Hey fellow Broncos fans, long time no see! I don't know about you but I'm absolutely PUMPED for a new NFL season! Personally, while I'll catch a playoff game here or there of another sport, I don't follow anything as closely as football. It has been a long time since a meaningful Bronco game has been played, and while the improbable run of 2011 was capped off by a dissection of surgical precision at the hands of Dr. Tom Brady, many of us will point to the absolute high of beating Pittsburgh in OT the week before. It was in a word...amazing! and 8 months later we find ourselves against the same foe....well sort of.
Perhaps a lot will be made by the media of this being a rematch with Pittsburgh looking to avenge their surprising loss. Truth is though, this is a brand new season and the two teams don't look anything like they did then. Both teams had significant turnover as the Broncos looked to get better on both sides of the ball and the Steelers looked to, well, get a bit younger. Most noteworthy of course is the change of QB's on our team. In place of the steady pound the ball every down mentality necessitated by the inexperience and skill set of Tim Tebow, we will now field a "choose your poison" attack led by one of the most intelligent QB's to ever play the game in Peyton Manning. In short, don't expect a lot of man cover 0 looks by the Steelers D this time around.
So what else has changed?
Let's first start with the opposing team. Their offensive line lost both Max Starks and Chris Kemoeatu. Defensively, they parted ways with Northern Colorado product Aaron Smith and ILB James Farrior. These moves were bottom line moves. Bottom line, these players became long in the tooth, more injury prone, and less productive. So who do they bring in to replace those holes? Remember that Pittsburgh has never been a big FA team, they build through the draft. To that end they drafted G David DeCastro and OT Mike Adams, both of which will be starting. Add a whale of a man in the D-line rotation in Alameda Ta'amu and you have an influx of rookie talent. The key word there being "rookie".
Todd Haley....remember that guy? "Handshake" Haley (as he's been coined by many Broncos fans for his midfield snub of former coach Josh McDaniels) is the new Offensive Coordinator. Offseason reports out of KC tell the story of a guy who was a rigid micromanager (sound familiar?) who alienated players and made his starting QB feel like he had no say in the offense on the field. My biggest question here, how is he meshing with his new cast of players? The popular opinion around the media is that the Steelers are looking to move back to a run-first attack, which remains to be seen.
If you're familiar with the NFL you know that the Steelers first and foremost have build their reputation upon a killer defense guided by Dick LeBeau and his zone blitz schemes. From there Big Ben can scramble around, avoid sacks with his strength and big frame, and find ways to make plays downfield. So how did they do last year overall?
They were a top 10 defense in the four major categories (yards per game, points per game, passing defense, rushing defense). We know that year to year things change and you can't necessarily expect a team to replicate results, good or bad, from the previous season....at the same time you can't completely dismiss the results either. They were a damn good defensive unit. On offense they moved the ball well with a good attack both through the air and on the ground, but they failed to convert that movement into consistent points. Their 20ppg edged our offense out last year but was still in the bottom third of the league nonetheless.
For our Broncos, you can't discuss change without mentioning Peyton Manning and Tim Tebow. Wherever you stand on your thoughts about the situation, you have to recognize the fact that last year was an anomaly. I mean that in the sense of some of the victories we experienced. Exciting? YES! Fate on our side? Perhaps! Results viable long term? NO!!! I don't see how any team could continue to win games in the same fashion as we did last year over the long term. If you've seen preseason performances by Manning and Tebow this year maybe you come to the same realizations I have: 1) Mannings' passes may wobble a bit as he continues to gain his strength, but for the most part they are placed exactly where they should be 2) Tebow is what he is, he's no further along as a passer than he was at this time last year, and he's had three years now to improve things and hasn't.
There are still concerns about Manning, has his armstrength returned completely? I'm not going to make the mistake of trying to put a number on it because it is a pointless waste of energy. I do know that he still has a genius like understanding of the game and the ability to win the chess match most of the time. I also know, judgeing from his performance this preseason that he is still highly accurate and capable of making any throw he needs to. We might not see the long ball as much this season, but who cares? We have the opportunity to score points everytime we have the ball offensively and that is something we haven't been able to say in quite a while. I think there will continue to be a bit of a learning curve as the QB and the skill positions gel together. I don't expect us to light every team up by two scores everyweek, but I do think that come New England/New Orleans we will have a shot to compete and match up.
While there was a short transition last year before our young receivers were consistent starters, we find DT and Decker at the top of the depth chart out of the gate. DT is going to struggle more as he learns to refine his routes and read the cues and coverages of the defenses. Last year, the heavy run emphasis put him into more man situations as opposing defenses stacked the box. This year he will face more double teams, rolled coverages to neutralize his abilities, and zone looks. Where DT will struggle, Decker will flourish. We saw the trust Manning has in Decker and as a route runner, Decker is more polished than DT at this point in his career. Add to the mix reliable Brandon Stokley and TE Joel Dreessen (where the hell was Tamme all preseason?) and we have plenty of weapons for Manning to play with
Our running game, will be as productive as last year? Nope. Then again when running the ball is about the only thing you can do offensively, you should probably lead the league in it right? McGahee rushed for nearly 1200 yards last year even though he started the year as a backup and had a few injuries here and there. He bulked up and ran extremely hard in he preseason. Something that is never talked about is his ability out of the backfield, but after watching a replay of the Ravens/Steelers AFC Championship game a few years back, he is more than capable catching the ball out of the backfield. And even if he contributes less in that respect, we still have Moreno and Hillman who have the speed and elusiveness to turn a swing/screen pass or check down into a big gain. I like Lance Ball as well, and though the popular sentiment around here seems to be "get rid of him he's useless," he has proven to be a solid backup that can also contribute on special teams---leave him alone;)
On the line we have the most uncertainty due to injuries and depth. Both Walton and Beadles seem to be better fits as zone blockers than they do in a power scheme, but both still have the tendency to make mental errors and be overmatched at times physically. Think back to the SF game where Manning was decked on his long completion to Lance Ball. Walton screwed up, moved over to help the LG with his assignment (he was doing fine BTW) and as a result left a rusher with a clear path to Manning. To add to this, we have Chris Kuper out with a broken forearm---been a hard stretch for that guy. My feeling is the Broncos brass prioritized the O-line behind other positions this offseason after they got Manning for the simple fact that Manning gets the ball out fast and won't take a lot of hits. I still wish we could have done more here.
