"No Plan Survives First Contact with The Enemy."
Helmuth Von Moltke
The Plan: Where Things Went Wrong
Well, as Herr Von Moltke could have warned us, things did not quite go as planned, did they?
The Broncos won the time of possession battle (32:08), the turnover battle (1 – 0), even the penalty battle (by the slimmest of margins, granted), and still they went on to, you know, … lose the game.
"But it was a LOSS. At HOME. To the loathed RAIDERS. With an all too familiar final score! This is Groundhog Day!. No matter what we change, we get the same results! We are doomed. Doomed! DOOMED!!!"
Ok, let’s hit the brakes a little and take heart, Broncos Country! Even though it walks like a loss, and quacks like a loss, and even the final score resembles a lot a few of the old losses of yore, there are tangible reasons to think this was not your traditional walking, quacking, low-scoring Broncos’ loss.
There are other different reasons to be concerned, though.
So, let’s start by breaking down the data:
So, we lost by that one point, but how close was this game, exactly? Well, if you dug into the game’s stats sheet, you might believe at first that somebody at ESPN got lazy and copy/pasted the same figures on both columns: the exact number of 1st downs through passing, rushing, and penalties, the exact same 3rd down efficiency (with the exact same number of 3rd downs converted/attempted), a SINGLE yard of difference in total yards (261 vs 260). Even the same number of penalties (to be further analyzed in the Penalties section below).
Russ and his O did a handful of things right, most of them in the first half, until it was left devoid of viable targets (read Injuries, below). Just as I predicted last week, there would be more tender, loving care of the ball, resulting in zero turnovers, a feat achieved only three times in the entire 2022 season (partly thanks to the Raiders’ D for a penalty that wiped Russ’ fumble, also a lucky streak that I mentioned in my column last week). In an utterly disappointing 2nd half, the Broncos stubbornly leaned on passing plays over rushing (16 vs 11), in spite of rush plays yielding more yardage in fewer plays (51 vs 48). Of those 11 rushes, SIX yielded 4+ yards. Of the 16 pass attempts, 11 (that’s ELEVEN) plays yielded 3 yards or fewer. Now, wasn’t this supposed to be designed as a RUN FIRST team???!!!
Let me give you the best example of such pigheadedness: the only scoring drive of the 2nd half. It totaled 16 plays, 75 yards, and over 8 minutes of play. In it, Payton called in only 4 rush plays, netting 24 yards (6.0 yds/play), while ordering 12 passes that yielded only 51 yds (4.25 yds/play), including the last three plays, all within the Raiders’ 10 yard-line. And this right after Perine broke a 12-yard dash to put them in the red zone! The result? Pass, Pass, Pass, FG (which proved eventually insufficient).
The lack of dynamic talent that I pointed out last week became obvious in the 2nd half, as Greg Dulcich left the game injured, and both Marvin Mims (17 offensive snaps) and Jaleel McLaughlin (five snaps, zero carries, one target for MINUS SEVEN yards) were direly underutilized under dire circumstances. At the same time, Phillip Dorsett and Samaje Perine squandered perhaps the biggest two plays of the entire game, the first one directly leading to the long, missed FG, the second one resulting in the sole 3 points scored in the 2nd half. Execution was lacking, but Payton’s play calling in the 2nd half was perplexing, to say the least.
Statistically and to the eye, Russ’ performance was comparable, if not better than, his opposing QB, this despite not counting with targets even remotely close to those that Garoppolo enjoyed in Davante Adams and Jakobi Meyers, while the pass rush Russ had to face was far hotter than whatever Vance Joseph could muster against Jimmy G.
Defense worked perfectly fine!!! … until it didn’t, as it is common with the Broncos.
I seriously struggle to blame a defense that not only allowed just 17 points and 261 yards against an offense that ranked 12th last year, averaging 350 yards, and 23.2 points per game, but was also placed against the wall immediately after the whistle due to the messed up first play of the season (see Not-So Special Teams below), and which resulted in the first TD of the game. Combined with the O, the D managed to win the TO battle, by means of a timely INT right in the end zone, when all seemed lost. You know, the type of plays that pumps up any team into victory. Alas! These Broncos are not just any team.
