Who in their right mind saw us going 13 - 3 this year exceeding the expectations of almost everyone in and out of Broncos Country? This guy...that's who. It certainly didn't all bounce exactly the way I thought it would (I had one of our loses being to the Division II team masquerading as an NFL team KC Chiefs...by the way, congrats on that #1 pick in the draft, losers). Nevertheless we still won a ton of games.
I tend to make my pre-season picks with an optimistic mindset. Basically looking at having no major injuries and typical turnover problems. Seasons get screwed royally from either of those things plaguing your team. I count us pretty lucky to see a season go by like this without injuries that truly hurt our chances or turnover problems that cost us too many games. I can argue that a couple of our loses were due to INTs or fumbles mainly, but with 13 wins in the bag who really cares?
My desire as a Broncos fan every year is to see my team make it to the play-offs. I don't care how. I just want us to have a shot. That's what gets me going. That's what gets me excited. We have a chance this year and I want to thank everyone in the Broncos organization for all the time, work, and energy they've put into this season. I think you guys are doing it very right and no matter what happens in the play-offs, I am well pleased with my team. I'm very proud to be an Orange and Blue bleeding fan of the Denver Broncos.
Most Valuable Players and Wasted Roster Spots
In honor of our sorely missed "Studs and Duds" I'm going to list out the guys in the running for MVP from our different phases of the game as well as WRS (aka "Duds") (We still miss you Nick Cast!)
Peyton Manning - it is amazing to look back at this season and really try to grasp how good his play has been. We've had 11 straight wins with him tossing the rock. That makes the week-in, week-out 300 yard, multiple touchdown game start to all just kinda blur a bit. I pretty much go into games now expecting an average of 250 yards and 2 TDs from PM. Don't get too mesmerised people...there is some really fantastic QB play going on every week and don't you forget it. Our noodle-armed, broken neck, old as dirt QB sure did play a friggin great season.
- Demaryius Thomas - This guy really has turned it up a couple of notches over the season. His route running is so much improved over the past year I about pee myself when I get a good look at it on game day. There is no denying that DT is a complete headache for defenses to deal with. His numbers over the season really paint a good picture.
- Knowshon Moreno - If it weren't for Peyton's comeback from his neck problems Knowshon would be the comeback story of the Broncos. This kid took himself a HUGE slice of humble pie during his time on the bench like a stud. Now all he does is make us not miss Willis McGahee for even a second. I can't say enough about his improvement: He runs with patience and vision, he runs with a lean now to make sure he falls forward, and he shows great power getting yards he shouldn't and pushing piles. I don't think there is one, but if someone started an "I <3 Knowshon Moreno Fan Club", I'd sign up yesterday.
Honorable Mentions: Eric Decker (dude consistently in BEAST mode in the red zone) and O-Line (Their late season play has been top-notch and has been the reason we've easily secured victories in the 2nd half of games)
Offensive WRS (Wasted Roster Spots)
Lance Ball - EVEN with his decent looking game against KC I hold that he is the weakest link of our offense. Especially now that we have Jacob Hester I still believe in my heart of hearts that a puppy and a kitten both die every time Lance Ball gets a touch in game.
- Julius Thomas - I almost feel bad saying this because of the depth and talent we have at TE. But this guy is just taking up a spot. He's not seeing the field. I'd rather have another RB or O-Lineman in all honesty.
- Chris Gronkowski - How I missed this, I have no idea, but here's a late addition to the list. Why do we need a FB in this offense? We hardly ever come out in a 21 or 22 alignment, so why do we waste a spot on a FB? He doesn't do much elsewhere on the team and as Mitch Unrein has shown, we can easily use guys from other positions to lead block if needed.
Dishonorable Mention: Manny Ramirez (He just missed the list because of his play in the last two games of the season...he really played out of his mind and I hope he carries that play into the playoffs.)
