Happy Tuesday, friends. It's a happy week in Broncoland, hopefully one of many to come this season. There was some good, some bad, some lucky, and some spectacular on Sunday. We'll discuss it all, like we always do, and we won't apologize for winning, because a win is a win. Ready.... BEGIN!!!
1. The Broncos on Sunday reminded me of the Patriots of about 2005, only operating at about 60% of potential. The defensive looks were varied, the tackling and coverage were solid, and the whole was generally greater than the sum of its parts. On offense, there was a lot of commitment to running the ball, some screening, and mostly lower-risk stuff when they did go downfield. The team played like they expected a close game, and did the sorts of things you have to do to win close.
Consider the following:
a. The Broncos committed no turnovers, and forced two. (I personally count the bad snap on the FG, which doesn't technically count, and don't count Scheffler's interception, which does.) I now reiterate my belief that turnovers are the number one determinant of winning and losing.
b. The Broncos committed few penalties, and they were minor ones, the obvious exception being the Casey Wiegmann holding call on the successful 4th-quarter Correll Buckhalter screen.
c. Brett Kern had one notable shank, but mostly punted very well, helping the Broncos in field position. (I now reiterate my belief that field position is the number two determinant of winning and losing.) The return work for the Broncos was very shaky all day, and I would say the Broncos lost the field position battle by a bit. It would have been a lot worse without Kern's solid work, and some good coverage on punts.
d. The clock management methodology at the end of the first half was right out of Bill Belichick's book, and we can expect to see it repeatedly over the coming years. I want to talk about this in some detail, because it's going to become a key part of the character of the Broncos football team.
The unsophisticated observer of football tends to think that a "2-minute drill" calls for clock conservation and a sense of urgency. You know, people like Dan Fouts. It's not that simple, though. You have to consider field position and how many timeouts you have, and do a mental calculation of the probability of your offense scoring, and failing that, the probability of pinning the opposing team deep, and giving them no good shot at scoring, should you have to punt.
The Belichick 2-minute ethos is simple. The number-one objective in a 2-minute situation is to prevent the opposition from scoring. The number-two objective is to score yourself. Deep in your own territory, you make the clock run, almost always by handing off from a spread-out shotgun look. The Patriots have been doing this with Kevin Faulk forever, and I knew that's what the Broncos were doing on first down on Sunday.
Eddie Royal returns the ball to the Denver 17, with 1:48 to go, and 2 timeouts.
DEN 1-10 own 17 yard line 1:48 Handoff to Correll Buckhalter for 7 yards
DEN 2-3 own 24 yard line 1:17 Handoff to Buckhalter for 6 yards
DEN 1-10 own 30 yard line 1:01 Screen pass to Buckhalter for 7 yards
DEN 2-3 own 37 yard line :40 Incomplete deep out to Jabar Gaffney
DEN 3-3 own 37 yard line :34 WR screen to Eddie Royal for 11 yards
DEN 1-10 own 48 yard line :26 Deep out to Jabar Gaffney for 21 yards, out-of bounds
DEN 1-10 CIN 31 yard line :20 Incomplete downfield pass to Tony Scheffler (near fumble)
DEN 2-10 CIN 31 yard line :14 Inside handoff to Buckhalter for no gain
DEN 3-10 CIN 31 yard line :05 Matt Prater makes 48 yard field goal, Denver leads 3-0 at halftime.
This is very good clock management. The likelihood of driving 83 yards in 1:48 with 2 timeouts, and getting a Touchdown is pretty low, particularly when the offense has struggled all half. The likelihood of getting close enough to try a field goal is much higher.
If you go 3-and-out really quickly on 3 incomplete passes, there is suddenly about 1:35 left, and it's 4th and 10 on your own 17. In 2008, over 2,293 punts in the NFL, the average net outcome was a change in field position of 39.53 yards. Add that to 17, and you just gave the ball to the other team at their own 43, with 1:20 or so to go. They only have to go 20-25 yards to get into field-goal range, which is really manageable. That is why your starting field position matters to your strategy in a compressed-time situation (I don't like the term 2-minute drill. This is the real thing, not a damn drill. It's the old Boatswain's Mate in me). When the Broncos have the ball inside their own 30 or so, expect them to always follow this strategy at the end of the first half.
