After Ronnie Hillman coughed up the ball during the first quarter of the regular season finale against Kansas City, the Broncos played a series in relative chaos. Peyton Manning took a rare delay of game penalty; three snaps later, Ryan Clady jumped to a false start.
The result? A three-and-out, the first of just two on the day for Denver.
As has usually been the case this season, their struggles didn’t endure. The Broncos marched down the field like the champion team they want to be, pausing only briefly between possessions during the Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas highlight show.
It was also time to stop the Chiefs before they could gain any momentum. What happens here is part of that; great plays often come from great fundamentals applied with great effort.
I’ve been an unabashed supporter of Derek Wolfe for quite some time now - I like his game. It might be easy to forget that I’ve also listed the concerns that I’ve had with his play, starting prior to the draft:
The first problem that I noticed with Wolfe was that oddly, despite his substantial college production and decent test times, he looked somewhat slower in the drills. He lacks some of the lower body development that I thought I’d see, based on the games I'd watched. Explosion, particularly on his first step, seemingly isn’t his forte, which is odd. I’ve seen him blow past an OL player, and I’ve seen him pretty much standing still when they got their hands into him, and I’m not sure which is the real Wolfe - probably both of them. He has several decent pass-rushing moves, including a nice rip move, and that’s not common among college players, but he also forgets how to use his hands and arms on other plays. That was true in the few games that I saw him - hardly enough for a full scouting report, but it matched well enough to those I have.
He cannot smoothly handle a double team and will often end up on the ground when faced with those - you can help him out schematically in degree, but that’s a problem at the next level. It’s back to his lack of good lower body strength and a resulting inability to anchor: his balance and ability to use leverage also play into that.
I’ve seen evidence of those pre-draft concerns at times this year, but I’ve also seen them diminishing.
In a column posted yesterday at Pro Football Focus, Ben Stockwell suggests that, outside of favorable matchups against the Chargers, Elvis Dumervil hasn’t done a very good job of rushing the passer this season.
It even discusses the idea that potential opponents might just try and shut down Miller (good luck there) and let the rest of the line try and beat them. I think that in this case, even PFF’s own stats show this to be a weak argument. So does the film.
In this explanation, I used some numbers that I took out of PFF's own website - an article from earlier in the week on pass rushing productivity on third and fourth downs. According to PFF, Miller is second in the league in total late down pressures, which isn’t surprising. Who’s tied for tenth? Elvis Dumervil, the player who supposedly isn’t performing well. This ignores, incidentally, the fact that Von and Elvis have each forced six fumbles - which only serves to expand the impact of their pressures.
I wrote recently about the little things that build up to make a good team great. Developmental players who can handle the lights and the pressure of an NFL game are among the keys to any team competing for a chance at the playoffs, and that’s Denver’s goal this season.
The first player I mentioned was Danny Trevathan. Partly, that’s because Trevathan has excited me since I sat down with three of his college games and watched him - his speed, his fearlessness, and his tackling fundamentals all stood out, and I saw a player with a ton of potential.
There was a scouting report comment, repeated by several reports (which might have taken it from the same scout - most teams buy either BLESTO or National’s scouting reports as well as employing their own guys) that Trevathan had trouble in zone coverage despite his quickness - he was too often caught looking at the QB’s eyes and not seeing his man coming into his zone. In one of his games, I saw him do it, too. That doesn’t mean that he hasn’t since been coached out of it.
For many years, Mike Ryoko was the best newspaper writer in Chicago. The City of the Big Shoulders lived and breathed in the artful, insightful prose that comprised Ryoko’s column. Much like Studs Terkel, Ryoko’s columns were about people - the famous, sometimes, sure.
He had a running battle going with corruption and political shenanigans, and Chicago never has had a shortage of either. But most of the columns were simply about working stiffs - the effect of things on the actual people who lived, worked, and paid their taxes to Chicago - those people that made the city possible. If you ever want a great read, his Chicago Confidential is still around.
Ryoko liked to tap out his columns on a portable typewriter, surrounded by a haze of tobacco smoke and the sounds of men drinking in a bar/restaurant located beneath State Street. Called the Billy Goat Tavern, it was the origin of the Saturday Night Live skit ‘Cheeseburger, Cheeseburger’ and also of the infamous Curse of the Billy Goat that troubled the Chicago Cubs for generations.
