The Jags, once the team that broke the Broncos’ hearts in the playoffs (and stiffened their resolve, leading to two Super Bowl wins in a row) with an unexpected post-season victory, have tended to be mired in mediocrity, trying many ways to get better, but rarely succeeding. However, this is a road game for the Broncos, its opening week, and the Broncos are changing a couple of time zones. Why that’s as much of a factor as it has proven to be remains a bit of a mystery to me, but those who research that kind of thing have made the point on several occasions. The Broncos have to charge out of the gate. Yes, it’s early, but they need to put a couple of wins on the board if they are going to have a successful season.
Jax has had some issues on the OL, but they think that they may have them solved. Justin Smiley came over from Miami and took away the LG job from 7-year starter Vince Manuwai. Manuwai was retained as a backup who can play LG or RG, and even center in a pinch. Smiley joins talented LT Eugene Monroe, longtime C Brad Meester, RG Uche Nwaneri and RT Eben Britton. Along with Manuwai, the backup tackles are Jordan Black and Kevin Haslam. The Broncos, on the other hand, have rookies in C JD Walton and likely RT Zane Beadles. Chris Kuper should be okay despite the bad ankle, but Ryan Harris is out and that means that someone has to step up to cover his position. D’Anthony Batiste is still on the roster, and he may be at RT if it’s not Beadles. Denver is without question a team in flux.
David Garrard is in his 9th season in the NFL, and he’s managed a career QB rating average of 84.9. Last year he managed a TD/INT ratio of 15-10, about normal for a QB with a lifetime ratio of 66-39. He has a career completion rate of 61.1% and in the past two seasons, he has broken the 3,500-yard mark both times. Even so, he has shown a disturbing tendency, on the other hand, to be both Jekyll and Hyde within his season - last year he had 8 games with a QB rating over 100 and 8 with a rating under 65. Needless to say, that makes handicapping games a little tougher.
Jax has a decent base receiving corp. Mike Sims-Walker and Mike Thomas are both excellent receivers: Sims-Walker, who brought in 41 passes last season is a good-sized player with plenty of straight-line speed. He is still learning how to run better routes, set up defenders and make to better make adjustments on his routes as he reads coverages. Thomas, in his first year, hauled in 48 passes for 453 yards. There is a bit of a drop off to the next one on the list, though; Jarrett Dillard only managed 7 receptions. The Jags make up for it with their running game and their TEs.
The running game is almost exclusively Maurice Christopher Jones-Drew, and to be honest, there’s not a lot else that you would need. But behind him are Rashard Jennings, who I once thought might make some noise of his own in Denver, after watching a few games with him before last year’s draft, and Deji Karim. At fullback, Jax has the 6’1, 248 lb. Greg Jones, who takes his role clearing out the pathway for MJD very seriously.
In Denver, there is a large question mark at the RB position. Knowshon Moreno hasn’t gotten any snaps in preseason since pulling a hamstring near the beginning of camp, and Correll Buckhalter returned only recently. Lance Ball has been surprisingly good in training camp. It is true that one of the coaches approached him and told him that Denver had plans for him if he just showed them why he was worth keeping. He fought off a charge by Bruce Hall, and more recently, Andre Brown (a player that I liked for Denver back in 2009 when he was drafted by the Giants). Brown will take some time to come up to speed, but he came to Denver after tearing his Achilles Tendon in August of 2009. It’s not an easy injury to rehabilitate, and there is always some pain during the time when the adhesions that form after surgery break (this is a normal aspect of the healing process, but it’s not pleasant). More recently, he’s dealing with a toe injury. Denver is looking more long term with Brown: he was a very good RB prospect when he came out, if somewhat limited in terms of blocking and receiving. As he’d been injured since arriving in NY for OTAs, the Giants understandably tired of it. At the same time, some of these young men bounce back and into productive careers once they have acclimated to the tougher play and the more stringent requirements of the NFL. He had arrived at camp in flabby shape, and I was doing an article on how players do when they work hard in their supposed down time. Brown was one name that came up, and he’s fought injuries since. I’ve no doubt that Coach McDaniels has talked with him about this, and that Rich Tuten has welcomed to Dove Valley every muscle group that wouldn’t be affected by the injuries. It’s worth a shot. It will also be interesting to see what kind of shape LenDale White shows back up in after a year off. Whatever it is, it will tell a lot about how much he’s matured as a player.