Now, there were some cracks in this D that, if the Raiders did not fully exploit last Sunday, some other OCs with more film on hand could very well be able to:
Where did the pass pressure go? If you asked the Broncos’ edges what cologne Jimmy G wears, they will look at each other and shrug with a blank stare as an answer. In spite of counting with a full healthy pressure squad (yeah, yeah, Browning out, but so what? We got the expensive veterans on the field, right?), the Broncos got zero sacks, and other than a late hit that got flagged, Garoppolo enjoyed a perfectly clean pocket and minutes to ponder what receiver to throw to before each pass. Even with 5 or 6-men rush, the pressure came in too late, resulting in an astonishing 77% completion.
Damarri Mathis, the lack of CB depth, and Joseph’s inability to adjust tactically: Before the season, there were talks about the CB roster being the strongest group in the Broncos’ D. I had my doubts, which were validated in week 1. Mathis was victimized in the worst fashion in the hands of Jakobi Meyers, who did with Damarris as he pleased (and that was nothing pleasant to Mathis). Meyers (9 for 81, 2 TDs) WAS THE Raiders’ offense all game long, accounting for 12 of their 17 points, and nearly one third of their total yards gained, missing only one target out of 10, almost all the time with Mathis in tow. What concerns me the most was Joseph’s inability (refusal?) to provide some help to Mathis with a man/zone hybrid coverage on Meyers, who became the hatch for Jimmy G when he needed a escape. The problem was blatant during the first Raiders scoring drive, it was equally obvious in the final Raiders scoring drive, and at any point in between. Either this is a tactical issue or a lack-of-resources issue, but this (and the pass rush thing) is an issue that needs immediate attention before we face that scary Dolphins air attack.
Not-So Special Teams
If you are a Broncos fan, what else is there to say?
Payton pounded the table and got the entire ST renovated just like he wanted it, and still it felt like Tom McMahon has not left the building. In the very first play of the season, a beautiful and ingenious surprise short kick almost worked. Instead, we grant the Raiders their first possession within Broncos own field. Result? Easy TD.
Immediately after, Mims gets a decent return out to yard 28. Right on cue, Strnad gets flagged holding. 10 yards back, we start on the 18 instead.
No problem! Against the ST’s best efforts, the offense doesn’t budge and moves the ball efficiently, scoring the tying TD. Did I say "tying"? Not so fast! Missed PAT, Denver one point behind. The same point by which the game is eventually lost.
Fast forward to the start of the 2nd half. Broncos receive and Mims takes the kick off all the way to the 30 yard-line. YESSS!!! After a convoluted drive, the O takes the ball to the gray area, a 4th and short next. Payton trusts his kicker (because, of course!), and Lutz promptly disappoints again missing it (because, of course!). NOOOO!!! Three more missed points that we would eventually need to win the game.
In the meantime, dismissed K Brandon McManus had a happy day in the office, scoring all 7 points he was assigned to score for his new employer, the Jags, padding a 10-point win vs a feistier-than-expected divisional rival.
If you ask me, this loss can be safely credited to none other than the Not-So Special Teams (N-SST hereinafter), a beast that Sean Payton himself conceived from its very foundations. This is where the Groundhog Day feel is the strongest.
With Payton in the house, I was expecting discipline and focus would be better. With 10 penalties for 83 yards, it was not. Let’s blame it on being the first official game under a newly hired coach: almost all other new coaches fared poorly in their starting games: Jonathan Gannon’s Cards (9 penalties -122 yards), DeMeco Ryans’ Texans (9-88), and Frank Reich’s Panthers (9-66), with Shane Steichen’s Colts (4-35) being the sole exception, but who might have been benefitted by a benign refereeing crew that also threw only 4 flags for 45 yards vs their opponents the Jaguars.
Business as usual in Broncos Country.
We lost two more starters to injury even before the end of the first half. Greg Dulcich keeps suffering the exact same hamstring injury that hampered him all last season, and he is expected to miss several weeks. The worst news came from the defensive side: Caden Sterns, a player who since his rookie season has been teasing us with some brilliant interventions in the interim periods between injuries, is now gone for the season with a torn patellar tendon. With Sterns, now we may count four starters sidelined for 2023 (Patrick, Virgil, Griffith), with four more expected to return sooner (Locke, Palczewski, Williams, Browning).
Not much to see here. 48 total snaps taken by all rookies, with more than half in N-SST coverage.
