After an unforgettable offseason, it is natural to turn our focus inwards. And with the myriad concerns that Denver needs to address, and with the multiple questions that Denver faces, this would not be an unproductive endeavor.
But the enemy without deserves just as much, if not more, attention and discussion. They, too, have unanswered questions, and unresolved dilemmas. They too await the sound of the opening bell with trepidation and anxiety. When the opening bell rings it will be less the signal of a beginning as it is an alarm that sounds the countdown to the end. For whom does that tocsin sound?
Denver, and thirteen other teams, will see their fates begin to wind off the skein, interminably woven together into a vast storyline, whose threads and chapters add up only to a picture of who deserves to be in the next story, the real story. The first four chapters, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Oakland and Dallas, all share a common theme in 2009. Like Denver, they are all looking for a fast start to their season. And like Denver, they are counting on the Broncos to be a key part of that fast start.
The Bengals are a team poised to at least double their 2008 win mark of 4 games. And they can be expected to do it with perhaps the most balanced approach they have seen in Marvin Lewis' mostly apoplectic 7 year tenure (46-49-1). Carson Palmer, despite an injured ankle and only 19 snaps with the first team, has taken command of the offense and appears to have his classic velocity and accuracy. Lewis has committed to a running game, and Cedric Benson is a decent enough horse to hitch the wagon to, but he has been inconsistent behind the Bengals new offensive line, and getting tackled behind the line of scrimmage may become an all too familiar sight. The depth, including Brian Leonard from the Rams should be adequate if Benson can stay healthy and keep earning those tough, between the tackles type of yards that propelled him to a stout showing of 747 yds (career high) in 2008. Those yards wear out defenses and open the door for those late-game bursts, and he has 4 100-yard performances to show for it.
Their defense also looks to once again be the dominant unit on the team, which can only aid in balancing the offensive attack. Mike Zimmer's unit has shown steady progress with tackling and discipline, and appears poised to break into the top ten defenses this year. Of note has been their exceptionally sturdy run defense, bolstered by the additions of Tank Johnson, Rey Maualuga and Roy Williams. With strong contributions from corners Jonathon Joseph and Leon Hall, they could be one of the strongest units in the league. FS Crocker is one of the ingredients of a unit that will be physical and play with a mean streak.
Notes of Note
- The Bengals put 23 players on IR last year, and have already got to four for 2009.
- Chad Johnson has shelved his Diva act and looks newly committed and functional, in a way that would be befuddling if it wasn't 85. A happy Chad is a productive Chad, and in a twisted way you can tell he is happy by the incident out of Bengals camp involving his orange chin strap. It's just a $7500 fine after all...
- 35% of Cedric Benson's runs have been negative or no yardage plays, and the Bengals line gave up 7 sacks in three games.
- The Bengals may have found a way to bring back the big play to their offense, with 12 completions over 20 yards.
- WR Andre Caldwell will have teams who scout Bengals tape watching him very carefully before the snap. He is a versatile player who adds Wildcat-type of functionality, as well as a consistent threat for reverses, as evidenced by his showing against KC last year.
Denver Should be Keying On....
- Staying Healthy. Nothing spells doom like losing starters in the first game of the season. With this defense, Denver's offensive starters are in the crosshairs, and they will need to match the physicality and intensity if they want to get out of this matchup in one piece. Finesse has its place, but being strong at the point of attack will help protect the players more than anything
- Get into the backfield. There is no better time than the present for the Broncos to pressure the Bengals Oline, especially new C Kyle Cook. Whether it is tackling rushers in the backfield or pressuring the QB, this is Denver's greatest chance defensively to control the game. If the Bengals get to the point of being able to drop back and pass, Denver will be in trouble.
- Block Tank Johnson. Its not just Johnson, but stonewalling him will take a lot of air out of the Bengals rush. Getting RBs by him will take some extra effort, but it will also spell the beginning of the end for the Bengals D.
- Don't sleep on STs. In general Denver needs to be significantly improved in this area, and the preseason indicates that the attention is there, and that results can be expected. Of note is the Bengals rookie P Kevin Huber who has shown that he can put the ball in a good spot.
