8:17 remains in the fourth quarter of the Broncos' 31-3 preseason-opening victory over the Bears. Matt Blanchard is Chicago's quarterback and has his guys in a 113 (sometimes called ‘Posse’) shotgun formation, with his running back to his right and tight end Evan Rodriguez (88) outside the left offensive tackle, which creates the closed side* of the formation.
Earlier in the week came news that the Raiders had chosen to lower their blackout threshold. As a Broncos fan, I'm used to watching a franchise that has an infinitesimal chance of needing to manipulate the blackout rule, but living in San Diego for the last few years has afforded me an up-close view of a franchise that struggles to sell tickets despite having been fairly successful for much of the last decade.
While I understand that to the NFL, control of the product is considered an important linchpin in maintaining their revenue stream, I don't think that teams comprehend the basis for why the blackout rule is bad for both the teams and the fans. I’ve lived here for four years, and I have yet to hear anyone say, “Hey, I want to get to the game this weekend because they’re going to black it out otherwise.”
The truth is, in San Diego you’re fighting a beach-oriented culture in which schoolkids are bussed to the shore for surfing classes, street fairs can pop up at any time because there really isn’t a bad weather season, and the local NFL franchise really isn’t a big draw. The media coverage isn’t exactly fertile, and despite my own interest in the game, I rarely meet a serious Chargers fan. Contrary to some of my experiences on the Internet, the ones that i meet tend to be, well, SoCal folks - laidback, not that attached or as used to the teams’ shenanigans as Chicago's North Siders were to the losing ways of the Cubs.
The Broncos have just capped off a seven-play, 52-yard drive with a Xavier Omon touchdown run to extend their lead to 17-0 over the Bears. After the ensuing kickoff, the Bears have the ball on their own 23-yard line with 6:23 to go in the third quarter of Thursday's preseason opener.
The Bears are arranged in a 21 (regular) ‘I’ formation with the tight end on the offensive left. The handoff will be going to #25, tailback Armando Allen, who is intended to follow his fullback and hit the closed side (the one with the tight end) of the formation. The fullback is to fake a block to the strong side and then cut back to the weak side for his blocking assignment. The tight end will help double-team the right defensive end along with the left tackle, or take on the safety if he cheats up.
Denver is in one of their 4-3 defensive fronts, this time using the (traditional) Will (Nate Irving, #56) in a two-point stance at the right end of the DL. From Irving, top to bottom, are right defensive end Cyril Obiozor (54), tackles Ben Garland (63) and Sealver Siliga (98), and left defensive end Jamie Blatnick (77). The four defensive linemen and the Will linebacker want to engage with the entire offensive line including the TE, unless he releases. Irving would take him in that event.
When Mike Shanahan was fired by the Broncos, he left behind a team that was a shell of its former self. The players who had been stallions during the Super Bowl years were long gone. The defensive players who remained were, they said publicly, treated as second-class citizens.
The roster was depleted in multiple areas and then a young former offensive coordinator tried to move the team to a reflection of the 3-4 system that he’d just left, but without the kind of players who made that system work. The offense wasn’t exactly loaded, either. A lot of things were missing on defense during that transition - stronger players, workable draft picks, a middle linebacker who keeps his helmet on, common sense - but one vacancy stood out as the roster was changed over:
It means linebackers with the legs to catch a returner in the open field, or to give cornerbacks a shot at covering the multiple players they are matched up against in passing situations. It means backside pursuit and pass rushers who can reach the quarterback before he can carve up the secondary. It’s essential to the new concept of Broncos defense that John Fox and Jack Del Rio will be implementing this season - which, whatever else is true, will require a faster pocket pressure with quicker linebackers and better defensive backfield speed.
In Thursday morning’s practice, Peyton Manning was tossing long touchdown passes to Demaryius Thomas without any visible strain. After months of people guessing at what percentage of fully healed and recovered his neck, brachial plexus, and arm strength might be, the question is unofficially over. He’s not as strong as he will be, but it no longer matters. He can make any throw, and he can put the ball into the hands of his deep receivers without difficulty. His short and intermediate throws are on target, quick, and accurate. Beyond that, the improvements will make what’s already remarkable even more effective.
As camp continues on into the start of the season, Manning will continue to gain in strength and accuracy as he follows the rehabilitation program that his doctors have set up for him. His receivers will be tasked with running routes precisely and hitting the right spot exactly on time. To do that, several skills will be necessary - the ability to beat press coverage off the line, the ability to gain separation from the coverage, and the hands to make sure that the drops that are part of developing the connection between QB and wide receiver are a thing of the past.
