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Broncos @ Cowboys: Preseason Notebook

Last year I started a new series here on MHR where I shared my extensive note-taking during games, and I am planning on continuing that this year.  These are simply off the cuff observations of things that oftentimes go unnoticed, or I describe certain plays or situations to help us understand them better.

Typically I organize these notes as a sort of abbreviated play-by-play, but I'm always interested in better ways to present the info, so the format will change, sometimes significantly.

Like a lot of you, it feels like the wait for this game has been a long time in the making, despite the fact that its hasn't been any longer than any other time.  With that said, I have to say how great it was to really see these guys for the first time, and to see them competing hard.  8 pages of notes later, I feel like I am finally getting a grasp on how this whole shivaree is going to shake out.

Without further ado, lets start breaking things down.

Starting Offense

  • 1st thing that stands out to me is the first play of the game, with Cassius Vaughn back to return kicks.  With Royal out for the game, this indicates just how far Vaughn has come since last year, as the starting return man behind Royal.  Of course, excepting 1 or 2 plays over the course of the game, kickoffs are non-impact plays at this point, and that will likely project into the season...
  • Knowshon Moreno:  Number one offensive need was a running game, and it sure looks like that could be addressed this year.  Knowshon could have a huge impact in that area, and tonight he showed several reasons why.  After breaking a tackle on his first run he would go on to make a defender miss for a first down, and then continues on another play to evade a tackler with a spin move against the Cowboys' Shawn Lee, followed by dragging two more defenders with him for the 1st.  And he wasn't done, breaking an arm tackle on the following play.  Add in production as a checkdown option and pass blocking on the drive and KM is showing he can carry his share of the load.  If you have been watching him as long as I have, you know that the start of his Denver career has been the anomaly, where he didn't look as quick or elusive as you know he can be.  It is clearer than ever to me that when healthy, he can be the back Denver drafted him to be, an all around, slippery and difficult to bring down runner, with great effort.
  • Starting OL:  Overall they were much improved, with the only real boner they pulled being Franklin missing the backside cut of Marcus Spears in a running formation.  That ended with the only tackle for loss on the first drive.  It isn't the most difficult of a block, and it really looked like it was just a miscommunication between Franklin and Kuper.
  • Daniel Fells:  Fells got the start at TE and was primarily a blocker.  Nothing major to report here except that he was not often a priority target on these reps, unlike Julius Thomas, who we will talk about a little later.  The one play drawn up for him was the 3rd and long play down in the redzone, where Denver was looking to get him matched up against a LB.  Denver got that matchup, but Fells wasn't even close to being open.  Orton extended that play against a 3 man rush and finally took a shot at Lloyd crossing the back of the endzone for an incomplete.  When Fells gets that matchup, he needs to get separation.
  • Eric Decker:  Decker got one chance to really shine, in a trips formation.  Against a  heavy blitz he settled into a soft spot in the zone and presented his numbers to Orton as a good option.  Those are the small things that get you targets.  Orton finds him with a nice throw for the first down.
  • Willis McGahee:  After carrying 2 cowboys on his back with some tough running, McGahee stumbles out of the gates on the next play, but key blocks by Clady and Lloyd allow him the time he needs to get his feet back under him and rumble for the first down.  A great example of the way that the team as a whole can overcome small errors, if everyone just sticks with it.  I'm reminded of how often I saw unfinished plays left on the field last year.
  • Goal to go:  Denver opened their red zone package with a passing set, with Orton placing a ball in the corner of the endzone on a fade route.  Tight coverage closed the window on the play, but I still like this kind of call.  Don't wait until you are desperate for a play to try to get your best offensive playmaker involved.  I think we can all agree that Lloyd has earned first dibs if he wants them.  What is interesting is that Denver followed up this play with a huge substitution package, literally, bringing in 2 TEs a RB and a FB.  This led to a miscommunication where Lloyd didn't leave the huddle, and Denver was charged with an illegal substitution.  Because this created 3rd and very long, out goes the heavy package and in comes the 5WR set, with Fells lining up at WR.  See above for the breakdown on that play.  The final play in this goalline series is a designed rollout against max coverage.  The movement of the play is designed to buy time until someone, in this case #17 Britt Davis, is able to creep along the back and get open.  Davis doesn't get open here, and Orton throws it away.

