I wrote recently about the little things that build up to make a good team great. Developmental players who can handle the lights and the pressure of an NFL game are among the keys to any team competing for a chance at the playoffs, and that’s Denver’s goal this season.
The first player I mentioned was Danny Trevathan. Partly, that’s because Trevathan has excited me since I sat down with three of his college games and watched him - his speed, his fearlessness, and his tackling fundamentals all stood out, and I saw a player with a ton of potential.
There was a scouting report comment, repeated by several reports (which might have taken it from the same scout - most teams buy either BLESTO or National’s scouting reports as well as employing their own guys) that Trevathan had trouble in zone coverage despite his quickness - he was too often caught looking at the QB’s eyes and not seeing his man coming into his zone. In one of his games, I saw him do it, too. That doesn’t mean that he hasn’t since been coached out of it.
If a player can handle the treatment that comes with hard NFL coaching, he can come a long way in a short period of time. Jack Del Rio is that kind of coach. Since John Fox is the kind of head coach who wants to see on film the reasons that he should put a certain player out onto the field, all the positive plays on film can increase his playing time.
An excellent example of this took place during Denver's Week 10 win over the Panthers. Carolina TE Greg Olsen had a stellar day, with nine receptions for 102 yards and two TDs. Trevathan - who seems fearless, but is new to the NFL - was given the responsibility for covering Olsen on the first play we'll examine.
It’s 1st and 10 with the ball on the Denver 29-yard line; the Broncos are ahead 17-7 inside the first-half two-minute warning, and Carolina is driving. The Broncos are in a Cover-2 shell with Wesley Woodyard and Trevathan at linebacker and Von Miller up at LDE with his hand on the ground. They’re in nickel formation with the two linebackers back. Champ Bailey is tight on Steve Smith (far offensive left, X receiver), Chris Harris is six yards off Brandon LaFell; Tony Carter is playing the Y receiver.
The Panthers are in 11 personnel, with two WRs split out to the offensive right and one to their left, Cam Newton in the shotgun, and running back Jonathan Stewart to the QB's left. Olsen is standing in preparation to go out for the pass - he’s in what’s often called an ‘F’ receiver slot. Danny Trevathan is lined up five yards off the ball and in line with the inside shoulder of the offensive tackle.
At the snap, Olsen explodes from his spot and quickly reaches Trevathan’s left shoulder, where he plants his left foot and cuts sharply outside and into the flat, with Trevathan only needing to lightly touch Olsen’s body with each hand as he moves to find position just behind - strength isn’t an issue in this case. Rather, technique is.
Newton gets the pass off quickly, but Danny has stayed slightly underneath to be ready to prevent the completion. He’s in classic trail position, essentially in Olsen’s QB-side back hip pocket. It takes exceptional reflexes to get there against a good TE like Olsen - a human usually has to take a split second just to diagnose a situation. But one of Trevathan’s strengths has been his one-on-one anticipation and whip-fast responses. He also understands that at this point in the game, receptions need to get out of bounds quickly, so he's ready to move.
He’s still learning to bring his skills to bear on offensive formations and tendencies. Building that kind of knowledge is a process - the normal and highly desirable outcome of spending a lot of time in the film room. No college player comes in knowing that, which is why a thirst for learning is so important in a draft prospect.
He reaches out from there and dives through the air, timing his leap exactly in order to knock the pass away before Olsen can get his big hands on it. Perfect coverage.
Notice also that Chris Harris and Tony Carter have recognized the play and are swarming to the ball. Were the pass to have been completed, they were there to ensure that it wouldn’t get to the 19 for a first down. That’s something else that’s been a factor in the upward movement in the standings for Denver’s defense - swarming the ball.
It’s important to recognize that it’s just one play. On the snap prior, Trevathan was blocked at the knees and couldn’t shed quite quickly enough to tackle Jonathan Stewart, after the back had received a beautifully set up short screen pass to the defensive left, and was on his way to a 19-yard gain. None of the Broncos saw the tells that were there to show the setup of the screen that time. Trevathan still has a lot to learn.
Still - Denver has been struggling to find linebackers with quality coverage skills, and they will be facing more skillful TEs before the year is out (Tony Moeaki, Dallas Clark, Brandon Myers, Dennis Pitta, and Ben Watson loom, with Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, and Owen Daniels among those potentially looming come playoff time).
Deciding who takes on the TE when the defense is in nickel or dime is an important choice. And, Trevathan wasn’t the only one in recent weeks - Denver has used several people. Danny unquestionably showed some skill in defeating a pretty good TE during a throw that wasn’t hurried or under much pressure, though. That’s good to see.
At 11:49 of the third quarter against San Diego on Sunday, Chris Harris, another of my ‘small things’ choices, gave us a look at a very similar approach.
On the Chargers' first drive, Antonio Gates had a reception for 13 yards, and was tackled eventually by Keith Brooking. Clearly, that couldn’t be permitted to continue; JDR dialed up another in his bag of tricks, and Gates only caught one more ball the rest of the way. Part of the reason was plays like this:
Denver has just allowed a safety on a missed block by Virgil Green, and punted back to the Chargers on a free kick. The Broncos have fought them to 3rd and 5, and it looks like Trevathan has man-to-man responsibilities on TE Randy McMichaels, who starts at the line of scrimmage but comes back to stand at the offensive right of Philip Rivers. Trevathan joins in the wild-eyed rush on Rivers, who is cool under pressure and sends a sharp pass towards Gates, who has come off the offensive left.
Chris Harris has been watching him closely - he knows that Gates is used effectively on a lot of third-and-medium-to-long downs.
Gates is lined up opposite right DE Elvis Dumervil, who fires out, passing Gates - who is headed onto his route - and pressures Rivers on the play. Gates comes straight out towards Harris, turns just shy of the first-down marker, and shows Rivers his number:
Harris is coming in from behind Gates from his defensive right; Rivers sees it and tries to thread the needle on the throw, although Dumervil hits him as he's following through. Despite the fact that Harris has stayed behind Gates, keeping the TE in front of him as he should...
...and that Rivers has made the adjustment on the throw to keep it away from Harris, Chris moves around Gates’ right and gets slightly in front of him...
... and he leaves his feet, diving forward with his right hand out. As Trevathan had done against Olsen a week earlier, Harris swats the ball away:
The completion would bring up 4th and 5 and force a punt; the Broncos would go on to win the game 30-23.
Denver still has some issues - their mistakes are going to cost them another game if they don’t figure a way to put an end to them. With that said - this is a team that has essentially locked down the division, and might yet take a bye week in the playoffs. I like it all.
When you look at the way that they’re handling tight ends - Gates ended with only two receptions for 17 yards - and the increasing development of so many of their young players, they’ve got a lot of things to feel good about. Two of those are Trevathan and Harris.
Kansas City is next. At 1-9, they’re the weakest team in the NFL right now, so betting on Denver is a slam dunk unless Denver ignores the advice of John Elway, John Fox, Peyton Manning, Justin Bannan, and Champ Bailey, to let themselves be trapped. I don’t see that. Tony Moeaki isn’t a bad TE, though - we may get to see more plays of this nature from Denver’s defenders.
It wouldn’t be a surprise.