the pass interference on Cason, netting a quick 15 yards.
  • Spreading the field, Denver calls the WR screen next, and Harris gets a good block which Royal follows for a decent gain, after dodging a tackle in the backfield.
  • On the next play, Royal makes the grab for the first, but only after he commits pass interference, cancelling hte play and backing them up 10 yards.
  • 2nd and long and Orton finds the wide open gaffney underneath for the first down.
  • SD brings pressure off the edge, and forces Orton to airmail the ball, then on the next play Orton finds Gaffney on a 10 yard hook route for the first down.
  • At this point Orton is starting to look sharp again, and the offense despite churning up the middle of the field, seems like they have gotten a little traction.  McD calls the hook and go for Gaffney, playing off of the previous hook route, and Orton drops a perfect ball in, amidst Cason and Oliver.  The hope here is probably to get a pass interference call (the refs had already called two on the drive), but the DBs stay disciplined and play the ball, resulting in an incomplete.  The first sputter.
  • On 2nd and long they call another screen this time a WR style screen to Buckhalter, but DT gets downfield and blocks too soon, a rookie mistake.  Back it up 10 yards, and start the process of running in place.
  • On 2nd and 20, Orton is forced to check down quickly, only to see buckhalter drop the ball.  3rd and 20 brought a 4 man rush, solid coverage and a broken pocket that resulted in a sack by Cam Thomas, essentially bringing the half to an end.  The Broncos went into the lockerroom stuck in the mud, and needing to find an answer with the Chargers getting the ball to start the half, and up by 2 scores.

Chargers Score Yet Another Unanswered TD During Halftime

I kid, I kid.  I know.  Not funny.  Moving on...

And the Hits Just keep On Coming...

Denver wouldn't find an answer after the half of course.

  • Dawkins would force a fumble only to have SD be the only ones to realize the ball was out.  Denver would bring a big blitz, only to see Dawkins burnt again for a TD. 
  • Decker would get another mistake chalked up to him on STs, this time a hold that cancelled a good return by DT.  There was also tripping calleda gainst the Chargers, as well as the dubious claim that somehow these penalties are offsetting, but when the kick gets called back 15 yards, it seems like "offsetting" isn't the best way to describe it.  Whatev.
  • Harris would get a false start with Phillips lined up over him on 3rd down, followed by a terribly inaccurate pass by Orton on the ensuing 3rd and 13.  Lloyd was open on the play too...
  • Champ would speak for the whole team when his body language spelled out "You have to be kidding me..." as he stood over the injured Jason Hunter on the field, after McBath and DJ had already left the game with injuries.
  • Woodyard, replacing DJ, would join forces with Cox to form a Voltron-like pass coverage entity wholly incapable of man coverage.  They would total 6 blown coverages, for 63 yards and a TD.
  • Orton and Lloyd hooked up for another TD, a frustration pass after yet another sack that zipped in hot and Lloyd basically beat Weddle in a WWE match in the endzone for the ball.
  • Mays would continue to play hard till the end of the game, getting a few more solid hits in, including a big one on STs.  This man has earned a starting spot, and Ayers return should bring an interesting rotation.
  • Moreno would also continue to play hard, and he and Royal would both have some impressive plays late in the game, including some very tough running by Moreno, and an excellent return by Royal.  However, these efforts were largely lost on a coaching staff that seemed waffle between forfeiting at the 8:55 mark in the 4th quarter, after Lloyd's TD grab.
  • The fact that Denver wasn't interested in an onsides kick after their score tells me that they have zero faith in their special team's units not to just make things worse than they already are.  I don't know what to say to this.  I am not a fan of Preifer, and I wouldn't exude confidence if told that the game was in his unit's hands, but what did Denver have to lose?  Which brings me to my final point of this notebook...
  • You don't have to be mathematically eliminated from the playoffs to be mathematically eliminated from the playoffs.  My own calculations have us at a 7.8% chance to have the best divisional record (record within divisional games), which would be much lower if trying to account for overall record.  At best, Denver can only earn up to a 62.5% chance, which means the 2010 season is now officially out of their hands, despite their best efforts from here on out (this would contrast with having beat SD and winning out against the division, to earn a 100% chance of having the best record in divisional games).  The upshot of what I'm saying is that this goal is clearly off the table.  7.8% is optimistic, and I guarantee that the actual calculation that accounts for overall record and records outside of the division would be less than half that.  But between the end of this game and the comments from McD after the game, regarding Tebow, make me wonder if they get this.  I don't have any expectations for replacements or anything like that, I think week to week, even in a lost season, you have to play every game to win, because you carry success and failure with you, whether you are part of this team or go on to other teams.  A coach owes it to his players to prepare them to win, and I don't accept any premise that advocates sacrificing someone for any reason.  And from what I know of McDaniels, neither does he, especially not someone on his team.  I do however wonder why they wouldn't make every effort to push any given game to the limit to try and win.  Almost 9 minutes left, down by 3 scores...I don't see where a team has the right to say it is over yet...so what am I missing? 

See you all again in next weeks edition of the Broncos Notebook, and as always, I appreciate any feedback.

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