Denver won't get to face the Browns right out of the gate, mores the pity. Instead the Browns will go up against Minnesota, and at that point they just might name and settle on a starter at QB. If history is any indication, it will be a new face on opening day, as the Browns have started 5 different QBs in the past six years. What Denver will truly be interested in noting, however, is how well Jamal Lewis runs against the Vikings line, as the Browns are relying on the 30 year old RB to be their workhorse once again. They have some mild changeup depth and third down backs, but nothing that says they have an answer for what happens if Jamal gets hurt, or worse, continues to average only 2.3 yards per carry.
If Lewis struggles, whoever is QB can't help but struggle too. With the absence of Kellen Winslow, coverages will shift accordingly concerning Braylon Edwards, who despite his talent, hasn't done nearly enough in the offseason to make anyone feel comfortable with his 19 dropped passes in 2008. He can barely be expected to acknowledge them. If Cribbs continues to come on strong in his campaign to be a #2 WR, then that could significantly help the offense, but historically dominant return men who convert to WR either fail the conversion or decline rapidly in production at the return spot.
By moving players around on the Dline and picking up the mysteriously injured Shaun Rogers, the lineplay is expected to be significantly shored up, but there is no definitive proof in yet. If it is upgraded, and the QB pressures start to come, than the Browns solid group of starting DBs, including SS Abe Elam, should get a chance to shine. They aren't the kind of secondary to make their name getting their hands on the ball, but they can rattle the receivers and create confusion in the backfield. If they have a weakness it is that they can be picked apart by patient, smart QBs.
Notes of Note
- RB Jamal Lewis has carried the ball 2,399 times in the past 10 years.
- After only 17 sacks last year the Browns, like the Broncos, are converting to an attacking defense under the eye of Rob Ryan.
- 4 offensive lineman were signed by the Browns since the beginning of august. Depth could be a problem.
- The Browns 26th ranked defense underwent average changes, most notably a scheme change which required a NT. The same medicine was often prescribed for Denver prior to the complete gutting of staff and personnel, leaving only 3 starters intact from last year.
Denver Should be Keying On...
- Obviously the starting QB makes a difference, but in this case the difference is profound, as Anderson and Quinn are cut from very different cloths, with Quinn being an accurate mid and short range guy, while Anderson can complete the long ball, something that may be in demand if the rushing offense struggles to maintain long drives.
- Kamerion Wimbley. Wimbley has flipped sides in the LB corp to see if it can bolster his ability to pressure the backfield, and the early indications from preseason are that he can indeed return to his 11-sack rookie season form.
- Watch for penalties. Despite Mangini's strident approach to a team that committed over 100 penalties in 2008, the Browns can still be expected to make their fair share of mistakes, especially on offense, and especially before the snap, Cleveland's weakest area. Denver should get a number of first and second and long opportunities on defense, and how they respond could set the tone for the whole day
- Rookie RB James Davis. The 195th overall selection is the one true backup to Jamal Lewis, and could be a significant contributor by years end. In the short term, he is worth keeping an eye on, as his quickness could make him an early favorite to supplant Lewis for most carries in each game. However at 215 the productive tailback will likely wear down under too many carries, so an injury to Lewis is still the Browns worst case scenario for their running game.
The elephant in the room when talking about the raiders is what can only be termed a "culture of losing." And as long as the franchise is defined by the bony, knee jerk reactions of Al Davis, that culture will have a very hard time changing.
Known as a "player's owner" Davis' solution for the 31st ranked rushing defense in the league for 2 years running was to completely gut the defensive coaching staff, including Rob Ryan, leaving the players virtually untouched. The early indications in preseason are that outside of making Nmandi Asomugha the highest paid corner in the game, little that oakland has done on defense will pan out. Drubbings at the hands of San Francisco and New Orleans, left the team back in the rut it was in before the Tampa Bay game at the end of 2008: seemingly unable and perhaps even unwilling to be competitive. Despite saving his job with a win against the playoff hungry Buccanneers, Tom Cable will be the fall guy if the "culture of losing" continues into its 7th season, a run of 11+ losses per year, which is a record of futility unmatched in the history of the NFL.
