Nothing like getting millions of viewers sure that your roster is thinner than Karen Carpenter, is there? That was a full team effort on Sunday - nearly everyone played a role in how badly it went. That said, let’s start with a fun fact or two:
Going into the game against the Lions, none of Denver’s TEs had dropped a pass so far this year. Daniel Fells had been targeted 18 times, but only 11 of those were considered catchable, and Fells had caught all 11. That’s being consistent: Fells is looking more and more like a serious find. Add Julius Thomas’ pass catching to the mix (and keeping him healthy, although he had a drop against Detroit to break the TEs' streak) and you’ve got a very good starting two. Virgil Green has gone from a seventh-round afterthought to a key player late in the Miami game and may be that much needed third TE - I hope his injury isn’t severe, because he has been the better blocking TE. The TEs as a group have now caught 19 passes with just the one drop. That says a lot of good things about consistency and the talent of the squad. Denver has some good young talent, of which Fells in just his fourth season out of UC-Davis and Dante Rosario in his fifth year out of Oregon are the 'old men' of the group.
On defense, the undrafted Chris Harris has been impressive with nine tackles against Detroit, while Quinton Carter looked even better. I think that Rahim Moore is going to be a major talent, but he’s making too many errors on fundamentals, including not taking good angles to the ball and not tackling cleanly. He needs to get back into practicing, hitting the fundamentals drills and getting his head on straight - he was starting to force out there. Carter also has the advantage of being a bit taller with a stronger physique, which he uses to great advantage.
Robert Ayers has three sacks, three QB hits and 11 QB pressures/hurries in eight games - he's doing quite well. His only real struggle was in Green Bay, and he wasn’t alone in having trouble that day. Elvis Dumervil has 16 hurries in just over four games, which should reduce the angst over his lack of sacks (but probably won't); he’s playing with multiple injuries, and should probably rest for a couple of games. Von Miller has 13 hurries and then there's no one until Brian Dawkins, with six hurries. That puts Ayers in some good company, and it should also give credence to both the play of Ayers and Dennis Allen's concept of the defense. Brodrick Bunkley just looks better and better, having his best game of the year in Miami and Marcus Thomas had eight tackles against SD. Things are looking up.
Oh, and Miller? He’s got the highest rating of any OLB in PFF's grading system this season, at 20.8. Not shabby for a rookie who 'can’t play in a 4-3 defense.' In fairness, it’s a very hybrid defense that defies simple description, but Miller could play any D they ever created. I’m glad he plays in Denver’s.
Kuper and Company
To begin the OL work, let's look at the play of RG Chris Kuper. In a short background, Kuper has been with the team the longest of any lineman. Most folks don’t recall this, but Kuper played only on special teams his rookie year (2006) and for the first five games of 2007. He came in to play left guard, taking the place of Chris Myers who was in turn taking over for the injured Tom Nalen at center. That was an ugly day in Broncos history - Nalen didn’t play again.
Kuper is in the second year of a six-year contract with Denver, and he's been playing at a good level, but some fans seem to feel that Kuper is a disappointment. To me, it only means that given the players around him, the system he was and is in, the coaching he’s received, and the work that he’s put in, that he was only able to reach a certain, fairly high level. Actually, in post-Detroit numbers, Kuper has a cumulative rating of 96.6 from PFF, which is very good. He and LT Ryan Clady both barely trail C J.D. Walton, who leads the group with a rating of 97.0 which is up slightly from 96.7 prior to Sunday's game, so the folks who have been talking about how poorly Walton’s playing may not be basing their estimations on complete information. He’s coming along very well: Walton has matured greatly in a short time. The film, as you’ll see, shows very much what the numbers do.
LG Zane Beadles did trail the rest of his squad with a blocking efficiency rating of 93.5, but after two bad weeks, RT Orlando Franklin has taken over that ‘honor’ with a BER of 92.2. What does that really mean? Just between the two guards, it means more sacks (five for Beadles, while Kuper has two), hits (four for Beadles, while Kupe had zero), penalties (both have three, one of Kuper’s was refused) and/or hurries allowed (12 for Beadles, compared to eight by Kupe with total pressures at 21 for Beadles and 11 for Kuper), as well as losing the battle at the point of attack and poor yardage (2.8 ypa, compared to 7.5 ypa for Kupe) when the rush goes through his slot. Does it clearly show on film? Absolutely, as we talked about two weeks back. Not much has changed yet on that front. Actually, Beadles continues to stand out in terms of the mistakes that he’s making.
