Some feel I was making something out of nothing when I wrote about my concerns over the lack of an identity on defense a few weeks ago. I think it's time to revisit that concern and maybe offer a better definition of what having no identity means to an NFL defense.
In my haste to express my concerns I may have muddled the true issue at hand that I was seeing. The term identity in the context I was using simply meant a lack of accountability that a dominant figure brings on the football field. I don't mean the kind of accountability players have to the coaching staff, because that is not the same as being held accountable by a true leader on the football field. If a guy blows an assignment and gets chewed out by the coaches, well that's to be expected, but then again, the coach isn't on the field trying to do the job is he? However, what happens if a guy blows an assignment on the field and he gets his ass chewed by another player? A player like Al Wilson was. Big Al is retired though, so tough luck there. Brian Dawkins can be that guy, but he is often in coverage and is not down in the trenches enough to really hold those guys accountable the way a dominant linebacker can.
I expressed doubts in Mario Haggan's ability to be that kind of leader in that post. He is a fine starting linebacker, but let's be completely honest here - he isn't special in the Al Wilson, Ray Lewis, or even the overrated Brian Urlacher mold. Those guys are as rare as are truly great defenses. The Denver Broncos have lost their linebacker tradition and its time for them to get it back. Elvis Dumervil was going to be that guy, but he is gone, likely for the season. The question now is, which linebacker is going to emerge as "The Guy"? Our season may hinge on the answer to that single question, a question that may not be answered until November or maybe never answered.
There are several undeniable facts about this year's defense that I will go over shortly, but before I do I want to assert that nothing is yet written in stone. This defense can write its own destiny in the coming months, however, if they do not get better in these certain areas they, and we, will be in for a long disappointing season.
Undeniable Fact #1
This unit lacks discipline.
What this means is that the Broncos defense has been caught over pursing on running plays and completely blowing containment at times. In fact, I mostly place the blame on our two young yet talented outside linebackers. Both Robert Ayers and Jarvis Moss are learning the finer nuances over the outside linebacker positions and I think are currently experiencing some of those growing pains. Though they are not the only ones to blame here, as I am sure everyone on the defense has blown an assignment this preseason, it's just that OLB are typically responsible for protecting those cutback lanes.
This undeniable fact is a major problem to have a week from the start of the regular season, but I am hopeful the coaching staff and the players will work hard to maintain discipline in the run defense. Otherwise, opposing teams will quickly figure out that all they have to do is run left five or six times in a row for three to four yards a pop, then run a misdirection play to the right to exploit the broken containment. Detroit did this somewhat, but I saw the Steelers really begin exploiting that last Sunday.
Undeniable Fact #2
This unit tackles poorly.
As the great Ted Barlett used to infer: What do my eyes tell me? My eyes tell me that Wink Martindale needs to make this unit run tackling drills 90% of each days practice and if a guy misses a tackle in practice, make him run ten laps. No, check that, make him run fifty! The NFL is a game of inches and when a player misses a tackle he gives the other team yards, not inches.
It is difficult to win the mother effing game when quarterbacks not named Tim Tebow are breaking tackles in the open field. In short, this team will need to be extremely disciplined and sure tacklers, because there will not be a Big Al-like force commanding the center of this defense in 2010.
Undeniable Fact #3
Though question marks abound there is much to be excited about.
I couldn't be completely negative, so let's see what exactly there is to be excited about concerning the Broncos defense.
The exciting aspect of this unit is its pure talent. There will be some big time, game savings plays on defense this year. That has been a dynamic that hasn't been a part of this unit since early 2006, which gives me hope that the D is truly getting its mojo back. I don't want people to think I hate this defense, for that couldn't be further from the truth. I see tons of potential and I am just expressing my concerns over the continued growing pains of a unit that is slowly coming together. My criticisms are as much a challenge to the young guys on the D and the coaches as it is an honest analysis of what we have seen so far this preseason.
Looking at the schedule, I see ten or eleven wins if the Broncos defense continues to improve. If it does not improve, or regresses, then Josh McDaniels may experience his first ever losing season as a player or coach. I believe in this team and I predict that we(the fans) will finally have a real good reason to watch football in January of 2011. Go Broncos!