But all that early drafting has harvested a bumper crop of talent for the raiders, especially offensively, so they are still a threat to any team who sleeps on them. Or at least anyone who sleeps more than 7hours on them... Oh heck, you'd have to have died in the film room not to be competitive against this team, but if that happens, those teams should be careful... Of note is the three headed monster of McFadden, Bush, and Fargas at RB. McFadden has gamebreaking ability, and unless he gets injured again, chances are he will get all the touches he needs to prove it. Additionally, and this may be tough to hear, but Jamarcus Russell continues to improve as a young player, and he has tools that will be a threat in the near future, if he is used correctly, and put in good situations.
Notes of Note
- raiders have allowed over 500 yards rushing in two preseason games against SanFrancisco and New Orleans.
- Chaz Schilens, oakland's 2nd leading WR will be out for the early part of the season with a broken bone in his foot. He may be able to return by the Denver game, but the timetable isn't solid yet. He is a legitimate threat.
- 10 different RBs went over a hundred yards on the existing raider defensive personnel.
- After an unbecoming bout of partying after the New Orleans loss, Cable felt compelled to remind his players that they were "grown men" and would need to act accordingly to handle the distractions of not being in a supervised training camp environment. Culture of losing-1, Cable-0. Cable, of course, also is facing criminal charges for breaking an assistant coaches face. Cable-1, Culture of Winning someday-0.
- The raiders simply do not stack and shed with any consistency on the Dline, but that could change with the addition of Richard Seymour in a trade from the Patriots. Seymour could stack and shed quite well in the NE 2-gap scheme, and in oakland he will be asked to man a single gap as a DE on runstopping downs, and then move inside in nickle formations, where he would take on a single gap off center. I say could change because early reports are that Seymour isn't very happy with the trade...
Denver Should be Keying On...
- Running through the middle of the raider defense. This is the raiders' weakest area on a dysfunctional team, and they can be positively gashed here. Success in this area also prompts the "lay down and die" attitude that is part of the culture that Cable is battling, so queuing it up is always a good idea. The 122 rushing TDs that oakland has allowed in the past 6 years is the worst in the NFL. Runs up the gut to score.
- By the time Oakland comes around to play the Broncos, Asomugha should be either completely recovered from his wrist injury, or the Broncos will have a good idea of how much he is struggling with it. On the opposite side, Chris Johnson is an anomaly, a 29 year old CB who has to prove himself all over again despite his play last year. It is just too unusual, not just for a player at the CB position to bloom so late, but for it to happen in oakland.
- 2TE sets. Whether Russell has developed enough to efficiently run multiple looks out of a 2TE set remains to be seen, but the best receiver on the team and the best rookie receiver on the team, both happen to be TEs. Zach Miller and Brandon Meyers can put significant stress on defensive seams, and Denver has 3 weeks to really tighten down the seams and flats before they go to oakland and face a real challenge at the position. Denver's OLBs and nickle coverage guys need to get it together within the first three games.
- Darius Heyward-Bey. The claim out of oaktown is that DHB is an instant double-team. If that is true, the oakland offense will be that much more effective. The problem for Denver, is that there may not be enough info by that third game to say whether DHB is panning out or not. He and Louis Murphy will be brought along slowly with the running game and TEs taking on the brunt of offensive work, so game three might be the earliest that Davis chooses to start pushing his speedy deep threat. Denver may very likely be the test, so a DHB surprise package may be in the works for them. They need to be disciplined and ready, to shut down the threat before it gets started.
The Cowboys find themselves in a situation eerily similar to Mike Shanahan's Final Days in Denver. They are buying into a "One Player Away" mythology, spurning depth throughout their units, seemingly failing to coach their players up well and suffering from an unhealthy organizational structure. The last is the root problem, and the most pressing.