It’s often said that it’s the little things that count in life. By my count, during the Broncos' 36-14 win over the Panthers, there were five of them in particular that deserved a big pat on the back.
The first one hits big. He often plays big. He’s Danny Trevathan, the 6-1, 232-lb nickel- and dime-package linebacker whom the Broncos took as their sixth-round draft choice in April. It doesn’t take much knowledge of the game to notice that he’s usually around the ball at the tackle, and that he’s essentially fearless. Danny’s been getting into games in nickel and dime coverage, paired with his Kentucky fellow alum and super ‘backer, Wesley Woodyard.
Trevathan looked outright diminutive next to the 6-5, 255-lb Carolina tight end Greg Olsen. But discriminating fans may have noticed that after Olsen had gashed the Broncos early on, the team assigned Danny to cover Olsen, with immediate positive results. Trevathan did not shut him down, and he will learn a lot from the encounter, but it shows clearly the confidence Denver is developing in him. And, it was a pretty good start, given what he was being asked to do on the fly. Olsen wasn’t the guy he was mostly studying in film work last week, and the rookie still bothered the TE and made his job harder.
Some things came up during my time watching game film that made resting up this week less boring, so I thought I’d share them:
1. During the opening possession Sunday, Saints wideout Marques Colston ran a crossing route on 3rd and 3, and nickel linebacker Danny Trevathan dove to knock away the pass from Drew Brees, setting up the first punt of the game. Trevathan had three solo tackles plus that pass defensed in limited reps; it’s good to see him get onto the field. I think he has a bright future with Denver, and his excellent defense of a pass while in zone coverage - a weakness of his in college - suggests that he should.
I’m hoping that the team’s experience with Wesley Woodyard - seeing how that kind of drive, focus, and effort translates into production over time - should help shorten the duration before Danny sees more regular playing time. He also had one assisted tackle on special teams against NO; his reps with the nickel package were at MLB (according to PFF), so he’s been learning a new position. More power to him. He was on the field for nearly half the defensive snaps. John Fox’s comment on him was succinct: “I've been impressed with his development." Me, too.
Over the bye week, I turned my attention to the notes that I’ve made on the team. Just as the offense did, the Broncos have made key errors on defense that cost them some games.
They’ve also showed the ability to play better. Here are some thoughts on Jack Del Rio's crew:
1. Rookie Derek Wolfe has played every position along the line (including nose tackle on at least one play) and already has three sacks to his credit - he’s also setting the edge with increasing effectiveness. Teams are commonly double-teaming Wolfe and/or handing him off from one blocker to the next, but all that’s done is to create more options for Von Miller, Elvis Dumervil, and the other players.
Del Rio isn’t shy about using his own immense creativity in putting new pressure packages together, and he’s started to use defensive secondary players in his QB pressure schemes, which helps. Most defensive ends/tackles need a couple or more years to really mature, but Wolfe’s off to a fine start.
There's 12:37 remaining in the third quarter, with Denver facing 1st and 10 from their own 32-yard line. They’re up by only four points on the scoreboard, despite having dominated play on the field. A couple of errors have kept it close, but that’s about to change.
The Broncos are in 11 personnel, with Manning under center, Willis McGahee directly behind him, two wide receivers out to the offensive left, and WR Eric Decker to the right - the ‘z’ position. TE Jacob Tamme is tight to the line at the offensive right.
Having been picked apart by Peyton Manning in the first half, the Raiders are using a hybrid nickel defense. They have three down linemen up front, plus Lamarr Houston (99) standing at defensive left end; linebacker Rolando McClain (55) is shaded between center Dan Koppen and left guard Zane Beadles, while Philip Wheeler (52) is in a deep MLB position.
Fourth quarter, 12:20. Oakland’s trailing 34-6. They’re in 21 personnel, I formation with two WRs on the offensive left, starting from their own 39 at 1st and 10. Denver’s countering with man coverage on the WRs, a balanced-front defensive line, and Von Miller standing up as the RDE. Elvis Dumervil is at LDE, next to Mitch Unrein, and both are backed by LBs, with Champ Bailey behind them - an overload ensues on the defensive left. It’s a fake, but it draws lots of attention.