Preseason wins don’t count - unless, of course, you’re a Broncos fan, for whom wins have been a bit sparse of late. They don’t matter in the standings, but when you’re trying to put together a team out of the spare parts of one regime and the judgment of another, every positive sign matters. Preseason or not, Denver made a big statement on Saturday night.
For those who were concerned about the abilities of the #1 defense to take on another NFL team and essentially shut it down, it was heartening, no doubt. For those who wanted a reason to understand why the team has gone in the directions it’s gone offensively, it was potentially illuminating. Having a combination of a surgical passing night and a night when the run was what Denver said it was on both offense and defense, and still keeping in mind that this wasn’t the Patriots' regulars that Denver was facing, it was still about has good a showing as Denver has seen in a while.
The First Half
Fans who were looking got an instant glimpse into the Broncos’ approach for the night. Denver lined up for the first play with Von Miller’s hand on the ground and in an ‘over’ front - with the line slid to cover a strongside passing play. Robert Ayers had slid to the UT and Kevin Vickerson was next to him, with Elvis Dumervil on the weakside DE. Doom engaged with the left tackle, and in doing so left an opening through which C.J. Spiller drove up past the left guard for 5 yards, where the LBs were waiting for him and a pile of (temporarily) blue home unis ensued.
On the next play, QB Ryan Fitzpatrick showed his feet in reacting to pressure by Von Miller who easily defeated the tight end but failed to complete his cut back into the QB: Fitzpatrick bounced off a collapsing pocket that was shoved into him by Ayers, stumbling and scrambling for 4 yards before Ayers pushed him from behind down and into Champ Bailey, who took him down hard. Then, it happened for the first time of the night...
Broncos fans who have wanted to see what Doom looks like when he’s had a year off and wants to get ready to play DE again - He’s up to at least 265 lb, and one source even claimed 268 - didn’t have to wait long. On the third play, 13:38 of the 1st quarter, it was 3rd and 1. Prior to the snap, Champ was following Scott Chandler who was in motion across the field, mirroring him in man coverage. That was one of the truly great ideas of the Dennis Allen defense Saturday - it’s increasingly hard to cover the slot on third and short in today’s NFL. A lot of teams have a specialist that they put there and most teams struggle to defend it. By putting Champ into that role, the Broncos have both their best coverage guy and one of the best tacklers on the team (or any team), as well as someone who has among the fastest reaction times and best footspeed in the NFL (especially when you factor in Champ’s ability to change direction at full speed) covering that area. It’s a great nullifier, almost regardless of the offense’s response.
Cassius Vaughn will be asked to cover the outer LCB spot when Champ moves into the slot, and while he’s making his young player mistakes, he’s also put a lot of skill on display including covering Brian Jones like a shroud on Cover 0 in the end zone late in the first half. Brian Dawkins and Von Miller were standing up and pushing in from the left, with #91 Ayers next to them, and Brodrick Bunkley next to him, at the 0-tech, nose-up on the center, two-gapping. Kevin Vickerson was on the outside of him, on the guard’s outside shoulder, and Doom on the shoulder of the OT with D.J. Williams and Joe Mays back. There was a lot of muscle up front. 3rd and 1 - Denver believes that it’s a run.
At the snap, Fitzpatrick takes the ball, turns and hands off to C.J. Spiller. Spiller slashes up the middle as the left tackle tries to take Vickerson across to the strongside and Doom is strangely left unaccounted for - the front is designed to overload the OL and leave someone untouched, and it worked. He followed the action without getting caught in it, staying close to Vickerson and the left tackle on his left, and he had Spiller, one of the faster RBs afoot in the NFL, in his sights. Spiller tried to get to the outside on him but Doom got those monster mitts on him and swung him hard into the Mile High turf, short of the first down. Rahim Moore was only a millisecond behind Doom and would have nailed Spiller if Doom had missed.