- Von Miller - What can I say about him...defenses are scheming against him. He's tightened up his run play and his pass coverage. Unlike last season he's not a liability in any phase of the game. This is the kind of player you build a defense around.
- Wesley Woodyard - What a year for a guy that has been under-appreciated for years here. This kid is a big time player. INTs, sacks, TFL...he's got game. I was very thankful that he wasn't benched when DJ came back. He's earned his position on the field.
- Rahim Moore - I've been concerned about the safety position for a few years now. I'm not worried about Rahim after what I've seen from him this year. He's just been a superb asset on the field...especially in the run game. His next step is some time with the Juggs machine (he's dropped several easy INTs this year). But catching the ball is something I can do without in a safety if they do the rest of their job really well.
Defensive WRS (Wasted Roster Spots)
- Joe Mays - It isn't just a coincidence that we stopped losing games when Mays got benched. He is a complete liability on defense. This is a guy I'd let go in the off season. We can do better by far.
- Tracy Porter - It is sad for me to say this, but Porter just hasn't been useful for us this season. His first game success was to me wiped out by his 2nd game suckage. Since then he's just had the most horrible injury luck. I'm thinking our FO was pretty darn smart signing him to a 1-year deal. I think unless we lose Carter, Porter will be gone this offseason.
Special Teams MVP
- Britton Colquitt is my call for MVP of ST for the year based on one stat: Net punting yards. He's 3rd in the NFL with 42.1 yards per punt. The guy may not have the longest average, but he doesn't out-kick his coverage. He makes sure the ball hangs long enough for our coverage guys to get there. Also, unlike the other key ST players he doesn't screw the pooch.
Special Teams WRS (Wasted Roster Spots)
- Matt Prater - oh how the times change. When I reviewed the team half-way through the season he was my #1 ST MVP. But he's been choking. To me and most other Bronco fans he's really under-performing. He doesn't out-kick the opponents at home and he's missing the money-making FG attempts (40 - 50 yards). I like Matt, but I'm not adverse to trying out someone else this off-season.
Dishonorable Mentions: Lance Ball (He's screwed it up at ST too in the back half of the season), Trindon Holliday (If it weren't for his earlier TD returns, he'd be on the list for his loose hands).
Our passing game was solid to start the year, but I'm seeing it now comparable to some of the things Indy used to do years ago. Peyton Manning is setting up routes at the line and his WRs are consistently on the same page. We're using our advantages (size, speed, scheme) to get the ball down the field.
- Virgil Green has the potential to be a big name in the playoffs...at least to the smart fans who know what great TE play looks like (and no, the answer is not necessarily 20+ yard passes every game).
- I've thought all year long we could do more with the screen game, but that probably will never happen as to get that working at a higher level would require some very specific plays added to the book and that's just not how our offense works. As it is we do a few different screens mainly to our WRs with some basic blocking schemes down-field.
- From what I recall of the season, our O-line started the season pass protecting pretty well, had a small slump in the middle of the season, then finished strong. Most of the problems were due to Chris Kuper being injured and Manny Ramirez not being half the player Kuper is. That's started to change toward the end of the season. Manny in the past two games of the season looked VERY solid to my eyes and the stats show it too.
Our running game has subtly evolved over the season...not that the scheme has changed, but to me our mentality about it as well as execution has improved in the back half of the season. I had been very worried about Willis McGahee getting injured and a big drop-off but Knowshon Moreno made that a complete non-issue.
- We've had some success both to the outside and inside running. It is is of note that our primary backs through the season have mostly ran inside and finished with power. This is a key tool in my opinion for an offense to have. If you have no serious threat to pick up a 3rd and 2 on the ground, your chances of converting go way down.
- Ronnie Hillman has even shown flashes of being able to get it done...especially when he gets a nice sized lane where he can maximize the use of his quickness. He's still very shaky in pass protection to me, but when we are in situations where that isn't necessary he's a good weapon to have on the field.