2. Information from my eyes, from a second pass of the Broncos-Bengals game:
a. The Broncos have a terrific set of CBs. Champ Bailey showed his worth, and Andre' Goodman made one outstanding downfield play, deflecting a ball, and generally had good coverage, even when balls were completed near him. The guy who continued to flash star ability, though, was Alphonso Smith. The Broncos are never going to regret taking this guy.
b. Brett Kern really punted well Sunday, except for one shank. The pass rush bailed him out of that, which I will get into a bit later. For awhile, Kern was the best weapon the Broncos had.
c. Knowshon Moreno ran sideways way too much Sunday. Bobby Turner will certainly be on his back about that, and let's hope the lesson sinks in very quickly.
d. I am not the first person to say this, but I wanted to see more of Peyton Hillis carrying the ball. I wonder if Spencer Larsen's injury caused the staff to shy away from it, since Peyton is really now the only available FB for awhile.
e. Andra Davis had a fantastic game, with 9 tackles, 3 for losses, and 1 sack. He played downhill all day, and thumped some Bengals. That's exactly what we need from him.
f. We need Wesley Woodyard to come in for Davis in coverage situations too, and we got some return on that, with his interception.
g. Wrapping up in the tackling game needs to definitely be better.
3. Information from my eyes, other games' version:
a. The Cardinals really struggled to protect Kurt Warner on Sunday, and it was the main reason they lost to the 49ers. The Niners sacked him 3 times, but hit him a lot of times more than that, 8 according to ESPN.com's box score. The 49ers also struggled in protection, but in key moments, they kept Shaun Hill upright.
b. Warner hasn't looked quite right to me, through the preseason, and into today's game. I haven't figured out what it is yet, but there's something wrong. It's almost like his personal sense of timing isn't there, like it is when he is going well. It will bear watching in the coming weeks, but if he falls off really sharply, the Cardinals will have something to worry about.
c. I really don't like Shaun Hill's skills, but he finds a way to win games. I can see why Mike Singletary likes him, because he is sort of similar to Jim McMahon from a skill-set perspective. I kind of feel bad for Mike, actually, because at no point in his career, as either a player or a coach, has he ever had a big-time QB to work with.
d. Cullen Jenkins is a beast, and he dominated against the Bears on Sunday night. Nobody on the Chicago line could handle him. I've said it before, but his injury almost single-handedly sunk the Packers season last year. When you have a guy like him, you have a really good chance to be stout against the run with 7 in the box, which is what their old Jim Bates-inspired (Bob Sanders-coached) defensive scheme is predicated upon. When they had to stack the box, they couldn't cover well enough anymore, and all of a sudden, they're a 6-10 team.
e. I believed it, and said it on Draft Day, and I believe it even more strongly now. The Packers messed up drafting B.J. Raji, despite the strong likelihood that he'll be a good player. They badly, badly needed help at Offensive Tackle, and they should have either traded up for Eugene Monroe or traded down a bit and taken Michael Oher. Chad Clifton is horrible on the left side, and Allen Barbre, the new RT, looks quite a bit worse than Mark Tauscher, the out-of-work, washed-up guy he replaced. This is a big enough problem to potentially make them struggle to make the playoffs, and it's otherwise a Super Bowl-caliber team.
f. Jay Cutler flat-out choked with that 4th pick. And like on the first three, Cris Collinsworth blamed the receiver. Guys, Cutler doesn't need enabling. That's the lesson from Denver that nobody seems to learn. (He needs to be coached with a foot in his hind parts, actually.) While it is true that the guy (Johnny Knox) needed to shield Al Harris from getting inside him, it was a terrible decision to go there anyway. KC Joyner's bad-decision metric would kill Cutler's game Sunday, because he threw the ball straight to the other team 6 times, with them only catching 4 of them.
g. There were a lot of dropped passes across the NFL this weekend, it wasn't just the Broncos and Bengals. I don't know if receivers were just rusty or what, but it was pretty bad.
h. I loved the call on third-and-one with 1:18 to go in the Packers-Bears game. Aaron Rodgers threw a great ball and hit Greg Jennings for a 51-yard TD pass. Jennings ran a textbook go-route on the play, widening out on Nathan Vasher, and then taking a great line to the catch spot. They exploited the hell out of the whole Bears secondary on that play, and it was an easy pitch and catch.
