There were several brilliant performances by the Denver Broncos on Sunday night - from Peyton Manning, the defensive line, Von Miller, and Wesley Woodyard, among others. But despite the abundance of bright spots, the play of Tracy Porter still stands out.
I watched film of Porter from 2010 and 2011 and understood the one-year contract Denver gave him. He was very slender - skinny, really. He didn’t have the power or form to tackle right - often as not, he threw himself at opponents' ankles and hoped for the best. He struggled with run support and had to battle in press coverage.
This year, he looks like a different player physically. His positives from earlier were that he has a textbook backpedal, was and is cheetah fast, flips his hips beautifully, and takes smart gambles. Those attributes are still present, and Jack Del Rio and defensive backs coach Ron Milus have him wrapping up, driving upward, and tackling hard. They haven’t tried to pull him back when it’s time to gamble, either.
Like other quarterbacks will do, Ben Roethlisberger appeared to make a concerted effort to throw against Porter in man coverage, and only threw to Champ Bailey's side when the Broncos used a zone defense. It’s exactly what Denver brought Porter in to do. They needed an experienced NFL cornerback with an aggressive attitude and a short memory - every CB gets beaten. You can’t let it affect you.
Like a lot of folks, I tend to spend what time I have to watch television on things like programs on nature, astronomy, history, et cetera.
I recently caught a program that dealt with wolves, and found that they’re remarkable animals. They live in a complex society: they have a clear social hierarchy, an extensive symbolic language, and are beautiful to watch. Wolves generally hunt in packs - they work synergistically with each other to bring down prey quickly and safely (for them).
Wolves also commonly attack their prey from behind, jumping on their backs to bring them down or hamstringing them to prevent them from getting away before the full pack attacks.
Broncos defensive lineman Derek Wolfe may have seen the same program. No question, he lived much of it Week 1 against Pittsburgh; his impact on the game was first demonstrated with 9:42 remaining in the first quarter Sunday night.
One of the goals that Von Miller has set for his sophomore NFL season is to improve both his run defense and pass coverage.
We’ve already looked at a run play where he showed that improvement - now let’s take a peek at some simple things that he - and the rest of the Broncos - have done to improve in pass defense.
13:39 remains in the second quarter of the preseason game against San Francisco, and the 49ers have scored a touchdown in response to 17 straight points from the Broncos.
If things go well this season, Denver will be facing a lot of obvious passing downs in just such a position - playing with a lead while the opponent tries to get back into the game. It’s 3rd and 6, and the 49ers have driven deep into Broncos territory - they’re on the 15-yard line, and they are seeking either a touchdown or a first down.
Jack Del Rio has made no bones about it - he wants to increase the defense’s pressure on opposing offensive lines.
That pressure will affect the passing game by sacking, hurrying, and harassing the quarterback, making the job of the secondary easier. It also affects the run game, creating more tackles for loss, and more hits and tackles made at or near the line of scrimmage. Even in the simplified world of preseason football, the approaches Denver will take showed glimpses of themselves.
For a prime example, let's review a sack from two weeks ago by Elvis Dumervil against the 49ers and QB Alex Smith.
With 10:36 to go in the first quarter, the 49ers are down 3-0 and facing third and six - a tough down to achieve - and usually an obvious passing down. The 49ers are in a shotgun 11 formation with three wideouts, and Frank Gore alongside quarterback Alex Smith in the backfield.
Now that Denver has finalized its 53-man roster and is about to complete its practice squad, I had an urge to take a quick look at the two drafts overseen by John Elway’s front office group.
Elway has been very clear that this team needed at least three years to rebuild, and that he has planned to do so via the draft.
So far, so good.
They’ve achieved what seems to be an unusually high percentage of success so far. It’s early, though - drafts are usually best considered after three years.
What follows is just a glance at ‘so far’.
For well over a decade now, Peyton Manning's litany of skills has kept him in the conversation regarding who is the best quarterback in the NFL. He may have had four surgeries on his neck, and he’s 36 years old now, but if the topic is his supposed deterioration, try telling it to the 49ers starting defense he dismantled on Sunday.
