Small changes, big results

Sometimes, just a few items need to change in order to alter the fortunes of a team. Oftentimes, we as fans don’t have a chance to see those things - they happen in practice, in the halftime locker room and off camera. But against the Chiefs yesterday, fans got to see the parts that counted - from the 35-0 start to the final gun, the Broncos showed that even with some of its key players still hobbled or out (including Elvis Dumervil, Robert Ayers and Andre' Goodman), they are a far better team than their record to date has shown. The simplest thing that changed was the return of Ryan Harris and the LG debut of Zane Beadles.

A healthy offensive line makes a heck of a difference. Ask any coach and they’ll tell you that it all starts with the OL. There’s no question that many people will point to the quarterback, the defensive line, the defensive backs - but if you need a running game, you need your starters on OL out on the field. Do you want your QB to have time to make his throws and to stay upright? The same goes, and it went for no sacks. It’s just one game, granted, but Ryan Clady, Zane Beadles, JD Walton, Chris Kuper and Ryan Harris are clearly the group that Denver has lacked up front for the past two seasons. 

You can look at the performance of Knowshon Moreno, and give the young man credit. I’d heard a few comments by fans in the past month or two that were growing increasingly hostile claiming that Moreno was a bust, a wasted pick, a player who could snow the college teams but isn’t tough enough or fast enough, not evasive enough for the NFL. Somehow, the words ‘Slower when injured’ didn’t get through to some fans. On one of Knowshon's better runs, Beadles sealed off the left DE, pancaked his man, Walton sealed the NT and Moreno ran over, past and through the Chiefs. He had a freeway lane past the LOS. Does that make a difference? 106 yards - and his NFL career-first 100-yard game  - say that it does. Add to that 50 yards on 3 receptions and one TD receiving. 

Kyle Orton thought so, too. 22 of 34, for 4 TDs and 296 yards with zero sacks seems to back him up. Sure, the Broncos leaped out to a 21-0 lead, and then extended it to 35-0 before halftime. After that, it was just a matter of holding on to gather in the win. A 131.5 QB rating (154.9 in the first Q, 138.3 at halftime) for Orton didn’t hurt that outcome. He’s also in the NFL's top two in both 20+ and 40+ yard plays (along with San Diego's Philip Rivers). After wearing out a keyboard (and some folk’s eyes) by repetitively typing “The OL really does matter” for the past couple of months, it’s nice to see the Broncos prove it. By the way, it was Kyle’s 28th birthday yesterday, and he celebrated by throwing bullets to his receivers and 4 TD passes to make merry. Happy Birthday, Kyle. And congratulations. As usual, it was someone else’s play that created those bullets:

"I'm telling you, I wasn't even close to being touched the whole game," Orton said. "I felt as comfortable today as I have in a long time."

Some fans are going to be complaining because the Broncos gave up too many points in the second half. I don’t have any concern about that - there just comes a point (around the time that Denver had 42-49 points) when you’re slowing down the pace, not worrying about scoring more points - although you don’t turn them down - but just keying on keeping the number of opposing drives to a minimum. Denver did fine on that. Josh McDaniels will have found plenty of corrections to make by Tuesday's meetings, but he’s a very happy man at this point. Todd Haley is experiencing some very different feelings and showed a lack of class by refusing to shake hands, but that’s not Denver’s problem.  

The third time I watched the game, I noticed something that had eluded me in degree - Joe Mays was a two-down LB most of the time, but later in the game, when KC was throwing constantly, Mays was surprisingly good in coverage. That’s been a problem for him since college, but he seemed to understand KC's throwing scheme and did a much better job on keeping the TE in front of him and tackling as soon as the ball arrived (on one occasion, he was just a wee bit early, and the ref rightfully caught him on it) than I would have expected. He was a monster against the run, just as predicted - on several occasions, he met Jamaal Charles at the LOS, and Charles didn’t make more than 1 or 2 yards on those plays.
The entire LB corps deserves a big round of applause - Jason Hunter is remarkable, blowing up plays, snatching a fumble to rumble for a TD, pushing the protection back into the QB. Mario Haggan left his feet and hit Charles in the upper back and possibly his lower helmet - it was a bad decision, and the ref rightfully tagged him on it. He made up for it on the next play, sacking Cassel and forcing the fumble that Hunter took to the house. DJ Williams came out with something to prove - he should be stripped of his captaincy more often if that’s the outcome. Even Jarvis Moss added a ST tackle. 
And Haggan? Haggan had three sacks, three quarterback hits and two tackles for losses. He moved to OLB, played SILB when down and distance were appropriate and seemed to be all over the field. Despite his bad judgment on the hit to Charles’ upper back and neck, he just couldn’t be stopped. It was the Haggan that I recall from early last year.

The return of Kevin Vickerson was big, as is the player (and his heart). Justin Bannan was trouble for KC on play after play. Even Jamal Williams had a tackle, but more importantly, he created consistent problems for Casey Wiegmann, as did Ronald Fields (one solo tackle, one assist) and Marcus Thomas (2 tackles). It forced double teams that took players away from Bannan, Vickerson and the LBs, which slowed the running game effectively, with the edges well set. Even Ryan McBean played well. 