i. NBC criticism time. Bob Costas doesn't know what the hell he is talking about. (The Colts lost their outstanding receiver Anthony Gonzalez today! Really? Outstanding?) Rodney Harrison can barely get a clean sentence out, and reminds me of Emmitt Smith already, as a TV guy. Tony Dungy is going to get old quick, and the holdovers from the NBC studio still aren't that good either, though I'm glad to be rid of Jerome Bettis. Collinsworth is really hit or miss, but mostly missed Sunday night, and Al Michaels just seems like he doesn't care anymore. Twenty years ago, he was pretty good, but now, he's the worst play-by-play guy in the business. He blows more calls, and misspeaks more often than anybody. It's like a George W. Bush speech with him, every game. It makes me wish Madden 10 was real life, and Tom Hammond was in there instead. Michaels' toupee is atrocious too, but that isn't exactly new news.
j. I got beat up for this a couple weeks ago, but I still think Joe Flacco is better than Matt Ryan, and I want to reiterate it. He can do everything Ryan can do, but he has much more zip on his fastball, and he's significantly more mobile, too. It's kind of reminiscent of the Chris Paul/Deron Williams debate (now, non-debate) in the NBA. Both are really good, but the one who was drafted lower is a bit better.
Flacco was hurt by a lot of drops on Sunday, but he personally looked really good, and was the primary reason Baltimore beat Kansas City. The Chiefs tied the game at 24 with 5:21 to go, and Flacco went and won the game, beating a blitz with a great deep ball to Mark Clayton (who I should have started in the official MHR fantasy league).
k. Tamba Hali continues to look pretty good as a LB in the 3-4 for Kansas City, but Mike Vrabel alternately looked lazy and washed-up on the other side. Big things are allegedly expected from Vrabel this year, but I sure can't tell.
l. My brother Chris (a fellow Broncos fan, and sometimes MHR lurker) was stuck with the Jets-Texans game at home in Los Angeles on Sunday, but he said it was worth watching, so I took in the Short Cut. The Jets defensive front did a job on the Texans O-line, and I asked Chris if it was primarily schematic, or primarily a man beating a man. He said it was some of both, and I agree wholeheartedly, after watching the game. Rex Ryan is definitely still at it, sometimes lining up a three-man line as a 1-technique, 3-technique, and 5-technique, all to one side of the Center, having nothing but LBs on the other side. Nice evaluation, Chris, if you get around to reading this.
Vernon Gholston actually showed some flashes of being able to play, which was surprising, and the Jets clearly have a plan to overload blitz from a lot of fronts. Darrelle Revis did a great job on Andre Johnson, too, really taking Houston's best player out of the game.
m. The second-best defensive rookie I saw this weekend (behind Alphonso Smith) was Brian Cushing of the Texans. He was constantly around the ball, and looked like a better, more downhill-playing Chad Greenway.
n. I continue to be very impressed with Mark Sanchez. He looked poised and talented, which I expected. What I didn't necessarily expect was how well he would bounce back from throwing a TD pass to the other team (for Houston's only points of the game.)
o. So, you remember that thing about your objectives when getting the ball inside 2 minutes of the first half? Here's an example of the wrong way to do it. Tampa Bay started with 2 minutes to play, at their own 14-yard line. They led the game 7-6 at that point.
TB 1-10 own 14 yard line 2:00 WR screen to Michael Clayton, loss of 1 yard
TB 2-11 own 13 yard line 1:21 Byron Leftwich runs out of bounds for a gain of 1 yard, rather than staying in the field of play and gaining a couple additional yards.
TB 3-10 own 14 yard line 1:14 Handoff to Clifton Smith for 4 yards, burning 6 seconds
TB 4-6 own 18 yard line 1:08 Punt out of bounds, Dallas ball, own 44 yard line
DAL 1-10 own 44 yard line 1:01 Tony Romo passes to Jason Witten, 9 yard gain, out-of-bounds at TB 47
DAL 2-1 TB 47 Offsides by (disappointing) Gaines Adams, 5 yard penalty, first down Dallas
DAL 1-10 TB 42 :55 Romo passes to Miles Austin for a 42 yard TD
This is the exact scenario which I described above, that you're trying to avoid.