Starting Defense

  • Joe Mays:  A little good and a little bad with Mays.  First he opens the defense with a great stack and shed, primarily hand technique, and makes a solid pop on the runner in the hole.  It has been a long time since I have seen good tackle shedding and that was as good as it gets.  Unfortunately, a few plays later he has a clean shot at Felix Jones in the hole, and misses the tackle, allowing Jones to get a 1st down against the secondary.  I think this will be Mays' game for a while, big ups followed by big downs.  Hopefully we'll eventually get the consistency there that we need.  Likewise Mays gets beat on a screen pass later, and then follows that up with solid coverage in a max coverage play.  He got singled out on that one after Romo had time in the pocket (one of Romo's greatest strengths as a passer is finding the weak links on a defense to target), but played it close enough to prevent the completion.
  • Wesley Woodyard:  Woodyard struggled a bit, getting beat on the same screen pass that Mays had trouble with, but he showed his typical ability to be around the ball when he helped Marcus Thomas finish off a solid stop in the running game.  Overall Woodyard allowed two completions on the weakside.
  • Marcus Thomas:  Thomas actually rotated all through the first half, so he is more what you might call a priority starter, as opposed to a true starter.  I think most packages that Fox wants to run will involve Thomas knifing up the field, and then getting rest as needed, possibly deferring later running downs in each half to fresher defenders.  We'll see how that goes throughout the season, but for now, He was solid in the middle and made contact in the backfield on a couple of occasions.  He didn't finish any of those plays off, which is why he wasn't a priority free-agent around the league this offseason.  But with speedy LBs right behind him, his impact should be felt.
  • Zone Blitz:  ZB was mixed in with a lot of nickle and monster (safety) blitzes throughout the day.  For the starters, Von dropped into coverage on one, allowing a completion behind him and in front of Dawkins, and he blitzed hard on one, which we will cover below.
  • 3rd and Long:  Denver got a 3rd and long opportunity to shut down the drive, and they brought a full blitz, with cover 4 behind them.  Of interest is that Champ now lines up in the slot when the nickle package is on the field, while Cassius Vaughn earned the start as the nickle back, and lined up over the same side WR as Champ was on.  Tremendous use of Champ's skills here, and should pay off down the road when he is in the mix on the traffic side of the field...  On the blitz, it was the inside pressure from Dawk and the DTs that ended up rushing the pass and forcing the incompletion and FG.
  • Rahim Moore:  We didn't hear his name a lot, which is a good thing, but when I was watching Rahim, I was surprised  by how fast he looks in Orange and Blue.  He has great range, and it is no wonder he supplanted McBath for 1st team reps