Now, week 1 is always erratic. Nobody really expects many games in which Mahomes will record a 77.5 QB rating, Burrow a 45% pass completion, Josh Allen 3 INTs, or A-Rod tear his Achilles.
So, trying to keep the head well screwed in, allow me to continue last week’s analysis and predictions for the second half of the season (you will find the link to the first half in the first paragraph above).
W9 – BYE:
Prediction: (5W – 3L)
During the Broncos bye, the Chiefs host the Dolphins, the Chargers make a cross-continental trip to visit the NY Jets, and the Raiders receive the Giants. Up until last Saturday, I thought that the Chargers would have a busy day in Jersey, and the Raiders would have a hard time matching up a playoff bound Giants. I will not rule out anything yet: the Jets suffered a big blow, but still managed to beat the mighty Bills without Aaron. The Giants? They have plenty of time to erase that ugly display before week 9. The Chiefs will really need to do better to beat those high-flying Dolphins.
Now, going back to that 5 – 3 record (adjusted from a 6 – 2 predicted last week, accounting for the out-of-budget loss to the Raiders), would this record be representative of a Broncos improvement? Yes and no. The teams faced before the bye accumulated a 2022 record of 69 – 66 – 1, (0.523, counting the Chiefs twice), including 4 with a losing record, three with a winning, and one dead even. After the bye, the opponents accumulated a 2022 record of 79 – 72 – 1 (by sheer coincidence, also with a 0.523, counting the Chargers twice), but with five teams with a winning record, and four with a losing one (and one of them being the always difficult Patriots).
Things get tough right after the bye. If things worked out as planned up to here, we hope you enjoyed while it lasted (then again, Helmut might have something to say).
W10 - @ BILLS:
Last year record: 13 - 3
Coach: Sean McDermott (62 – 35)
Draft grade A/A. TE Dalton Kincaid, OG O'Cyrus Torrence, LB Dorian Williams (91)
Veterans - Lost: 9, including ILB Tremaine Edmunds, S Jordan Poyer, QB Case Keenum, RB Devin Singletary, G Greg Van Roten. Gained: 14, including G Connor McGovern, RBs Damien Harris and Latavius Murray, OLB Leonard Floyd, WRs Deonte Harty and Trent Sherfield, DE Poona Ford.
Prediction: Loss (5 – 4). By releasing ILB Tremaine Edwards, the Bills freed up a lot of cap space that they immediately used to prop up their offense depth with nine signings. Their draft choices were applauded by pundits, which began by taking the best receiving TE in the class. In the Battle of the Seans, I hardly see a contest. McDermott’s win % (.639) is better than Payton’s, after spending the 2018 season honing who will likely be his career partner, QB Josh Allen. McDermott’s Bills might be a perennial playoff underperformer, but they are a mighty force you do not want to run into in the regular season. Equally important to Buffalo is the fact that Allen did not miss a step after losing his NFL-career mentor, QB whisperer Brian Daboll (mention no. 1) to the NY Giants.
W11 – VIKINGS:
Last year record: 13 - 4
Coach: Kevin O’Connell (13 – 4)
Draft grade A-/B-. WR Jordan Addison, DB Mekhi Blackmon (102)
Veterans - Lost: 10, including DT Dalvin Tomlinson, WR Adam Thielen, CB Patrick Peterson, ILB Eric Kendricks, RB Dalvin Cooks. Gained: 11, including TE Josh Oliver, CB Byron Murphy, DEs Marcus Davenport and Dean Lowry.
Prediction: Loss (5 – 5). Not even the power of Broncos Country will vanquish one of the NFC’s contenders, with a superior roster, smart coach, and stability (one important factor frequently underappreciated). Expect here the first second loss in Mile High in the Sean Payton era. Vikings saw a lot of noisy activity in the free agency market, with 18 of their players hitting the market in the offseason, successfully retrieving eight of them, including C Garrett Bradbury and RB Alexander Mattison, but losing some big names (on both sides of the ball) who cashed in combined contracts for $124M with their new teams. Then the Vikes gained back in the market nearly the same headcount for about half as much, although most of it largely made up by depth material. Minnie got only ONE draft selection in the top #100, but WR Addison is expected to become a deadly weapon when combined with Justin Jefferson, one of my favorite WRs since he was a prospect. I consider young HC O’Connell as one of the top minds in modern football, taking his Vikes to a 13-4 record in his first season, and immediately after his predecessor Mike Zimmer got back-to-back losing seasons out of virtually the same ingredients. Of course, being the Vikings, they got promptly kicked out of the playoffs, by also-rookie HC Brian Daboll’s (another great offensive mind of the era in my book) Giants in the wild-card round.
