Over the bye week, I turned my attention to the notes that I’ve made on the team. Just as the offense did, the Broncos have made key errors on defense that cost them some games.
They’ve also showed the ability to play better. Here are some thoughts on Jack Del Rio's crew:
1. Rookie Derek Wolfe has played every position along the line (including nose tackle on at least one play) and already has three sacks to his credit - he’s also setting the edge with increasing effectiveness. Teams are commonly double-teaming Wolfe and/or handing him off from one blocker to the next, but all that’s done is to create more options for Von Miller, Elvis Dumervil, and the other players.
Del Rio isn’t shy about using his own immense creativity in putting new pressure packages together, and he’s started to use defensive secondary players in his QB pressure schemes, which helps. Most defensive ends/tackles need a couple or more years to really mature, but Wolfe’s off to a fine start.
2. Dumervil already has four forced fumbles and five sacks, to go with 28 tackles. Miller has been a machine, with six sacks and 32 QB pressures (inclusive of sacks, hits, and hurries). His run defense grade according to PFF is nearly as high as his pass-rush figure - 16.2 against the run, 18.5 against the pass, while ranking fourth on the team in tackles with 26 (20 solo). They’re an amazing pair.
3. In the defensive backfield, Rahim Moore has shown that he’s integrated the lessons he was taught in film and weight rooms this offseason - he’s far and away a better player now, and he’s still learning. He’s second on the team with 41 tackles; 32 were solo, and he hasn’t missed a tackle all year. Mike Adams was a good experienced/journeyman acquisition, whose veteran savvy and influence are highly beneficial in terms of leadership, and as an extra set of advice and listening ears, much like Champ Bailey. Champ hasn’t lost a step either.
4. Speaking of defensive backs, Jack Del Rio sent them after the QB three times as often in the second half against the Bolts as compared to the first. Del Rio has been innovative, aggressive, and creative, and his defense is as physical as I had hoped. While it’s true that having and keeping a top DC would be a luxury, finding one as knowledgeable and skilled as JDR is a huge advantage.
5. Second-year player and former college free agent Chris Harris is fifth on the team in total tackles with 25, plus two sacks, and the two interceptions of Philip Rivers; his pick-six was even more enjoyable since it came against Crimea Rivers and iced that game.
I was frankly surprised when Tony Carter made the squad this year, since he’s bounced on and off practice squads since 2009. But he’s shown me that regardless of his height, weight, and overall size, his heart is the size of the Gore Range. John Elway has been quoted as saying of Carter, "Tony just battles all the time."
If you’re wondering what ‘battles’ looks like, here’s the snapshot. Carter has been targeted 16 times and has given up only five receptions for a stellar 31.25 reception percentage (an admittedly small sample size, but you can only report what he’s played). He has a fumble recovery for a TD, one pass defensed, and an interception in San Diego, to go with seven tackles (all solo, with one missed tackle).
Add to that youthful defenders Moore, Tracy Porter, Omar Bolden, Miller, Wolfe, Malik Jackson, Danny Trevathan (starting at LB in the nickel, as of Week 6 in San Diego), the injured Quinton Carter, and Wesley Woodyard, and Denver has a lot of rising talents.
6. Porter has been something of a mixed bag for Denver. When I looked at game film from 2010 and 2011, I saw a player who needed to fill out physically to improve his press coverage and tackling, who is extremely fast, and who can flip his hips like lightning. My concerns ran to his ability in press and tackling; his coverage was a plus. With five games under his belt, Porter has one pick, five passes defensed, 16 tackles (14 solo), and seven (!) missed tackles. Those footsteps he’s hearing may be Tony Carter running up behind him. Porter’s got a lot of talent, but to hang with Denver he’s going to have to get his fundamentals and tackling up to snuff.
Putting together a cornerback group is never easy, and Porter impressed me early in the season, but while he has allowed 21 receptions on 34 targets, those tackling numbers are dreadful. Add to that the three touchdowns that he’s already given up (nearly on track for the nine scores that cost Andre' Goodman his job), and Porter’s one-year contract isn’t a lock for renewal just yet. With Omar Bolden in his first year, Chris Harris impressing the heck out of everyone who watches him, and Tony Carter playing at a surprising (to me, at least) level, Porter’s still a question mark. His five passes defensed in five games outplay Goodman’s miserly six for the 2011 season, though, so he’s still very much in the race to stay around.
7. Thank you, John Elway.
8. Bolden already shows potential in both the return and special teams areas, and Denver may be starting to add cornerback duties to that list. At 5-10 and 195 pounds, he’s a vicious-hitting player when receivers come over the middle, but a guy who clearly needs some coaching.to play at the NFL level. The golden thread that’s running through the current tapestry of players, stats, and comments is this: Denver’s been obtaining better young players through both the draft and through college free agency (as well as normal free agency), and they’ve been developing them well.
Elway understands from the inside many of the things that a lot of teams never do get right. As Del Rio predicted early on, Denver’s dime (six DB) package has been one of their most effective, so as Bill Parcells did with linebackers (“I like linebackers - I collect them. You can never have too many”), Denver may need to continue to collect DBs.
9. The same is true for linebackers, as Broncos fans are well aware. Danny Trevathan may not have set the field on fire in San Diego, but he didn’t make any egregious errors, either. He’s a rookie Will backer who shows definite promise and needs some coaching up, especially in zone coverage.
Undrafted rookie Steven Johnson is a Mike who needs time to mature before competing to play in the regular season, so for now it looks like Keith Brooking is the best of the options for the Broncos. Expect linebacker to be a position of concern for the Broncos this offseason (as if that’s news).
