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The State of the Denver Broncos

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It's time to take an honest self evaluation. There are a lot of good things to take comfort in if you are a Broncos fan. There are also some things that need to be faced that should keep you awake at night. I want to look at both.

Coming from a coach's perspective, folks shouldn't panic over one game. On the other hand, folks shouldn't get too excited over the 3-0 mark we were at before the KC loss. What we have on our hands is a very, very good team that has some terrible flaws. Yes, we beat SD and NO, but the games were close enough to be decided by a two point conversion and missed FGs. We beat Oakland, but that's not much to brag about. We also lost to KC, and that's a concern.

We'll look at what can be adjusted for and what probably can't, and where this puts the team as it continues The Quest.

Read on...

The Negatives

1) Pass rush

More than any other factor, Denver's lack of an effective pass rush is allowing opponents to score against Denver. Thanks to MattR (who has very kindly sent me DVDs so I can break down the games) I have watched and rewatched the front four and front three. There is a lot to examine.

First, the DTs are not effective. If one factor could turn around this team on defense, it would be having one, dominant defensive tackle. The tackles are not demanding the kind of double teaming that allows the DEs to do their jobs. As I've written before, one great DT makes the other DT look great too. Neither of our DTs is threatening the pocket enough.

Second, the DEs are better than what I expected, but still falling short. I noticed in the TB game that the outside rushers often got through, but were always a second or two too late. Dumervil's finger is a part of the problem, but a very small part. He can't use his hand as well when he has to fight off offensive linemen, and his tackilng should be less then desirable. But this is a minor excuse that falls flat. Despite the talents we have at pass rushing DE, the best rushers seem to be the guys who are built to stop the run (such as Ekuban).

Fans love flashy, speedy DEs. I like them too! But when the DTs can't occupy at least three OLmen, the DEs are going to struggle. At times like these, more powerful (albeit slower) DEs like Ekuban are more likely to fight through the trash than the speedsters. Unfortunatley, they will be slow.

Third is play calling. I'm always the first to jump in to defend a coach (go figure). But I can't do it here. On 3 man fronts with one gap linemen, a fourth rusher has to come in from one of the LBs. Denver shows a LB near the line to come in, but that LB ends up (more often than not) falling back into coverage. This creats two problems.

  1. Why is the defense telegraphing the LB? In a one gap 3-4 set-up, the whole point of the fourth rusher is that the offense doesn't know where the LB is coming from.
  2. Having said that, the telegraphed guy doesn't even rush! Worse, nobody else comes in either! You don't get pressure in the NFL with 3 rushers alone.

Some aspects of the pass rush can be fixed. Slowik is a "teaching" coach, and can improve on some shoddy play by the DL. Our best DE (Doom) will heal up and improve. But the thing we may have to face moving forward is that this team continues to lack a full time, durable, effective DT.

2) The Secondary

First, let's cut the corners some slack. Bailey and Bly are terrific corners, Paymah is good enough, and Williams has potential. But without the pass rush we just talked about, these guys can't be expected to cover receivers for more than a few seconds on their own. That said...

Bailey made a comment I found disturbing. He mentioned the importance of keeping plays "in front" of ourselves. This is zone thinking. Bailey is a lock down corner, and Bly is a gambler. Both CB types require an attacking mentality, and a focus on disrupting the reception (through a break up or an INT). Instead, reading Bailey's words and watching game tape I'm shocked at what I'm seeing. Our CBs are playing over the receivers instead of being used aggresively. Why is this? I think I have the answer, and and it is ugly.

Denver wants the LBs focused on the run. For this reason, there isn't a lot of blitzing. Also, Denver uses a SAF in the box, or even zoned mid range to cover for the run. Fearing the big plays, Denver's CBs are being asked to act like safeties, and to keep the plays in front of them. This causes two problems.

  1. Denver is likely to give up short and medium range passes, because the CBs are playing over the top.
  2. Denver also gives up the big plays, because the CBs are playing without deep zone coverage from two safeties.

This approach is too cute for my tastes. I was never a pro level coach, and I'm sure Coach Slowik would wring my neck for being a know it all. But I am having a hard time understanding a defense that gives up everything to fix one problem. Afraid of the run? Focus on the front seven!

This problem can be fixed. Let the secondary focus on the pass like they should. Let the CBs play "on" or "underneath" coverage, and let the SAFs ignore the run so they can play over the top of the receivers. INTs and break ups will start happening, and the SAFs will now be in position when a CB isn't. Even if a run gets through the front seven, there will be two safeties waiting. Then you can fix the front seven, which leads to my next point.

3) Stopping the run

The fear of every defensive coordinator is the inablitly to stop a team from jamming the ball down one's throat with the run. One can over compensate for this fear to the detriment of pass defense, and this (in my opinion) is what is happening. Worse, the run defense is still not getting the job done.

