Gut Reactions - Week 4, Broncos-Titans

Sometimes your opponent tries to give you the game.

And sometimes they just don’t catch the football.

Today, the Broncos watched their opponent do both.

On a day in which the Titans missed a field goal, fumbled the ball, committed stupid penalties, and dropped numerous key passes, they saved their best for last. The winds were swirling.  And with just a few minutes remaining in the game, in what was reminiscent of the Broncos’ 1998 AFC Championship victory over the New York Jets, the Titans forgot to handle the kickoff.

Do we thank the wind for the victory?

No way.  This was a gutsy 26-20 victory against a great defense.  Give the Broncos their respect.

At first, in the Music City, the Broncos didn’t seem like they could get the tonk in their honky. They played sluggishly in the first quarter.  They committed stupid penalties.  They even decided to play 0 versus 11 on kickoff coverage.

But then Josh McDaniels channeled his inner Belichick.  As proof that hoodies never say die, he realized, midway into the 2nd quarter, two things:

1) The Broncos could not run the ball.
2) The Broncos could not run the ball.

McDaniels and the Broncos adapted.  They abandoned their 212 package for their 104 package (1 RB, 0 TE, 4 WRs).  This allowed them to use their passing game as a substitution for the run.  They used screen passes.  They ran some WR screens.  They shortened their drops to 3 steps.  They dumped off the ball to their running backs.  In short, they made some great in-game adjustments. 

On defense, Wink Martindale came in with a scheme similar to what we saw last week.  Not a lot of blitzes.  Not a lot of movement.  They kept things in front of them.  Say what you want about the pass rush (and I will), they kept Vince Young in front of them.

In the end, however, everything rested on the Broncos’ red-zone offense.  No, they didn’t play great in the red zone yet again.  No, they didn’t convert on a high percentage of 3rd downs.  But when it counted, they got into the end zone. 

They’ll take the win over all the stats in the world.  So will Broncos fans.

Let’s get to the positives, negatives, and the who-the-heck knows.  First, the positives:

Positives

1) Matt Prater kicking in the swirling winds today was as close to risk-free as you are ever going to find.  If you ever felt like chest-bumping a kicker (which you wouldn’t), you’d certainly give one to Prater today. 

2) The Broncos are not a running team.  It took Josh McDaniels a few drives to completely—and smartly—accept this fact.  Instead, he began to use RB and WR screens as a replacement for the running game.  He also shorted Orton’s drops to 3 steps.  As we indicated in the intro, these were excellent adjustments by the Broncos. 

3) Demaryius Thomas returning kickoffs is a thing of beauty.  What a great way to get the ball into the hands of your best players.  If you needed further proof that Thomas is a special player, you got it today.  And no, Brandon Marshall could never have returned kicks like this.

4) Outside of one rushing play, the Broncos’ run defense held up again today.  In particular, Robert Ayers and Jason Hunter set the edge very well.  Ayers isn’t putting up a lot of numbers, but he’s been surprisingly strong against the running game - week in, and week out. 

Late in the game, the defense did everything you could have asked of them.  Everything.

5) Kyle Orton played impressively again after a bit of a shaky start.  For the most part, he made good decisions against the blitz and beat the zone coverage of the Titans consistently.  On the day, Orton was 35-of-50 for 341 yards and a QB rating of 93.8.  If you haven’t noticed, Orton set the franchise mark for passing yards through the first 4 games of a regular season.  He probably could have avoided a few of those sacks by throwing the ball away, but you once again saw today why Orton is one of the gutsiest and grittiest guys in the NFL.  He hung in there and took his punishment like a man today, despite throwing an interception.  His QB sneaks were as tough as you’ll ever see. 

On the crucial late pass interference call, Orton did a good job of avoiding the sack and taking a risk.  Those detractors that say Orton can never make a play are wrong once again.

If Orton doesn’t get serious Pro Bowl consideration this year, your name is Jay Cutler. 

6) Wink Martindale’s scheme was interesting and effective in bottling up Vince Young.  I’ll have some negative things to say about the front-7 pass rush, but you can’t argue with Martindale’s patient scheme.  He also knows when to dial up a blitz at a critical time (see: Dawkins, Brian).