The receiving corps for Jacksonville may need a small upgrade, but the TEs make up for it quickly. Marcedes Alexis Lewis is that rare creature, a true all-around TE, one who will lay out a LB or catch the 3rd-down ball for a stellar 16.2 YPR in 2009. He deserves to be a perennial All-Pro. His blocking and his locker room presence have matured in the past two years, and he’s become one of the most important players on the Jags. Denver is very different here - on TE, they have Daniel Graham, the all-around Swiss army knife of the TE corps. Marquez Branson, after what was promising to be a very good training camp, hurt his knee and was released. That leaves Richard Quinn, a solid blocking TE who is trying to regain his receiving abilities after a long layoff and who should, after a full off-season, have mastered the playbook. Denver also brought one of the Big Gronkowskis - Dan, in this case - from Detroit. He dropped in the draft due to earlier injury problems last year, but might end up being a diamond in the rough if he can get his health back and keep it.
So, how do you attack the Jaguars? In this case, we start not at the beginning, but at what you could consider the back end of the team’s defense - the safety position. The good news is - Jacksonville’s safety problems are substantial. Former free safety Reggie Nelson was traded to Cincinnati last week, leaving two contenders for the position - Tyrone Brackenridge and Gerald Alexander, neither of whom has shown more than Nelson. At SS, they have Sean Considine and Anthony Smith - the position is still a toss-up, and Jacksonville may opt for bringing in a veteran if they can find a good fit. As far as the Broncos go, this will give Kyle Orton and his receivers their first big opportunity. They need to take full advantage of it to bolster the production of their very young O-Line and the running backs: Moreno and Buckhalter - who are both returning from injury. Denver’s WR corps’ biggest problem has been getting it to fit on the roster - They had to cut Brandon Stokley to make the roster limit. With two very impressive young WRs in Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, Denver had to decide to start with the older trio of Eddie Royal, Jabar Gaffney and Brandon Lloyd, and to keep young Mathew Willis, whose background as a track star is clear to see on the gridiron, and he appears to have good hands and a good head on his shoulders. Someone had to be let go, and Stokes drew the short straw. We’ll miss him - that kind of class act doesn’t come along all that often.
The second problem Jax is having is on the other side of the line, and directly in the line of fire. As mentioned earlier, David Garrard has proven to be extremely unreliable - emphasis on extremes. He’s Peyton Manning one week and Ryan Leaf the next. Why? He tends to try and throw into coverage, and with Denver’s secondary, that could result in some defensive big plays, if not some points. This has been one of the keys to wrecking Garrard’s production. The other is getting enough of a pass rush on him. This will be the first experience for the Broncos’ much-discussed new D-Line and their chance to work on the QB with Robert Ayers on the strong side and Jason Hunter on the other, to see if they can keep Garrard unsteady; if so, Denver expects the secondary can do the rest. Denver will have a chance to disrupt the rhythm of Garrard with the blitzing style that Wink Martindale is said to love, emphasizing cornerback and safety blitzes. Nate Jones is famous for his skill at these, and he’s played both Safety and CB over the summer. At the same time, you don’t want to ignore MJD, so you’ll have to keep a LB or safety spying on him in the backfield.
One point to consider - last year, Hunter, who will start at WOLB for Denver, managed 25 ST tackles. I have trouble believing it - that’s more than the top two Denver players put together. He also likes to invade the backfield, and had 5 sacks in 9 starts for Detroit. With Ayers managing 2.5 sacks over the course of his portion of the 4 preseason games and Jarvis Moss adding his speed, Denver may not miss Doom’s sacks quite as much as they and certainly the fans, have feared. Moss will back up both Hunter and Ayers at this time. The middle will include RILB DJ Williams and LILB Mario Haggan, the Broncos utility linebacker who can line up anywhere, but whose presence is generally known by the sound of pads clashing and bodies slamming into the ground. Both Joe Mays - a tough guy to run against, but a liability in coverage - and Wesley Woodyard, whose fire and ferocity made him a special teams captain both last year and this (his 2nd and 3rd years) also fill in at ILB. Haggan, not to be outdone, has 70 ST tackles in his first 5 years in the NFL. Also a captain, Haggan is a leader through his voice, his presence and his own constant, 100% performance. if needed, he can leave his ILB slot to WW and move over to seal an edge, giving the Broncos some needed flexibility.