Tebow Time

  • It was great for me to finally get to see Tebow this season with my own eyes, and a lot of things came into perspective watching him.  His development this offseason comes down to Key Point Number One and Key Point Number Two, which I will discuss below. 
  • Key Point Number One:  Reads:  Tebow has got to work through all of his progressions.  The biggest hang up I had watching him in this game was that he almost never went past his first read.  He still had completions, but this is a great study for why not all completions are equal.  Several of his completions were very quick throws.  We shouldn't begreduge these much as the play may have called for it.  The deep pass to Willis on the playfake on the second drive is a good example of this, and a well thrown ball.  But it should be noted that this was a "no-read" play:  Tebow knows at the snap whether he is going to make the throw or run, so despite the plays production, it lends nothing to the development of his ability to go through a progression.  Another completion was a nice screen to Ball, where Tebow did a fantastic job of pulling in the defense and pulling the trigger at the right time (although he took a shot for his efforts).  But again, this is a "no-read" play, and isn't helping his progressions.  Later on a 3rd and 5, he makes one read and then takes off running.  This one also fits under decision-making, but we will put it here.  Tebow will learn that in the NFL, 3rd and 4 is really the last favorable distance that can be converted consistently with a run.  And as luck would have it, he came up with only 4 yards, as the LBs and safeties converged quickly.  "One read and run" is a situational play, and will be successful on occasion, but it can't be a QB's bread and butter.
  • Key Point Number Two:  Accuracy:  There are actually two components here, with one being a decision about where to throw, or placement, and the other being actual accuracy.  Since we can't know what Tim is thinking, we'll file them under the same category for now.  One example of this is 3rd and 11 on Tebow's second drive.  Tebow gets man to man coverage and looks for Willis.  It is a quick route and a quick throw, and the key to the 3rd down conversion is placement of the ball.  Because it is low and behind Willis, he has to slow down right at the marker in order to drag the pass in, which he does a great job of doing, but he is a yard short for the 1st down.  If Tebow puts that pass on the numbers for Willis, or better yet, a hair in front of him, Willis catches it at the marker with momentum, and possibly can get turned upfield (against man to man this is very likely) and outrun everyone for a TD.  This resulted in a FG.  Later, Tebow makes a back foot throw on 3rd and 7 to Anderson, leading him into a group of defenders.  The high ball means Anderson has to jump ball to get it, and he paid for the catch, hard.  He came off the field after that play, but got the 1st down.  One can argue it is a productive throw, and it was, but the how of it is just as important, and throws cannot be consistently completed that way.  It leads to gunshy or dead receivers and a lack of trust. On another play a couple of drives later he successfully extends a play with his feet only to bury the ball at Davis' feet. Footwork, again mixed with decision-making really seems to be at the heart of the accuracy issue, as Tim was always backpedaling  on those throws, or leaving his feet as he passed.  This isn't something that should be beaten into or out of him, it is just a nuance he will pick up as he continues to transition out of his spread game.  There is a time and a place for the difficult throws, but whenever you can, set yourself up for success with a good base.
  • Great Throws:  Tebow had his share of nice tosses too.  The playaction to Willis I mentioned earlier is one.  His first pass of the game was another.  It looks like a short, inaccurate, high pass at first glance, that Anderson somehow manages to reel in, but it is actually a very difficult throw that Tim puts a deft touch on.  The problem is the DE coming free off the corner.  He can do a lot of things, especially leaving his feet to bat down the pass.  Tebow snuck it around him as well as could be done, while giving his receiver a chance at the ball.
  • Tebow will be Tebow:  On 3rd and 18, against a 3 man rush Tebow takes off immediately.  On this play, this was really the best decision, as the max coverage is going to make a completion very difficult.  Of course he puts his shoulder down and gets pounded on, and at 18 yards, that conversion just isn't in the cards.  This is followed by a punt.  Later, on a 3rd and goal, against a 3-man rush, Tebow dashes around like a #7 I recall fondly, spinning away, stiffarming a defender, running across the field to the far side, finally throwing up the ball...all for naught.  One illegal downfield pass penalty, one illegal block in the back penalty and one illegal man downfield penalty later, the Broncos are kicking the FG on 4th down.  I firmly believe that someday we are going to cheer a play like that as it brings home the critical win.  That day is not today.

