No doubt that in three years the Broncos have gone from an embarrassment under McDaniel's to the NFL's top tier under Elway. This is where our beloved Broncos belong. Missed in all the post-Super Bowl chatter of being more physical was an in-depth look at where the Broncos fell short in 2013. Unlike the many excellent position-by-position breakdowns that have come out recently that have told us we need an upgrade at starter here and there, I analyzed the Broncos team statistical rankings to determine what needs fixed and how the EVPOFO/GM can "Fix-It!" I don't do film study, as I don't have the time. I like to enjoy the game when I watch it. But for those of you with All 22 Access feel free to chime in.
One category I ignored in my analysis was aggregate yardage, as I tend to agree with Jim Haslett that yardage is "for losers." After all football is less about how far you march down the field, than it is how many points you put on the scoreboard. Outside of yardage the Broncos finished outside the top 10 in the NFL in twelve categories (T/G ratio, GvA, Rush Y/A, FL, Def Points Allowed, TKA, Rush Def TD, FR, Pass Att against, Pass TD's allowed, Ints, Net yards/pass Att) and in the bottom half in 10 of those (GvA, Rush Y/A, FL, Def Pts Allowed, TKA, Rush Def TD's, FR, Pass Att against, Def TD's Allowed, Net yards/pass Att) . More worrisome they regressed from 2012 in 6 categories (GvA, FL, Def Pts, Rush Def TD's Allowed, Pass Att against, TD's, Net yards/Pass Att). In combination with the splits I was able to dig deeper to develop some general concerns. Some will take care of itself, others need Mr. Elway to "Fix-it!"
POOR BALL SECURITY
Peyton obviously has no issue making good decisions and putting the ball in the right place. He is one of the best in the NFL in not throwing interceptions; finishing 6th and 5th the last two years. So that leaves us with the Fumblitis disease. According to former Broncos GM Ted Sundquist now known as The Football Educator the ability to hang onto the rock is a "winning equation" that surpasses a defense’s ability to stop the run, the effects of interceptions on both sides of the ball, an offense’s ground game efficiency and even penalty rate." Frankly the Broncos were horrible in this area in 2013 and weren't much better the year before. Denver finished dead last 32nd in fumbles lost.
Players that had multiple fumbles in 2013 were (2) Decker, D. Thomas, Hillman, Moreno, (3) Ball, (5) Holliday, and (11) Manning. Players that also made the list in 2012 were (2) Manning, Hillman, (3) D. Thomas, (5) Holliday. Again here we will not focus on Manning's fumbling because lets face it, they aren't caused by him recklessly scampering down-field carrying the ball like a loaf of bread. The difference from 2012 to 2013 was clearly the absence of Ryan Clady, as Chris Clark was victimized by strip sacks on at least a handful of occasions that I can name of the top of my head. Clady healthy and in the starting lineup every week next year should bring Manning's fumbles back down to earth. So that leaves us with everyone else and their fumbling ratio: Decker .022, D. Thomas .021, Hillman .029, Moreno .006, Ball .021, Holliday .081.
So what this tells us is that the real problem children in this area were Hillman and Holliday. In addition if we lose Moreno to free agency then we lose a player that really knows how to secure the ball and has matured as a runner to do so. Holliday is not worth the risk associated with his returning skills. We had the greatest scoring offense EVER last year. We need a Mr. Dependable back there that can ensure we don't give the opponent the ball in our territory and let the offense and Peyton do their thing. So I wouldn't mind seeing Decker performing these duties if he returns or even Bubba Caldwell who hasn't fumbled since 2010 in limited duty, or possibly someone from outside. In addition we need at least one maybe two new backs that can display good ball security. One to compete with Hillman for the last RB roster spot and another to likely replace Moreno. But the Broncos need to put a premium on whether the targeted replacements are fumble prone.
RUSHING YARDS PER ATTEMPT AND YARDS AFTER CONTACT
No I am not saying the Broncos need a home-run hitter, which DE_Bronco Fan did a great Fan Post on last week. Would it be fun to watch absolutely, but like he and others have said no one will stack 8 in the box against us in 2014. In fact the Broncos actually went from 25th to 20th in rushing yards per attempt last year. However, if you really want to contend for that Lombardi Trophy then 4.1 yards per carry probably can be improved upon.
