Notes from Broncos/Saints

Some things came up during my time watching game film that made resting up this week less boring, so I thought I’d share them:

1. During the opening possession Sunday, Saints wideout Marques Colston ran a crossing route on 3rd and 3, and nickel linebacker Danny Trevathan dove to knock away the pass from Drew Brees, setting up the first punt of the game. Trevathan had three solo tackles plus that pass defensed in limited reps; it’s good to see him get onto the field. I think he has a bright future with Denver, and his excellent defense of a pass while in zone coverage - a weakness of his in college - suggests that he should.

I’m hoping that the team’s experience with Wesley Woodyard - seeing how that kind of drive, focus, and effort translates into production over time - should help shorten the duration before Danny sees more regular playing time. He also had one assisted tackle on special teams against NO; his reps with the nickel package were at MLB (according to PFF), so he’s been learning a new position. More power to him. He was on the field for nearly half the defensive snaps. John Fox’s comment on him was succinct: “I've been impressed with his development." Me, too.

2. While we’re on the subject of linebackers, I’d say that Denver’s gone from a team struggling to get them in order, to a team with linebackers who seem made to order. Wesley Woodyard’s stat strip was a remarkable 13 tackles (nine solo), one sack, a pick, a forced fumble, a tackle for loss on Jimmy Graham, and two passes defensed. I’ve blown the horn for him to take over for Dyme Williams ever since WW’s rookie year. This year, I finally got my wish, and Wesley’s showing the world just how good he is.

I expect next offseason to produce at least one more good linebacker, hopefully a younger Mike who has Keith Brooking’s instincts. Playing the base Mike in the middle of the field has permitted Keith to get to the point of attack faster and offset his normal age-induced loss of speed. His ability to both read plays and to call the signals (most often from the coaches via the headset in his helmet) has come to the Broncos at just the right time.

Von Miller’s becoming a well-rounded linebacker against the run and in coverage. Right now, that’s more important than just his pass rush moves.

Even Nate Irving showed some chops against the Saints, allowing one completion on two targets, and notching a pass defensed on the other. Position coach Richard Smith and former linebacker Jack Del Rio, together with John Fox, have done a heck of a job with this group.

3. When you can rush three linemen and still get a QB hurry, you know that your line is much improved. All of Denver’s defensive linemen played well. Derek Wolfe showed up and howled at the moon a couple of times Sunday night, producing two solo tackles, two QB hits, a hurry, and one tackle for loss. He lost a strip sack to an offsides call on Elvis Dumervil, and also narrowly missed another one due to an OT horse-collaring him - which, in fairness, made things karmically even, since Von Miller got away with one too. Derek was around the ball a lot, as he usually is.

Elvis Dumervil said,

I'm proud of Wolfe. He's a heck of a football player. He's a good energy kid that brings his hard hat and his lunchbox to work. He does the most dirty work on our defense. There's a lot of things he does that fans don't see.

Those last two sentences speak volumes.

3. If it wasn’t for Chris Harris, then Tony Carter - who played very well in the nickel and dime packages against New Orleans - might be the best young undrafted cornerback in the AFC. Tony was targeted six times but allowed only three completions. For the year, he’s been targeted 22 times and has only allowed eight completions, which is impressive for any cornerback. Tracy Porter’s seven missed tackles in five games are starting to look as bad as they were. He may not get the chance to miss a few more once his health situation is resolved - Carter has made an impression.

4. Ronnie Hillman had 86 yards on 14 carries for a 6.1-yard average on Sunday. Hillman’s just learning the pro game, and at 21 (which he just turned on September 14th), he’s the youngest player in the league. He only had two years of college ball, which is a two-edged sword. It means that he’s a low-mileage back, which is good, and it means that he’s still got a lot more to learn. That’s one reason why Peyton Manning has been standing with him on the sideline, tutoring him and walking him through what he needs to know. At least, Manning does so when he isn’t huddling with the entire offense between series.

I’ve been surprised at how many people have commented that they’re still not convinced that Hillman was worth a third-round pick. Ronnie hasn’t shown, by any stretch, that he’s simply a third-down back - he’s got a lot more versatility than that. From a coaching perspective, why would you take reps away from Willis McGahee if he’s still at the level that he’s producing at thus far? Hillman will get his chance in time. In the San Diego game he produced a memorable 29-yard reception and run. This week he produced 82 yards from scrimmage, and in both games, he made blocks that permitted plays to work. Given that he’s a rookie playing behind a back who’s still excelling, I’m not sure what else people are demanding from him.

He isn’t going to be a power back like Willis is, and he shouldn’t be expected to be. If he becomes the primary back - something that’s not preferable, nor outside the realm of possibility - they’ll use a different set of plays for him than they do for McGahee, plays that fit his different skill set. I still think that he’s a heck of a pickup. He runs well and blocks better than a guy his size has any right to. If Manning gets bored throwing to Eric Decker, Demaryius Thomas, Brandon Stokley, Jacob Tamme, or Joel Dreessen, Hillman’s a nice receiving target and has a major case of the quicks once he has the ball.