I wouldn't begin to pin this solely on Jerry Jones, but he has done little to step back and assuage the tides of mediocrity that have overcome the Cowboys since 1996. Since that time the Cowboys have never won a postseason game and have had a losing record in December, when the games that get you into the playoffs are played. The coaching and staffing of the team has consisted of yesmen, all of whom have been unable to correct Dallas' course, and all of whom have taken the fall for Jones. The talent has vascillated between legitimate probowlers, character concerns and lipstick on a pig, and nowhere is that more apparent than the play of Tony Romo. His stats are the stuff of fantasy football dreams, his off field persona is mottled with unnecessary celebrity, and his personal record in December and January consists of twice as many losses as wins, amid slumping and downright horrible play.
Their running game and receiving corp are strong, however, especially with the addition of Roy Williams and subtraction of Terrell Owens. Add in Witten and Felix Jones and Marion Barber and the offense should be reliable, and emminently capable. Just as it has been for some time, which, to date, hasn't led to wins. Ditto for a defense with a perrennial defensive MVP in the near unblockable Demarcus Ware, yet the wins don't follow him around.
The Cowboys biggest issue personnelwise is the utter lack of depth. It spans units and in a twist of irony that only Mike Shanahan could appreciate, the Cowboys already handicapped 2008 draft (no selections in the first 68 picks) has been fairly decimated by injuries, and will be reduced to near insignificance in 2009, and perhaps beyond. What few rookies managed to remain healthy are either seriously underperforming (Mike Mickens, CB out of Cincinnati), or not critical to the success of the team (K David Buehler out of USC, a kickoff specialist only for now).
Broncos' fans should shudder at the picture being painted here, especially given the fact that Jerry Jones can't fire himself. Mike Shanahan's ego, for better AND worse, overcame the organization. Fortunately, there was a check and balance in place, and Bowlen mercifully executed it. Cowboys' fans have no such hope, and are left with only faith and luck, neither of which has had any effect on the team in over 13 years.
Notes of Note
- Cowboys lack depth at every position along the offensive line, and were forced to PUP tackle Robert Brewster, despite a severely torn pectoral muscle that was ruled season ending, initially. The report on the injury is still the same, but without anyone capable of stepping in, they had little choice but to roll the dice in case he made a miraculous recovery by week six. Rolling the dice on medical miracles? Broncos' fans are all to familiar with that particular form of delusion.
- The Cowboy's first pick in the 2008 draft didn't come until pick #69 in round 3. Of the 12 total picks, 5 spent all or some of the preseason injured, 4 others are considered for STs play only, only 1 is a legitimate backup, and the rest were cut. Of the STers one is a kickoff specialist only.
- The Cowboy's depth problems include quarterback, where John Kitna backs up Romo, all positions along the offensive line, at the four linebacker positions, and at safety and cornerback, where despite Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick sharing time, they still have converted a SS to CB just to cover the depth issues. Just like the Denver defense of the past three years, there is no one to fill in when someone goes down, and that is a situation that will snowball out of control, despite the best halfhearted efforts of the frontoffice to build through the draft.
Denver Should be Keying On
- Special Teams Play. Dominating the Cowboys in any gameplan starts with pressuring their overmatched special teams. As Denver fans know, the failure to build a team correctly hits special teams play hardest and first. If Denver can dominate this aspect of the game, the Cowboys will always be in a compromised position.
- Penalties. Again, if Denver can do the little things right, they put themselves in a position to compete with Dallas even if Denver isn't producing terribly well on offense and defense. Some teams will make you suffer if you can't establish your strength's early. Not the Cowboys. Just like Denver's dwindling redzone production and defense over the past few years, the Cowboys will consistently lose the penalty battle if you just let them.
- Turnovers. Dallas' secondary has also struggled to generate turnovers, being the third team since 1969 to generate over 45 sacks but only single digit interceptions. Denver has 3 weeks to turn this attacking defense that Nolan is building into a turnover producing machine. Likewise, Dallas will also be searching for the magic formula. The first team to find it by week four will be the team in the driver's seat for this matchup.