Happy Monday Night, or Tuesday morning, or whenever you it is that you read this. A funny sidebar just occurred to me, as I embark upon this throwaway paragraph. I always say Happy Monday, or whatever, which long-time readers will recognize going back to my ST&NO days on Mile High Report. It was recently pointed out to me at work that my use of that greeting convention is rubbing off, and that other people are starting emails that way too. I can get colleagues to write and speak like me without trying, but I have a harder time getting them to do what I ask in the actual emails. You know, like sell new business, and get new projects underway. It’s funny how the power of suggestion works.
For those who are joining me now, welcome. Hopefully there’s no puking today, but if there is, oh well. Don’t read me, and just forget I exist. Sunday’s game between the Broncos and Titans was instructive on several levels, and yields a lot of good discussion points. As usual, this will not be a reiteration of anybody else’s points, and if somebody else agrees with me, that just means they’re right, and they should be very proud of that fact. (Picture me smirking hugely for the benefit of my critics right now. I’m here to tell you, it’s happening.)
1. I’ve been a Broncos fan since 1987, and I’ve never considered them a tough or physical team. There have been a few seasons where they’re tough and physical enough, but not really any where they were too much above average in those categories. Mostly, though, they’ve leaned toward being smaller and softer, and playing a heavily finesse-oriented game. It doesn’t make me particularly happy to say that about my favorite team, but it’s true.
It’s not that finesse can’t win, because it clearly can sometimes. I just consider it to be a football truth that if you can choose to win by being physical, or by executing precisely, it’s better to choose physicality. I believe that physicality translates better to the various states of football weather, and also that it absorbs the effects of injuries better than a finesse orientation. Physical teams seem to get less worn down late in seasons, too.
The 2008 Broncos were very finesse oriented on both sides of the football, and upon his hiring, Josh McDaniels said that it was a big priority for him to get bigger and more physical on both lines. He also said that the team would be practicing in pads and hitting much more than they were used to during the Shanahan years. This is part of a major philosophical change, and a lot of Broncos fans, and especially the local media have really struggled with understanding and accepting it.
As McDaniels started cleaning house, there was howling. Starting with the Goodmans in the front office, and continuing with some coaches, there was howling. Then players like Jay Cutler, Brandon Marshall, Tony Scheffler and others, there has been relentless howling. When McDaniels dared to trade away St. Peyton Hillis, the patron saint of white halfbacks, people went ballistic, and still continue to. This is a much different team than the 2008 version, and while it may seem like an axe was taken to that roster, I’d say that it was more like a chisel.
I made the point on Saturday during my pretend temper tantrum that the Broncos have retained a pretty good number of starters from the Mike Shanahan era:
The starters who are leftover from the Shanahan era, like Ryan Clady, Ryan Harris, Chris Kuper, Eddie Royal, Elvis Dumervil, D.J. Williams, Champ Bailey, and Matt Prater don’t matter, because they mostly don’t figure into fantasy football, except for Royal and Prater.
Those were the guys who played the game the way McDaniels wants to play it. He’s Bill Parcells’ coaching grandson, and he wants to buy the groceries. He kept those guys, who are all Pro Bowl caliber players, incidentally, and he brought in a lot more of his kind of guys. The result is that we now have a physical, hard-nosed football team. Last year’s version was trying to be that, and was almost that, but didn’t quite have the bodies for it. This year’s team is the real deal, though. We learned that for sure on Sunday.
I’m not saying that the Broncos are on the level with the Steelers or Ravens yet, but they’re on the way. They’re in the next class of teams, along with the vanquished Titans. Remember last season when the Broncos went to Baltimore with a 6-0 record, and got physically dominated? I don’t expect that to happen this season. I expect that it will be an extremely physical game, and one that features a lot of discipline and intelligent play from both sides. More on that later.
For now, I’m glad that the Broncos got settled in on the offensive line, and toughened up in protection as the game progressed. Even though that group played poorly in the running game, it wasn’t for lack willingess to hit. They kept on coming all game, and I was very pleased to see that.
This is a physical Broncos football team, and I expect the team to continue to benefit from that. I was really happy to hear Josh McDaniels say today that the team would be in pads this week to prepare for the Ravens. They’d better be ready to hit, because there’s going to be some hitting out there.
