Now that the off-season is over we can start getting some of our questions answered. Heading into training camp a number of concerns are on my mind. None tops run defense. Ours was atrocious when it mattered most, at the end of the season and in the final game. I understand that the down linemen supposedly wore down and that the addition of Bannan, Williams and Green is supposed to fix that, but that's not the whole story. While having last year's starters as backups suggests the overall level of play will rise, that doesn't fully address the issue of why last year's run defense was outstanding early and wretched late. McDaniels has mentioned a number of times how badly last year's team reacted to defeat, suggesting that this was what caused losses to snowball into losing streaks. Perhaps part of what was missing on the line was veteran leadership. The offense had more reasons to decline yet fell off only modestly. It was the defense that just tanked. If young guys falling into a blue funk was part of the reason for the defense's precipitous decline, perhaps there's a second and more subtle reason for bringing in Bannan, Williams and Green. They'll be a steadying influence on the young players and will help prevent a reoccurrence of last year's psychological meltdown.
But the down linemen weren't the sole cause of our run stopping difficulties. Perhaps it's merely impressionistic and not accurate, but I have this image of opposing teams ripping off big gains off tackle, pinching Peterson in and pushing Dumervil out. Peterson's been replaced but it's widely recognized that Dumervil is a run-stopping liability. Will he improve this part of his game? I doubt that he's physically overmatched at OLB the way he was at DE but he obviously has over the years focussed more on his pass rushing than his run-defense skills. Part of his run-stopping weakness may be the flip side of a pass rushing strength. Dumervil gets an explosive first step to the outside, then continues outside or cuts inside depending on the reaction of the pass blocker. If I was an opposing offensive coordinator and could catch him taking that first step to the outside, or even shifting his weight that way, on an off-tackle play that for a split-second looks like a pass, it would open up a lot of running room. If Dumervil is in fact overcommitting to the pass rush, a split-second delay might impact his sacks and hurries but might be more than made up for by him not being out of position so much on running plays. (It would be interesting to have a breakdown of where the big running plays went during our last few games.) What I'm curious about is what tack his coaches are taking in shoring up his run-stopping ability, and Dumervil's own attitude. He's pretty much a team-first guy, so I think he'll do whatever is necessary. Being in his second year as an OLB he might improve enough in his pass rush technique to negate any loss of effectiveness due to being more aware of the run.
Another thing I'm curious about is our pass defense. In an intriguing article in Maple Street Press's Broncos Annual 2010, "Broncos by the Numbers: Keys to the 2010 Season," KC Joyner notes that Dawkins and Hill were very good in pass defense, giving up 5.1 and 5.5 yards per attempt, respectively, in direct coverage. But then comes the shocker: "Denver's cornerbacks last season were simply not good." In 2006 Bailey posted one of the lowest YPA totals Joyner has seen but last year's 7.0 was 40th in the league (out of 100 qualifying cornerbacks, minimum 25 attempts to qualify). Goodman's 8.9 was 82nd. In contrast Nate Jones posted a solid 7.6 playing on one the worst secondaries in the league. Was our pass defense not as good as we thought it was? Was the low passing yards total due to teams not having to pass once our run defense collapsed? Were they more effective than the per-game yardage totals suggest when they did pass? One thing in Bailey's and Goodman's favor, whatever their YPA averages, is that they were good at not giving up the home-run ball.
Jones might well beat out Goodman for starting CB, in which case the latter might be battling it out with Smith, Cox and Thompson for the nickel spot. Joyner says Thompson is a sleeper:
An analysis I did on Thompson for ESPN.com early in the 2009 season showed that he posted superb totals when in zone coverage but did not fare well when playing man-to-man. Thompson was at one time considered to be a late-first or early-second-round selection because of his zone coverage skills, so if the Broncos adjust their defense to match his abilities, he could give them top-notch performance for many years.
