Since this is my inaugural submission and there’s already three games played, permit me to recap and editorialize on the Broncos season thus far. The first two games are already a distant memory and were, thankfully, wins. I will focus primarily on trends that have proven prevalent, reflected mostly in the game against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
I begin by acknowledging that the Broncos are 2-1 and lead the AFC West. But, because of two close wins and a loss that never should have been, it’s a deceiving 2-1. The Broncos record does not reveal anything overly negative or positive about the team. Their lead in the AFC West could prove to be temporary (as it would in any season, given the competitive nature of that and every other division in the NFL). However, I do believe that the Broncos have the potential to be in a position to win the AFC West and possibly be competitive in the playoffs. But first, everything needs to fall into place.
In their first three games, the Broncos revealed tendencies that are both praiseworthy and lamentable. Raw talents emerged as legitimate threats this season in the form of both Brandon Marshall at receiver and Elvis Dumervil at defensive end. In fact, the Broncos receiving corps, in general, appears incredibly potent with Javon Walker anchoring and Brandon Stokley providing much-needed depth. But its Marshall’s potential for explosiveness that changes the dynamic of the Denver offense.
At the beginning of the season, the potency of the wide receivers was one of many unknowns in the Broncos’ scheme. I think it can be safely said that the Broncos have at least three receivers that must be accounted for in any given situation, and this isn’t figuring in the injured Rod Smith. What a pleasant surprise (the receivers, not Smith’s injury)! Further, the running game looked solid in the first two contests, but faltered in the third – more on that later. Quarterback Jay Cutler is proving himself a leader with a lot of potential, but also has some terrifying habits that hopefully he breaks over the coming weeks. And finally, once again, cornerback Champ Bailey has proven a dependable leader, further increasing his stock by making crucial plays not only on defense, but on special teams (?!) as well. Bailey’s play certainly legitimizes the trade that sent Clinton Portis to the Redskins.
On to the lamentable: It is said, “the best offense is a good defense.” Then again it is also true that “you can’t win if you don’t have the ball.” So goes the circular logic of the NFL and so goes the overall story line of the Broncos home loss to the Jaguars. There are myriad reasons why the Broncos lost, even though I believe they are arguably the superior team. The three most crucial factors in the loss to Jacksonville were poor tackling, poor special teams play, and lack of ball control on offense.
First, there’s the elephant in the room that is the Broncos defense. I don’t know if it’s the scheme or the personnel and frankly, I don’t care. The defense is ranked third overall in the NFL right now (according to NFL.com) and that is mostly due to a superb pass defense, which, to be fair, is only superb because the Broncos’ paltry run defense has yet to force a team to rely on their passing game. Yes, the overall scheme is new and there are new starters galore, but the perceived failure of the scheme and the personnel are minor in comparison to the biggest fundamental defensive problem – tackling. Tackling was atrocious throughout the first three games. I’ve seen television interviews where individual players were blaming defensive woes on blown gap assignments, that may very well be true, but the fact of the matter is that tackling is crucial to the game and the Broncos lack fundamental tackling skills.
In Week 1, the Bills’ Marshawn Lynch ran through missed shoulder shots and broken arm tackles. Last week, each of the Jaguars’ admittedly superb running backs had a decent outing. Of course due credit must be given to Jags’ head coach Jack Del Rio and his offensive line. But it was the oversight of David Garrard’s scrambling threat that really highlights the Broncos weakness to both contain and pursue. For a quarterback, Garrard ran roughshod over the Broncos in extremely crucial situations, and he is no Michael Vick. A lot of this was due to a lack of presence in the middle, but some of his success was just poor pursuit and tackling mechanics. Many times it appeared as if the linebackers were over-pursuing and the defensive backs were trying to punish with a big hit instead of taking a conservative pursuit to the point of contact and wrapping the ball-carrier up. Mistakes like these resulted in extra gains of significant yardage. Granted, the opposing running backs had pretty big holes to run through and the Bills’ Lynch, LaMont Jordan (Oakland, week 2), Garrard, Maurice Jones-Drew and Fred Taylor had great success as a consequence.
Poor tackling is not solely the province of the defense. The special teams have been remiss in this regard as well. Unfortunately, that’s nothing new. Both the Bills and the Jaguars capitalized on poor special teams play to have pretty good average field position. Thankfully, the Broncos have a decent punter in Todd Sauerbrun. Now if the defenders could just cover the punts and kick-offs, the benefit of a good punter will pay off. Domenik Hixon’s fumble of the kick-off at the beginning of the second-half against Jacksonville didn’t help matters much either. The Broncos need to address both coverage and return issues if they are to be competitive as the season progresses.
The final element, crucial in the loss to Jacksonville, was the lack of efficiency in the running game resulting in minimal opportunities on offense. Travis Henry had 11 rushes for 35 yards and a TD. One of the reasons Henry’s numbers were so low was the Broncos’ inability to establish any sort of rhythm as an offense. Mike Shanahan sometimes has a frustrating tendency to run in passing situations and pass in running situations and the results can be mixed. When such skullduggery fails to pay off, the offense is not able to establish any momentum and they are forced off the field quickly putting more pressure on the defense. (Also, rabid fans like me rant and rave at the television screaming, “Run the damn ball for once!”)
Granted the running game was rendered moot by a 13 point deficit late in the game when the Broncos were forced to play two-minute offense in an effort to score quickly. But Shanahan’s habit of dubious play-calling has become increasingly common in the past few seasons. It’s sometimes unclear what he’s thinking when he calls a draw play on third and long in lieu of a deep pass. Sometimes it seems as if he’s outsmarting even himself. However, Denver’s offense has looked incredible at times and with the right adjustments in play-calling and the minimization of mistakes, they can score on just about anybody.
Looking forward, the Broncos have three extremely tough games in four weeks: at Indianapolis, at home against San Diego, a bye week and then at home again versus Pittsburgh. This is possibly the most important four week-stretch in the Broncos schedule this season and may be the deciding factor in whether or not the Broncos make the playoffs. Whatever the results, how the Broncos fare in the next four weeks will set the tone for the rest of the season.
Utterly Biased Prognostications: In my analysis, the most likely scenario is that the Broncos come out of the next four weeks 1-2, possibly even 2-1, with both 0-3 and 3-0 being a long shot. The Broncos will most likely not be favored in any of the next three games. Indianapolis has absolutely dominated Denver for the past five years, with most of the meetings coming in the early rounds of the playoffs. This year may prove to be an exception, however, as the Broncos are well equipped to deal with both Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison. It is all of the other weapons Indy has at its disposal that may make the difference, including a decent running attack with Joseph Addai, not to mention that one guy that plays quarterback. San Diego is always tough and Pittsburgh is on fire this season, so all three will be tough, fun games.
The Broncos have to put together their most complete game this season in order to just be competitive with the Colts. That means: no turnovers, no missed assignments, very few missed tackles, a flawless performance by the special teams, a huge day from Travis Henry and either Javon Walker or Brandon Marshall and finally the defense must get more than one takeaway. The only way that the Broncos can win this game is if they put pressure on – not just contain – Peyton Manning. To borrow a friend’s analysis of Manning: you can shake him up if you hit him so hard that a little chunk of grass is sticking out of his facemask when he gets up. However, Manning is so smart, so well prepared and quite frankly so good that he isn’t often hit so that scenario is highly unlikely.
My heart tells me the final score will be Denver 21-17, but my head tells me Indy 34-21. I think most people would agree with my head.Powered by Sidelines