The first stage of the Tim Tebow experiment went well for the Broncos. Tebow brought much of the emotion, running and mobility that trademarked his college career and threw a touchdown pass to Brandon Lloyd that was tipped before Lloyd made a spectacular catch on it. Tebow achieved his longest run of the game by mistakenly believing that the call was a Q draw instead of a handoff to Correll Buckhalter, suggesting, between the two plays, that Denver’s best chances come when even they don’t know what they’re going to do. A second half marked by repetitive playcalling that didn’t fool anyone affirmed that to be true.
While fans and writers alike talked about the ‘bubble wrap’ approach that Denver took to using Tebow, there are good reasons for much of it. Ideally, a team wants to introduce a rookie quarterback when there is a solid offensive line, decent receivers, a working running game and a solid defense. Of them, Denver has decent receivers. Tebow has already been injured once this season (ribs, in a TD run) and exposing him to too much in his first game - especially against a team that Denver matches up poorly against - wouldn’t have been sensible. While you always hope to win the game, right now it’s equally important to protect the Broncos’ investment.
There is also the obvious fact that Denver’s playbook is written largely for a pocket passer who has good protection, letting the plays unfold. The screen passes that are essential to the game are run off of 3-step drops, the intermediate routes from 5-step drops. Denver runs few 7-step-drop long passes, which is good right now - the center of the OL looked oddly like a turnstile for much of the game, as it has for most of the season. TT lapsed into some degree of his older, loopy motion at times, but overall was showing that he and the coaching staff have been working hard on developing his mechanics. When he tended to lapse, it was generally under pressure, a factor that has concerned coaches and some fans alike.
In the wake of yet another loss, it’s become obvious to anyone watching that Denver lacks a few things that are essential to a winning team. These include, but aren’t limited to, a defense, a running game, an effective offensive line, decent playcalling and a working set of options that can be used if your initial playcalling isn’t working. None of this is new. Most of it is fixable, but there continues to be a catch - you have to have a coaching staff that has a vision of how to achieve a different end than losing.
The offensive line as a group had their worst game since Ryan Harris came back. Chris Kuper, usually a rock at RG, had the worst game I’ve seen him play, with mental errors compounding an inability to stop the rush. I think a lot of Kuper - this just wasn’t his game. More difficult than that is the continuing learning on the job of JD Walton and Zane Beadles. I think that each of them has a lot of potential - but when you place two rookies side by side in the center of your OL, you’re asking for trouble. If the third interior lineman has a bad game, it’s going to look a lot like yesterday did. Study and training in the offseason will help in degree, but Denver may be faced with a tough decision - do you find a veteran to replace one of the two, or let them continue to learn by doing (and not doing)? If it’s the second, you need a very strong stomach - this is going to happen at times. if it’s the former, you need to spend a lot of time between now and whenever the next free agency period begins to figure out which of the two you sit. JD Walton, much as I believe that he’ll be very good down the road, is getting owned. He’s showing one reason why most centers are converted from experienced linemen. I recall watching Cleveland's Alex Mack in his first season and it looked a lot like this at times, but Mack didn’t have a rookie LG next to him and bookend tackles returning from severe (from a football standpoint) injuries.
Tim Tebow brought a lot of passion to the game, and in the early going, OAK didn’t know what to expect. In the NFL, that’s helpful - it can confuse the defense for a time (as noted, it also confused Tim). Tebow made a great, if unexpected run for a TD, and threw that tipped pass into double coverage that Brandon Lloyd made the catch of the year on. He’s strong, runs very well and at times vacillated between his old motion and his new, just enough to show that the new works much better for him. It was great to see Kyle Orton and Brady Quinn helping him out, and that says a lot about whether the team has given up - they haven’t.
But one of the things that became obvious is that the playcalling has been bad all year and with Josh McDaniels gone, it’s worse. Options like the bootleg are missing - even Kyle Orton ran a couple of good bootlegs early this season and did well with them, at which point, they were apparently scrapped. Tebow could have done very well with them, and since it was obvious early in the week that the odds were at least even that Orton wouldn’t play, adding a couple of such basic plays to the repertoire should have been a pretty basic maneuver. For reasons that I don’t know or understand, it wasn’t.
