Denver fans have endured an amazing reloading season that saw profound changes. Two-time Super Bowl-winning coach Mike Shanahan? Gone. Pro Bowl quarterback Jay Cutler? Gone. Offensive and Defensive coordinators? Gone. Even the 4-3 defense, gone.
Some may have thought this discomforting. But if mediocre seasons for the past few years made fans complacent, it didn't affect owner Pat Bowlen. Perhaps Mr. Bowlen was tired of the lack of a pass rush, or the poor tackling, or the over-pursuit, or the lack of a discernible system on the defense. Perhaps he was tired of the offense that could rack up yards without touchdowns, or the interception-prone QB, or the absence of run plays, or the multiple injuries on offense. Special teams; don't even get me started.
So after much change, fire, and smoke in the reloading season, Denver has a new-look team from top to bottom. Will it be enough? Let's take a look at the first regular season matchup between Denver and Cincinnati, and see what might be expected from the new Denver Broncos.
CIN Offense vs DEN Defense
Cincy can do two things very well. First, they run a zone-block run scheme (with and without one-cut running) between the tackles. Second, they have three capable receivers and they like to threaten the deep pass. Carson Palmer is one of the better QBs in the NFL, and he has three terrific targets in Chad Ochocinco, Laveranues Coles and Chris Henry. Cedric Benson is the primary threat on the ground up the middle (along with Brian Leonard), and Bernard Scott can be a threat to the outside.
The potential weaknesses for the team includes new faces all over the offensive line and the loss (due to injury) of the two starting TEs.
Denver's defense is intriguing. They sport a legendary lineup at the defensive backs positions. Champ Bailey (at CB) and Brian Dawkins (at FS) are considered by many to be the best players to have have ever played at their positions. Andre' Goodman has been terrific in the preseason at the #2 CB position, and Denver has a steal at nickel corner in rookie Alphonso Smith.
Question marks are on the DL and at LB. Denver's base defense is (arguably) a 5-2 defense. With both of the "OLBs" lining up at scrimmage, and with most of the players listed at OLB being true "DEs", the Broncos sport a 3-4 in name only. Denver's strength now becomes the pass rush (demonstrated well in the preseason), as well as run stopping up the middle. The addition of a lineman (creating a DE, DG, NT, DG, DE look) makes up for the lack of elite skill at a few DL positions, and empowers the outside rush considerably (watch for Elvis Dumervil to have a great year). D.J. Williams will continue to star at LB, but the loss of a LB in the formation will test the defense's ability to stop medium and short passes to the seams and flats.
So how do these two programs match up?
Denver is fortunate in several areas. First, Denver's high-powered pass rush faces a questionable OL. Palmer is an excellent QB, but is also injury prone. To keep him safe, Expect CIncy to drop Palmer back further in passing situations, and to keep the RBs in for protection. If the rush is effective, it could negate the deep passes, which take some time to develop. Cincy may find success in making quicker, short passes. Screens and quick hooks could take advantage of the 5-2 look, while avoiding the threat of excellent CB coverage. However, the lack of strong TE roles will rob Cincy of some of these options.
Second, while Cincy's strength is the passing game (particularly the vertical, deep passes), Denver's elite secondary is worth giving pause to any team that wants to air out the ball.
Cincy's best shot may be to challenge the Denver run defense. If Cincy can pound the ball up the center, or take advantage of the edges (where Denver has a formation weakness without wide OLBs), then they take Denver's elite secondary out of the game. While Denver has a formation that should stop runs up the middle, it is a high-risk proposition. Any run that gets to the second level has already cleared most of the Denver front seven, and has breakaway potential (since Denver packs the line with a 5-2 look). The addition of Brian Dawkins at FS becomes a critical offseason move for Denver in this respect.
If Cincy does try the short passing plan, expect Denver to counter with a zone-blitz approach. This would be a classic use of the Amoeba philosophy of the Patriots (brought to town by new HC Josh McDaniels). The defense would make a radical shift from a 5-2 look that plays as a 3-4, with the 5-2 ends playing as LBs. Otherwise, if Cincy bets Palmer and his three excellent WRs deep against the Denver secondary, expect Denver to keep the 5-2 and focus on the pass rush.