W12 – BROWNS:
Last year record: 7 - 10
Coach: Kevin Stefanski (26 – 24)
Draft grade B/A-. WR Cedric Tillman (74), DT Siaki Ika (98)
Veterans - Lost: 14, including QB Jacoby Brissett, C Hjalte Froholdt, DT Taven Bryan, DE Jadeveon Clowney, DE Chase Winovich, CB Greedy Williams. Gained: 12, including DT Dalvin Tomlinson, S Juan Tornhill, DE Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, TE Jordan Akins, DT Shelby Harris, WR Marquise Goodwin.
Prediction: Loss (5 – 6). After losing a whopping 14 out of 18 free agents, the Browns pulled out the wallet and replenished them with new ones signing contracts amounting to $113M, most of the churn happening in the defensive side. After trading away the 1st and 2nd round picks in 2023, the Browns got only two late top 100 selections, one on each side of the ball, and both sitting at tier 2 in the depth chart. That might be all what Kevin Stefanski needs to bring his Browns back to relevance (that and having QB Deshaun Watson lose some of the rust after one third of a season played last year), after posting consecutive losing seasons, which also happened after posting a fantastic debut 11 – 5 season in 2020, the first winning season since 2007 for Cleveland, which featured their first playoff appearance since 2002, and also their first playoff win (vs their much hated divisional rivals Steelers) since 1994. Compared to THAT, Broncos Country should feel relieved Denver has not reached that level of ineptitude… yet. I am feeling pessimistic in this game, dropping the second home game in a row.
W13 - @ TEXANS:
Last year record: 3 – 13 – 1
Coach: DeMeco Ryans (0 – 0)
Draft grade B+/B-. QB CJ Stroud (2), EDGE Will Anderson Jr (3), C Juice Scruggs, WR Tank Dell (69)
Veterans - Lost: 17(!!!), including DE Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, CB Tremon Smith, TE Jordan Akins, DE Rasheem Green, G Justin McCray, OLB Jalen Reeves-Maybin, WR Chris Moore, and many, many more! Gained: 22(!!!), including WR Robert Woods, WR Jimmie Ward, DT Sheldon Rankins, TE Dalton Schultz, FB Andrew Beck, QB Case Keenum, CB Shaquill Griffin, DT Hassan Ridgeway, RB Mike Boone, RT George Fant, and many, many more!!!
Prediction: Win (6 – 6). The fully revamped Texans (and by fully revamped I mean virtually only the NRG Stadium and the colors of the uniform remain the same) are expected to dwell at the bottom of their division according to the experts. I cannot be certain about that. Picking one of the hottest new coaches available this offseason in DeMeco Ryans, then letting 17 of 20 free agents go (that’s SEVENTEEN! And I was impressed at the Browns in their analysis about the 14 they set free!), THEN hiring 22 other FAs in the market, (yes, that is TWENTY-TWO! That’s ONE THIRD of their entire roster, PS included!!!) at a rather frugal budget of less than $90M for the whole package, which includes four former Denver Broncos (Beck, Boone, Eric Tomlinson, and Darius Phillips). THEN, thanks to the Watson trade, they landed NINE total draft selections, with FOUR in the top #69 spots, including two of the top three, filling with them not only immediate needs, but also the most important positions in the roster, one in either side of the ball. If Ryans delivers to the promise and is capable of reining in such a vast pool of new and deep talent at his disposal in a short period of time, these Texans could become one more power to be reckoned with in an already boiling AFC. I think (and hope) it does not happen before week 13, because I already got tickets for this game, and I WANT TO WATCH MY BRONCOS WINNING IT!!!
