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What to watch for: Broncos at Bears

Time to once again break down the Xs and Os for the Broncos, this time against the Super Bowl runner up team Chicago Bears.

Chicago is a team in decline, and threatens to become one of those teams that makes it to a Super Bowl then fails to make the playoffs the following year. Denver, on the other hand, is a team off to a bad start that seems to have made a major turn around and shares the lead with the Chargers in the AFC West.

For the first time in a while I have a team to break down that I am familiar with. The Bears run a variation of smash mouth football that is hard to define. It doesn't easily fall into the "Erhard-Perkins" system, "3-Y Cloud" system (aka 3 yards and a cloud of dust), "Run to Daylight", nor "Single Wing". It is probably closest to the "Daylight" system, but we'll break it down more in a moment.

Chicago runs the Tampa 2 variation of the Cover 2. After this year's pairings we won't have to see it so much, but we sure have had a heavy dose. The Cover 2s are designed (in part) to stop the West Coast Offense (we run the WCO). Fortunatly I like our match-ups all over the field.

Let's get started.

Denver's offense versus Chicago's Defense

Denver runs the West Coast Offense, a system predicated on multiple high percentage passes. Denver combines this with a Zone Block / One Cut run system. The system requires some rare things to make it work.

  • A solid QB
  • Receivers that can run block
  • Athletic (not big) O-linemen who must obtain years of experience to both learn the system and learn to work in concert with the other four members of the line. It is difficult to master.
In addition, Denver likes to employ scrambling QBs with big arms that can run the bootleg play action to complement the zoneblocks for run plays.

Chicago's defense is based on zones. The CBs don't have to be great because they zone the outside of the field off the line of scrimmage. Two safeties play deep zone to account for deep plays or missed tackles. The D-line strives for penetration. The OLBs zone between the CBs and DEs, and the MLB (the key player) zones the middle. Urlacher (MLB) is a rare specimen, possessing speed and raw power.

How do the systems match? To start, Chicago's defensive system is designed to negate the system Denver uses. In pure terms of scheme match-up we would have a draw. So now we move to match-ups on the field based on likely positioning of key players and plays from each team.

1. The strong side

Chicago's CBs don't have to be great in this system. However, these two have been much worse than great. Vasher is out, leaving rookie McBride and Tillman to try their best. They've looked awful.

Tillman is not a fast CB. He will get paired with Walker (whom I expect to play in this game). Walker will be a deep threat. Even if Stokely gets the pairing he (Tillman) won't have the quick initial burst to keep up. Denver will use the #1 to get past the CB zone, forcing the CB deep and the LOLB to mismatch against a Scheffler (TE) or a slot reciever (Stokely or Martinez). If Chicago breaks from their base defense, they have nickle Ricky Manning undermatched against any Denver receiver in depth.

Also, the scenario above places the LOLB in the bad position of covering a potential pass threat, and thus out of position for wherever the run play is targeted. This also allows Jay Cutler the option to run out a bootleg to the strong side if there are no options to pass to.

2. The weak side

Mcbride is not as big as Marshall. Marshall will win jump balls and fights for the ball all day long. Marshall also has the speed advantage. Mcbride will need to play his zone "soft" to make the hit after or simultaneous with a Marshall catch. I suspect Marshall won't go deep too often, since he can win the one on one with Mcbride and he keeps the free safety honest from concentrating on Walker's deep streaks.

Chicago will not have the personel to double cover receivers with safeties. Denver can play near and deep routes simultaneously, as well as use multiple receiving threats. The safeties for Chicago will have to maintain their sides of the field.

3. The center

Chicago has some tough decisions to make here.

They can account for the pass threats and keep the LBs in their zones. The problem here is that they don't get a pass rush on young Jay Cutler. The Tampa 2 features more CB and safety blitzes than other defensive systems, but with the depth of the Denver threats at reciever and TE I doubt Chicago takes the risk.

Denver also has a tricky task. The pass game looks to be heavily in Denver's favor, but as underperforming as Chicago has been, they still have a lot of talent to stop the run. Runs to the center are threatened by Urlacher with support from the safeties (who will come down when a run starts). Runs to the side face CBs built better to stop runs than most DBs. Chicago has solid OLBs to stop runs in the middle or to either side.

Denver's big advantage is that the zone block works better on penetrating D-lines than holding D-lines. Urlacher may face a lot of second tier blocks from Denver's O-line and either a FB or TE. Oddly enough, Urlacher's best role will be in pass support.

Here is Chicago's best hope. Despite the depth of receiving threats Denver has (four solid receivers and 1 ((arguably 2)) at TE), Denver should avoid the center of the "cover two". Urlacher is excellent at his job, and threatens not only to break up pass plays, but to injure the poor fool given a slant near his zone.

* Bonus analysis from our resident defensive coordinator: My background isn't offense, its defensive coaching at the pre-collegiate levels. But if I was thrust into answering "How to stop Urlacher in pass situations" here's what I would do. Continuously slant Graham (blocking TE) to the center of the field towards Urlacher. Urlacher has to account for Graham as a pass threat. Every play Graham either jacks (hard blocks) Urlacher, while a follow on reciver makes the reception or Graham goes for the rare reception. Urlacher either has to account for being blocked out of plays, or has to cover Graham. This would also serve to wear down Big Brian. Chicago's best counter is to wall off Graham, but now they lose the pass rush.