Defensively, big changes. Gone are future HOF Brian Dawkins, in is 2nd year player Rahim Moore. Out is Renaldo Hill, in is Tracy Porter. Ty Warren and Justin Bannen replace Marcus Thomas and Broderick Bunkley, Wesley Woodyard is in for suspended DJ Williams, Wolfe supplants Hunter at DE after Hunter beat out Ayers. There's a lot of change defensively. I believe our front 7 is improved even though we have depth issues at LB, and I am completely loving how Elway retooled our defensive secondary. Drayton Florence aside, Chris Harris is more than capable of being a steady playmaker at nickelback---he's won his spot two years in a row now, and Danny Trevathan has the speed to cover from the LB position on throwing downs. Joe Mays is still a questionmark at the Mike, but he does look improved from last year.
Jack Del Rio. What we can expect from him is for our team to have discipline and fundamentals instilled to the very core of their being. We shouldn't see a lot of mistakes due to players being out of position on gap assignments nor should we see a lot of bad angles and missed tackles as in recent history. Del Rio is also someone that commands respect from his players and approaches the game with passion and intensity that is infectious. Scheme wise, there is carry over from Dennis Allen last year in that the Broncos will be a one gap team up front, in other words they will attack and push upfield rather than read and react. I really couldn't tell you beyond that what to expect because the preseason is pretty vanilla. But given the changes in personnel, I fully expect our players to outmatch other fronts physically which means a few things.
1) The pocket WILL be pushed by the front four. Remember in years past when the only way to bring pressure was to blitz? Well, we will get pressure from the front four this year. 2) our pass rush in general will be much improved especially in nickel situations. We have a lot of pieces that can play and be effective from lots of spots. Derek Wolfe can penetrate along with Ayers inside----remember Ayers has shown ability to get to the QB on the inside on passing downs. Now kick Malik Jackson to DE along with Doom. These four will be relentless and guess what? We still have Von Miller to bring from....ANYWHERE! Put him and Doom as bookends with Jackson, Wolfe, or Ayers on the inside. Many of these spots are interchangeable and give Del Rio a multitude of possiblities. I don't know what it will look like specifically with personnel or packages but I do know it will be disruptive and destructive to opposing QB's. Not only that but with an improved secondary, it's only a matter of time until the rush gets there. I expect there to be more effort and coverage sacks as well.
So what are the questions coming into this game and what should we look for?
1) How healthy is Ben Roethlisberger----remember reports in TC of him having a partially torn rotator cuff. Which arm and how will it affect him?
3) What kind of attack will Handshake Haley bring to Pittsburgh? Can he and Big Ben get along? Will he and Big Ben both be sporting scruffy beards to show everyone they are BFF?
4) How will those rookie O-linemen hold up against VonDoom and the Wolfe-pack?
6) Is Mike Wallace still a one trick pony and will his holdout affect his impact?
In all seriousness, it's harder to ask questions about other teams, and easier to question things on our own team, some of these will also just be statements on what I want to see...
1) Strategically, run the no huddle early and often?
2) Balance, Balance, Balance....yeah we have PFM, but wouldn't it be cool to rush the ball 35 times at 4.4 yards per clip to take some of the pressure off his shoulders? Think 97/98 Broncos fans!
3) Take what you can get. Be patient and don't force things. The Steelers are likely to test Manning out by giving him a variety of looks so let's play small ball football, move the ball efficiently, and punch it in the endzone when we get close.
4) Can our front 7 handle the running game and more importantly shut it down? Until we prove we can do it consistently, this is something to look for.
5) Will our front 4 get pressure on their own?
6) Can we contain Big Ben and bring him down when we have the opportunity?
7) Can our coaching staff eliminate some of the mismanagement that occured last year in regards to the clock and timeouts?
8) Will our offense all be on the same page when Manning checks to something else?
9) Can we minimize miscommunications accross the board?
10) Will Rahim Moore start to play like a starter?
11) Will our team be able to handle the physicality of the game for an entire 4 quarters better than the Steelers? Fatigue will be a factor for someone.
There's a lot to look for and a lot to enjoy next Sunday night. While these are just some general thoughts, I really hope we can start to see the identity our team wants to develop this year. My prediction? Broncos 27 Steelers 13. I think we pull away late after a tough, hard fought battle at the beginning. Our defense will dominate long enough to allow our offense to find their rhythm! GO BRONCOS!!!