Several folks have expressed little concern for the defense, stating that the first 3 teams Denver played were offensive power houses. I disagree. Oakland is a basement team, and SD and NO (while very good) where banged up before the games. Still, when a team sacrifices a safety into the box to stop the run, and can't stop that run, the run defense is in serious trouble.

To be effective in a one gap defensive line system, each DLman has to shoot a gap, forcing the OL to clear them. If wildly succesful, the DL penetrates and blows up the run in the backfield. If succesful, the RB has nowhere to go. If moderately succesful, the LBs are untouched by the OL, and make the tackle near scrimmage.

Denver isn't getting these results. I see two reasons.

  1. Again, the DTs just aren't being effective.
  2. Denver's desire for pass rushing DEs doesn't place enough emphasis on having the less sexy (but more powerful) run stopping DEs in place.

We just had a wonderful reloading season, and brought in at least two solid performers (Clady and Royal). What we didn't bring in was a dominant DT (Robertson doesn't look bad, he just doesn't look good).

The LBs actually don't look too bad to me. They are fast, they are swarming, and they are tackling well enough. The problem is that opposing RBs can get enough penetration with the OL and enough momentum that the LBs are getting hit instead of having the time to do the hitting. They aren't getting the protection that they should, and they aren't getting the extra quarter of a second to respond that the DL should buy for them. I entered this season with concerns for the LBs and the DL. But from watching game film, I feel the LBs are alright, and not getting the partnership they need from the DL.

Let me take a moment to stress a few things I've been writing about that have provoked debate at MHR, but where I feel vindicated.

  • The realoading season was terrific, but we failed to address the heart of the problem on defense - defensive tackles.
  • Folks love speedy, pass rushing DEs. Some at MHR even wanted one on each end. Guys, we have to have more power on this line, and that means we need more Ekubans to go with the Dumervils.
  • We must get both of our safeties in deep zones if we are going to stop deep passes. It allows our CBs to do more, and it protects the deep field by more than half (even though only one additional player is brought in to cover it).

4) Jay needs to work on a few of the small things

Jay is a great QB. I would put him in the top 5 right now (and in only his seconf full year). But he is not yet a Peyton Manning, a Tom Brady, or a John Elway. Some will take my remarks as critisicm, but I'm in good company with Guru's latest grades.

Jay has two or three minor faults. Correct these, and Jay goes from great to legendary.

  1. Jay telegraphs his throws by watching his primary target for far too long. Jay will get better, and this will fall to the wayside. But for now, it leads to a loss of down here and there.
  2. Jay can take chances because he is so good. I see him throwing balls off balance that still go right on target. But he needs to trust his check downs too. This means watching the whole field.
  3. Jay needs to spread the ball. The stats can be deceiving. It looks to me like Jay gets the ball to different receivers because different receivers are the primary targets for a specific play, and not because he is spreading the ball on his own. This is one observation I am not fully confident on, and I may be reading the game film wrong.

Jay is one area of the game that I wouldn't do a thing about. Telling him to scale things down will take him out of his element, and cost a little confidence. He'll find the right balance in taking chances as his career goes on. Good coaching will correct the telegraphing issue.

5) The run game

Our YPCs are decent. I disagree with the observation that "If you take away this big run and that big run our run game isn't so great". I disagree because the little runs set up the big runs, and you can't take away something that happened, good or bad.

However, there are some major flaws in the run game.

First, we just aren't running the ball enough. We spent the first three weeks entertaining the fans with a wonderful airshow. That will win a few games, but it won't get you far. I always preach that a balanced offense is a requirement to win games. We didn't close out the SD and NO games because we wouldn't run the ball and control the clock. We just flat out didn't protect comfortable leads. This means we aren't doing a good enough job wearing down defenses over the course of a game either.

We also aren't using much in the power run game dept. Rotating RBs is fine with me. I even endorse such a course. But why aren't we rotating in Pittman (our power guy)? First we don't wear down defenses by running more often, and when we do run we don't use any element of power to help ensure that the defense gets tired.

Here again, what we do pleases the fans (everyone likes big run plays here and there), but isn't sound football (consistently racking up medium yards each running play).

6) Turnover issues

This issue reared it's ugly head in KC, but in a big way. No matter how good a team is, the odds drop dramaticaly if you lose the turnover battle. Think about KC. We were still in the game up until the end, but multiple turnovers over the course of the game kept us from being in the lead. Jay is forcing the ball a lot, but he's good enough to get away with it most of the time. But the guys fumbling the ball have little excuse.

7) Coverage teams on special teams need to improve

We can't give up TDs and yards like we have been. It's a terrible sign that we have to risk Champ Bailey on our coverage teams because the coverage teams can't do it on their own.

The Positives

1) We are 3-1

This means that we have bought ourselves time to fix our problems. We have a good record, we lead our division, and have a winning record against the team most likley to challenge us in our own division. We control our destiny. With the loss to KC, we are still on track for the 10-6 (or better) season that I predicted.