- Based on his work this season Knowshon Moreno is a legitimate #1 RB that teams have to worry about. He seems to have copycatted Willis McGahee's game and realized that in the NFL power and durability and kind of a big deal. Our offense grooves on having running plays consistently pick up 3.5 - 6 yards per attempt.
- I don't know what next year will bring, but I like the idea of having both Knowshon and Willis for a whole season.
- Other than Knowshon's improved play, our O-line has been the big story in the running game. By the end of the season we were closing out games by running the rock and there was nothing our opponents could do about it. If you watched the broadcasts it kept being stated by the announcers (one of the few smart things they would say), "It is really impressive that everyone knows the Broncos are going to run the ball and they keep picking up 1st downs". I can't say it enough: our running game is a key tool for our future both for the play-offs and future seasons.
- It is pretty notable that toward the back half of the season we've shown a lot more 12 personnel on the field (1 RB, 2 TEs, 2 WRs). Why is that? Because we've made the run game a big part of our offense and are able to better keep the defenses on their heels using it...we can pass or run out of 12 formations with great success and often times will cause match-up problems in the passing game against our highly talented TEs.
Strengths going forward:
- TE depth
- Starting WRs
- Starting QB
Weaknesses we could upgrade:
- O-Line depth
- RB depth / starter (I see Steven Jackson as a possible addition in FA)
- WR depth
Let's cover the big deal first: our defense's most impressive stat is how they fair against 3rd downs. Opponents only convert about 30.5% of the time. They usually only covert a little over 4 per game. That's astounding and both lead the NFL this season. What does this say about our defense?
- First off we've got smart players who are familiar with what they are doing on defense. That's not a statement I would have said much over the last 5 years or so. Last year we were a few players away from it. This year these guys have really put the puzzle pieces in place.
- Our defense is talented. Wesley Woodyard, Elvis Dumervil, Von Miller, Derek Wolfe, Champ Bailey, Chris Harris, Rahim Moore. These are all high-level players. I can't remember the last defense we had where there were this many guys who I would covet if I were a fan of another team. And let me also point out that the guys we have that I didn't name aren't scrubs by any stretch of the imagination: Kevin Vickerson, Justin Bannon, Mike Adams, Tony Carter, Keith Brooking, Mitch Unrein, and DJ Williams all play at a high level and know how to do their flipping jobs well.
- Finally it says that one of the biggest strengths of our defense is our pass rush. Think about it for a second: unless you are constantly getting in 3rd and short situations (not likely against this defense), you are passing on 3rd down and 3+. Welcome to the world of VonDoom people...and Vickerson, Woodyard, Wolfe, Adams, and Harris (we get creative on bringing pressure...it isn't just a two-man show).
So then, how do we do against the run? Superb is the answer. Due to some surprisingly solid play from the guys in the middle as well as superb run support from our DBs, teams have very little success against us overall.
- We are #2 in the league at opponent's rushing yards per attempt. This is a pretty big deal as it shows consistency on our part for stopping our opponents from making major headaches for us with their run game. This means lots of plays that put your offense off schedule and make it more likely you have to throw. We like that because we want teams to have to throw on us.
- Throughout the season the only sign of weakness I've seen has been when our outside guys don't get the edge set in the run game. We've given up some big chunks of yardage outside when that happens. The good thing is that this isn't a consistent weakness. Both Dumervil and Miller have really stepped their games up to make this a focus (this part of the reason you don't see as many 1st half sacks and pressures from them...they focus on reading the run and setting the edges as their #1 priorities a lot)
- A big question we had going into the season was our DTs. We heard a lot about Bannon being a sub-par aging vet, Vickerson has always been lackluster, Unrein is young unproven, Warren went on IR, and Wolfe was a bad pick that we'd probably misuse by not having him play UT. Well...let's just say you shouldn't listen to talking heads. My eyes showed me from the preseason on that our D-Line were playing pretty darn good football. These guys don't get enough credit for the solid play they set up the rest of our defense with by winning the battles up front. The running defense stats looks so good because these guys are doing their jobs.