One of those skills is the ball-handling required in using play-action to freeze defenses. With the running ability of Willis McGahee (and Ronnie Hillman in the wings), defenses have an even greater reason to respect Manning’s play-action passing.
When Manning moves to a no-huddle offense, the value of play-action becomes even greater - defenses have far less time (if any) for substitutions, so the balance that’s always a goal of John Fox's offense becomes an even greater weapon for Denver. Whether the Broncos want to run or pass, they’ve got an effective and productive scheme in place. Stopping the offense becomes more difficult still when any adjustments made by the defense end up being read and turned against them when Manning audibles.
I really didn’t know much about Manny Ramirez until recently. That’s no shock - he was out of football entirely for much of 2010 before Denver signed him to a future contract in January of 2011. He played in two games for Denver last year and was inactive for the other sixteen games, including playoffs.
But because Manny’s stepping in for Chris Kuper until Kupe’s forearm heals, I took a long look at his performance against San Francisco on Sunday.
Backstory: Manny was chosen by Detroit in the fourth round (117th overall) of the 2007 Draft. He appeared in one game as a rookie on special teams, then moved up to playing in four games the next year, three of them starts - two at right guard, one at left guard. He didn’t have a penalty, but gave up two sacks. The following year, things changed.
Von Miller, with a Defensive Rookie of the Year award already on his mantle, has decided that he’s going to become a complete linebacker, and he’s been vocal about it.
He feels that he needs to add skills in run stopping and in coverage, and there’s little disagreement that he needs to. He’s already one of the best rushing linebackers in the game, and with work, I believe that he can become one of the top LBs of this decade. He showed progress in both areas of emphasis during the first half of Sunday’s game against the 49ers. Today, let’s look at how he’s improving in run defense.
The sun is pounding down through the Mile High air, it's over 100 degrees on the field, and Peyton Manning has just directed the Broncos to a 3-0 lead. The kickoff by Matt Prater sails through the end zone, and the 49ers take over on offense at their own 20-yard line.
On Friday, we examined a fine play made by Nate Irving in run defense against the Seahawks, and promised we'd analyze the play which immediately followed. Unfortunately for Robert Ayers, what we'll find explains why he's dropped on this year’s depth chart.
I’ve supported Ayers in the past, but whether you agreed or disagreed, I could always show you why I felt that way on game film. During this training camp, Jack Del Rio talked about Ayers’s need to focus - on his play and on the things that he can control - not on those he cannot. What follows is an example of what JDR was talking about:
Seattle is facing second down with eight yards to gain, and Denver is in its base Cover 2 defensive alignment; Ayers is at the right defensive end position. Elvis Dumervil may be getting a few less reps there as the Broncos search out ways to bolster their run defense, which Ayers has always been good at. The Seahawks are in 12 personnel with the quarterback Russell Wilson under center and two tight ends on the offensive right.
At the 13:33 mark of the third quarter during Saturday's preseason game against Seattle, the Broncos defense found themselves in a familiar position: facing a team that, like their own offense, runs a zone blocking scheme. On the first of back-to-back zone-blocked running plays, Nate Irving sliced through the OL to stop the run, and then David Bruton came up from his safety slot to stop Robert Turbin for a four-yard gain on the second.
Following that second play, Ed McCaffrey made a comment about something that I'd like to cover - he noted that along the Seattle offensive line, each of the players was performing a reach block. What the heck is a reach block, and what does it have to do with zone blocking? Let’s use the first of these two plays as our example. I’ll talk about the second in a subsequent piece.
A reach block is a simple technique that’s used when a lineman has to block an opponent who's either in the gap next to him, or lined up on the teammate next to him. It’s employed when the play is going to require the second blocker (the RG in the diagram below) to move towards a different responsibility - either as part of a full-line zone blocking scheme or perhaps when the second blocker is going to be pulling toward the play side. The reach block is an essential skill for an offensive lineman.