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Broncos Thoughts & Musings, Part 3: Ravens Week

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I found myself looking around the 'Net at stats and articles, as I often do. The outcome was an increased emphasis on examining our defense (since the offense was already a big part of Part II) and a longer look at the Baltimore Ravens. Their situation brought out a chance to talk about the history of the passing game in the NFL as well as the inevitable upcoming game prediction, so settle in and let's take a walk through the last of the October BT&M.

Name that Gloom

It's been a lot of fun watching folks locally and nationally scrambling to name the Broncos defense this season. From my perspective, the search for a name for the Denver D isn't a big concern. Do you want a description? While it's not poetic, the best way to describe them may be 'sulfuric acid' - when you pour them onto an offense, that opponent's abilities quickly dissolve and it begins to stink. They are a gloomsday defense, one that shreds the confidence of the cockiest (yep, looking at you, Crimea Rivers), destroys their morale, and along with Orton's skills in the 4th quarter, ensures an outcome that is only happy to those in predominantly orange. Two third-down conversions in the 2nd halves of games, and both of those within the first two games makes it nearly impossible for an opposing team to win a close game. If you can't score, you can't win. Just ask the Pats, Cowboys or Chargers.

And Baltimore, as talented as they are, has to play the Broncos who are coming off a bye and who have had 2 weeks to prepare. I like the Ravens, but not in this matchup. I expect another great, rugged, physical game. When the Broncos are in the playoffs after this season, no one will be able to suggest that they got there any way but the toughest. There's no better way to prepare for the playoffs than going up against the best during the regular season.

The Essence of Defense

I was re-watching for the 15th time the play that ended in Darrell Reid's sack during the late stages of the SD game. Some things happened during it that defined for me a big reason that the Broncos are winning so effectively. Chargers were on a third-and-long situation, an obvious passing down. The defense lined up in its base 5-2 - apparently. But once the ball was snapped, all heck broke loose.

Vonnie Hollidaywho's been a stellar pickup, was manning the RDE. At the snap, he drove into the left guard's (Pro Bowler Kris Dielman) right shoulder and bulldozed him back and then into the left tackle, Marcus McNeill, whose attention had been fixed on Robert Ayers (lined up outside on the weakside). Ayers left off and tried a stunt up the middle, but he didn't get there. While Holliday was taking out two linemen and Ayers was trying to stunt, Davis came up the middle through the exposed gap and forced Philip Rivers to the back where Darrell Reid was pushing through from the strongside - sack! Reid received a sack on the play, but Holliday, Ayers and Davis, combined, didn't scratch the scorecard. Their effort just made the play work. Not only did he tie up two defenders, Holliday opened a hole that would have created a run-to-daylight TD had it been on the offensive side. The linebackers made the play on Rivers, who is one of the best in the league at handling the blitz and who still didn't have a chance. That explained the lack of the Chargers' scoring after halftime. Another gold star to Mike Nolan, another win for Denver. And Vonnie?

"We'd love all of our players to have the same leadership qualities Vonnie Holliday does, but we knew Vonnie Holliday could still be an active, productive football player in our scheme," Josh McDaniels said.

Two more quick thoughts on this: First, check out this article on the development of Robert Ayers. The reason that I'm adding it now is that Ayers has consistently done much the same that Holliday did -- driving to the QB, tying up 1-2 defenders, plugging his gaps and letting Doom rack up the sacks. We are stat-obsessed at times and much of the distaste I've heard regarding Ayers is a classic example of that. He's doing a great job for a young OLB/DE. We're lucky to have him - but it wasn't luck at all. McDaniels/Xanders knew exactly what they wanted when they chose him.

Next, we need to keep something in mind -- the 49ers didn't do at all well with Mike Nolan's defenses. Why? They complained frequently that his shifts, adjustments and schemes were 'too confusing, too complex'. The Broncos went out and got intelligent players for whom this isn't a problem. Consider the article from the Denver Post by Dave Krieger -- in his defense, the latest columnist to chomp on blackbird and enjoy the taste -- which talks about how effectively the Broncos change things at halftime (throughout the game, really) and how their players execute the changes without a walkthrough. It's a good example of this same principle.

When I broke down the film from the Chargers game, I quickly found that they had tremendous difficulties figuring out how to block the Broncos defensive rush. That wasn't exactly a shock, but a lot of it was that they could not, as Josh McDaniels pointed out last Thursday, use the running back, for example, to block a certain player because they never really knew if that player was coming or not. LaDainian Tomlinson, in fact, often chose the wrong lane to try and stop a rusher, only to find out that someone else had blown by him and gotten to Rivers. Eventually, Rivers didn't make many throws without a Bronco in his face or on his back. Small wonder that he couldn't score late.