Franklin is a rookie and there’s no question that he’s gotten badly schooled the past two games, but he’s still playing substantially better than Zane Beadles did at RT last year, much less Tyler Polumbus or Russ Hochstein, and that’s what he needs to do to be a better option for Denver, sad as that might seem. It’s also been suggested that Beadles might be used as a better version of Russ Hochstein if Denver obtained a top tackle and moved Franklin to LG, or just found a different guard in the next draft (it’s not time to mess around) - TJ made the point recently. We were watching the game when TJ noted that Franklin may not be an RT, describing him succinctly as a ‘Guard in training’. Ted suggested that he lacks the quick feet that NFL tackles need, and also noted something that has also surprised me - that the Broncos were this sure that Franklin was a right tackle, since he’d never played the position. Moving to the NFL is tough enough - adding a position change isn’t likely to bring out the best in a player.
I’ve said this before - although I hope to see improvement sooner, I’d give Franklin the rest of the year before making any final judgments, and I’d expect them to look at him for LG as well as RT next camp. I like the idea of Beadles as Hochstein 2.0, and I’m starting to think that another lineman has to be in Denver’s near future (2012). As far as Franklin, he’d been doing well for playing as a starting rookie until he faced Miami's Cameron Wake (14 sacks last year, Pro Bowl) and Detroit's Cliff Avril back to back. A full year’s play to look at will help with that decision, but I think that while Fox and Co. want to like him at RT, Beadles may require a move and sliding Franklin in would just be an added bonus.
There’s a second issue: Kuper’s effectiveness of play went up when Franklin's started, and that usually and rightfully carries a lot of weight. When you watch the two of them play together, you start to realize that there’s a good reason why Denver’s had its greatest success running to the right. Kuper has a total average of 7.5 ypa on runs through his slot. Franklin is second, with 6.6. But pass blocking is poor, and that has to be changed, whatever it takes.
New offensive line coach Dave Magazu has praised the play of Kuper several times and I think it's become clear that Kuper is also an important piece in the locker room (He’s also a team captain). He's taken to the role of the experienced veteran (this is his sixth season) on a very young offensive line. He may not have quite the skill level of a player such as Ryan Clady, but he's got a good head on his shoulders, a talent for leverage and excellent technique, he plays consistently well and generally only had problems when the players on both sides of him were playing poorly, which would throw any OL player off. The lack of communication with the new players in the line, the frequent rotations in and out of different players and the admitted lack of skill of the players on either side of him last year until Ryan Harris returned certainly had an effect on Kuper's overall play. Looking at him this year, I understood the Broncos' fondness for him - he’s a tough, hard-working, talented guard.
I held back looking at Kuper until last (Clady did get a one-gamer article after Green Bay) because his situation with the organization is perhaps the most interesting of any of the players. In June of 2010, Kupe signed a six-year contract with Denver. The contract called for a total value of just over $28 million including roughly $13 million guaranteed. In 2011, he will receive $7 million to fulfill the guaranteed money. In 2012 his salary drops to $3.5 million, and it rises to $4.5 million in 2013. It goes up by half a million for the next two years, and after the 2015 season he will potentially become a free agent. Quite a number of people felt that he was being overpaid. I’m not so sure.
He may or may not last that long with Denver, since careers cannot be predicted in the NFL and he's not guaranteed anything beyond 2012. However, those are the kinds of financial numbers that you give up to a player that you expect to be a leader on the team. I doubt that Denver has changed its mind regarding Kuper at this point: he’s leading the team in rushing yardage through his slot, is the on-field leader and showed in the Detroit game, when everyone else on the line was getting mauled, that he can stand up to a lot without giving ground.
Dave Magazu is an excellent coach, and to be honest I'm very interested in whether he can continue the level of development that the offensive line had shown in the early stages of this season. When they have a full season of Coach Magazu's training as well as his opinions on the quality and development of the players, I think that a more rational and thorough conclusion can be reached at that time in terms of who’s handling their job and who might need a change of scenery. Obviously, Franklin has had two poor games back to back. I’m not going to make any excuses for him but I recognize the fact that he’s playing right tackle for the first time ever and as a rookie in the NFL, and that’s a big adjustment. I hate seeing an OL who’s on the bubble for being ready getting tossed in becuase there just isn’t anyone else, but right now, that’s the case.