Doom was like that for the whole half - he was everywhere on run plays, sliding laterally to take out Spiller on a run strongside, filling gaps and putting hard pressure on Fitzpatrick on 3rd and 10, forcing him to dump the ball and bringing up 4th and 10 to end this drive. I’ve never seen him look this good against the run, and his pass work was impeccable. Given that he’s also still as ferocious as ever as a pass rusher, Denver’s got reason to be feeling kind of orange and blue about this defensive front. The ensuing fake punt with Brad Smith was maddeningly familiar, but Denver still held Buffalo to a FG on the drive, stiffening as the Bills walked down the field. Brian Dawkins looked like he’s lost three years.
Denver also showed its own weakness early on - if you have an aggressive defense, the right kinds of screen passes can make them pay, and Buffalo has to be commended for using that weapon well. The conventional or ‘slow’ screen they used takes perfect timing and execution, and it’s a play that the QB is usually either skilled at or not. It’s usually common when attacking zone coverage, so the Broncos won’t see it as much when they go to man.
On the ensuing series, Rahim Moore showed his speed, flying in from the defensive backfield and hitting Fitzpatrick just as the QB let go a pass that he threaded through a miniature window to Stevie Johnson, perfectly defeating Champ. It worked - there’s no defense for a perfectly executed play, but anything less than perfection would have resulted in a failure of the play: Moore and Champ were that good. The defensive backfield was a great story all half.
At 10:10 Buffalo ran the screen, again with success. Denver will have to develop a way to defeat this, or get ready to see a lot of it. David Veikune was one of those who was a bit late, neither holding back nor chasing down the QB, and missing the play. Robert Ayers did as he should in chasing the QB back, relying on the linebackers and DBs to hold containment. The drive ended with Cassius Vaughn nearly catching an INT that he probably should have had (but his coverage in a Cover 0 situation was textbook) and then on the 3rd-and-10 incompletion described above, Fred Jones took out D.J. Williams with a good block but the Broncos' pressure was on and the throw was hurried by Doom: it was desperate and out of bounds. Buffalo kicked the FG.
Denver’s 1st Drive
Denver had trouble settling in, even though there were highlights to the series. What was of interest to Broncos fans was that Julius Thomas caught the first pass of the game, and that the Broncos were running a two-back set out of the I formation on 2nd and 10 - Knowshon Moreno gained a couple from it. Brandon Lloyd then grabbed a nice pass up the right wing for a 1st down and the Broncos looked like they were moving nicely. But Moreno was then stuffed at left guard - J.D. Walton and Zane Beadles didn’t get any movement there. There was a sack on Orton by Marcell Dareus that Kyle stepped up into and then a penalty on Orlando Franklin (part of offsetting penalties) that negated a deep 1st down with a beautiful pass on a zone drop to Eddie Royal on 3rd and 14, out of the shotgun. There was also an unusual drop on Royal on the drive - just sloppy, preseason play. That part concerned me very little: it’s Week 2 of the preseason and it didn’t continue. When the drive failed, Britton Colquitt pounded a 59-yard punt. He had a great foot all night, and ended with 4 punts for a 59-yard average (47.0 net). With the new kickoff rules, punts and punt returning become essential. The drive was much like last week's - too many mistakes.
3 plays of 8 came from the shotgun (one brought back), with 5 passes (with that one nullified and another for a sack) for 2-3, with 2 runs. The best play - predictably, to Lloyd from Orton for 18 yards.
Buffalo’s 2nd Drive
On first down, Bunkley beat the center’s pass blocking on the first play so quickly that there was no chance of it connecting deep: Fitzpatrick barely got it away as the center reengaged with Doom, who had three guys hanging on him (that’s one way to stop him) and there was a clean lane to Fitzpatrick, hurrying the pass. Bunkley looked very solid all night - he’s turning out to be a bargain, a pro’s pro. Miller then cornered past tackle Demetrius Bell from a two-point stance so fast that Bell’s helmet nearly blew off from the wind and slammed Fitzpatrick into the turf. Another screen that pulled Ayers in just got Buffalo back to their starting point - they punted, three and out. It was the shape of things to come.
Denver’s 2nd Drive
59-yard punt by Buffalo’s Brian Moorman, 12 yards on the return by David Anderson. Anderson is doing well in return duties - he’s also got nice hands in the passing game, so I’d expect him to have a job in September.