By the way, it was nice to see Le Kevin Smith in on a few of those tackles. He's another perfect pickup who brings the skill, experience and talent that the Broncos needed to win right away. What depth this team has!

Safety in Numbers

Josh Barrett's ability to shut down the TE was evidenced again against Antonio Gates, who is still one of the best TEs in the game. Darcel McBath's overall skill has worked in the secondary and on special teams, while David Bruton's appearance on ST blocks and tackles helped spring Eddie Royal on both returns for TDs. These are all reasons to love the Broncos' young safety squad. We have three talented, hard-working young men who are learning from some of the best players in the league,as well as some of the best coaches. All three have been among the best stories on special team. Darcel McBath appears able to do anything we ask of him and Barrett now has shown that he can handle Gates as well as Tony Gonzales. When Wesley Woodyard struggles on the TE, expect to see Barrett out on the field more often. Barrett is being developed slowly, as befits a player who came into the league so raw, and he has the physical gifts to excel as he matures. Bruton may be the slowest of the three to develop, in the end, but that doesn't mean that he's in any way a disappointment. I've already heard folks wondering what we'll do when Dawkins retires (at about age 52). We've got three solid young options to develop against that day. I know that folks are talking about Eric Berry or Taylor Mays, but we've got exactly what we need - young, smart, skillful, hardworking players that can do their jobs.

That's something that we've been conditioned, as fans, to overlook. We are drawn to glitz, to fame and personality. There's nothing wrong with that per se, but that's not how the Patriots became a perennial power and it isn't how the Broncos will stay one. Getting marquee players is fine, so don't misunderstand me. I love Mays and Berry.and they'll be solid-to-great players in the NFL. But by establishing the three young players that we have, just as we are doing with Jack Williams and Alphonso Smith at CB and Ryan McBean, Robert Ayers and several others, we're creating a team that won't have huge cap issues, that fields a squad of tough, smart players who are focused on winning and execution, and who may have less stars, but will have more winners. In the end - that's what it's all about.

Taking Your Best Shot

I had to laugh at the blurb TedB did on shots this week, with the resultant recipes and member preferences. Great stuff, folks. At this point, my choice of shots tends to be morphine or Dilaudid. Wusses... ;-)

Final Thought - The Ravens

I don't really believe that anything the Broncos did in seasons past bears much on this year. For that reason, although the Broncos have a history of winning coming off the bye week, I don't see that as relevant. On the other hand, most teams play well with an extra week of rest and the Broncos will follow suit. They will have an extra week to gameplan, too, and that's never going to be a bad thing with our coaching staff. I don't discount the Ravens staff, either.

So, let's look at Baltimore. I see a very good team on both sides of the ball and one that may have its back to the wall. They're at home, and they're coming off a bye (but so are we). They are showing some weaknesses in their defensive secondary, and that's to the advantage of Denver. Orton's arm has proven more than strong enough to pick apart a team that leaves holes, especially if the rush doesn't reach Orton. Our offensive line will have its work cut out for it in the running game, but as the last two games showed, the Ravens can be beaten on the ground. This is a great opportunity for Knowshon Moreno to shine, and Correll Buckhalter is going to get a lot of chances as well. It's close, but I believe that our offense can overcome the Ravens defense in a close, hard-fought game.

But while this is a change in Baltimore, stopping their offense will be very tough, even for a defense as gifted as the Broncos. One big reason is the running game - Ray Rice is a heck of a back and their line is blocking well for him. The other is the way that the Ravens have delved into history to establish a passing offense that takes advantage of the skills of Joe Flacco, who was underestimated by many coming out of college. The abilities of Baltimore offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, who is at the top of his game, are nothing to take lightly.  As far as Cameron goes, here's some thoughts:

Everyone knows how much I enjoy the history, skills and writings of Bill Walsh. While he has a special place in my heart, I like to go out of my way to credit Sid Gillman and Paul Brown for much of what Walsh developed into his own approach. On the other side of the passing game, the vertical passing game side that also traces to Sid Gillman, you have the 'Air Coryell' style approach - the vertical game. Many coaches have used and improved upon it, but Coryell was in many ways the key to its development. There is even a legitimate argument that these are the two most important forks in the passing game road, although by no means the only important ones. Both came down from the works of Sid Gillman. Most NFL teams will tend to use more of one or the other of these two iconic approaches.