After Tampa hit on a long pass to Michael Clayton, and Mike Nugent missed his second field goal, Dallas led 13-7 at the half, and went in with all the momentum. In a compressed-time situation, (especially when you lead 7-6), the status quo is okay. Write that down, the status quo is okay. THE STATUS QUO IS OKAY. The dumb play was Leftwich running out of bounds, and it cost the Bucs bigtime.
p. You know who might be the comeback player of the year this year, if he can stay healthy, is Cadillac Williams. He ran with suddenness and violence on Saturday, and looked better than he has since his rookie season.
q. The Patriots offensive line probably makes them not a legitimate Super Bowl contender. Of course, I thought the same thing of the Steelers last year, so take that for what it's worth. It is very, very difficult to be a championship team with a bad offensive line, though, and both of those teams have bad offensive lines.
r. I still think Tennessee is the best all-around team in the AFC. They're really strong on both lines, and their rookie WR, Kenny Britt, is going to open up their running game even further as the season progresses. I picked them at the last minute against Pittsburgh, and though the Steelers won, I feel like I had the game right. The Steelers couldn't block Tennessee, and Tennessee mostly could block Pittsburgh.
s. A rookie CB who was impressive was Derek Cox from the Jaguars. He had a fantastic interception of Peyton Manning in the end zone, on a fade route, and recovered a fumble too. He was hurt by getting beat deep twice by Reggie Wayne, but all in all, I think he's a find at CB, as a 3rd-rounder from William & Mary.
t. The Patriots definitely deserved to lose on Monday night, and there are serious issues with their team. Their offensive line is bad, they lack much talent at RB, and their defense can be thrown on, if they don't get pressure on the QB. They're brilliantly coached, but talent-deficient in some key places. They don't need to apologize for winning, but they do need to remember that they got dominated all game.
u. How about the effort and discipline showed by the Raiders? They came to play football Monday night, and the Chargers mostly looked like they want to sleepwalk through the early part of the season again.
v. Speaking of the Raiders, they must be really happy with the acquisitions of Greg Ellis and Richard Seymour. Those two players really improved their defense, and both got sacks Monday night.
w. Marcus McNeill looked awful against Seymour, and don't underestimate the importance of a long-term Nick Hardwick injury (an assumption, since he left by cart). The Chargers have no quality offensive line depth, not even anybody as good as Russ Hochstein or Seth Olsen.
x. Great coverage by the Raiders, especially Tyvon Branch and Chris Johnson. Branch, especially, did a nice job on Antonio Gates for most of the game. Nnamdi Asomugha was his normal self, even if Vincent Jackson did get a TD on him in the 4th quarter.
y. The Chargers defense is not very good, and the Raiders' suddenly seems like it is. I am positive that the Broncos' defense is better than San Diego's, as I have been saying for a couple weeks now. Shawne Merriman is staying blocked, and they're less talented at DE and ILB than they've been in recent years.
z. You may recall that Louis Murphy was one of my Draft favorites. And, incidentally, he caught a great throw by JaMarcus Russell too, after he struggled for a lot of the game. He is coming along as a player, as I said a couple weeks ago. Russell did struggle with accuracy a lot of the night, but I can see a lot of improvement in his process and decisiveness over this time last year.
aa. Hopefully, Darren Sproles is still having trouble fielding kicks in about 5 weeks. He flubbed three of them Monday night.
4. Between The Lines, Week 1: (Big up bchiper for suggesting the name about a month ago, when I solicited input from the community.)
a. Denver at Cincinnati
Denver Offense vs. Cincinnati Defense:
i. The Broncos offensive tackles were both outstanding, in both pass protection and the running game. Ryan Harris technically gave up a sack, although after 5 seconds and a trip on a shoestring tackle as Ryan rode the player deep and outside; it was totally on Kyle Orton. Antwan Odom got that sack, and another on Russ Hochstein later, and Robert Geathers was a total non-factor in the passing game, mostly against Ryan Clady.
ii. The interior of the Broncos offensive line was much more of a mixed bag. Ben Hamilton was called for holding and a false start, on the key 4th-quarter drive where the Broncos didn't score. He mostly carried out his assignments beyond that, but those lapses are very troubling. Hochstein gave up two sacks, and didn't look good. He really made me miss Chris Kuper. Casey Wiegmann had maybe his worst game as a Bronco, and got pushed backward a few times in the running game. The holding call on the successful Correll Buckhalter screen pass in the 4th quarter was really not much of a hold, but you can't be taking that penalty in that spot.
