The Broncos are in Atlanta for their first road contest tonight and a meeting with the Falcons, a very good team whose drafting and team development approaches I've followed for years.
The modern version of their franchise was built first by Rich McKay, who’s still the president and CEO, and developed more recently by GM Thomas Dimitroff, who’s a top young executive. Between them, they’ve put together a team that has an excellent offense and a defense that’s good, but is also vulnerable.
Last week, Atlanta lost Brent Grimes, their top cornerback, for the season with a torn Achilles tendon. They’ve signed former Colts corner Terrence Johnson, but 2009 third-rounder Chris Owens, who's never lived up to the Falcons' expectations, is expected to be their nickel corner tonight.
Let's take a look at the rest of Atlanta's roster to see what the Broncos are up against:
The Falcons offensive line is headed by longtime center Todd McClure, a 6-1, 296 lb. 35-year-old veteran of 14 seasons. Rare as this is in the modern NFL, all of them have been with Atlanta.
They have Sam Baker at left tackle (6-5, 307 lb), and Tyson Clabo, a 6-6 330 lb, nine-year veteran who’s played at guard and tackle in the past, at right tackle this year. Their left guard is Justin Blalock, a 6-4, 329 lb six-season veteran, while Garrett Reynolds is a 6-7, 317 lb four-year vet at right guard. Their line is big, talented, and experienced. They gave up 26 sacks in 2011 and averaged 114.6 yards per game on the ground along with 272.8 yards passing.
Denver’s offensive line showed against Pittsburgh that they aren’t to be taken lightly. Any line looks better with Peyton Manning behind it, but I spent some time this week going through the OL film from the Steelers game and noticed that the line was playing with excellent technique: players were bending at the knees, not the waist, they were kicking out more smoothly, and moving their assignments effectively.
Zane Beadles has always been excellent at pulling and trapping - Manny Ramirez was just as good. The line kept Manning from being sacked on all plays but one (on the other sack, where the offensive left was overloaded, the story apparently is that Manning himself should have called for a protection change). I’m suspecting the influence of line coach Dave Magazu, who has coached offensive lines since 1982 and is a professional’s pro, is behind the OL’s improved technique. Just being together for two or three years has also helped - players learn to communicate more easily and trust each other, knowing what the guy next to them is going to do.
Last year, the Falcons scored 25.1 points per game, good for seventh-best in the NFL. A lot of their firepower comes from the arm and feet of quarterback Matt Ryan, who’s often played like the Matty Ice nickname he’s picked up. I find myself in a difficult position - Peyton Manning showed the world last Sunday that the expected half season that he supposedly needed to get comfortable with his offense was more like half a series, and it’s hard to compare his skill set to someone who hasn’t been as successful for as long.
Even so - Ryan hasn’t had a losing record in any season, and has improved each year, throwing for 4,177 yards with 29 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in 2011. He’s a very talented, very dangerous player who should be a challenge for Denver’s new-look secondary.
On the other hand, Denver has the incredible talents of Manning, a player who is even better when you find out what he does everyday and every week to prepare for games. He’s a unique and remarkable talent. The media fuss about what percentage he’s recovered to is now the roadkill that it’s deserved to be. Ask Pittsburgh how much he’s recovered - they can give you chapter and verse. Would I take him over Ryan? Of course.
The Falcons averaged 114.6 yards per game rushing last season, with 4.0 per attempt. Michael Turner, the 5-10, 244 lb bruiser who many Broncos fans recall from his four years backing up LaDainian Tomlinson with the San Diego Chargers, has done an excellent job of providing them with a steady presence at running back. His understudy is Jason Snelling, and at fullback is Lousaka Polite, a 6-0, 245 lb back.
The Broncos did well last year and very well last week with Willis McGahee continuing to lead the way. Knowshon Moreno is showing flashes of the player he was once thought to be, and Lance Ball is a journeyman back with some skill at blocking, catching, and rushing, but no particular talent that stands out.
Ronnie Hillman is being held back solely until head coach John Fox believes that he has absorbed all the material that he had to miss when suffering a hamstring injury in training camp. Coach Fox places a high level of importance on NFL experience, and is generally cautious about playing rookies until he’s convinced that they’re ready. Since hamstring injuries can become chronic ones quite easily, this is for the best on multiple levels. I look forward to seeing Hillman run as soon as he’s ready.
The Falcons' key receivers are Roddy White and Julio Jones, both of whom are threats on every play (not unlike Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas for Denver). White is 30, but has produced over 1,100 yards for each of the last five years. Julio Jones is a top-flight second-year player who produced 959 yards and eight touchdowns last season, and should beat those numbers substantially in 2012.
Denver has Decker and Thomas, and also boasts Brandon ‘Slot Machine’ Stokley, who proved last Sunday that the rumors of his diminished skills have been greatly exaggerated. I’m not as familiar with Atlanta’s WRs, but Denver’s block like linemen on running plays, making them that much more effective. Both teams have two WRs who can take it to the house on any given play. The effectiveness of the pass defenses tonight is likely to heavily influence the outcome of this game.
The Falcons have a probable first-ballot HOF tight end in Tony Gonzalez, and this is probably his last season. Tony is 36, but don’t look for him to have slowed down much - he had 80 receptions for 875 yards last year. Gonzalez is backed up by the 6-5, 260 lb Michael Palmer and the 6-5, 259 lb Tommy Gallarda, who are as efficient at blocking as Gonzalez is receiving.
Denver has an excellent pair of tight ends in Jacob Tamme, who already has a comfort with Peyton Manning from their four seasons together in Indianapolis, and Joel Dreessen, who came to Denver from Houston. Dreessen has better blocking skills, but he’s also a very good receiver.