Second String Offense

  • Lance Ball and Lendale White:  Ball looked decent overall, starting off his day with a tackle for loss (missed block by Julius Thomas), following up with another short run (another missed block by Thomas).  White rotated in with him, and picked up a few yards, but wasn't a standout either.  Both players are capable of rotational production behind the starters, but I don't think there is a very high ceiling here if we start seeing injuries.  As we will see a little later, there are flashes from harder running players behind them that interest me far more.  Ball had one illegal shift with Anderson at one point that turned a 3rd and 5 into a 3rd and 11 and White took a holding penalty on a late throw by Tebow at the end of the first half.
  • Second String OL:  These guys really struggled to start out.  I had a little trouble keeping up with who was who at first, but I clearly saw missed blocks by Ramirez and Hochstein on that first Tebow drive.Later on the second drive Daniels took a turn at struggling on a White run, getting stood up vertical.  Ramirez was making the lowlight reel again on the final drive of the half, getting blown up on a Ball run for no gain.  Hochstein got abused like a rented Bronco twice, and had some difficulty with a couple of snaps.  Clark got nailed for a hold that cost the Broncos a TD and backed them up into an eventual FG.  Overall this group is less than inspiring, but seeing them all play at once is the least of our worries.  The key is how well they can step in in an emergency.
  • Julius Thomas:  After losing himself on some runblocks on his first drive, The Broncos gave him another chance to start out his second drive, and he showed that he is a fast learner.  Ball picks up 5 yards running hard behind a good Thomas block on the first play, and then Thomas and Ball combine for some excellent communication and two great blocks in pass protection in a heavy wing formation playfake (the deep throw to Willis in the first half).  Thomas wasn't getting open in the passing game, but I think he is showing a spark of competitiveness that can be built on here.  I really like the development tack that Fox is taking with Thomas:  not too fast, not too slow.
  • David Anderson:  Anderson really made an impression on me, and the thought that kept jumping into my mind was that he could be a poor man's replacement for Stokley.  He consistently presented a good target, he has good hands, he is tough and is willing to hang onto the tough catches.  He was getting open against zone regularly, which is the coverage of choice for most teams on 3rd down.  I really think that Anderson could add a special element to our 4 and 5 WR sets on 3rd down, especially 3rd and long.  He seems to have a really good feel for where he needs to be that helps the team the most.  He got dinged on one pass from Tebow, but he looked to have walked it off.  I'll be keeping an eye on him going forward.

