At this point in the season it feels pretty good to be a Broncos fan. Cutler is playing like a Pro Bowl talent, and his targets are playing at the same level. Perhaps the best news about the Broncos is the youth movement.
Does anyone doubt that Clady and Harris will play at offensive tackle for years to come? How about Marshall and Royal? The team is throwing points at opponents at a staggering rate, and the Broncos faithful are loving it.
But questions remain, even for a team out to a three and zero start. It may not be pleasant to consider, but it bears discussion.
- Some statistics point to an effective defense, and the case can be made that the defense isn't doing so bad. On the other hand, teams are putting up a lot of points.
- Does the offense need balance? Can we really keep winning putting the ball in the air so much?
- Are the Broncos changing their identity on both sides of the ball, leading to new era? Is this a good thing?
Let's look at these points and bring together our community at Milehighreport.com for a discussion.
In the opening season game, Denver's defense seemed to allow the Raiders to fire up their offense towards the end of the game. This led to games against SD and NO where the opposing teams seemed to move the ball at will. Is this an issue?
One school of thought says no. This thinking holds that Denver is an explosive offense that can win with minimal defense. The school of thought that I subscribe to believes that there are consequences for a team that allows opponents to move the ball so well that they put up almost as many points as our own dynamic team.
But the debate can be further muddied. Yet a third school of thought can claim that the defense is actually doing fairly well. For example, stats can be found showing that we are holding teams' running games in check. Is this accurate, or are teams throwing the ball because we are forcing a shootout?
Let's look at some key areas for discussion.
First, what are we doing with our safeties?. I'm not going to give much thought to this area, because Styg50 is going to be rolling out an excellent look at the safety position, and how it needs to be utilized to work in concert with the rest of the team.
Second, are we satisfied with the play of our LBs? DJ Williams hasn't made a lot of major plays (sacks, forced fumbles, fumble recoveries, INTs, etc) but he remains a tackling machine. Debate still seems to linger with MLB Webster, and his issues with overpursuit. There is some talk pro and con about Webster or Niko being the better option. But I'll stick my neck out about Boss Bailey. I remain concerned about his playing time (injuries), and it's too early to tell for sure, but I like what I see in TE match-ups. Brees and Shockey may not be a fair measure of how well a LOLB does incovering a TE, but I like B. Bailey's speed, swivel, and tackling. Boss wasn't on Shockey on every play that Shockey performed well on, but the ones where he matched he did a credible job.
The defensive line has points pro and con as well. On the one hand, there simply isn't enough pressure to stop teams from throwing with success. Denver recognizes this, and experimented with the 3-4 against New Orleans. (note - Styg50 had asked me about teaming up for an article looking at the merits of running a 3-4 this year. I was dismissive about the value of the article a the time. A nod goes out to Styg while I eat a big mouthful of humble pie). The hope was that Denver could at least disguise one of the rushers, which you can't do with a 4-3. By the second half, Denver realized that this wasn't the answer either.
I'm going to assert that our defense isn't getting the job done. We can point to very valid points in defense of the defense, but I don't buy it. Some will point out that we are doing a much better better job of stopping the run. This is true, but teams are throwing the ball against us. Some will point out that we are playing top notch QBs. Again, this is true, but only to a point.
We let Russell (Oak) throw on us effectively late in the MNF game, and I wouldn't call him a solid QB. I watched that game, and I didn't really see that we were playing a prevent defense at all. Rivers threw well against us, enough that the game could have gone either way. Brees went at us missing his number one target (Colston), and put up even better numbers than Cutler did. Except for some missed kicks by NO, Denver could have lost that game.
Here's my worry. We are doing a fantastic job as a team right now, but this kind of play won't work in the playoffs. (Yes, I'm going to talk about playoffs. We are definately good enough to get there). The playoffs are a single elimination tournament, and teams that can't put away their opponents go home. We aren't "closing the deal". We're racking up a lot of points, allowing our opponents to do the same, and hoping we come out on top. That's a major gamble. We are on the razor's edge of being 3-0 or 1-2 right now. I don't want to be that razor thin in the playoffs. We can afford a loss here and there in the regular season, but not in the playoffs.
Case study - the Colts. The Colts depend on a star QB and multiple star receiving threats. Take way one key playmaker on defense (safety Sanders) and the team goes into a nosedive.
Case study - the Patriots. Everyone focuses on Brady and his offense. Big mistake. The same defense that stopped the "Greatest Show on Turf" (STL) is the same defense that magicaly adjusts to any offense it plays. It is the play on both sides of the ball that makes the Patriots a dynasty this decade.
Balance on Offense
Why isn't Denver running the ball? Again, there are two opposing schools of thought. One goes, "Why bother? We're beating the excrement out of teams with Cutler's sure hand". True.
But the other way of thinking goes like this. Because Denver doesn't run the ball much, several other things happen.
- Our offense doesn't stay on the field for as long as they could. This means our defense is getting worn down.
- Our offense isn't able to eat up the clock, which would prevent second half scoring frenzies ala Oakland and San Diego.
- We aren't tiring down opposing defenses.
In my mind, these are the differences between winning and losing close games versus winning games by a comfortable margin. Maybe a blow out isn't as fun to watch, but it sure makes it easier to progress to a trophy.
Young and Hall are doing a fine job rotating about every five plays, and Pittman is doing a good job on short yardage. But we just aren't using them very much. Perhaps the coaches are giving Cutler as much practice as possible to speed his advancement. After all, we'll always have a good running game. Or maybe it's a new trend. Which leads us to...
Denver's New Identity
Is it just me, or has Denver radicaly changed on both sides of the ball?
We know that Denver has abandoned last year's Run Contain System on defense. I think a lot of us expected an aggressive defense from a coordinator with a reputation for attacking. Not so. In act, we're not only seeing base plays from the Broncos, we're still seeing adjustments. This is a concern. The 3-4 we saw for awhile against NO was likely an attempt to disguise who the fourth rusher is. Coach Slowik is likely to take what he's seen back to the drawing board to look for tweaks to maximize the defense.
But the offense is morphing into uncharted waters. The zone block running game? Still there, but rarely used. West Coast? Still there, but awfuly close to a spread offense. Instead of spreading the field east-west to set up the middle, one-cut runs, we are setting up vertical passes with short passes. Is this "new way" here to stay, or are we going to settle back into a game that causes more confusion for our opponents?
I'm hoping to create a lot of discussion with this story. I don't have the answers, but like each of us, I enjoy theorizing. I love watching Cutler dissect a defense, but I don't like seeing opponents do the same to us. I love watching Denver put up points, but I don't like the absence of a running game that could keep opponents from catching up. I love seeing a 3-0 record, but I would like to see games won by a comfortable margin.
I'm not complaining. I love the fact that we are 3-0. But it isn't a dominant 3-0. We can't improve much on Cutler and the passing game; we're blessed there. But we do need to see other elements of the team thrown into the mix and to see other parts of the team step up, or we could deflate later in the season.