This is an area where I believe that Denver can show their superiority, and it could mean the difference in the game. The Falcons are using Jonathan Babineaux, who's 30 years old, 34-year-old defensive end John Abraham, 27-year-old Ray Edwards, and 28-year-old defensive tackle Peria Jerry. Atlanta had a middling total of 33 sacks last year, and Edwards had 9.5 of them. If he’s neutralized, the rest of the DL group isn’t as strong when pass rushing.
Manning, of course, is one of the best in the league against the blitz, which will also help.
Denver’s had some ill fortune with season-ending injuries to Jason Hunter and Ty Warren, but are fortunate in being deep in that area for the first time in many years. Rookie Derek Wolfe will be on the field in some capacity on nearly every down, and he’s showing signs of being a top lineman who can play DE or DT as required.
Justin Bannan is the old man of the group at nose tackle, and is still an effective run stuffer. Kevin Vickerson will initially step in for Warren, and Mitch Unrein is quietly making a name for himself.
The front seven of Denver boasts Von Miller, who slides up to DE on nickel downs, with Elvis Dumervil on the other side. The pass rush of Doom, Miller, and Wolfe is tough to slow - Pittsburgh’s line is stout, but they were frequently harassed by Denver’s rush even before the Steelers had to pass and became one-dimensional: that put the scent of blood in the water.
The key to beating any QB is getting in his face all game long. With Wolfe added as a rusher, I look forward to this part of the game. DC Jack Del Rio likes to get pressure with his four linemen, but he isn’t shy about blitzing when the opening is there.
Like Denver, the Falcons run a hybrid 4-3. Their middle linebacker is second-year player Akeem Dent, who’s never started a game, and he’s been troubled with a concussion since training camp. The Falcons lost MLB Curtis Lofton in free agency, obtained Lofa Tatupu to replace him, and lost Tatupu for the year to a torn pectoral muscle. Sometimes the injuries run in bunches.
Their outside linebackers are tackling machine Sean Weatherspoon and lesser player Stephen Nicholas. Weatherspoon had four sacks last year - neither Nichols nor Dent had any. This is one of the Falcon’s weaknesses, although Weatherspoon is a player to scheme against.
Von Miller is Denver's top linebacker, usually working out of the Sam position, but in reality being moved around at defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio’s will. Joe Mays is a thumper in the middle who’s trying to develop better coverage skills, while Wesley Woodyard showed the effects of his promotion by racking up 12 solo tackles and one sack against the Steelers. Rookie Danny Trevathan and veteran Keith Brooking, who spent eleven seasons leading Atlanta's defense, should see playing time as well.
Denver’s secondary is (finally!) fairly stable and well stocked. Perennial Pro Bowler Champ Bailey is ageless, and he showed that again against Mike Wallace of the Steelers. Tracy Porter had eight tackles and five passes defensed, with an interception that went for a pick-six and put the game out of reach for Denver. He’s one of only 17 players to have as many as eight tackles and five passes defensed in the same game since 1994; the man he replaced, Andre’ Goodman, defensed only ten passes in all of 2011.
Chris Harris has an ankle sprain, was in a walking boot earlier in the week, and is considered a game-time decision. His loss would be a blow - he’s a second-year player at nickel corner who’s been turning heads. Mike Adams provides a veteran presence at safety, where he’s paired with Rahim Moore, who introduced himself as ‘Rahim The Dream Moore’ during the Pittsburgh game. Might want to start for at least one season before you go that route, Rahim.
The Falcons aren’t as settled in their defensive backfield. The loss of Brent Grimes is major - he was their best cornerback. They did pick up Asante Samuel in the offseason, which helps, and they signed Terrence Johnson this week. Dunta Robinson and Robert McClain will probably fill in for Grimes, and Samuel will play across from them.
The safeties are William Moore and Thomas DeCoud. DeCoud and Moore are both over six feet tall, but the cornerbacks are uniformly shorter - mostly 5-10. The size and power of Demaryius Thomas will be a tough matchup for them, especially with his over-the-shoulder catching abilities. The precise routes of Eric Decker and Brandon Stokley, as well as Jason Tamme and Joel Dreessen, will be very difficult for a team with major issues at cornerback.
Denver will have its own challenges with White, Jones, and Gonzalez, especially if Harris is limited or absent.
Perhaps the best news for Denver is that the Falcons defense gave up big chunks of yards to Kansas City last week, including 152 yards rushing and 241 passing. They’re facing a Broncos offense that’s a lot better than the Chiefs’ was.
Denver gave up only 75 yards rushing last week and 245 yards passing to a very good Steelers team. Ben Roethlisberger is an elite quarterback - so is Matt Ryan. Both are mobile, but the Broncos laid five sacks on Big Ben, most coming when he was forced to be one-dimensional.
It’s not just another day at the office for the Broncos, but at the same time, I’d say that both teams have big-time offenses, and the Falcons seem to have the weaker defense of the two clubs. Manning and McGahee are quite capable of exploiting that. If Denver gains a lead late, they can set the Wolfe Pack loose on Ryan.
There’s a final factor, and it’s in Atlanta’s favor: Denver is traveling, and it’s changing two time zones, which some research has shown to give an additional advantage to the home team. That factor, and the normal home-field advantage, are probably worth about six points in total, to the Falcons' favor. Denver’s very capable of overcoming that and stealing a win on the road. To do it, they’ll have to stop the Falcons' potent passing attack.
It should be a great game between two very good franchises.