Jacksonville’s defense has some fine players and some other problems. They lost D’Anthony Smith to a ruptured Achilles tendon, so he’s out for the year. Jacksonville has been playing a 4-3 defense, and losing Smith interferes with their rotation. They do have some good weapons, though - Aaron Kampman came from Green Bay to a warmer climate and a position that he feels suits him better, and Derrick Harvey can still be very effective. Now they also have the surprise (heck, shock is more like it) 1st-round pick Tyson Alualu whose draft position may be argued but not his talent, and this will be his first chance to contribute. Larry Hart is behind Kampman and Harvey, and Terrence Knighton, a solid rotational player, will be at DT next to Alualu.
At linebacker, the Jags have Kirk Morrison in the middle, whom they acquired from Oakland this past offseason. Interestingly, Morrison has not played on a winning team since high school. He has, however, contributed around 100 tackles per season with 1 sack on the average. It should be interesting to see if he can find better fortune with Jacksonville. They also boast starters WLB Daryl Smith and SLB Justin Durant. They currently have Russell Allen, Jacob Cutrera, Aaron Morgan as the backups. Training camp provided a nice position battle between Durant and Allen. Durant may have won out, but Allen will step in if anyone goes down. Durant has a known tendency to over-pursue, which is something that Denver’s coaches may choose to take advantage of. It might be worth watching for. Overall, though, their LB position is in pretty good shape.
The Jags’ Secondary
Reggie Nelson and Gerald Alexander at safety are gone. Nelson was traded to Cincy for David Jones, the new nickel CB. Both CBs Don Carey and Michael Coe as backups are returning from last year, as are starters Rashean Mathis and Derek Cox - they gave up some big plays in preseason, but that’s preseason. However - it’s fair to say that there are some concerns in the secondary, and from all that we’ve seen so far, Denver will be testing it frequently.
FS Sean Considine and SS Anthony Smith will start against Denver (Gerald Alexander was released in part due to neck injuries). Considine won the competition between himself and Anthony Smith, and due to that, he got the opportunity to start at FS.
Breaking it Down
There’s no question that traveling across the country to the East coast is always tough on a team. Jacksonville has a runner who could shred the Broncos if they don’t step up on their run defense, which hasn’t looked like it’s gelled yet. He’s got a fine FB and O-Line blocking for him, and they helped him gain 1,765 yards last year. He may only be 5’8” and 205 lbs, but he plays like he’s 5’10” and 220 lbs. Stopping him is without question one of the keys to success versus Jacksonville in 2010. The play of the Broncos in the trenches, as nearly always, will tend to deliver or drop this game.
Getting to Garrard is probably the second piece to the puzzle of how to stop Jacksonville. This is probably going to require Nate Jones to do his CB/S blitz, something that Wink Martindale, Broncos defensive coordinator is said to love. If so, there could be some serious man-love between the two. David Bruton is also lightning fast and hits hard - he could supply an additional dimension to this approach to the game. The Broncos had a top-three pass defense in 2009, and with their larger defensive line and bigger, more experienced OLBs, there’s not much doubt that Denver has a chance to fight their way to a win on the road on their opener.
But stopping Maurice Jones-Drew is no small order. Stopping him and holding the passing game to reasonable numbers will be essential to maintaining Denver’s excellent record in season openers. It’s tough to start your season away from home - although road games are always hard, opening the season on the road is particularly difficult. Denver has a lot of young players - Perrish Cox, Syd’Quan Thompson, Demaryius Thomas, JD Walton, Zane Beadles, Eric Decker, Cassius Vaughn, Tim Tebow, Lance Ball (who isn’t a true rookie, but may as well be, due to his lack of playing time), and the new but not a rookie in the league D’Anthony Batiste. Getting them out on the field, settled down, and focused on the game may be half the battle. It’s never easy to get a young squad settled into the game, and that goes for a lot of teams around the league. It’s also a chance to see if these young men - and all of the veterans and the older ones as well - can focus well on the road, get off on the hostile crowd (it should be full today to see Tim Tebow in uniform, whether he plays or not) and hold their gaps and responsibilities.
I’m particularly interested in how Walton, Stanley Daniels and Zane Beadles will do. It’s tough to open the season with three or four of your players new to the OL (depending on how Kuper’s ankle holds up), but Jacksonville is a good place to start the year’s process. While they are hardly pushovers, they are a beatable team. In addition to seeing that the Denver OL does their job in both pass blocking and run blocking, Denver needs to make sure that David Garrard has one of those sub-65 kinds of days and to take advantage of the defensive secondary. It’s the perfect chance for the 2010 Broncos to use the vertical game, spread the field vertically and horizontally and take advantage of the weaknesses of the Jags. It’s also a chance to make sure that Denver keeps their own mistakes to a minimum.
And, like you didn’t know it - Go Broncos!