W14 - CHARGERS:
Last year record: 10 - 7
Coach: Brandon Staley (19 – 15)
Draft grade B-/A-. WR Quentin Johnson, LB Tuli Tuipulotu, LB Daiyan Henley (85)
Veterans - Lost: 9, including LB Drue Tranquill, G Matt Feiler, WR Deandre Carter, LB Troy Reeder, DT Christian Covington. Gained: only 3, ILB Eric Kendricks, DT Nick Williams, LB Tae Crowder.
Prediction: Win (7 – 6). Since Chargers star QB Justin Herbert joined the team in 2020, their record hovers at the .500 mark, with 26 – 24. Counting since HC Brandon Staley joined in 2021, the win rate improves a bit, to .559. Regardless, their record vs the Broncos remains utterly predictable year in, year out, each team winning their corresponding home game unfailingly. The Chargers are as reliable as the sun raising on the East every morning: they not only had the most vanilla of drafts, patiently waiting for each of their first 5 selections, and picking their allotted 7 by the end of it all, but they also aggressively went after their free agents, pulling almost half of them back from the open market, and picking only three new FAs back from it, all defenders. With so much consistency, I do not see why we would expect anything different than in the past three years. Broncos win at home once again.
W15 - @ LIONS:
Last year record: 9 - 8
Coach: Dan Campbell (17 – 28 – 1)
Draft grade C+/B+. RB Jahmyr Gibbs, LB Jack Campbell (18), TE Sam LaPorta, DB Brian Branch, QB Hendon Hooker, DT Brodric Martin (96)
Veterans - Lost: 13, including RB Jamaal Williams, CB Mike Hughes, WR DJ Chark, LB Chris Board, G Evan Brown, S Deshon Elliot. Gained: 13, including CB Cameron Sutton, RB David Montgomery, S Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, CB Emmanuel Moseley, QB Teddy Bridgewater, WR Marvin Jones.
Prediction: Loss (7 – 7). By trading away (one of my favorite TEs in the league) TJ Hockenson and RB D’Andre Swift, this year the Lions enjoyed a wealth of draft picks at the top, selecting SIX players out of the top #96 slots… then they promptly went on to squander several of them in risky propositions, at least to the eyes of the pundits. Their hunting in free agency returned a beautiful symmetry, with as many players lost as gained, although with bigger names (and cash dispensed) among the talent drawn in. Dan Campbell has been able to create an aura of do-or-die football happily bought in within the club and widely admired outside of it, which yielded in 2022 the first winning season for Detroit since 2017, Jim Caldwell’s last as a HC in the NFL (an infamy, if you ask me). The next milestones awaiting for Campbell is to take the Lions to their first playoff game since 2016 (also Caldwell’s achievement), and then their first win since 1991.
Broncos Country should feel relieved Denver has not reached that level of ineptitude… yet. No matter, these inspired, talented, and disciplined Lions playing in Detroit will be too much for the Broncos.
W16 – PATRIOTS:
Last year record: 8 - 9
Coach: The Hoodie (329!!!!!! – 165)
Draft grade A-/A-. CB Christian Gonzalez, DE Keyon White, LB Marte Mapu (76)
Veterans – Lost: only 8, including WR Jakobi Meyers, QB Brian Hoyer, WR Nelson Agholor, T Isaiah Wynn, . Gained: 10, including WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, T Calvin Anderson, LB Chris Board, T Riley Reiff, TE Mike Gesicki, RB Ezekiel Elliott.
Prediction: Win (8 – 7). For a team with a losing record last year, the Pats most aggressively chased after their own talent in the free market, retrieving half of them, meaning that they believe the problem was not quite in their talent pool. They then added 10 FAs, with an obvious emphasis in giving QB Mac Jones all the tools for his offense to succeed. For a change, their draft selections were well seen by the experts, using their top three to load up their D (while having SIX selections within the top #117, and TWELVE total, all of them making it to the main roster and the PS). Somehow, Broncos have a way with the winningest coach in the NFL history, beating him the last time they faced him in Foxboro in 2020, but going 2 – 2 the four times before that, all of them in Denver. I think the Patriots are in an upward trend, but so do the Broncos. This one is for the local team in a very tight contest.
W17 - CHARGERS:
Prediction: Loss (8 – 8). There are laws of nature that cannot be challenged. As I said before, the invincibility of the home team in the Chargers – Broncos series is one of those.
W18 - @ RAIDERS:
Prediction: Win (9 – 8) Don’t ask me how. JUST DO IT, SEAN!