Moreno then looked fast, scampering around the left corner for 8 yards to the 42-yard line. Denver lined up with trips to the right and Moreno to the left, who swung out to the flat. Orton then shot a little screen to him for 12 more. Play action then just missed, due to a tipped pass - Orton has always been good at play action, and an improved running game is just helping that - the pass went right through Daniel Fell’s fingers for an unusual drop. Willis McGahee pushed for a couple, leaving third and eight. It was good pass protection by Orlando Franklin and the line, leaving Orton with a lot of time: he threw a laser to Moreno in the right flat for the first down.
Orton then used a play fake, created space, had great protection (especialy from Kuper and Franklin), rolled slightly right and fired a complete pass to Lloyd at the 21. On this play, two good things happened. First, BLloyd makes another great catch on the sideline. The other is that once again, Orton rolls out and throws nicely on the ‘shuffle’ if not on the run. He’s more mobile than folks think with regard to this - While he stands stiffly in the pocket, his use in rolling out happened a couple of times successfully early in each year here in Denver. Then, both times McDaniels forgot about it. Let’s hope that changes - Orton used it well in 2008.They ran this play to the left with Spencer Larsen leading but only got a couple. It left 20 seconds in the first quarter, though - which Denver used to throw a beautiful swing screen - probably Orton and the team’s best - around the left with McGahee wide open - he rambled forward and drove to the 1. Clady just manhandled the RDE on that one -- great play for him. Unlike last game, Denver then drove up the middle twice.
Beadles was beaten badly on the first play and McGahee was finally stopped near the line after breaking a tackle behind the LOS by Kyle Williams, who had beaten Walton badly (Walton’s play overall was a clear improvement over last year). The 1st quarter ended, and as the next started, Chris Kuper cleared the road on the following play and McGahee was in for the TD. The extra point made 7. Orton was 4-of-5 on the drive, Moreno was better receiving and McGahee rushing. No complaints on any of it. The run blocking by Kuper and Franklin is becoming more effective as we’re watching.
5 runs, 5 passes, a perfectly balanced drive.
Buffalo’s 3rd Drive
Denver went immediately to a front of Miller standing, with Ayers, Vickerson, Bunkley and Doom in down stances. Fitzpatrick came out bouncing a pass off the turf well behind his receiver Stevie Johnson that was meant to be a back shoulder fade with Andre’ Goodman covering. A completion with Doom pressuring sent a receiver to the 26 where Von Miller stood him up and tried to strip the ball until the whistle blew. 3rd and 2 led to a handoff on the left side for a 1st down.
Fitzpatrick then left the game and Brad Smith came in to take a direct Wildcat snap and run it for a few, with Denver countering with a blitz from both sides, which shut the play down. Fitzpatrick returned for 2nd and 8, handing off right to Spiller again, with little response. It left 3rd and 8.
Denver lined up with Miller, hand down on the left side and Vickerson next to him at UT, with Bunkley, Doom, and then D.J. Williams standing to the right. It was a quick pass over the middle and Alfred Williams pointed out that Champ has had 11 defensive coordinators and only 10 Pro Bowls. It didn’t matter - it was 4th down. Buffalo punted 51 yards to the Denver 13, but Anderson returned it to the 24.
Denver's 3rd Drive
On the next series, Denver opens in a two-TE formation that they used frequently - Daniel Fells on the right, with Julius Thomas behind him and a single back - McGahee. Pass protection is excellent on the next play: Orton is automatic, and the ball comes to Fells, on a slant route up the seam against Cover 2 for 21 yards. The next play saw a hot read to Lloyd go for a short gain - unusual to see him used that way. On second and 8, Moreno got the call and on play action he went between Walton and Kuper for a nice gain - 1st down. On the ensuing play, Orton saw something in the defense, identified the Mike first, then recognized a safety blitz. He changed his call and with an audible to Moreno, saw Knowshon pounding up the left with a nice juke that brought them to within a yard of the 1st down.
