Game Previews

Digesting the Saints defense

Happy Thursday, friends.  I have a few minutes to cook up a bite-size nugget, so open up.  I had occasion to watch the Saints-Bucs game on Wednesday night, and the most noticeable thing is that the Saints defense is atrocious.

To that end, they’re 32nd in total defense, 30th against the pass, 31st against the run, and 29th in scoring defense.  It’s a complete horror show.

I don’t think too highly of Steve Spagnuolo as a coach, because I think his defenses have tended to be very good when his talent is great.  It’s easy to have a team with a great pass rush when you have Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora, Mathias Kiwanuka, and Justin Tuck.  I don’t think he’s ever elevated marginal talent through excellent scheming, like, say, Mike Nolan or Rex Ryan.

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Digesting Broncos @ Chargers, Week 6

Happy Football Monday, friends.  For the first time ever, in five seasons of writing about football, I have two posts in the same calendar day.  I’ve come a long way from writing one 8,000-word ST&NO every week.  Today, briefly, I want to cover a few things that I think will be important in tonight’s game.

1.  Sam Monson of PFF wrote a good article for ESPN Insider today that talked about Philip Rivers’s struggles against pressure this season.  Per Monson:

Since the start of the 2011 season, though, his completion percentage has dropped to 45.3 percent and he has thrown almost twice the number of interceptions (nine) to touchdowns (five). His throws under pressure have also been graded negatively overall by Pro Football Focus for the first seasons since we started grading (2008).

The Broncos have some horses in the pass rush game, and the Chargers are looking like they’re going to be personnel-challenged at OT tonight.  Jared Gaither really solidified the left side for San Diego last season, but he’s expected to miss the game.  Jeromey Clary is pretty terrible on the right side.

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Digesting the Chargers Offense

Happy Thursday, friends.  I thought I’d take a few minutes today to talk about the Chargers offense, and how the Broncos can best contain it.  They did a pretty solid job against them in San Diego last November, holding Philip Rivers and Company to thirteen points, and in a general way, Monday will see a stronger Broncos defense playing against a weaker Chargers offense.

Mr. Rivers has always reminded me of Bernie Kosar, and I think his game is slipping in his early 30s, similarly to how Kosar’s did.  His numbers aren’t that bad so far in 2012, but I just don’t see the same guy on video that I saw three or four years ago.

The receiving group that Rivers is working with is diminished from 2011, too.  Losing Vincent Jackson and replacing him with Robert Meachem is a bad deal.  Eddie Royal, nice guy that he is, still struggles to get open against a zone defense.  An underrated loss in the Chargers’ passing game is running back Mike Tolbert, who caught 54 passes for the Bolts last season.  His replacement, Jackie Battle, doesn’t have that kind of receiving skill, and he has just six catches for 49 yards in five games.

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Thoughts on scheming against New England

Happy Sunday, friends.  It's been a hellacious week for me, and it's been a few days since I've had time to write.  I decided to share some thoughts today on how the Broncos should try to match up with New England today.  Obviously, these are two good teams who both find themselves with 2-2 records, and this game will likely end up influencing the AFC playoff picture.

First of all, let's say something that's obvious, but that Broncos fans willfully choose to get wrong.  The Patriots are extremely well-coached and schemed on both sides of the ball.  Bill Belichick gets a lot of credit, but quite a few Broncos fans are wrongly convinced that Josh McDaniels is a bad coach.  The Patriots had a couple three-and-outs early last week against Buffalo, and I saw a couple Broncos fans on Twitter saying it was the "McDaniels effect."  The Patriots then promptly scored six straight touchdowns, and swamped the Bills.

Let's take a look at what the Patriots are doing on both sides of the ball, and think about how the Broncos can find success against them.

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Digesting the Raiders

Week 4 will feature the much-hated traditional division rival Oakland Raiders coming into Mile High, still feeling good about their come-from-behind win over Pittsburgh. Denver is coming off a tough loss to the Houston Texans, falling short by six points for the second time in two weeks to teams that remain undefeated. Both the Broncos and Raiders see an opportunity to rack up a divisional win in the AFC West. Let’s go through the two teams.

Key Points: Oakland on Offense

The Raiders come in with the same 1-2 record that Denver has, with both teams’ wins having come against Pittsburgh. The Raiders have struggled to throw for distance, as shown by quarterback Carson Palmer’s 1-of-10 completions for 21 yards when throwing long (20 or more yards). He hasn’t thrown long for a TD, but has an interception when trying to go deep.

Darrius Heyward-Bey appears to have dodged a huge bullet after a frightening cervical injury last week, but he wasn’t helping them in the long game either. Denver should be able to maintain that tendency: Their pass rush appears stronger than the Raiders’ line, and cornerback Tracy Porter is expected to return to the lineup after a brief scare with what turned out to be a bruised knee.