Chris Kuper’s Film
For most of the players, I’ve started off the film work with the opening game against Oakland. A couple of things have become clear - Oakland has finally put all those years of high draft picks to work with some good decisions by both Tom Cable, little good though it did him, and Hue Jackson. Denver was playing its first game of the season against a much more established team and the play of the offensive line certainly showed that. In Kuper’s case, I’m going to take a different approach - I’m going to start with the first game after the bye, and will also give examples from earlier games. All of the line has developed substantially - that became obvious as I was viewing all of the other players, particularly Walton and Franklin, his ‘wingmen’ (In Franklin's case, that was prior to the past two weekends). I’m more interested, at this point in how he is doing as the line coalesces. Is Chris earning that contract? Let’s take a look.
Week 7 - Miami
I rewatched the first half of the game, and nothing stood out that needed to be said: there were no deep insights. It was as exciting as watching paint cure. TJ pointed out that it was as exciting as watching turtles mate and I couldn’t disagree. The Chewing the Fat chat can get pretty, um, relaxed in a game like that. I did see a couple of things that I’ll talk about in the second half that were worth noting, though. So saying....
Second Half, 5:43 Drive
The first thing that stands out with Kuper is that he’s got a rare talent - he’s shown a knack for blocking his man (on the DL) into the linebacker behind him. The LBs usually aren’t tall enough to see over the combination of Kupe and the DT, so this effectively takes the LB out of the play until the scrum clears. It’s a nice trick that he managed several times, doing it often enough that it’s unlikely to be accidental. It means that Kuper is also effectively controlling the DT’s movements, which is his first job. When no one pass rushes through his lane, he searches out guys to hit quickly. He plays to the whistle and moves well at the second level. He pulls very well and bought Tebow the time for the first TD catch to Demaryius Thomas by legally holding off one defender (while pulling) and dropping him on the ground, so that Cameron Wake tripped over the prone defender rather than tackling Tim Tebow, creating enough time for the completion. Nice play all around.
Next - you can’t help but notice that Kuper and Franklin are in sync on a lot of plays, and that might count as far as where you move Franklin. At times they hold out their arms together to form a broader obstacle for the defenders. In the conversation that’s emerged about whether to move Franklin to LG next year and find a different RT, I’d make two points:
Good guards are generally cheaper and easier to find, so if Beadles doesn’t step up, Option 1 is to get one of the best out there, through FA or the draft. If you’ve got a decent RT (which is still in question), you need a serious reason to make a change that involves him. Right now, I’m not seeing one. Franklin has played well overall until the past two weeks and he’s had all of six games as a right tackle in his football life. He’s not just playing tackle as a rookie - he’s playing a position that’s completely new to him on top of playing tackle. If he doesn’t improve during the rest of the year, that’s one thing, and I’d want to consider seeing it changed (Walton did show signs of catching on, in December of 2010). If he does show improvement, which he had been doing until the past two games, it will be a tougher choice. Either way, there’s still not much they can do right now. He pulled a groin muscle during the Lions game, and that didn’t helped him much either.
It’s worth keeping in mind that Walton was pretty much awful during his first year (the number of double A-gap blitzes alone was frightening) but this year he’s the highest ranked overall blocker on the starting OL right now. When you start rookies, you harvest mistakes. As they progress, so does your team. The time between you starting them and them starting to play well is often difficult and rarely comfortable.
With Kuper and Franklin playing this well as a pair - and the second Miami TD was also Kuper-dependent, as he and Franklin, with Fells, cleared a road that a double-wide trailer home could have slid through - it’s clear that Kuper and Franklin communicate and function well together. I’d think carefully before breaking up them up - they’re too efficient as a pair. Franklin has a 6.6 cumulative ypa on rushing through his slot, and Kupe’s is 7.5, the two highest on the team. The help has mattered a lot, with the passing game limping.
That also means that when they’ve really needed the yards, Denver has usually gone to the right side of the line (Tebow, though, prefers to go up behind Walton). They did all of the second half in the Miami game and it was working. It set up the 2-point conversion for the Broncos. I’ve seen it in other games, but it really stood out this time - probably because there was so little else to watch (jk - sort of). Both pass and run blocking were very good. Kuper was beaten twice, and one guy got to the QB for a pressure, but not a hit. The other time was a running play, and Kuper’s man did get in on the final pile, but didn’t help create it via a tackle. There were no major mistakes.