Whether completing passes or audibling out of a blitz and creating a long run by his call, Orton looked in control and was as efficient as you can ask. As he’s gotten looser, he looks better and better. Lots of good things tonight, including a great run by Moreno and his skills coming out on more than one outlet reception - the run opens that up, too. The utility of Jeremiah Johnson seems less important tonight. Moreno and McGahee looked like plenty for right now.
Second down led to an attempted one-handed grab by Lloyd - even through it was unsuccessful, it led to cheers. McGahee bobbled the ball on the handoff, but got it back and the right side fo the OL with Kuper and Franklin. They tried a reverse with Eddie Royal, but fooled no one.
The next pass saw Orton make the throw to the outside before Brandon Lloyd even made the cut - they’re one of the best tandems in the NFL right now. A handoff to the right gained two, and then the OL held perfectly, McGahee swung to the right flat and no one was close enough to stop him - touchdown.
In his first-half performance, Kyle Orton was 10-of-13 for 135 yards and a touchdown — good enough for a 135.1 quarterback rating. Overall, Denver's defense appears to have far greater speed and athleticism than it had last year. Denver's D surrendered just three points and 90 yards in total offense in the first half of their preseason opener last week at Dallas. Against the Bills, the Broncos again allowed just three points and 90 yards in the first half. That’s the kind of consistency that wins games - forcing your opponents to play from behind with Denver’s aggressive, attacking front is a winning strategy.
Far up on the list of things that Denver did well on Saturday was the endless variety of the looks that the front lines of Allen’s Attackers took on the way to their 24-10 win. Denver frequently used some version of the over look that I described on the first play of the game - Miller playing with his hand down, Ayers at both UT and NT on different plays, Vickerson also being moved from DE to UT to NT and, of course, Doom. Brodrick Bunkley looks to be a find - the injury to Ty Warren suddenly has lost some of its urgency. Bunkley was chasing down RBs, chasing the QB, flowing laterally down the line and generally creating chaos, including his near-interception of his own tipped pass.
I had heard some folks wonder what happened to Ayers, and the answer is twofold. Ayers is now #91, and I got the impression that some folks had missed that change. Ayers was also constantly being moved around, and when he plays at DT, he’ll have DT types of impact - he stops the run, pressures the QB and won’t rack up a lot of stats. As a DE he will have his share of sacks, but his impact plays will often be hits and hurries. He did a lot of things, and he did a lot of things well.
All teams run their base formation, and some have more than one. Denver is running a classic max-protect formation as one offensive base - Julius Thomas on the weakside, usually receiving (although his blocking is visibly coming along) and Daniel Fells on the strongside, with both Spencer Larsen and one RB back in a pro-set formation. Fells has really been a find - at 272 he’s a big man, mean on the field, likes blocking and has soft hands with decent route skills, and at times he’s used solo, usually on the right. He and Thomas are a great starting pair. Denver also alternates the max protect with a single-back offense - that permits another WR. I’m working through the numbers on each right now, and find the broadcast tape frustrating, as it sometimes doesn’t even show the formation when they line up. However, Denver is also using their 3-WR look frequently with both single- and two-back sets. I doubt that they’re showing much that ‘important’ yet - other than a lot of skill - but it’s interesting to watch. I’ll be keeping numbers on the formations they show as the opportunity is there, but the constant variations are interesting in and of themselves.
It was a delight to watch the 1st half. It’s good to see what the scheme can look like, when it’s done well. Nice job, guys. Even so, there was a moment that beat all of them.
Following McGahee's second score of the game, he gave the ball to a boy wearing a Broncos jersey in the front row - his expression broke out in a fit of glee that I’ve only rarely seen. He didn’t jump around or show off for people. He just sat there, with his mouth hanging open in what would have seemed like a caricature of shock under other circumstances, staring at his new prize, completely overwhelmed.
The look on the child's face was unique. His mouth was frozen in jubilation - total incredulousness swept over him first, combined with an overwhelming and as-yet unexpressed joy. He was frozen in place within the moment, and it just seemed to go on and on. He seemed to grasp that it might change if he even moved. It was an absolute delight to see to se that kind of staggering exultation radiating forth from him. What a great moment for the kid.