The third point here is a combination of the first two above, and it’s this - Tebow is far more mobile than most QBs in the NFL, but he doesn’t throw well when looking at the oncoming defensive team photo, either. Nor would Quinn, nor did Orton. The middle of the line is currently a sieve, and the shortest distance between two points is a direct line. That’s the route other teams are commonly using to destroy the Denver offense. Running against a team that starts with two defenders in the Denver backfield? Not much help there, either. Adrian Peterson wouldn’t have helped, given the extent of that problem. Denver compensated by going with max or heavy protection packages to keep Tebow on his feet.
Tebow was also only 2 of 7 from the shotgun, which most thought would be his strongest passing option. While that was blamed for Denver’s inability to convert third and long, I think that’s misleading. It’s Denver’s inability to stop creating third-and-long situations that is at the heart of the problem. Weak OL play, a running game that isn’t taking advantage of anyone and screen passes that are expected and gamed for have all contributed to this pattern. It isn’t Tebow, and before him, it wasn’t Orton. It’s NFL Football 101 - if you can force teams into third and long, your odds of stopping them go up drastically. If you dislike a QB, you can always point to third and long: See? He’s not converting! Few teams can consistently convert 3rd and 8, 9, 12, etc., and you can always drop that on the QB if you want to. It misses the point, though.
Tebow is also obviously much more comfortable throwing to the weakside, given that he’s lefthanded, but he struggled with short-to-intermediate routes (generally on the strongside, his right) that are essential to the Broncos' current system. He’s got the strength to throw long - now he will need the time. Some of it can be bought with bootlegs and rollouts, but too many of them will expose him to injury more than is necessary. A good balanced attack would be a fine change of pace.
By the way, a big ‘congrats’ to Richard Quinn, who pulled in the first pass of his career. Quinn is developing into the blocking TE that Denver wanted him to be, and needs to continue to develop in the passing game. Dan Gronkowski was showing rapid professional growth when he went down to injury. One more TE to eventually replace the aging Daniel Graham and the team will be well set at that position. While you can always upgrade (and should, if the opportunity is there and you use much of the multiple-TE sets), these guys are a good start.
But at the heart of all on the downside is the defense, which is setting new records for inefficiency. Despite three early turnovers, which Denver turned into 14 points, the defense couldn’t adapt to OAK’s game. However, several particulars came up that are worth noting.
DJ Williams actually stood still, hands at his sides, and watched a play unfold in front of him, which is a new low. DJ is familiar with every linebacking position on the defense, but is an expensive player who leads the team in tackles in part because of three things: the OLBs in the Denver system are tasked with setting an edge and driving the RB to the middle which increases his tackling opportunities; other teams are also running at him (and past Jamal Williams) and throwing routes that take advantage of him - he cleans up, but is rarely making the quick read and positioning himself to stop the play for little or no gain. It’s a problem that has gone on for years now, and I don’t see him coming back, although I do understand that the team seems to value him more than I, and they have access to more information. I do give DJ credit for a hit on Jason Campbell, and for two passes defensed yesterday, though. That’s been the pattern that frustrates me with DJ, and why I supported him for a long time - he makes good plays, interspersed with serious mistakes. That too often extends to those around him.
Darcel McBath was questionable for the game (ankle, knee and thigh, recently), and with the bad footing, he was unable to tackle the way he has to date. David Bruton did better, with the exception of the long TD run in the second half, but that error is a rarity with Bruton, who was also questionable yesterday (ribs). Nate Jones doesn’t deserve to be back, versatile or not - watching him trailing pays has become a habit, and I supported him early on. Renaldo Hill was his usual steady self - he’s been a solid contributor and he calls the plays in the defensive backfield. I’d love to see Denver go with an additional safety in FA or the draft this next chance - I don’t see Brian Dawkins coming back, and that’s hard. If he does, it’s likely to be his last hurrah.