iii. The interior line for Cincinnati did a much better job than I thought they would, and mostly maintained their gaps in the running game. Hochstein and Wiegmann struggled some with Pat Sims and Domata Peko. I was impressed with their play for the Bengals, and they played a key part in the Broncos running game never really getting going.
iv. Among 20 running plays, I counted 11 zone-blocked plays and 9 man-blocked plays. Buckhalter had good success both ways, and LaMont Jordan had a nice run on a zone play. Peyton Hillis had his only carry behind man-blocking, which I think suits him best, and Knowshon Moreno ran both ways, having more success in man-blocking, which didn't have him running sideways, which was largely his downfall in his underwhelming debut.
v. I would call this battle pretty much a draw, which means the Broncos underachieved. Both sides had some success at times, in a battle that most would have expected the Broncos to win going away. The Broncos have some work to do on the offensive line. Statistically, the Broncos rushed 20 times for 75 yards, 3.8 yard per carry average. Orton was sacked 3 times, and hit 5 more, but really never faced significant pressure from a 4-man rush. Cincinnati really only got there by blitzing.
Cincinnati Offense vs. Denver Defense:
i. The good for Cincinnati: Andrew Whitworth did a pretty nice job at Left Tackle. He showed the ability to be fine there this season. The bad: Anthony Collins had a pretty rough time on the Right side, and looked like a guy who needs to be a backup. Collins never handled Elvis Dumervil well when he rushed from that side, and he got pushed backward a lot in the running game.
ii. As a general statement, the Broncos defensive line did an outstanding job of maintaining the line of scrimmage, and often resetting it a yard behind the blue line on the screen. It was a very encouraging sign against a big offensive line. I was very pleased with the interior performance of both Ronald Fields and Marcus Thomas. They didn't get their names called much, but both played with excellent leverage and physicality.
iii. I felt like the Denver DE/OLBs could have done a much better job in setting the edge in the running game. That is their number-one job, and several times, the interior successfully strung running plays out to the sideline, only to see Cedric Benson get some room out there. They're going to have to get better there.
iv. Of the Broncos' 3 sacks, all came from players who are classified as linebackers. Andra Davis and Mario Haggan both just barely beat Dumervil to the QB. Darrell Reid rushed with his hand down from a DE position on 3rd down, right after Haggan's sack, and beat Collins like he stole something on the play. Those two sacks were really important, incidentally, because both came right after Brett Kern shanked a punt and gave Cincinnati outstanding field position.
v. The Broncos won this battle, no question about it. They wore down a little at the end, but the defensive line was terrific in this game. They allowed 86 yards rushing on 27 carries, with 1 TD. That's a 3.2 yard average, which is very good, especially against a really talented guy like Benson. The pass rush was okay, but can get better. They hit Carson Palmer 4 times, in addition to the 3 sacks, and hurried him several other times.
b. Jacksonville at Indianapolis
Jacksonville Offense vs. Indianapolis Defense:
i. The key matchup featured Dwight Freeney against Eugene Monroe, who was making his NFL debut. Freeney dominated Monroe early in the game, notching a sack, and barely missing another, when David Garrard pulled out of his tackle. Monroe did better as the game went on, and the Jaguars took advantage of Freeney's constant proclivity to rush upfield by running several successful draws to his vacated spot. Monroe did have the key block on Jacksonville's only TD play, impressively hitting Antoine Bethea in space, a la Ryan Clady. On the negative side, Freeney had a neutral-zone infraction in the game, giving Jacksonville a first down.
ii. The Jaguars' other rookie Tackle, second-rounder Eben Britton, also was a mixed bag, mostly against Robert Mathis. He stoned Mathis a few times, got pantsed by him a couple more, but mostly they played close to even. Mathis did have a few impressive plays in the running game as the backside DE, crashing down the line.
iii. I was impressed by the job done by the inside guys for the Jags, including Maurice Williams, Brad Meester, and Vince Manuwai. They opened a lot of holes for Maurice Jones-Drew and anchored very well in the passing game. I only saw one very impressive defensive play by a Colts interior player, and that was a pursuit play by Ed Johnson. I was more impressed with his effort in hustling for 25 yards than anything, really.
