First postseason look: Defense

For all of you who thought on Sunday that Steve Beuerlein was trying for a date with Phil Crimea Rivers and was strangely hard on Tim Tebow, who was in his third game, here are the pertinent facts: As a rookie himself in 1988, Steve played in 10 games and started 8 of them. He had a completion rate of 44.1% along with 8 TDs and 7 INTs. He had a sack percentage of 9.8 and a QB rating of 66.6, which may explain his antipathy to Tim, being the number of all evil (or the numeric short-hand name for Nero, depending on how you read history and the text involved). This guy verbally knocking a rookie for being a rookie is a joke. Remarkable how people have such short memories, isn’t it? Perhaps it was the concussions...

In a lot of ways, it was a fun game to watch. Both teams played as if they were still in some existential playoff hunt, and the usual Bolts/Broncos pushing, shoving and occasional fisticuffs (in a mild sense), inevitably ensued. There were some great moments and some terrible ones. The usual culprit - mistakes, untimely and consistent, gave away the Broncos’ chance at ending with a home win, but nailed for them the second-overall pick in the draft, something that Denver has no experience with in modern times. All in all, I like that they have the pick.

Watching the Defense

There were a couple of things that I noticed while going over the game film again yesterday. Unlike most of my postgame experiences with film, I made less of a point of watching things other than the ball. In fact, I focused on it substantially, but not when Denver had it. I was interested in watching the Broncos' defense, and keeping track of who was doing what.

This was not a stat-driven interest. I love stats, and I also leave them to people like TJ and Doug, who have experience with them and an understanding of them that goes far beyond my own. Stats fail in one area, though, where film is necessary. A simple example is a running play that goes off tackle. There will be a stat for a player or a couple of players who make the tackle, which is as it should be. Quite often, though, the tackle was the outcome of a couple of players who won’t appear on the stat sheet - the safety who comes up and seals off a running lane or the DE who sits his bubble down and holds off two blockers.

Then there's the linebacker or two who seal an edge, driving the runner into the tackler(s), or who see the DE working on two linemen and spread out the obstacles by coming in on either side of him, knowing that one or the other will also be in the runner’s way. In short, I was far more interested in finding out who was around the ball consistently than I was in who got the stat for the play. There are times when the same player manages both, but as often as not, the players who make the play possible aren’t on the stat sheet for that play.

I did read over the Denver Post’s Analysis of Broncos' roster this morning, although I had finished my own before then. There were things that we agreed on and others we did not. I’ll start with the defense today, and first of all with the DL, because in many ways, it’s the most confusing for fans. In a Bullough-based 3-4, the linemen are there as roadblocks. They are directed to take on two blockers as much as possible, and to let the linebackers handle the cleanup as much as anything else. As a result, fans who haven’t heard a certain name for a while often assume that the player hasn’t been producing. You’ll get a lot of fans who are on that level pointing at the stat line - are the DL players racking up tackles, sacks, forcing fumbles? If not, aren’t they doing a poor job? The fact is that it really doesn’t matter. Sure, it’s nice if it happens, but a lineman can have a great game and not get his number mentioned once.

Three players on the DL had excellent games Sunday, and a fourth earned a mention. Justin Bannan has been consistently playing at a very high level, and his game against the Bolts was no exception. He moved the pile toward the QB, chased Rivers out of the pocket, blew up plays in the backfield, and obstructed the left side of the line well. You would also find him in backside pursuit, occupying and shoving off blockers as well as being in on tackles. Remember - they don’t give out 2 tackles on one play. They may give a half to each of two players, but when Denver is playing at its best, they are gang-tackling. Bannan was around the ball constantly. He’s been playing like that for much of the season, and he was a heck of a good investment. He can play any of the positions, and can play in a 4-3 or a 3-4. It was a great job on his part. After the game, Bannan said,

All I can speak from is experience -- in '07 I went 4-12 on the Ravens, the next year we were in the AFC Championship. I'm really optimistic about the future here.

Marcus Thomas has been a top rotational player, and until he went down injured, he was having another good game. He’s a free agent, and Denver ought to get smart and get him a contract as soon as it’s possible. Like Bannan, he can play anywhere on a 3-4, 4-3 or 5-2 system. Solid rotational depth is one of the signs of a good team - Thomas should be part of that for Denver. As a 4-3 undertackle, he could start if he continues to improve as he has.