5. Anyone else guilty of a bit of Schadenfreude on the Chargers’ inability to put more than six points on the board against a defensive powerhouse like Cleveland? If it makes them feel better - and it doesn’t - Kansas City is probably worse, but it’s a close race. SDUT writer Nick Canepa gives the ‘worst’ designation to the Bolts by a nose, in part since they haven’t gotten into the end zone in over six quarters. The Chiefs, on the other hand, are the first team to go seven weeks without a lead in regulation since 1940.

The local media there is just as convinced that the Arrowheads are the worse of the two as the San Diego writers are for their assignments. Both teams’ local papers have columnists who are frantically searching synonyms for ‘pathetic’.

How about saying that “They’re both crappy teams” and letting it go at that? Alternatively, my own suggestion is to have the opposing reporters fight it out in a steel cage match using Octagon rules, with the loser’s team considered the worst. It would be more entertaining than the KC/San Diego matchup coming our way on Thursday night promises to be.

6.  Among the media’s consistently repeated misses is the one about how the Broncos offensive line has improved so much solely because of Peyton Manning. He’s one reason, absolutely - he makes the right play calls at the line and gets rid of the ball effectively as fast as anyone out there.  As a resident trench-mouth, though, I’m not seeing the line’s changes in stance, footwork, combination, and reach-blocking techniques having much of anything to do with Manning. Offensive line coach Dave Magazu’s done a heck of a job with Denver’s line, and the players themselves have stepped up a long way on their own. Welcome back, Chris Kuper. We missed you.

7. TYJE, for reasons far too numerous to list.

8. Virgil Green is another great example of the kind of youth that the Broncos are fielding. The 2011 seventh-round pick was targeted three times and had three receptions for 44 yards during his 34 offensive plays, and made several key blocks for the Broncos running game against the Saints. He had shown flashes of this kind of skill last year, and he’s quickly building on them. Right now, Denver has an amazing group of pass receivers - both wideouts and tight ends - and all of them but Stokes are younger players. Same goes for the linebackers, with the exception of productive veteran Keith Brooking. Denver’s got a mentor-type at nearly every position, with the majority of the other players being in their fourth season or under.

9. In the secondary, since Champ Bailey doesn’t appear to age (but probably has a really ugly painting hidden in the attic), the cornerbacks are all young. Safety Quinton Carter will have to return to form when he heals up, but he was decent while starting in his rookie year before this injury.

Rahim Moore’s play is a huge step up from his last season, while Mike Adams is doing a fine job both on the field and in tutoring his position mates.

Omar Bolden is another fine young talent - he’s been both returning kickoffs and showing a lot of big hit ability when defending against returns and in limited defensive reps. If he plays cornerback with the kind of passionate intensity that he brings to hitting on special teams, he’s going to be another top-flight young player.

Justin Bannan is the only greybeard on the defensive line, and he’s put up the best run-stopping numbers on the team. The veterans that Elway’s brought in are effective. The youngsters are just as impressive.

10. Manning is unreal. As Andrew Mason pointed out (and many writers followed), he’s the first player in NFL history to hit the 300-yard, three-touchdown, 70-percent mark in four consecutive games. Nobody else had even done it even three times in a row. He also broke the 2,000-yard mark for the season against New Orleans - he has 2,113 (2,050 net) for the year so far. Talk about having a mentor on the team....

11. Eric Decker has become something of a go-to guy for Manning (38 receptions, 484 yards, five touchdowns), but you could equally say that of Demaryius Thomas. Decker has less yards per reception, while Thomas tends to have longer routes. The Broncos need both - as well as Brandon Stokley’s 21 receptions on 26 targets and three TDs. His obstruction of an idiotic post-TD celebration was greatly appreciated.

12. DT’s route running has refined substantially and he’s one big, strong WR (6-3, 229) who’s hard to bring down once he has the ball. He lost five pounds over the offseason, replacing a somewhat softer physique with more muscle on top and legs that are both slender and powerful, making it even harder to bring him down. He’s the biggest target that Peyton has ever had, and it shows in how often Manning goes his way (39 receptions for 679 yards with 17.4 yards per reception and four TDs).

Conclusion

Denver has a very dangerous offense, and a special teams group that’s led by Matt Prater (he of the bionic leg), by Britton Colquitt’s impressive punting, and by Trindon Holliday, the pocket-rocket returner acquired on October 11. After a briefly shaky start, Holliday is bringing some new excitement to the punt return game.

The defense has found its stride and the offense is even better. There can’t be a team on the schedule that isn’t concerned about what’s happening in Denver. I look at the team from just one year ago and thankfully, I don’t even recognize it.

Denver now goes on the road to face the Bengals and Panthers; Carolina has been struggling all year, and Cincinnati has lost their last three. It’s time to find out if Denver can take that full 60-minute game and reproduce it on the road.

I wouldn’t bet against them.

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

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