When Steve Atwater joined Ryan Edwards and Benjamin Allbright Tuesday on Broncos Country Tonight, he was back in his “Broncos got to start bullying somebody” mode.
Because now the rubber hits the road. The Broncos have a .500 record at the near-halfway point but a steep uphill climb to a winning record.
Atwater thinks a big part of finishing the season strong will be the players making a conscious and personal decision to play better. Not just like a little better. But “going after the ball through the whistle on every play” better.
“People look at the film. You can tell when guys are playing passionately and when some guys are not playing as passionately as they could play,” Atwater said, adding that it starts with each player deciding to go full out. “From the last few games they’ve played, that’s not gonna get it in Dallas. And there’s another level they can get to.”
Atwater isn’t talking about just playing hard, though. He’s talking about guys making the decision to not let up, to “get to the ball” every time.
Edwards pressed Atwater on if he believed this current team really can “get to that other level” and actually has the potential to beat the 7-1 Cowboys who will be playing at almost full strength on Sunday.
“Yeah. I think they can,” he said with a momentary pause at the beginning. “I think they can. Now, if they come out to play like they have the last four games, it’s probably not going to happen.”
So why is this Broncos team - particularly the defense - underperforming?
“I don’t know. You never know why teams don’t play up to potential. Every man should look at themselves,” Atwater said to Edwards question. “You look at the tape and say...’alright, the whistle blown, play is still going on, am I still going full speed? Am I still blocking my guy or am I letting my guy get off to go make a tackle and I’m ok with that?’”
Atwater, who not surprisingly loves to watch a good tackler, gets annoyed when he sees any player cutting short on his blocking assignments. And he’s seen too many this season.
“I’ve seen receivers, block for a minute, come off it and then their guy goes and makes a tackle,” he said, noting that every player has to have the mentality that he’s going to the ball. “And if you don’t, you’ve got some work to do. That’s the main thing you’re doing when you’re looking at film. I think with more people getting to the ball great things happen.”
All the great defenses - from the old days to the current ones - have players looking around to see where they can help, where they can make sure the play succeeds.
“It’s a mentality thing, but everybody has to have it,” Atwater said.
Edwards noted that the frustrating part this season is that the Broncos - who of late have not been talented enough to beat a lot of the teams they’ve played - really are talented enough this season to make a run at this Cowboys team. But not the way they’ve been playing.
“But now it is more, ‘are they coached well enough’ and ‘do they want it?’” Edwards added.
Allbright also wondered if part of the lack of effort by players was a lack of confidence in the coaching.
Atwater wasn’t ready to blame the coaching - or a loss of confidence by the players in the coaching - for the lackluster play.
He just wants accountability, players asking “How. Can. I. Play. Better?’
Broncos’ game day radio announcer Dave Logan had said on a show weeks ago that the best way to win on the road is to adopt the mentality of going in to their house and taking something away from them.
Atwater couldn’t agree more.
“Either you impose your will, or they’ll impose their will on you,” he said. “Whoever is the strongest will win.”
Atwater recalled playing on a few defenses where it felt as if there were nothing they could do to stop an overpowering offense.
“But you’re still playing for respect. Does your opponent come over and say, ‘we kicked ya’lls butts but good game.’ Or do they come over and say, ‘we kicked ya’lls butts and you didn’t do anything’?”
Defensive coordinator Ed Donatell also recognizes what it will take for the 9.5-point underdogs to have a chance against the Cowboys.
“They’re really good. Their line has quality players. [Cowboys Offensive Line Coach] Joe Philbin is an excellent line coach, so they really block well. They have as good a runner as you can find in the game, and then they have an excellent quarterback,” he said, adding that he could “keep going” with the Cowboys’ strengths. “But we’re up to this task—we really are. We’re going to have to be as disciplined as we’ve ever been in our gap control, and our tackling has to be on point. We’re going to have to have some great cover outside. There’s going to be one-on-ones out there, and we really see that our guys can be effective.”
Edwards and Allbright interviewed newly acquired defensive end Stephen Weatherly as well, and the 10-minute interview is worth the price of admission just to realize how talented and interesting Weatherly is as a person.
For example, he can play nine instruments in total (including flute, clarinet, French horn, trumpet as well as steel drums and the piano). He also appeared as a judge for glass-blowing competition in a Netflix episode, and is apparently a Rubik’s Cube™ aficionado. He also got a sack on Sunday, so there’s his football career too.