7) Jeff Fisher’s poor challenge late in the game was fortuitous.  Thanks to Fisher wasting his challenge on an obviously successful 4th-and-1 play for Denver, the Titans only had two timeouts remaining late in the game.  This cost them dearly.

8)  Pick a wide receiver.  Pick any wide receiver.  Lloyd?  A monster.  Royal?  Relentless.  Thomas?  Flash.  Gaffney?  Clutch. 

Go ahead and pencil in Lloyd (and his 454 yards through 4 games) for the Pro Bowl.  If people are paying attention, Eddie Royal will join him.

9) DJ Williams was flying all over the field.  He ended the game with 7 tackles, 2 assists and a sack.  He made some critical stops on 3rd down as well.  Of course, if DJ is making tackles, this means that Justin Bannan, Jamal Williams, and Ryan McBean are doing their jobs.

10) Perrish Cox was largely unheard of today.  That’s a good thing.  If you didn’t notice, the kid had 5 tackles, so he’s not afraid to mix it up. 

Negatives

1) 3rd-down efficiency was poor yet again.  The Broncos were 3 of 15, and faced many 3rd-and-long plays.  Against a cover-2 zone with deep linebacker drops, converting 3rd downs becomes a tougher chore. 

2) Yes, I know the Titans are a great defense in the red zone, but are the Broncos really this bad when they are inside their opponent’s 20-yard line?  At least the Broncos got the seven points when they really needed them.

3) It would be nice to see the Broncos strike on their first drive.  Instead, they squandered great field position as Kyle Orton and his receivers came out sluggishly for the fourth straight week.  I don’t know how Josh McDaniels fixes this problem, but it keeps happening.

4) Despite the wind, once again the Broncos failed on kick coverage and had numerous breakdowns in their lane assignments.  I know there are some critical injuries the Broncos are dealing with, but in case you missed it, the Broncos continue to be the worst team in the league in kickoff coverage from the perspective of the numbers. 

5)  The running game is beginning to become painful to watch.  I remember the days in which John Elway used to lead the team in rushing, but when Kyle Orton is your leading rusher on the day, it’s just ghastly.  No, it’s more than ghastly.  It’s like watching Axl Rose in concert.

The running backs are finding the pile - 2 yards in their own back field.  I’ll have to break down the tape later in the week, but at first blush, they are being eaten up by the run blitzes and line slants.  In particular,  it looked like D’Anthony Batiste, JD Walton, and Stanley Daniels were consistently being pushed into their own backfield. 

6) The Broncos had a hard time generating a pass rush again without resorting to the blitz.  As we noted, some of this was by design today.  The Broncos came in with a scheme similar to last week against the Colts.  It was a decent scheme and limited Young’s scrambling ability for the most part.

But we need to admit something to ourselves.  The lack of a pass rush from the front seven is becoming a trend.  As Wink Martindale enters the 2nd quarter of the season, he’s going to have to dial up some zone blitzes.  Today, Vince Young had an immense amount of time to throw the ball. 

7) Stanley Daniels, when you are twice as large as your man, and he has no chance of making the play, you don’t need to bear hug him, big guy.  You just cost the Broncos four additional points. 

8) If you are going to continue to call the fade route near the goal line, Josh McDaniels, at least run it with your most acrobatic receiver, Brandon Lloyd. 

Who The Heck Knows?

1) The Titans came out early in the game and passed the ball much more often than they usually do.  The Titans came out and showed a ton of 212 personnel packages (2 RBs, 1 TE, 2 WRs).  They passed much more frequently than they usually do from this formation as well.  No doubt Titans offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger did this by choice.  The Broncos were going to key on Johnson, so the Titans went in the other direction.  The NFL is a chess game, and Heimerdinger went off script effectively.  The middle slant seemed particularly effective. 

2) Bad clock management by McDaniels at the end of the 2nd quarter?  It’s debatable.  Hard to fault the Broncos for using the timeout there.  They were getting their kicking team on the field, and as we know, McDaniels was actually considering going for the FG there.  At the same time, the Broncos could have milked the clock so that the Titans never had the chance for the field goal.  Let the debate begin.

3) In a game in which you throw the ball 50 times, Ryan Clady’s pass protection wasn’t as bad as it looked today.  Really, I swear. 

Feel free to give us your gut reaction in the comments below.  What did I miss or forget?

I’m glad we had this talk.  Now, vaya con Dios, Brah.

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