The Philadelphia Eagles lead the league with a full yard more 5.1 yards per attempt, and Denver was just below the league average. Just imagine if we could get to the 4.5-4.7 yard per attempt range. Could be the difference between 1st and 10 or a 3rd and 2. Surprisingly our best runner Moreno was at the bottom of the team in this category. Averaging just 4.3 yards per attempt, ranking only ahead of Hillman with 4.0 yards per attempt. The good news is our up and comers led the way with Ball 4.7, and Anderson 5.4 yards per attempt.
PRIORITY NEED #1: BIG RUNNING BACK(S) THAT CAN GET YARDS AFTER CONTACT, HOLD ONTO BALL, AND WILLING AND ABLE TO PASS BLOCK
PRIORITY NEED #2: SAFE BUT UNSPECTACULAR RETURN SPECIALIST THAT CAN BE A SOLID 4th or 5th RECEIVER
In 2013 32.5% of opponents drives ended in scores ranking 19th in the NFL. 66% of those scores were touchdowns instead of field goals. In the Red Zone they allowed a whopping 62.1% TD rate, worse than the 59.5% they gave up in 2012. That's 7th worst in the NFL for those of you scoring at home. Under 50% would have been good enough to be in the top 10 in 2013.
Let's face it we don't need the #1 defense in the league to win games like Seattle does. The old cliche goes "the best defense is a good offense" Does it help absolutely, but unlike those that panicked after the Super Bowl I don't think we need to make ourselves into the Seattle Seahawks of the AFC. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and frankly I don't want to give those Chickenhawks the satisfaction. Personally I feel like it would be a mistake to abandon the speed and high motor defensive model Denver has pursued the last three seasons in lieu of bigger and more physical players. What we want is fast and aggressive not big and physical. Plus we don't have the personnel to run that Cover 3, let alone a strong safety that can play like a linebacker.
So the question is not how do we keep have the least points allowed in the NFL, it is how do we bring down the DPPG allowed from 24.9 to a respectable 21? The answer is a bend-but-don't-break defense. This strategy will get the team by until Peyton Manning retires and our offense becomes average again, whichever comes first. Some of this is scheme, which I will not go into great detail. Suffice to say give the other team the intermediate passes by keeping those safeties deep and minimize big plays, let them drive down the field and then force them into field goals and once they approach and enter the Red Zone stiffen as the shorter field gets congested by the back of the end zone. This would also give the defense an identity, which it sorely lacked in 2012 other than being the MASH unit of the NFL, and letting teams back in games. From what I understand and I am sure someone will correct me if I am wrong, but I believe the Broncos already run a lot of Cover 2 from both their base 4-3 front and heavy Nickle formations which would also mesh well with this strategy. They just don't play it very well. As Bronco Mike taught us with his great film studies. Here he shows us Denver in a Cover 2 look. With Mike Adams and David Bruton over the top.
Then as the play unfolds he aptly asks where is Mike Adams? I feel like we were asking that same question all season. The answer is roughly 20 yards from where he should be.
The 17th ranking in net yards per pass attempt is evidence of that. I can understand large amount of passing plays against Denver due to always playing with a lead, and often big ones. But that shouldn't always correlate with big plays. For example in 2012 we ranked 17th in pass attempts, and 1st in net yards per attempt. In 2013 it was a different story 27th in attempts and 17th in net yards per attempt a major regression.