Second String Defense

  • Second string defense and third string defense are really cross-populated, so don't be surprised if I separate the guys out in weird ways.
  • Defensive Line:  The dropoff between our first and second string DTs is hardly noticeable, an idea the cuts both ways, good and bad.  Vickerson was nabbed for an early encroachment (followed immediately by Harvey with the same) but it was good to see these guys fighting upfield instead of giving ground.  Go down fighting is something I can get behind.  The run defense overall was solid all game, and is really the one solid promise I have heard Fox make all offseason.  I think I'm starting to believe him.  Jarmon was getting involved in several plays, and Warren broke through  the line several times.  Rotation is everything here, and Thomas popped up a time or two in this group as well.  I'm also starting to understand why we brought in so many DEs.  the two DE spots behind Ayers and DOOM are anything but settled, though it looks like Hunter is going to pin one down if he can keep the effort up.  Jarmon also looks to be making a solid push.  Vickerson batted down another pass, something he was in the habit of doing last time I saw him.  I think what we lack in big plays from this line we are going to make up for with consistency, no small thing.
  • Mario Haggan:  between STs and 2nd and 3rd string defense, Haggan had a busy evening.  He looks pretty good behind our new stable of DTs, filling gaps nicely.  He just looks a little big back there, and struggled keeping up with the passes.  But as tweeners go, he looked ok.  They were quick to drop him for Nate Jones in a sort of heavy nickle formation, and he got caught on a couple of bad angles, and two missed tackles that I counted.  I am racking my brain for situations where he will be a consistent contributor, but I'm having a hard time coming up with anything.  I can't see the Broncos keeping him solely for STs or leadership.  This is going to be a tough choice...
  • Nate Jones and Kyle McCarthy:  Jones played a lot on both 2nd and 3rd team defense as the nickle back, and in a nickle safety role.  He struggled in several places, and alongside him, McCarthy also had several gaffes. As the Cowboys were pressuring the redzone in the 3rd quarter, McCarthy showed the limit to his range and Jones showed a bad decision when he gave the WR too much room in front of him.  McCarthy couldn't close the resulting gap quick enough and a 1st down pass dropped in between them easily.  Later in the same drive, in goalline, Dallas ran a naked bootleg with 3 WRs running routes.  McGee picked through his 1st and second read and finally zipped it into the 3rd guy, beating Jones, McBath and McCarthy on the play.  They didn't do a good enough job as a group reading the flow on the play, and as a result were all drifting away from the 3rd option, getting sucked up by the QB.
  • McBath and Carter:  Like Jones and McCarthy, McBath and Carter were not communicating well in the backfield.  A good example of this was the TD given up in the 4th quarter.  On an all out blitz McBath starts out from a cover one spot, which is a deep centerfield posiiton.  Seeing the open TE he starts to come up, over where Carter is sitting on the slot.  In trying to take away the middle, McBath basically gets run over as Carter corrals the TE right into him, breaking the TE open and resulting in a long YAC TD.  Good effort by Vaughn to get downfield on the play, but too little too late.
  • Cassius Vaughn:  Besides starting kick returner and starting nickle back, Vaughn also got a ton of reps as the main second string CB.  He got enough reps to see a few bad ones, but overall he did a great job.  He forced three incompletions on one drive, then allowed a tough catch for a first down on another drive.  Watching when he has success and when he struggles, it is clear that he plays best when he gets up on the receiver and works to disrupt the route.  Subpar Steelers corners played like that for years with a great degree of success, and I think it is a model that should work well for Vaughn.  His turn and run just isn't elite enough to keep up with most WRs, but if he can be disruptive, he can control the route and give the safeties time to key the play (not to mention help the pass rush on quick outlets).  He did pick up a personal foul for upending the QB out of bounds, but seeing it live, I was willing to give him a pass on that one...  get after that QB!
  • Perrish Cox:  Cox had second string punt return duties, and made a really difficult fair catch on a short punt surrounded by Cowboys that required diving forward to snag it.  He also had the only INT in the game, a nifty snag in man-to-man coverage with a terrific return that set the Broncos up nicely with 1st and goal.  He had a couple of good defensive plays, including a blanket coverage in tandem with Carter later in the game on a play action fake that forced an incompletion on a dangerous play.