DEN Offense vs CIN Defense
Denver has a lot of strengths on their offense, but one glaring question mark.
Denver's OL is the best in the business. They provide secret service-like protection to the QB, but can zone block defenses into submission on run plays. The receiver depth chart is, well, deep. Brandon Marshall, Eddie Royal, and Brandon Stokley have been cornerstones, but new receivers Jabar Gaffney, Brandon Lloyd, and Kenny McKinley have looked solid in the preseason. The only question at receiver is whether Marshall has learned enough of the playbook (having been suspended for goofing off in camp).
At TE, Denver sports ace blocker Daniel Graham (who has proven he can catch) and ace receiver Tony Scheffler. At RB, Denver has first-round pick Knowshon Moreno, but the likely starter will probably be the versatile Correll Buckhalter and the powerful Peyton Hillis.
The glaring question mark? Kyle Orton is the first QB to come to Denver who isn't being compared to John Elway. But he faces comparisons to Jay Cutler, and has an injured finger on his passing hand (he'll be wearing a glove for the injury during the game). Orton is surrounded with the best weapons and protection that can be afforded, but he is learning a new system, and has an injury.
Cincy's defense is intriguing. Their run defense is solid, so the matchup in the run game against Denver's zone block should be a good one. Cincy's weakness has been the pass rush, but they have focused on improving the rush and complementing it with blitz packages this offseason, as well as upgrading personnel. This will be a question mark for Cincy, and the best test they may have all season could be against the elite Denver OL.
The most glaring weaknesses for this game may be the coverage abilities of the Cincy safeties, and an injury to the Cincy nickelback. This gives Orton a special opportunity to prove himself in the passing game.
Keys to the Game
- Must convert on 3rd downs. Denver is not a quick-strike team. They rely on the running game and a lot of screen passes to move down the field for sustained drives. They can't afford to give up many opportunities to convert.
- Limit penalties. In the first three preseason games, Denver found themselves in long down-and-distance situations because of costly penalties. This may be attributed to learning new schemes in the preseason, and the problem seemed to disappear in the last preseason game. With the need for sustatined drives, Denver cannot afford penalties in this game.
- Assert the pass rush. To stop a good QB like Palmer, Denver needs to use the pass rush to help the secondary. The pass rush can lead to turnovers, can threaten a fragile Palmer (who missed much of last season and this preseason), and take away the time needed to develop the hallmark of Cincy's pass game - the deep ball.
- Stop the run / force the pass. Cincy's strength on defense is stopping the run, and Denver's question mark may be the pass game. Playing to their own strength is critical. Orton may or may not perform well in his first regular season game with Denver, but if Denver can establish the run, Denver not only gets more 1st downs but they also get to set up passing chances for Orton.
- Protect Palmer. Cincy won't get far in the season, or in any individual game without Carson Palmer. He's already facing a tough secondary in this game; the last thing he needs is pressure from opposing rushers.
- Test the edges. In the run game, Denver has little support on the edge of the field if a Cincy runner can "round the corner". The bulk of the defensive second level is two LBs in the center of the field. On pass plays, there are openings for passes in the area between the outer CBs and the two Denver LBs if someone can create separation. With the starting TEs out, Cincy might want to try passes to the RB or FB in this area.
The Broncos head into this game as 4-point underdogs. I think Denver's chances are good, but much will rest on Kyle Orton. If he has a good game (or can just hold his own), Denver should do well. If Orton plays poorly, I don't believe the defense or even the running game can salvage the win.
The importance of this game is morale. If Denver starts with an 0-1 record, much of the fan base and the media will crucify the team. A win would go a long ways towards building confidence, both for the players and the fans. I don't expect a great record this year, but I do expect improved play. Denver needs to win the "easier" games on a rough schedule, and while this game is far from a "gimme", this is a game the team has a good shot at.
There is another possibility. A convincing win wouldn't persuade the media, but it would elevate fan support and player confidence to a high level. Despite the abysmal season in '08, Denver fans were high on a team that crushed the Raiders in the opening game, and didn't crash to Earth until the team had been showing signs of catastrophic decay for several games.
In other words, an opening win or opening loss will probably weigh heavily on the hearts of fans for a few weeks, so Denver needs to come out strong.