So what do we need personnel wise to play bend-but-don't-break? Dare I say even a Tampa 2 version where speed is paramount. Explosive and quick defensive lineman that can penetrate and tackle? Check. Anchored by Pot Roast who is big and athletic this was our best unit last year, and each player has a burst: Wolfe, Knighton, Williams, Phillips, Jackson, Mincey, Smith, and Miller when on the line can bring the pressure. Unrein and Vickerson can come in and stop the run in Jumbo looks in goal to go situations. Outside Linebackers that can patrol the zones in between the corners and outside the LOS to a depth of 10 yards? Check. Then the keystone; a Mike that has above-average to elite speed, with instinct to read-react to drop back, and play deep middle of field or crash the LOS and stop run with excellent tackling? We all know the answer to this. Heck no. But this special player can't be a big bruiser, speed is a must. Cornerbacks that can defend the sidelines and tackle, while excelling at zone coverage more than man-to-man. Check. DRC, CHJr, Bailey are a start. Not to say we don't need serious depth. Safeties that excel in coverage, able to break up passes, hit hard, and can bring the blitz? Not even close. Though I think Champ can fit part of the mold, he certainly has good cover skills and is a sure tackler if not big hitter. Lets not forget he has 3 career sacks.
PRIORITY NEED #3: SPEEDY AND INSTINCTIVE MIDDLE LINEBACKER THAT EXCELS IN COVERAGE AND TACKLING RUNNERS
PRIORITY NEED #4: COVERAGE SAFETIES THAT BRING THE WOOD AND CAN BLITZ
If it is one area I would emulate the Seahawks it would be on the emphasis to generate turnovers. Ranking a lowly 21st in fumble recoveries and 12th in interceptions, improvement is needed. Addressing some of the personnel above will help here significantly. But lets also look at where the Broncos get their small amount of takeaways from compared to the LOB. First of all to put this in clear terms how woeful the Broncos were in 2013 at takeaways just the Seahawks secondary and linebacker corps had more turnovers then all three Broncos units. By a margin of 36 to 33.
TAKEAWAY DISTRIBUTION BY UNIT
DENVER / SEATTLE
DL 18% / 28%
LB 36% / 16%
DB 45% / 56%
As you can plainly see both the Denver defensive line and secondary under-performed their Seahawk counterparts, while the linebackers over-performed their counterparts. In fact I could easily see this trend to continue when Von Miller comes back healthy and keeps his nose clean. But this is a validation that we have something in work with in the linebacker corps.
Other than that special "Mike" I wouldn't tinker too much in that unit. To include bringing back Woodyard as a Will and Nickle linebacker. While I was really high on Nate Irving before doing this post, and I thought he could be the answer. Seeing that with 280 snaps during 2013 he failed to register a single turnover, I now have doubts and would again let him compete for the spot but not fail to address it in the off season. So this is just validates that point that it is unknown whether he is the answer. So what the Broncos bring in for the secondary and defensive line for depth need to excel in ball-hawking and the art of the strip sack.
PRIORITY NEED #5: DEPTH EDGE RUSHER THAT CAN KNOCK THE BALL OUT OF QUARTERBACKS HANDS
I hope this post enlightens some of the more causal Broncos fans. I can honestly say for me it opened my eyes to some weak areas that need to be addressed in a major way. I did not expect Running Back to be a priority area. I felt if they brought back Moreno, I felt they could stand pat. Now I can see he has a deficiency in his running ability and yards per attempt. In addition I really thought Irving was the guy, especially after that Super Bowl performance. Now I think he will be forced to compete again, but he has major utility as a key reserve at both MLB and SLB. All this is not to say the Broncos do not have other needs; they do. I just feel the 5 I listed are the top priorities. I Hope you enjoyed reading this post as much as I enjoyed writing it.
See below for some bonus reading on players I think fit the mold and scheme we need to win Super Bowl 49 and 50. Shout out to Bronco Mike on his great film study and DE_Bronco Fan for providing the expert analysis that made this post better.
PLAYERS TO TARGET IN FREE AGENCY AND DRAFT
Andre Williams (Boston College), James Wilder Jr. (Florida State)
Return Specialist & 4th Wide Receiver
Ted Ginn Jr. (Carolina)
TJ Jones (Notre Dame) or Jeff Janis (Saginaw Valley State)
Donald Butler (San Diego)
CJ Mosley (Alabama), Yawin Smallwood (Connecticut), Christian Jones (Florida State)
* NOT Borland or Skov
FS: Calvin Pryor (Louisville), Kenny Ladler (Vanderbilt)
SS: Deone Bucannon (Washington State), Craig Loston (LSU)
Everson Griffin (Minnesota)
Jackson Jeffcoat (Texas)