Best of the Rest

  • Brady Quinn:  I thought Quinn did a pretty good job.  He is clearly a refined passer, with good velocity, timing, footwork and accuracy, but he had troubles despite this, including having a pass batted down, tripping while handing off the ball, bad center snap exchange.  However he still managed to make something of several of these less than desirable situations.  He made several perfect throws in addition, including a nicely placed deep ball to Mark Dell, several nice tosses to Eron Riley, one of which was a perfect pass zipped into the backline of the endzone, placed where only the receiver could get it.  Overall I thought Brady had perhaps the most solid performance, with the lesser weapons, but also the lesser defense to challenge him.
  • Mark Dell:  He made a terrific catch on a long ball from Quinn, taking a big hit as he came down, and keeping his feet.  He still had enough sense to get turned up field for a little YAC afterwards too.  Very nice play.  Later he got dinged and had to leave the field, so hopefully he is ok.
  • Jeremiah Johnson:  I don't know what he needs to do in practice to move up to second string reps, but he did what he needed in this game .  Hard running marked his performance throughout the day, including one first down that he gained after getting hit by three defenders.  His best play was one where he went relatively untouched however, as he showed tremendous speed and agility cutting through a small hole in a weakside zone play that was beautifully blocked.  He streaked  into the endzone standing up.
  • Matthew Willis:  I probably should have mentioned him up with second string offense, but Willis is looking more and more like a vet everyday.  I only saw him make one mistake, and while he had several good grabs, a highlight play for me was the illegal pass/scramble from Tebow where Willis came back to his QB, and then laid out a defender to buy more time as Tebow took off for the other side of the field.  One of my favorite things to see from a WR is the ability to find ways to help his QB when the play is breaking down.  Normally that comes with time and reps working together, so great instinctual play by Willis here.  On Quinn's first drive there was a miscommunication on a go/curl? route with Matthew that ended up incomplete.
  • Britt Davis:  Davis struggled a bit, twice failing to bring in difficult passes and dropping one ball.  That should come with time, and hopefully he gets that time, because he did a pretty good job of getting open.
  • Eron Riley:  Riley came through several times, inclduing a nice grab on playaction, followed by another tough grab, again on a playfake, with a high velocity toss from Quinn.  On the bad snap, Quinn put the perfect pass on Riley in the endzone to take the lead towards the end of the game.  Riley got great elevation on the play, and had the concentration to come down in bounds in the back of tee endzone.
  • Jeremy Beal:  I would have liked to see some pass rush when he was on the field, but he did manage to show some good awareness and speed on STs.  Very athletic big guy, he also was a sure tackler.  First stop, STs, second stop, the world?
  • Lee Robinson:  Lee got in one great play, and was MIA that rest of the game.  He came up from the SLB spot and put a huge pop on the running back, to force a 3rd and 14.  Very noticeable play that should get him a few more reps to show what he has got.
  • Braxton Kelley:  Kelley was solid all game long, not hurting the team in coverage, and providing good presence stopping the run.  A Marcus Thomas hit in the backfield later in the game was cleaned up nicely by Kelley, and for approximately $1.5million less than Woodyard did it for in the first half.  :)
  • Kyle McCarthy:  I know we covered him up above, but I wanted to single him out one more time to point out how similar to Dawkins his play is.  They brought him on the monster blitz several times throughout the game, and the Broncos almost always got positive results from those plays.  Safety is a tough position to break down, so despite his struggles, I wouldn't write him off yet.
  • Brandon Minor:  Several good moves in his repertoire, but his running wasn't nearly as productive as Johnson who he was rotating with.  He runs like a lighter back, and isn't as quick as he looks like he should be.  I would call his evening a bubble performance.
  • Virgil Green:  Still has a ways to go, caught a nice pass early, but had to push off to get open.  I would call it a good play, just in regular grading, since what he did wasn't that serious for a TE.  With a little time he can refine that and use a little less arm and a little more body, and that move will be perfectly legal, and very productive.  Didn't see him blocking much.
  • Brandon Bing:  Showed up late in the game on a kick return, caught the ball 3 yards deep and took a chance bringing the ball out.  I like that decision, to go big or go home.  He had a good runback and got out to the 23 yard line, so he wins that round.  I'll be watching for him next week, see what else he is willing to try to make the team...
  • Mike Mohamed:  Had one great play to start his reps, staying at home on a playaction then doing a textbook breakdown to tackle the checkdown receiver for minimal gain.  On the final drive, however, he loses the edge on a running play, then gets cleanly beat by a good throw in man to man coverage, no real chance to make a play.  On the 4th down pass for a TD, he and Jones got caught up in coverage and allow an unforgivable completion to lose the game.  (Jones was in on the next pass on the 2 point conversion as well...shame, shame.)
  • Ronnell Brown:  This DT had some ups and downs on that final drive, but overall I would give him a positive grade.  He gave up a huge run, getting dominated in his gap by a 3rd string lineman, I'm sure.  The result was a huge chunk of yardage to get the scoring drive started.  However he responded nicely and started clamping down.  On the 1st and goal, on a nickle blitz, he read and reacted well to the called draw to beat the blitz, stopping it for no gain.  On the following 3rd and goal, Ronnell and Hunter collapse the pocket, with Hunter getting the sack.  On the 4th and goal TD pass, it is Ronnell that makes it into the backfield and hits the QB as he is throwing.  Bad coverage from Nate and Mohammed made it an effort for naught though.

If you made it this far, I would like to say thank you for reading and I hope you enjoyed this edition of Broncos Notebook!