The Ravens tend to bend more to the Coryell approach. Coryell took the old 'passing tree' concept and improved on it in his own ways. Every offensive coordinator, even those that fans (including, I'm ashamed to admit, myself) tend to see as 'conservative', such as Ron Turner, takes those routes and concepts and turns them into a bewildering confabulation of lines, twists, routes, concepts and options. The Walsh-based systems tend to emphasize timing routes and the shorter game (although not ignoring the mid- and deep-passing game, as some have claimed) and prefers to name the routes, while the Coryell-ancestry systems will blend a passing game that is delineated with numbers and is more heavily based off of the '9' (go) route. But every modern system is complex, weaving incredible variations of routes that look more like a pile of malaria germs than trees.

Within all modern systems, you also have a great emphasis on having the receiver see, dissect and recognize the various coverages and to adjust his routes accordingly to find the weaknesses in the coverage. The quarterback has to instantly see, understand and adapt to those changes, which is one reason that a smart QB can be more dangerous than a stronger one. The routes are not necessarily etched in stone. Sometimes they are fluid and adaptive, making the connection between receivers and quarterback essential to success. That's something that many seem to have ignored when Orton didn't fly out of the gate like Brady in 2007. It will always take a while for the receivers and quarterbacks to learn each other's patterns, tendencies and skillsets. The skill of the receivers at coming out of their breaks instantly and smoothly is often the difference between a completion and a failure.

Here's a Broncos example: Late during the Chargers game, with the Broncos driving, Brandon Stokley made an adjustment to the Chargers coverage that Orton had never seen (and which Stokley claims that he'd never used before) on the fly. Orton saw, understood and used it, throwing the pass where only Stokes could get it and the result was adding 6 to the Broncos' total. The ability of the seasoned receiver to use the basics of the system, analyze the defense and to adapt the route to the personnel and coverage to produce a completion is an essential aspect of modern success with the offensive game.

In the same way, Brandon Marshall communicated a weakness in the Dallas defense to Orton and told him to look for a certain variation on the hitch route if Terrence Newman acted a certain way, indicating a certain coverage. That pass was good for 6 points and the victory over the Cowboys. The reason that some fans argued that it wasn't 'really' a hitch route is that it was, but Orton and Marshall had also agreed on the way that they would vary it to defeat the coverage.

This may seem a bit long-winded, but here's the point: The Ravens have gotten very, very good at this. They like the vertically-based system, whose weakness is that it takes just a moment or two longer to set up. Flacco has the intellect and the arm - the intellect scares me more. His receivers have been doing a solid job of breaking down the defenses, and the offensive coordinator has been very good this year, despite the recent three loses. Flacco has learned a lot about his receivers and they are getting very good at creating options for him to employ. If you add the power running approach that they are playing and playing well, this is a team with a lot of strengths and not that many weaknesses.

But as we've seen, they can be beaten. I think that this may be the toughest game so far, and because of that, it's the one I'm looking forward to the most. We have a very challenging schedule, but this game, like all of them, is still winnable. We have to get to Flacco, our secondary has to continue to be titanium and our offense has to put points on the board. Nothing deep there - just hard-nosed football. But the Ravens pass rush hasn't been stout and the Broncos O-line has.

I saw cornerback Frank Walker get utterly hosed by the Vikings on more than one play and he had been brought in to replace Fabian Washington, who was even worse. Our receivers need to play well, but what's new? The Ravens have also given up two 100-yard rusher games in the past two tries. They gave up 77 total points in losses to New England, Cincinnati and Minnesota and we've beaten two of those teams. I wouldn't read too much into that, though - the losses were by a combined 11 points. The Ravens are in it each week.

They miss Bart Scott and Jim Leonhard, although Ed Reed is as dangerous as ever. Tavares Gooden isn't the same caliber as Scott, not that that's an insult to him. Our visiting friend Bruce Raffel from the Ravens SB Nation site says that Gooden will probably be tasked with covering Tony Scheffler, and if so, there's a huge mismatch there. Cornerback is a  tough issue for Baltimore: In addition to the problems with Washington and Walker, Chris Carr looks sloppy at times and I expect to see more of Lardarius Webb. The Ravens have given up 25 plays of 20 yards or more, though, and that's not how you win championships. At this point, a championship is what the Broncos are obviously playing for, although I don't see them getting ahead of themselves. Big plays may decide this game.

I believe that McDaniels will pull out more of his seemingly infinite bag of tricks and give the Ravens the toughest challenge that they have faced this year. Due to the factors on the Ravens side -- home field, bye and having their backs to the wall -- I'm calling it a one point victory, and I think that it will come down to the 4th quarter. The Broncos are, right now, the meanest 4th quarter team in the NFL, and that should be the difference in the game. Broncos 24-23 in a nail-biter.

I'll see you in a couple of weeks, my friends. Go Broncos!