Brian Dawkins visited Dove Valley on Sunday to talk with Rahim Moore, among others. He told him:
Rahim, you’re not a scary guy. You like to hit, but sometimes, you've got to know when to make the big hit.
It’s sage advice. If there’s anyone who knows about creating intimidation, it was ‘Wolverine’. With Quinton Carter’s hamstring injury holding him out, Moore has an excellent opportunity to up his game and nail down one of the safety slots. It’s nice to see Rahim coming back into his own. He was tossed into the fire too quickly last year, and it shook his confidence. The team did a nice job of helping him rebuild it in the offseason.
Mitch Unrein was characterized by Neil Hornsby of Pro Football Focus as getting more and more snaps and moving up in the rotation by the quality of his play. Unrein has apparently been putting an ‘Eaton beatin’ on the players they put in front of him. I love seeing a guy come from a humble start in the league and develop the way Mitch seems to be doing. Unrein’s another lunchpail, bluecollar guy who can improve your DT rotation.
Of training camp performance evaluations, Denver's new defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio has said,
Really...right now you can't put too much stock in the depth chart.
Offense or defense, he’s right. You can’t write a camp update without talking about how the players are doing, but in the first week of camp, it’s good to remember that many of the updates are describing what will not be permanent moves.
There’s a long way to go, and the team is going to try plenty of different looks; several won’t mean much over time. Some guys are getting looked at for positions that they will take over as the preseason unwinds, but many of the changes are just ways of exploring options. What’s more important right now is watching to see what the players have as their strengths and weaknesses when going up against each other, to decide who fits where. Next Thursday, the players will get to show how far they’ve come in Chicago against the Bears, who have improved their team since the 2011 season.
It creeps up on me every year: last Wednesday was Walter Payton’s birthday, and that’s something I like to celebrate.
He would have been 58.
Walter was cut down far too early of a rare autoimmune liver disease known as primary sclerosing cholangitis, which may have led to his cholangiocarcinoma (bile duct cancer). But it’s his birth, rather than his death, that I like to remember. Somehow, I will always recall Payton as a man in his prime, exuberantly full of life.
He was not the first great running back I ever saw. I’ve been watching football for over five decades now, and I’ve seen a lot of the great backs, including watching Gale Sayers at Wrigley Field when I was still small.
Back then, football was just discovering the power of television to capture viewers with new angles and shots. They were starting to follow the players who controlled the path of the ball, finding new perspectives to show the big hits and big plays, so running backs got an increasing amount of airtime. I watched so many great ones - Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith, Eric Dickerson. More recently, I’ve gotten to enjoy the power and skill of Terrell Davis, Mike Anderson, LaDainian Tomlinson and countless others. Payton was perhaps the best of them all, and for far more reasons than just his running skills. They called him ‘Sweetness’, and he was every bit of that.
The first week of training camp is too early to tell most things. There were some things that stood out, though, and these seemed to be worth watching:
1. Friday was only Day 2, but second-round draft pick Derek Wolfe was turning some heads with his intensity and focus. He’s been running with the second unit as the RDE, but given the talent in front of him, I would have been shocked if they started him any higher. He’s going to have to put on some muscle weight to make it into the interior on the first two downs, but he was placed with the first team nickel unit in Friday’s work. That’s a place that he might get some reps this season - it suits his quickness and technique.
I’ve been following Derek as much as possible and he’s made it clear that unlike a lot of defensive linemen just out of college, he understands that what he’s doing is technique intensive, technique dependent. That’s going to serve him well. He also seems to have a heck of an attitude - prepared, hard working, and totally committed. This is not a guy I’d worry about off the field - he’s busy. He’s working out, studying the playbook, or studying film. When guys in the offseason tweet about commitment on Saturday night, or talk about how they were just getting back from working out, it’s a good sign.
Picking up from where we left off on Monday, let's take a closer look at the play of Eric Decker.
I found a good article by Matt Waldman about Decker from last July, in which he compares the wideout's skill set with that of teammate and fellow 2009 draftee Demaryius Thomas, along with a highlight film breakdown of the strengths of Decker’s game. I liked it, even though it's from a year ago, when people still had some understandable concerns about Thomas’s Achilles injury and his overall health.
I don’t see much value in comparing the two to each other, beyond the sheer fun of perhaps passing an afternoon at a sunny table in the bar area of your friendly local brewpub, while sampling the offerings of the season. Much like those beers themselves, Decker and Thomas each have strengths and weaknesses. Broncos fans have yet to see both of them healthy and receiving passes from a top NFL quarterback.
Like most of us, I’m looking forward to the experience.