2) The Offensive line is great

Jay finally gets sacked in the fourth game. WIthout Nalen, the OL still looks great. They give Cutler time, and they keep him safe. Rookie Clady looks like he's been playing in the pros for years, and Harris (playing in his full full season) at the other tackle position has been rock solid. Wiegmann has stepped in filled Nalen's shoes without missing a beat. Could the run blocking be better? Sure. But overall the line is doing a superb job, and the run game will pick up over time with the new faces.

3) We have youth and amazing talent all over the offense

Not only is the youth movement on the OL ahead of their time, but we finally have the QB in Cutler that can stop the Elway comparisons. This kid is good on his own.

Marshall is making a household name for himself, and seem to be on the straight and narrow in his personal life (doing an amazing job with kids in the community where he has purchased thanksgiving meals for each family and spends hours being a role model).

Rookie Royal has proved me wrong. I thought he would be perfect as a slot receiver and returner, but he has proven himself to be a terrific threat across from Marshall. This is the receiver that many of us wanted. A speed demon who can stretch the field and prevent Marshall form double coverage.

Graham is older, but the best blocking TE in the League, and is proving several skeptical Broncos fans wrong about his ability to catch the ball. Scheff and Jackson remain credible threats. (Stokley at slot isn't young either, but he's always reliable).

Pittman is a good RB who may not be getting enough playing time (if you buy my points earlier on). I believe Young and Hall could do better if they had enough carries to get in a rhythm.

4) Most of our problems can be fixed

We have the players that we have. I'm not a big fan of making changes mid stream, and am skeptical of making a trade at this point (though it might help). DT is the one position we most need help at.

For better or worse, here's what a former HS coach with no business telling the pros what to do, would tell the pros:

  • When using three defensive linemen, please send a fourth player in to rush the passer
  • Don't telegraph who that fourth player is
  • Give our corners a chance to do what they do best. Play both safeties deep to stop the big plays and allow the CBs a chance to gamble a little
  • Run the ball more. Wear down the defense. Control the clock. Make Cutler's job even easier than it already is. Just run the ball more!
  • If the pass rush doesn't work, blitz a little. But at the end of the season, make some changes. Blitzing should be a convienence, not a neccessity. We need a consistent pass rush from the front four. Lack of sacks is ok, but pressure must be consistent.

5) A tough part of the schedule is behind us, and we came out looking good

My thoughts before the season started were that we would win one game against Oakland, with a 50/50 shot of winning the other game. I felt we would lose a game to SD, with a 50/50 shot of winning the other game. I picked New Orleans as a team that matched us well, and could be a problem on our schedule. Well, we beat all three.

I believe I picked us to beat KC in one game, with a better than even chance of winning the other game. Oops. (GIve credit where it is due. KC played a good game, and earned the win).

Frankly, I didn't expect us to be 3-1 at this point. Down the road we face NE without Tom Brady, and a JAX team that is getting decimated by injuries. (TB, CAR, and ATL may be better than once thought though, and BUF and NYJ look better too).

6) Most of our problems on the defense are scheme, not player related

This means that most of the players on the defense will look better with some tweaks. Despite the problems I see on offense, I actually like what I see from the SAFs, the CBs, and the LBs. I think they are put out of position too much because of calls coming in from the sideline. I think this will get addressed.

7) We are a young team

The young guys are playing better than expected for young guys. Where there are issues with play, the guys will only get better. I don't like the calls coming in from Slowik and Bates on the side of the field, but both coaches are good teachers that can improve individual techinique issues. Now if only Shanahan would call a coaches meeting to discuss the playcalling a little...

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So where are we? We're not as good as our record (winning close games), and we're not as bad as our loss to KC. We as fans get excited by wins, and depressed by losses. The truth is somewhere in the middle.

In my mind, we are doing a lot as a team to please the fans. Everybody loves the pass happy game. Everybody loves to see rushers play on the ends of the defensive line. Everyone prefers speedy running backs over slow but strong power backs. But that's not a formula for winning. Teams that go deep in the playoffs have to be able to run the ball and stop the run. We are doing neither with any consistency.

We are playing better than other teams in the AFC West (except KC in the KC game). We are likely to finish with a winning season, and I think we make the playoffs (as a low seed or wildcard). But we are not a dominant team on both sides of the ball, and we need more balance if we hope to go deep this year. In short, we are good, but one dimensional.

We need better defense to go with our offense, and we need a running game to go with our passing game.

What is the Quest? If it is to make the playoffs, or to be a better team than last year, I think we're in good shape. I also think we are only one or two players away from a SB caliber, dynastic team. Zappa seems to think that this is a 13-3 year, and I think Guru might put us in the third year of a five year plan. I think we're one year removed from a great shot at a SB. We have the core in place, but need a playmaker or two on the defense (DT and perhaps a LB) to take off.

Or maybe Torain will come back and shock the NFL in few weeks. Don't leave La La Land yet. It's still early in the season, and even with close games we are still off to a good record.