iv. The Colts D-line looked the same as ever, with speed from the edges, not much anchoring power, and averageness inside. The Jaguars are much better up front than last season, and I would venture to speculate that they'll be a good offensive line 8-10 weeks from now, when Monroe and Britton have a bit more experience.
v. Statistically, the Jaguars rushed 26 times for 114 yards and 1 TD, a 4.4 yard average. David Garrard was sacked once and hit 6 more times. The numbers tend to support my conclusion that Jacksonville had a slight overall edge in this area.
Indianapolis Offense vs. Jacksonville Defense:
i. Indianapolis' Left Tackle, Charlie Johnson struggled somewhat, mostly against Derrick Harvey. Harvey didn't do a lot in the pass-rushing game, but he made his presence felt in stopping the run. Some were surprised that Johnson ended up as the starter, with Tony Ugoh on the bench, but I was a charter member of the Ugoh-Is-Soft-And-Lousy club a year ago, when the BMIA's of the world were still loving on him. Harvey is improved from his rookie year, but is still a better run player than pass rusher, and probably always will be. He's just not a fast-twitch guy, and smartly tries to play with power rather than quickness.
ii. I've never been the biggest Jeff Saturday fan, and Sunday's game was a good example of the reasons why. He really, really struggles when you ask him to anchor against a power player in pass protection or move a defensive lineman vertically in the running game. This has always been the case to some degree, but he's declined somewhat since his best years, from the looks of things. Saturday's strength is getting out to the second level and hitting pursuers. His quickness is an asset there, and his lack of power is minimized as a liability. He did look good several times in that tasking. I don't think he's a good Center anymore, overall, though - he's more like an average one.
iii. John Henderson had kind of an underwhelming game for the Jags from a playmaking perspective, but he generally was stout inside in the running game. He spent a good amount of time pushing Mike Pollak and Saturday backwards in the running game. Really, the Colts' whole O-line spent a lot of their day a step into their own backfield.
iv. Jacksonville's pass rush was marginal, and they got only one sack, from Reggie Hayward, who subsequently broke his shin and went down for the season. Ryan Lilja got beat for the sack, but the blocking scheme put him in a tough spot, coming from the inside to block an outside rusher.
v. The numbers tell two stories. The Jags were stout against the run, allowing 71 yards on 31 carries, a 2.3 yard average, with 1 TD. Peyton Manning had his way in the passing game though, taking one sack, and only getting hit two additional times. Give the slight edge to the Colts for volume, and if you're the Jaguars, you know you've now gone two offseasons needing pass rush help, and not satisfied the need.
5. The following is the schedule for the regular season for the Between The Lines feature.
All 32 teams will be evaluated at least once. I'll evaluate the Broncos 17 times, obviously, and the next most frequent subjects will be Chicago and Green Bay with 4 appearances, Baltimore and the Giants with 3, and Cleveland, Houston, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Kansas City, New England, Oakland, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Diego and San Francisco twice each. All other teams will appear once.
6. My apologies for the lack of Lighting Up The Scoreboard Friday. I was having software problems on the recording from the Madden end, and I don't even know if it will work this week, when i try again. I will at least shoot to have an audio podcast this week, even if I can't get the Madden content in there.
7. Retired for John Elway.
I have been fighting the urge to spend $1,000 on another living-room TV, and I have managed to keep that beast at bay, for now at least. I brought the TV on the right (a 32" job), in from my bedroom for gameday, and I think I will continue to do so for awhile. I had the Red Zone channel on the bigger laptop, the main game I wanted to see on the bigger TV, and another interesting game on the smaller, moved-in TV. I was keeping notes on the smaller laptop, on the couch. My only problem was changing channels, because the remote wanted to change the channels on both DirecTV receivers, when I only wanted one to move. Does anybody know any solutions to that?
That's all I have after taking up a lot of your time. Have a great week, and let's hope I can get my software issues worked out this week. It's Browns week, which means a lot of grief for me from the locals here in Cleveland, but it's the kind of grief I am happy to absorb if the Broncos win. In any case, we'll be back next Tuesday with more Shallow Thoughts & Nearsighted Observations.