I noticed that several fans have confused something: in the two-gap variations of the 3-4 defense, it’s generally up to the DL to hold and anchor, preferably taking up two players to each defensive lineman. While it’s great if the DL can push the pile and attack the QB, it’s generally the responsibility of the LBs to rush the QB. The DL brings a series of problems that aren’t simple, nor will they be simple to fix, regardless of what defense Denver chooses next. Justin Bannan has played well. So has the versatile Marcus Thomas. Kevin “Hands” Vickerson had another good game and showed unreal reflexes with his interception at very close range. Jamal Williams had some good plays, but overall, he’s not there against the runs through the middle, a problem magnified by the play of DJ. When the LG and LT can double on Vickerson, for example, he is usually out of that play, but the LBs have the chance to defeat the TEs and RB/FBs. That hasn’t been happening very often, and that’s something that will have to be addressed.
I’ve noticed that as the team is bunching nearer the center of the field in a 5-2 formation, the LBs on the edges are getting stopped on the pass rush - often, one of them by a tackle. With the exception of players like Elvis Dumervil (and even he said last year that he likes OLB better because on the weakside he’s usually facing a TE or RB), most LBs struggle against tackles, but it’s more obvious with Denver than I’m used to seeing. Worse still, the LBs aren’t able to get out and set the edge against the running back, and in the NFL, a RB who can turn the corner usually does so for a long gain. Between the troubles up the middle and the lack of a strong edge, it’s a small wonder that Denver can’t defend the run. When they can, they become vulnerable to the pass. It’s been a vicious carousel.
Robert Ayers hasn’t been quite the same since getting back - the foot or simple rust may still be a problem, since he’s slower on things that haven’t stopped him in the past. Jason Hunter continues to improve at OLB, and I’d be slow to consider putting him back on the DL. It’s not that I don’t think that moving to a 4-3 doesn’t have some good points, and I’m as open to it as to keeping a 3-4. It’s just that Hunter seems better as an OLB than I recall him from his time at DE. He had another good game, though, and he’s developing quickly. He had a tipped attempt at a pitch that he also recovered, and spent a lot of the afternoon chasing Campbell. He was also usually solid against the run, too. Ayers, Doom, Hunter and Joe Mays are starters or potential starters.
Mario Haggan is a tough guy, but probably a better backup, much as I like him. He moved to ILB again, and it’s obviously not his best position, although he may be Denver's best option there. Haggan is a very tough player, but Denver probably needs more speed to go with their size. Wesley Woodyard is probably best at Will in a 4-3, and he’s struggling to find a slot on the field in this defense (but it would hurt to lose him on STs, where he’s excellent): therefore, he’s likely to stay as a ST leader and backup LB. Lee Robinson is an unknown quantity who might be a good ILB or strongside 4-3 LB - there’s not enough film on him to tell, although I loved his fumble recovery in his first game. I’d pull DJ for him right now, though.
To summarize - Denver was beaten in very much the way that they’ve been beaten for most of the year. They cannot hold a lead, if they manage to get one. They aren’t stopping the run, and until they do, they can’t consistently stop the pass. It was nice to see Andre’ Goodman back along with Champ Bailey, and Eric Decker is showing some serious chops in the return game, but a strong OL and an effective defense were the missing pieces that ruined the advantages that Denver brought to the game.
Next week is Houston, a team struggling to find itself. Houston has dropped seven of its last eight games, including yesterday’s on the road against Tennessee, which ended a six-game losing streak for the Titans. Let’s hope that they can provide the same lift for Denver.
Or should we hope so? I’ve never suggested that a team lose out the season for draft status, but if Denver does, I won’t weep. A few trades - perhaps DJ, hopefully not Orton, although it’s likely, a few others - and Denver would have high status in most rounds and multiple picks in some. Given their needs, that might help. They will need more immediate help from the FA pool, just as the McX team, whoever was making the choices, did in the first offseason, before the lack of a CBA botched that in 2010. It leads to a situation where in a very real sense, Denver can’t lose. Tebow will almost certainly play, and getting him a win would bolster the spirits of team and fans alike. Another loss and Denver is one step closer to the top 2 draft slots.
And, either one could be a holiday present. Keep your loved ones close this holiday and solstice season, and hope that Denver remembers one of the oldest rules of human life: when you find yourself in a hole, put down the danged shovel and consider a different course of action. All the best to each of you, and as always,