2. I tweeted the following during the 4th quarter Sunday:
The Broncos nearly converted the play, but Jabar Gaffney couldn’t quite catch a low throw, and he was probably out of bounds anyway. I followed with the following:
As promised, here’s why it was the right call. The score was 20-16 Titans, and the Broncos had 4th and 3 from the 4, with about 4:40 to go.
a. The math was unquestionably in the Broncos favor. According to Advanced NFL Stats, you should go for it inside the 10 on all situations up to 4th and 4. (If you’re closer than the 10, the applicable distance to go increases. See the chart on slide 16 of the white background slideshow at the bottom.) Brian Burke’s work on expected points goes way beyond even my more basic (but mathematically correct) thinking around portfolio theory, and expected return. My way only compares expected return on goal-to-go situations, where there’s probabilities to score TDs, score FGs, or get nothing. Burke has figured an Expected Points value for each yard line on the field, and it factors in the likelihood that the opponent will score from the yard line they take over at if you miss. This is very important. In any case, by my math or Burke’s you always go for it in that situation, except in special cases, like a 1 point deficit with 6 seconds to go. When you’re down 4, it’s never even worth a thought. You go for it, period.
b. I mentioned that it’s important where the other team takes over when you turn the ball over on downs. When Tennessee took over at its own 4, they were severely limited in their options. This is true of any team, but it’s especially true about Tennessee. They want to run the clock out, so they’ll probably run, but with some teams, you’d need to be worried about play action to get some breathing room. With Vince Young, that’s not going to happen. From the 20, they may run an option or something, but not from the 4.
The Broncos just had to play the run like they’d played it all day, which is to say, set the edge, and funnel it back inside, and then tackle well. The negative starting field position made it more likely that the Broncos would stop the Titans, and then subsequently get good field position for a final shot at the end zone.
c. The Broncos failed to cover kickoffs well Sunday, as they have all season. That makes a reasonable person think that the Titans starting field position would be favorable, as they embarked on protecting a 20-19 lead.
Coaches ought to go for it on 4th down more often in general, and Josh McDaniels seems to get this. It’s not like the research is hard to find online, and McDaniels has a math degree from John Carroll University, which is an above average school about 10 miles from where I live. I’m glad to see that he understands probability, and has the gumption to put it to work.
3. The Broncos have now scored in the final 2 minutes of the first half of each of their first 4 games this season. That is a sign of excellent coaching, folks. Josh McDaniels did make a mistake in calling a timeout with 28 seconds left before kicking a field goal, and he was forthcoming and accountable about that. Chances are that the Titans would have called one, but it’s still better to make them use it. Aside from that, the Broncos haven’t mismanaged the clock all season. Anybody who suggests otherwise doesn’t understand clock management. (Of course, that encompasses most people.)
4. Robert Ayers is having a great second season. He was absolutely dominant on Sunday in the running game, and the Titans never really got him blocked in the entire game. Ayers isn’t sacking the QB at a tremendously high rate yet, but he wasn’t really drafted to do that. He was drafted to be a 3-down strongside player, and he’s been every bit of that. The scheme that Mike Nolan installed last season, and that Don Martindale has taken over and adapted sets an extremely high premium on the ability to set the edge in the running game. Remember my diagram from Saturday?
You see that? You didn’t need to remember it. I just showed it to you again. I love myself, and my diagrams sooooo much. There was a point, and I just remembered what it was. Luckily, it’s still valid. Those areas outside the TE (or lack thereof) called the Edges are really large, from 10-30 yards wide, depending on where you line up between the hashmarks. Both an offensive and a defensive player are trying to “set the edge”, which means to engage the other player, and push him backward. The offensive guy wants to push the defensive guy toward the sideline, or put him on the ground. The defensive guy is trying to push the offensive guy toward the middle of the field, thus narrowing the angle that a RB has to run toward, and funneling him back toward the help in the middle.
Teams which Chris Johnson runs wild on fail to set the edge effectively, and get moving laterally too much against the Titans’ zone-blocking line. Ayers was destroying Bo Scaife and David Stewart Sunday, and preventing the line from moving to the right, thus disrupting the whole scheme. Jason Hunter, Justin Bannan, and Jamal Williams were really good too, but Ayers was the defensive player of the game to me. He’s been doing this all season, and it was a big part of helping me to see the future on Saturday.
Tangentially, Peter King had a pretty stupid comment in MMQB today, while trying to clumsily compliment Kyle Orton and/or criticize Jay Cutler. He said that the Broncos have drafted poorly with the picks received in the Cutler deal, which betrays his utter lack of understanding of the game, unless somebody tells him. Nothing new there, of course. There were a lot of trades the last two drafts, but the Broncos essentially got Kyle Orton, Robert Ayers, Demaryius Thomas, and Richard Quinn for Jay Cutler and Johnny Knox. I’d do that deal every day of the week if I’m the Broncos, even if Quinn isn’t getting much done this season.
5. Dan Gronkowski was absolutely terrible at FB Sunday. This is an underrated story, but one that I’ll be exploring at length in the next day or two. I just wanted to leave you with that throught for now.
Next time I have time, I’ll be talking about the Broncos running game specifically, as well as some general schematic ideas for the Ravens game. To give you a preview, I think the Broncos can win the game, and I’ll have specific reasons why. Have a good Tuesday, friends.
Originally posted at One Man Football