Kevin Vickerson had one of his best games of the season. There were whole series in which every time I looked up, it seemed that he was around the ball, clogging up lanes, taking down runners and even chasing the QB. He’s not fleet of foot, but he’s athletic and talented in a smaller space. Vickerson is somewhere between a very good rotational player and a starter - and Denver needs both. I’d expect him back.

I’m not going to go over every player at every position, but at DL, it turned out that Jamal Williams had one of his better games as well and I’m not going to leave him off. I’m torn on Williams - too often, they’re moving him out of the way to break off a good run up the middle. He’s lost some speed, and even though he’s very big (though as I’ve mentioned, he lost 20 lb. during the first half of the season in order to play in Denver, so he’s really about 325-330), he’s not the most effective guy on the Broncos' line. He had a very good game, though, so more power to him. No predictions on whether he’ll be back - scheme will play a big role.

Linebacker

There was one reason that Jamal Williams looked better, and that was that Wes Woodyard was playing with him in the middle. I don’t know why they diddn’t set WW loose earlier as an ILB, but he was all over the field in the best of ways, and has been since they moved him to this role. He’s going to be back next year, and he ought to be in the mix to start. He was blowing up plays, putting pressure on Rivers who, unfortunately for Denver, is the top QB in the league against the blitz. Despite his odd mechanics (which have zero to do with Tebow’s odd mechanics, by the way: they’re very different), Rivers can get the ball out fast and with accuracy.

But Woodyard seems to be showing that ILB is where he belongs. Whatever the next scheme, it’s past time that he started in it. I thought that WW should have beaten out DJ Williams back in 2008 - after this year, I’m sure of it. By the way, to give him his due, DJ had what was mostly a very good game Sunday. I wish he’d have done so sooner and/or with more regularity, but it was nonetheless a good game for him.

Mario Haggan has broken the 30-year old barrier, but he plays like a kid. He’s tough, determined and doesn’t make a lot of mistakes. He’s another guy who was around the ball all day. Robert Ayers hasn’t been quite the same since he hurt his foot - I looked at film of him when he was playing well early in the year, and he looked visibly faster. Both of them should be back next year.

Cornerback

I don’t know if Perrish Cox will be in Denver or in prison next year, but he isn’t ready to start. It’s really that simple. I deeply hope that Denver locks up Champ Bailey for two or three years - probably three - and then slides him to safety. He could have five years left. And, for the record - he was robbed on the Pro Bowl. I hope he makes it, and he probably will with someone dropping due to the playoffs, but he should have been in there already.

Syd’Quan Thompson is interesting - you’d expect a 7th-round player to need to develop, and he does. He rarely has gone a game without at least one impressive play, though, and he was there again Sunday. If he can become more consistent over the next couple of years, he might become a very good player - perhaps at nickel. Consistency is his watchword - without it, he’s not going to last, and with it he could be around for quite a while.

Andre' Goodman has shown over and over how important he is - it seemed all year that either he or Champ had been injured, and yes, they’re both over 30. He had a good game Sunday, and kept it from being a blowout with several excellent plays. He even had a couple of great tackles, and that’s not usually his game. Cassius Vaughn, of course, just showed that you might want to keep him (and Eric Decker) around for the returns. What a great run Vaughn had! STs - that’s one area where SD has gone from penthouse to outhouse, and that’s a big reason they aren’t in the playoffs.

Safety

Did Denver have someone besides Brian Dawkins out there? I’m kidding, of course - Renaldo Hill didn’t have his best game, but he was solid. Dawkins was playing like it was his last game, and perhaps it was. He’s always said that he’d stop when he slowed down, and this year, he did. If it was his last, he went out in style. I loved the safety blitz that took down Rivers - no matter how fast your release, if you don’t see a guy coming in untouched and your coach didn’t call a smoke route, you’re in serious trouble. Rivers may still be spitting out turf from that one.

Rather than turn this into a graduate thesis, I’m going to take the offense tomorrow. Tebow’s situation is going to obviously play heavily, and there are some things that you might have seen Sunday, if you were looking, that might have seemed familiar. In fact, they were very, very old. There was a rookie lineman who also played a role in that old school football, and he’s coming on fast. I’ll see you tomorrow.

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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