McDaniels has caught a lot of flack for some of his personnel decisions, none more than for his decision to trade one of our 2010 first-round picks for the 2009 second-round pick with which he took Alphonso Smith. Those who see his selection, and to a lesser degree that of Robert Ayers, as mistakes are in my mind missing the point. A coach needs to be a good judge of talent and play the odds. Probably even the best evaluators aren't going to do much better than 50-50. If you can manage to make lots of early round picks, that helps the odds. A first-round "failure" might still be a longterm productive player. If you see a player you really like, like Smith, and have a resource to spend, I have no problem with McDaniels spending it. Whether or not Smith works out, whether or not any particular player works out, is beside the point. Over the last two years McDaniels has acquired Goodman and Jones and has drafted Smith, Cox and Thompson, in addition to free agents Carter and Vaughn. Goodman has already worked out and Jones is similarly a known quantity, and of the rest if McDaniels is a good judge of potential two or three will turn into solid or better pros. But it doesn't matter which two or three, and it misses the point to agonize over which pick produced which prodigy or bust. One of the things I'm curious about, of course, is which of these guys makes the team. Will Thompson's zone excellence open up for him a quasi-specialist slot? Will Smith follow up on his reputedly excellent off-season? Can Cox or Carter beat the numbers? Does Vaughn have a ghost of a chance?
I'm sure we're all curious about the offensive line, and about the productivity, especially early, of the offense. Not only is Marshall gone his replacements, Thomas and Decker, are noobies. Like several others I think the move to more of a two-back offense is at least partly an attempt to address the line's expected early growing pains. Branson being the back-up fullback suggests how much stress is being put on the blocking back position, and suggests to me that he probably should be added to those who have a roster lock. In fact, he's gaining on Quinn. His blocking seems to be improving more rapidly than Quinn's receiving. I'm not expecting much of a contribution from Thomas or Decker, although Decker might surprise. I see Royal and Gaffney and either McKinley or Stokley taking up the slack. I think their numbers will improve sufficiently to offset the loss of Marshall, and in spite of the unsettled line, because I think Orton is going to be that much better. On any given pass play probably at least one guy is open, and I think Orton will be better and quicker at finding that guy this year. And Moreno will be making better, quicker choices and hit open rather than closed holes more often. And by the end of the year, with Clady and Harris settled in along with Kuper, with Hochstein, Beadles and Walton holding down center and left guard, the offense will be running on all cylinders.
This year, with the performance of last year's rookie crop and the early returns on this one, we'll begin to get a sense of how good a picker McDaniels is and what he takes into account. I'm surprised at some of the things that seemingly aren't taken into account when organizations give millions of dollars to dazzling young prospects. Was it the entire NFL or just Oakland that didn't know that JaMarcus Russell was lazy? Did they think they could teach him not to be? I hope the individual's work ethic is something McDaniels knows about and takes seriously when he evaluates players. At least one of his selections, Tebow, suggests that he does. In a league in which hard work is the norm his legendary work ethic still stands out.
McDaniels really seems to value special teams ability. I used to get the impression in training camp that Shanahan kept and cut players purely on how they played at their nominal positions, then looked at the pieces he had on hand in order to make out special teams assignments. McDaniels seems more willing to keep or cut players, who aren't starters at their nominal positions, based on their special teams ability. After all, if two players are competing for a reserve linebacker spot in which capacity the winner will rarely if ever see the field, and the slightly lesser linebacker is the vastly superior special teams player, who would you keep? In the final analysis the linebacker job is emergency backup. It's the starting special teams job that they're primarily competing for. A McDaniels-built team appears to be an intricate mechanism, with players competing for starting jobs in one or more specialist packages. I'm curious about how many and which player decisions will be driven by special teams concerns. I think our special teams, after having improved dramatically last year, will take another step forward this year. I think the Broncos, despite the injuries to Moreno and Buckhalter and despite lingering uncertainties, will do well. I see 10-6 after a strong finish, but first I see a training camp with lots of great battles.