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.
For the past three seasons, David Bruton has toiled in relative obscurity for the Denver Broncos. Despite being arguably their best special teamer, the fact that he doesn’t start at safety has led to his game sometimes being dissed and other times being ignored outright.
Early in training camp some people were already counting him off the final roster. During the Seattle game on Saturday night, Bruton showed what a mistake that view has been.
When Denver selected David 114th overall in 2009, they did so partly on the basis of his 4.46 speed, and also for his leadership; Bruton had been a captain during his senior season. He was commonly described as ‘raw’ back then, and the draftniks’ book on him was that he could be an excellent special teams player immediately and might develop the chops to start at safety over time. He’s become a force on special teams since then, working as the personal escort of the returner on some plays and as a gunner on others.
My previous two looks at the Broncos' preseason-opening win over the Bears covered big plays from rookies Danny Trevathan and Steven Johnson. You could easily see how the design of each play facilitated their success - provided the linebackers were alert, quick, and effective enough. They were, and if those are the backups, it could be a fun year.
For our next analysis, I’d like to take on a similar play that was successful due to the pure effort of one player - defensive end Jeremy Beal.
A disappointing Combine dropped Jeremy to the seventh round of the 2011 Draft, and Denver's depth at the position relegated the former Sooner to the practice squad last year.
Of course, he's still stuck behind Elvis Dumervil and Robert Ayers, and Von Miller slides over to a DE function on most passing/nickel downs. Jason Hunter was threatening to think people into the corn fields until he tore his triceps, and now Derek Wolfe is at Hunter’s position - Beal’s task in making the squad isn’t easy, but just improved.
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.
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.