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Digesting the inside zone runs of the Raiders

Against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Raiders were already down an early touchdown when Darren McFadden took a simple zone-blocking play and ran it 65 yards into the end zone. It’s basic ZB technique, and the Broncos will need to make sure that they’re disciplined in their gaps and able to both fight through the line’s blocks and to make sure that the safety has upfield containment to combat it.

Pittsburgh failed on both aspects, and the result will always be the same, no matter who’s running this basic play. Denver uses it, and so do many teams around the league. It’s also part of how Arian Foster has been burning the league for three seasons.

Here’s the basic lineup: Pittsburgh is in their classic, Okie-based odd-front defense. They’ve got three down linemen and two OLBs, spread wide this time. The ILBs are in their standard, base positioning. The Raiders are in 11 personnel and face 1st and 10 at their own 35. Their formation pulls one safety off into coverage, leaving only Ryan Mundy to handle the deep middle.

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Digesting the Falcons

The Broncos are in Atlanta for their first road contest tonight and a meeting with the Falcons, a very good team whose drafting and team development approaches I've followed for years.

The modern version of their franchise was built first by Rich McKay, who’s still the president and CEO, and developed more recently by GM Thomas Dimitroff, who’s a top young executive. Between them, they’ve put together a team that has an excellent offense and a defense that’s good, but is also vulnerable.

Last week, Atlanta lost Brent Grimes, their top cornerback, for the season with a torn Achilles tendon. They’ve signed former Colts corner Terrence Johnson, but 2009 third-rounder Chris Owens, who's never lived up to the Falcons' expectations, is expected to be their nickel corner tonight.

Let's take a look at the rest of Atlanta's roster to see what the Broncos are up against:

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Doc’s Pregame Thoughts: Week 1 vs Steelers

Come Sunday night, Denver is facing their first game of the Manning Era, and the offense will probably will still have a few wrinkles to try out. On the other side of the ball, the loss of both S Ryan Clark and ROLB James Harrison (Harrison is presumably, according to his own Twitter account, not going to play) should hurt the Steelers. So might the uncertainty of how to defend against a scheme that no one has seen, although much of the run game will be similar to plays that Denver ran in 2011. 
 
One side story that interests me is this:  I thought Dick LeBeau (to whom I wish a happy 75th birthday today) seemed to utterly  blow his defensive coordinator role in the Wild Card game last season. I'm sure that he's redoing that entire issue to match what he sees in Denver's new look and he's hoping that he understands essentially what the Broncos will be bringing. Denver has gone vanilla on both sides of the ball in preseason, as you'd expect, and I'm not sure that we've seen anything like what McCoy/Fox/Manning have concocted for the Steelers to defend. Todd Haley will have some wrinkles of his own, but not to the same degree. The Steelers tend to stay within their standard scheme - run the power game and trust in Ben Roethlisberger's arm. I haven’t read or seen any indication that they’ll change a great deal. 

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Five things you can watch while everyone else is busy talking about Peyton Manning’s arm strength

We get it. The big topic tonight will be the strength of Peyton Manning's arm. Does he have it?  Did he ever lose it?  When will he get it?   

That's fine if all you want is a casual relationship with the Denver Broncos.  But if what you're looking for is a passionate affair--and I'm talking hot, steamy friction--then take your eyes off Manning's member (his arm, dude), and keep your eyes out for a few other things tonight:

Personnel Packages

  • Do the Broncos feature three wide receivers and one tight end? Or do they experiment with a larger package?
  • How often do you see the fullback in the play? Does he function as a tight end?
  • Remember, one way to gauge this is to think of the simple three-number system that goes: RBs-TEs-WRs.  So if you see the Broncos with a tailback, a tight end, and three wideouts, you can simply write it (or say it before the play) as: 113.  Since we're always going to see (generally) two tackles, two guards, a center, and a quarterback, your three numbers will always add up to five.  How the packages are used can provide you some insight into the Broncos' strategy this year.  If you want to use the two-number system, just drop off the last number; it will be implied.  So the example above would be 11 personnel.

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Thoughts on the Patriots game

Happy Friday, friends.  I’ve spent all week (9 to 5 every day) in an SAP workshop that’s part of my MBA program, and it’s had me busy day and night.  (I don’t know why I expected different, but I did.)  As such, I haven’t had much time to write or watch film lately.  I haven’t seen any Patriots stuff since they played the Broncos, so I don’t have any great new insight to offer on that front.  What I was thinking I’d do is share some strategy thoughts for tomorrow night’s game, heavily leveraging what I saw four weeks ago and what I’ve seen lately from the Broncos.  Something is better than nothing, right?  For more detail, you can refer to my Digesting piece from a month ago.

The Broncos finally hit some throws against heavy boxes against Pittsburgh, and it won them the game, obviously.  I didn’t expect Pittsburgh to play the Broncos any differently than they play anybody else, but they did.  They played a lot of nine in the box, and they played their CBs in man coverage, which isn’t their strength.  I don’t think that Dick LeBeau had a particularly good plan, and I think that Mike McCoy had a very good plan.

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