I didn’t think that Champ Bailey had his usual level of game, and this isn’t the first time I’ve had to mention that this year. I have to wonder if Champ’s asking price was what stopped negotiations between Denver and himself - he just doesn’t seem quite as good, which makes him excellent, rather than inhumanly good. The good news is that despite getting beaten a few times, Perrish Cox is clearly a starter on his way up, and I’d expect him to be fighting Andre’ Goodman for the starting slot in the last games of this year rather than waiting for next. Nate Jones was frequently just a shade late, which I’ve had to note too often as well. Goodman may take over at nickel - he can’t tackle that well, but what he misses there he makes up for by covering much better than Jones. David  Bruton had a couple of good plays, and Darcel McBath, in his first game back after missing three with an ankle injury, had 4 tackles and played well. More young players, coming up in the league. That’s good to see.

Then there's Spencer Larsen, who had a 14-yard run and another for 3 yards, both for first downs. On the first of the two, he looked a lot like Peyton Hillis used to in orange and dark blue - this time, he’s being used by choice and he showed how well the OL can catch the defenders napping with a handoff to the FB for a change, with the speed that it comes. The game also showed that Larsen is doing what he always does - adapting to what he’s being asked to do and practicing until he’s doing it well. He blocks very well - in that, he’s doing better than Hillis did his first year with Denver - and ran with the same kind of fierce intensity as well as scoring his first NFL touchdown on a 3-yard toss from Tim Tebow. Not a bad day’s work. On Tebow’s TD run, Ryan Clady fired off the edge and shoved the DE/OLB back. Immediately, Larsen rammed into him mercilessly and Tebow could have stopped for a latte on his way to the end zone. It was beautiful.

Eddie Royal had 5 receptions and two runs (one for 19 yards), and two punt returns for a total of 26 yards, including an 18-yarder. Brandon Lloyd brought in 6 passes for 2 TD and 90 yards, maintaining his position atop the NFL's leaders in receiving yardage. A staggering 45 of his 48 catches have gone for Denver first downs. Kyle Orton ranks second in the NFL in passing yardage, is tied for fifth in touchdown passes, and sits at seventh-best in terms of QB rating. And, yes, there’s a point here.

As much fodder for jokes as the ages of Denver’s free agent acquisitions have provided, look through the above list. You’ll find that few of the players named are above 30. Most are 29 or under. This is a younger team (averages aren’t as important here - I’m more concerned with how many players they will have to replace soon) with substantial talent that needs to fill in some holes and continue to increase the depth of the squad. The job is a long way from done. That said - what we saw yesterday wasn’t a fluke. Granted, three Denver TDs in the first quarter forced KC to run less and pass more, but even when they ran, they were far from as successful as they have been in other games. 153 yards rushing for Denver to 51 yards rushing for KC is about more than just playing from behind. It’s a combination of that, a healthy Moreno, finally getting our OL healthy and settled in, and excellent coaching in every phase of the game. 

Denver isn’t suddenly going to start scoring over 40 points every game. However - a couple of myths have died already this year. Orton put the Titans game on his back and brought home the win - it’s something that I continually read that he’s not capable of. He also just scored, or brought Denver to the brink of them, 42 points, despite the redundant statements that he can’t rack up points (he also has 16 TDs against just 5 INTs in the first 9 games of the year). Moreno nailed his first 100-rushing yard game, and added another 50 receiving. He looked danged good for a guy who can’t play in this league. Brandon Lloyd has changed, after a long time of hearing that he can’t. Joe Mays showed an intriguing level of two-down skill. Jason Hunter is solid for all three. The list goes on. 

Mays also blew up Jamaal Charles at the strongside line so often that he'll have to apply for an explosives license, but it would be worth the cash to get him one. I haven't even seen Ayers stop the run any better - Mays was at or past the LOS and into the backfield almost as often as Haggan, and it seemed that Haggan had squatter's rights on that chunk of moving real estate. The main reason for Mays' high level of play was that he reads the plays very, very well (part of that was knowing that Cassel had to throw more, but when KC was still trying to run, Mays was sealing that off). Nice to see that acquisition working out so well - he's also an ace ST player, so he's taken over the slot that Darrell Reid left and has put on a far better performance on LB.

Next week the Broncos head to San Diego to face the league's # 1 passing offense - both in terms of yards and touchdowns. They’re never easy to beat, and for those who are looking for more blitzing by Denver, keep in mind that Philip Rivers is the best QB in the league against the blitz. They’re ranked 16th in rushing, and 4th in points scored. If there’s a good spot - they’re playing terrible on special teams, long a strength for San Diego. 

Whether Denver turned the season around or not, they did a lot of things yesterday that could influence this season, and years to come. They have a starting OL in which Chris Kuper and Ryan Harris are ‘old men’ at 27 and 25, respectively. Lance Ball may not be a top, league-leading back, but Denver needs solid players as well. Moreno? Only time will tell, but he’s got a lot of skills, and when healthy, he’s a heck of a player. Orton? Denver’s starting QB this year and most likely for many to come. And, the systems are just starting to come together. 

So, take some time. Kick back, put up your feet, and enjoy the feeling of pounding a division rival, getting through a game with minimal injuries, finding the OL that the Broncos wanted to start the year with, and enjoying holding the #1 team in the NFL in rushing to under 60 yards. It’s worth a little feeling of enjoyment. Tough teams deserve tough fans. If there’s anything that I’m sure of today, it’s that these Broncos played tough this week - and they proved that they are. 

Go Broncos!

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

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