Denver's defense versus Chicago's offense

Denver's "Run Contain System" is out for now. It takes a lot of time to make the adjustments, and coordinator Bates is holding off to wait for the right personel to run the system. What we are seeing instead is a penetrating D-line, a zone MLB, man or zone OLBs, a safety in the box, and man CBs. Sounds alot like a "46 Defense" like the Eagles run, but it really isn't.

We're running a 4-3 with man emphasis and penetration. The weakness of the 4-3 "Base Man Out" is a lack of coordination between players. Every guy has his own assignment. The strength of the system is that it is flexible for adjustment to other teams, and it doesn't require a lot to learn. It's a great interim system (though simple) for a team struggling to learn a pro-level, major shift in philosophy (moving from the zone/man concept to the contain concept).

How does Denver match with a hard charging smash mouth run team? Well, based on Denver's record it's mixed. We have a terrible rush defense to date (though it is turning around the last couple of games). But our best game of the year was against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the godfathers of smash mouth (the Erhard-Perkins System).

On pass defense just two words - Bailey / Bly. These two CBs lead the NFL with interceptions at #1 and #2 since 1999 against all other CBs. Denver's newly promoted Hamza Abdullah has been a terror at safety with his speed and tackling skills. Despite Chicago's QB woes, Chicago still has some weapons to account for, so let's not breath easy yet.

  1. Benson is a good RB. He will get good run support from the center, the right side of the line, and FB McKie. Denver will counter with Lynch (SAF) in the box. Unfortunatly, Denver probably wants to rush their speedy (and undersized) DEs at Grossman. This leaves Williams (MLB) and either OLB to stop the run with Lynch. If Benson clears the second tier he faces only Hamza. Chicago would do well to hit the center or just off center gaps to exploit this problem for Denver.
  2. Chicago has a terrible QB, and a terrible O-line on the left side. Their LT is playing injured, and their LG is a replacement for injury. The CHI left side has been getting eaten alive. On the surface things should be easy for Denver's pass defense. But CHI still has strengths in the passing game. They feature good depth at WR with Berrian, Muhammad, Davis, and Hester, as well as Clark at TE (and to an extent Olson). Let's look deeper at the pass match-up:
  • Bailey and Bly can counter both of Chicago's WRs. Chicago is used to seeing Bly in zone, and the man coverage he brings should surprise Chicago fans (though no the coaches and players). Denver's newly promoted Hamza will give both CB's the deep protection to take chances for INTs, as well as a good outside pass rush by the Denver DEs.
  • Paymah (CB) has become the nickleback for Denver, with Foxworth (CB) playing at safety on obvious pass downs (spelling Lynch). I don't like this. Foxworth seems to me to be a better CB, and neither player is a natural at SAF. But putting my opinion to the side, neither nickle (though talented) matches up well against Chicago's potential slots of Davis or Hester.
  • Hamza is the real key to the pass defense. Based on our two previous points, Hamza has to either protect Bailey and Bly, or contend with a mismatch over Paymah. Tough choice for a young guy to make as a play unfolds. Chicago's game plan on pass plays will be designed to confuse Hamza.
  • Gold will have to cover Clark if Clark is to be stopped. Does he cover Clark, or assist on blitzes? Tough call here too.
  • Denver will face a lot of trouble in their base 4-3 if caught against a slot receiver situation. The key for Denver will be an effective pass rush. If Denver goes into a Strong Nickle (a 4-2 nickle with a LB over the TE) they lose some of their run defense. Denver won't use a Base Nickle nor their 3-3 Nickle formations for this game.
Conclusion for regular teams

Denver running offense - Even to slight advantage Denver

Denver pass offense - Big advantage Denver

Chicago run offense - Moderate to big advantage Chicago

Chicago pass offense - Slight advantage Denver

Special Teams

One word - Hester.

Denver is improving in the return and coverage games. With Hester on the field we'll either punt out of bounds or kick for touchbacks (which we can do if the temp isn't too cold). We might have to do the dreaded "Bailey on STs" thing to be safe. I hope not. We can't risk losing Bailey to injury like that.

Our new STs coordinator is one of the best, and our guys are catching up on the learning curve. Let's hope they don't have to learn any hard lesson from multiple record earning Hester.

Final Conclusion

The Bears are at home. Cold weather, normaly a friend to Denver, plays to Chicago in this game for several reasons (so pray for warm weather).

It lessens Cutler's throwing ability (heavy ball), it plays to a smash mouth Chicago run game, and it hinders our punter/kicker duo. The only advantage for Denver is our smaller but athletic linemen on both sides of the ball (later in the game), and plays to our players better metabolization of limited oxygen (picked up from the higher red blood cell count of our higher altitude living players).

I like our offense over Chicago's defense in all aspects.

Despite our strong pass defense and Chicago's weak pass offense, the Xs and Os of the schemes give Chicago some freak advantages. Not enough to be better, but enough to minimize the obvious advantages Denver has on first glance.

Chicago has some advantages on running the ball, so Denver will have to continue its recent improvements to shoot for keeping things in check.

I don't like to predict outcomes; I like to break down games. But I'll go out on a limb and take Denver.

Remember Denver fans, pull for (yech) oak to beat KC, and BAL to beat SD to keep the playoff race alive.

Now speak up! Tell me where you agree, where I'm wrong, and any questions you have. That's what is all about.

Broncos forever!