10. Despite the ruckus that blew up when Brodrick Bunkley decided to go to the Saints, Justin Bannan is the third-ranked defensive player on the team, according to PFF. His run-stopping numbers are his best work - he’s rated at +10.2 in that area, where Bunkley is at a rating of +6.5 this season for New Orleans. That’s one of the reasons that Denver’s run-stopping numbers have improved this year over last: Bannan has played even more effectively than Bunkley had to the same point in 2011.
Mitch Unrein has been steady - he won’t astound you, but he’s good at his job, and I think that he’ll improve even more with additional playing time. Big Kevin Vickerson looks like his old self at his old size - that’s good to see. The offseason should see the addition of a younger nose tackle, but Bannan’s been a rock. DTs aren’t one of Denver’s bigger problems, and it’s been rare that I can say that.
11. In the weeks leading up to the San Diego game, I was intrigued to notice that no one seemed to talk much about the realities of Eddie Royal as a player. Part of that is probably loyalty - as a person, I think that he’s a top-drawer guy. He’s one who shows that he believes in giving back to the community, and he works his tail off in practice, brings a good attitude in the locker room, practice field, and on game day as well.
But Royal, the player, has a history of getting injured early in the season and having the physical dings and glitches linger - knee, hip, leg, et cetera - all with enough of a concern that it’s weakened his play at WR. That had to come into Denver’s decision to let him go.
Eddie was responsible for one of the two turnovers in his area in SD - he failed to fight through Chris Harris, cross his face, and get a hand on the ball on one play, and it reminded me of several examples in previous seasons in which I had wondered what the problem with Royal had been. The second play (Harris's pick-six) was just a poor throw by Rivers, but Royal has shown substantial limitations in his technique that have surprised me, given the way he began his career.
Eddie had two receptions on the day, and has 13 receptions on 25 targets with one TD; hardly laudable stats, especially considering the $6M in guarantees given him by A.J. Smith. I’ll always like Eddie Royal, but I like him being in San Diego.
12. No matter what their source, the penalties and mental errors that have plagued Denver for years are going to have to be halted, and soon. Both teams were sloppy in this regard last Monday Night - Denver had ten penalties for a total of 81 yards, and San Diego had nine penalties for 65 yards. The two teams also combined for nine turnovers, with five of them coming directly from Rivers.
He was also the victim of multiple onslaughts by the Denver defense, which sent DBs after him over 15 times in the second half, in a defensive scheme that was as creative as any game plan that I’ve seen from a Broncos DC in years. Del Rio continues to be as important on the defensive side of the ball as Peyton Manning has been to the offense, and for much the same reason - work ethic, a refusal to settle for anything other than perfection, and the ability to ask nothing of one’s charges that you won’t do yourself.
I think that when you have an issue for multiple years on something as basic as mental errors, it becomes an automatic response, permitting the situation to continue. Del Rio doesn’t put up with it well: neither does Manning. Champ Bailey said, in different ways and in different interviews over the past two weeks, that Denver’s biggest problems have been the ones they’ve made for themselves. Playing a game in a fashion both disciplined and highly aggressive is a tough line to walk. In the second half of the Qualcommback game, Denver started the second half by stopping making errors as numerous or as harmful. SD took over from them, making enough botches for both teams. It made the outcome inevitable.
It shows one thing - when Denver stops shooting itself in the foot, they’re a skillful, physical, impressive team that should have the respect of any opponent in the league. Following the bye, they have a chance to show just how good they can be against some lesser teams than those they played in the first four weeks. They just need to keep their professionalism, maintain communication, and gap discipline, and do their jobs. They’ve become the team that I was hoping to see emerge by now. I’m excited about the rest of the schedule - there isn’t a game I see on it that isn’t winnable.
"Man plans: God laughs”
This may be my last piece for a while. Several of you have already noticed that I’ve had to take some time away from writing. I wanted to thank all of those who’ve written me about it for your kind words. It’s just a health issue; nothing more.
Right now, I've got enough going on physically that despite some extensive changes in the technology I use - I took over a year to set up a voice-command and speech recognition computer system that lets me write, and that's helped my hands and arms considerably - but other problems are intruding.
I have some spinal issues that I’m dealing with, which are years overdue for a certain procedure. That procedure wasn’t available in my county of CA due to the endless joys of the insurance game (this might not be the time to ask me about the lack of a national health care service), but we've apparently gotten around that sticking point. I'm hoping that the effects and subsequent improvement from these will permit me to return to writing for Fat Man, which I greatly enjoy.
I follow the site daily. It's been helpful that know Ted, Doug, and TJ (and David) are doing such a great job while I take the time to work this one out. As always, they’ve been extremely supportive, and I’d like to take this chance to thank each of them - no one has had a more understanding (and outstanding) group to work with. I hope to improve substantially after the procedures, but I can't really know for sure - hopefully, it won't take too long, but there will be six spinal procedures to deal with this winter. It’s not a small issue, so it’s going to take a while.
Ironic, isn’t it? You wait for a great season like this one, suffer through the Shanahan/McDaniels/Xanders/Elway transitions, and then just when things are getting exciting, I've got to take a break. Sometimes life's like that. I’m grateful for the areas that have improved, and with any luck, this will respond just as positively.
I'll still be around. I’ll post comments at times, and I’ll be as connected to the site as my condition allows. I hope to be back soon. In the meantime, enjoy the uniqueness of this season, and as always - Go Broncos!
All the best,