By the way, I noted above that Walton is leading the group with the highest PFF rating of any of the starting OL. He and Kuper also look increasingly comfortable playing next to each other, and they help each other out automatically, as do Kupe and Franklin when it’s possible. I admit to having had serious doubts about Walton towards the end of last year, but even then I knew that he wasn’t getting a fair tryout (which should give people a little pause before they yell down Franklin). Given the time to put his experiences into action, he seems like he’s playing well and fighting for every yard. There were 3-4 plays where Walton, Kuper and Franklin fired out together, and they were very effective as a group. Again - if it’s working, I’m leery of changing it.
Week 5 - San Diego
I watched the entire game a couple of times to really start to ‘get’ what Kuper is contributing, and came away even more impressed with him. After watching the debacle of the opener against Oakland, I was mildly depressed about the state and play of the OL. I knew that they’d only been together under the new offense and under the tutelage of Dave Magazu for a short time, but they looked kind of disorganized. That’s changed - greatly. There’s no need to go through the early games - I, and probably you, already knew that Kuper didn’t start off in perfect form. With that as a given, I wanted to see if he was becoming the kind of player that was worth the money, was acting as a leader, and was starting to play to his potential. That’s exactly what I saw against SD as well as in Miami and versus Detroit.
Watching Kuper in the first half reminded me of why he’s so well respected by the front office. He pancaked a couple of defenders, cleared good holes for the RBs and provided strong protection, even though Denver wasn’t moving the ball well against Detroit.
By the way, I rarely dun the officials, who have a very tough job, but I saw a few calls that were utter phantoms - on one, the announcers had their booth try to find any evidence that an offensive player had held and couldn’t find any, leaving them as confused as the spectators were. I recognize that the officials have a rough job, but some of the calls were downright strange, and all three - which went for 38 yards - were against Denver.
Week 8 - Detroit
The first thing that I’d have to note about the Detroit game for Chris is that he was up against Ndamukong Suh for much of the game, and as often as not he fought him pretty much to a standstill. If you want a snapshot of why Denver thinks so much of Kuper, you just got it: going up against Suh is about as hard as it gets. This is what Fox said afterwards:
They had a pretty good front four. The matchup that was going to be tough but I think was well-publicized was the Suh matchup. That was one of the issues we had to address, and I think we did a pretty good job of that, albeit not perfect. It was big matchup; it was a matchup that we definitely emphasized, and I thought he did a good job.
He did, and it showed. Kuper walked off after that game with a higher cumulative rating than when he went in despite playing one of the best young DL players in the league. He also increased his yardage per carry through his territory, although the yards weren’t that meaningful; if the rest of the team could have matched him, the yards might have been.
One reason that I like to take the OL as a separate entity is that no matter how well they do or don’t play, I always find things that I didn’t expect to: Kuper taking over the lead in run blocking for the squad, for example. Even when the game went terribly, there’s often an unsung player toiling away effectively - against Detroit, it was also generally Chris Kuper. And, that’s not unusual. It’s the kind of leadership that Denver is depending on him for.
When things are going badly for a team, you have to have something that you do very well, a go-to. The Broncos don't even have a 'how-to' yet, and that's going to mean some less than desirable results at times. I suspect that they'll have some good weeks - a blind squirrel, and all that - but overall, it's going to be kind of ugly for a while yet. It passes. I've watched it before. But you also need players that you can count on, players who aren’t greybeards or youngsters. Kuper is one of the few in that middle area for the Broncos.
But before people get too far down this road - keep in mind that Denver is back to a new set of coaches, a new set of systems (Mike McCoy’s approach is not the same as Josh McDaniels’, a fact which seems to have been missed by some folks) and Denver has the usual problems that you run into when you make those kinds of changes, but magnified by years of inept play. After the short honeymoon of the first six games in 2009, things got very ugly, due in great part to the major changes in the team. This year is going to have to deal with a lot of those same issues. The terminology is similar for McCoy’s version of the offense versus McDaniels, but there are as many differences in the plays than people are comfortable with, so it’s that McCoy is the villain (or, that the FO has it in for Tebow), rather than the fact that seeing a team struggle under new coaching and systems isn’t unusual.
Next week, I’m going to revisit Ryan Clady’s work. I had a lot of fun putting his work against Green Bay together, and now I’d like to get a more comprehensive view of his body of work for the year. I’ll look forward to it.