We knew going into the season we'd have Champ Bailey playing big. We though Chris Harris was a good CB. We hoped Tracey Porter would hold down the fort across from Champ. We had big question marks about our safety play...I mean 2nd year guys and a safety from the Browns...really? Our DB play has been head-turning in that very little of what 2012 brought was predictable.
- First of Champ Bailey...dude is still rocking it. No matter how much I keep mentioning he might move to safety well, he just keeps shutting down WRs. The only sizeable problem he had all year was against AJ Green who I consider the most dangerous WR in the game right now (by the way...we still won that game and AJ's plays didn't cost us much overall). I'm really hoping Champ gets a ring this year...he of everyone on the team deserves it for sticking with us through thick and thin (not that he wasn't paid good money...but he could have left for more a few different times).
- Chris Harris exceeded expectations. Once Tracey Porter went down, he showed everyone that the #2 CB spot wasn't too big for this undrafted guy. Even though I thought he could handle it, it was another thing completely to see him perform at the level he has been. He's like a younger version of Champ: running in his WR's hip pocket, breaking on routes because he sees them coming, and attacking the ball without drawing PI.
- Tracey Porter had a big hand in winning us our first game...then it went downhill. I still think he's a valuable asset on the team, but he's been outshined by others because of his time on the bench. I actually am more sad than anything about it because it seems he's had a run of tough luck this year. I'll be cheering for someone to pick him up next year and give him a shot.
- Probably my poorest judgement on defense was Tony Carter. In the preseason I didn't see a whole lot I liked...granted I didn't get to really watch him defend routes much because of the camera angles, but what I did see wasn't impressive...I guess that's why the coaches get to pick who stays and who goes right? This guy is our best pure man-on-man defender on the team...yes even better than Bailey. Hopefully he stays with us though I'm fearful like others that he may leave for more money.
- Rahim Moore has really taken a step forward this year. His bigger impact plays so far have come in the run game, but he's been very close to having several impacting INTs this year. He's made safety a little bit less of a concern and if we can get Quinton Carter back healthy next year we may really be cooking something up.
- Mike Adams has been a solid veteran acquisition by the front office. He's not spectacular by any stretch of the imagination, but he rarely is out of position and he also plays well in run support. I see him as a solid "hole-plugger" by the front office when we really didn't have better draft or free agency options.
Strengths going forward:
- Will and Sam LBs
Weaknesses we could upgrade:
- Safety depth
Special Teams Review:
Obviously there isn't as much to talk about on ST. Our coverage units are either coached well or they aren't. Are kickers are either good or their not. Same with our returners. Hers's my notes on the ST:
- Matt Prater should absolutely be challenged next year. His accuracy and lack of domination at home in the kicking game are pretty disappointing. I have good faith in him until he costs us games. He hasn't really done that so far (the majority of his misses have NOT caused us to lose games). For what my opinion is worth I think his problems are more mental than anything...not working hard enough or taking it seriously enough given his off-field media coverage and his body language.
- Britton Colquitt is a very good punter...I'm glad we haven't needed him as much this year, but when we have, he's kicked very very well.
- Trindon Holliday should in my mind be kept and have some coaching attention in the off-season. He needs to work on his ball security #1. He's a great returner and has great skills, but if you keep putting the rock on the ground, all your talents are for naught my friend.
- We need another return threat with decent hands...Jim Leonhard is decent, but he is absolutely no threat to do anything in the return game.
Thanks to you all for your support and discussion in my reviews this year. I know this is a fairly decent-sized novel of a Fan Post, but hopefully you can do a chunk at a time and we'll get some decent commentary below to kick around.
I'm hoping that in about a month I'll be writing up a very impressive playoff review. I will be treating what we do in the playoffs as a different season because to me it is. We have seedings, but everyone is 0-0 going into the playoffs and if you lose you are out.