One thing that Denver is working hard on is defensive communication. The past two seasons were frequently marred by communication breakdowns on both offense and defense, which are a sign that the coaching isn’t getting through to the players. This year, Dennis Allen isn’t going to have any of it:
Dennis Allen’s voice is always heard loud and clear on the practice field and communication was key for the defensive coordinator during the walkthrough. “We have got to emphasize our communication,” Allen said repeatedly to his defense. “Don’t assume everyone knows the call.”
That seems so obvious, doesn’t it? Yet, if you look over the past two seasons, one consistency was that the players were often on different pages and the pointless penalties that usually come from a lack of communication and lapses in concentration - false starts, offsides, encroachment and so forth - were surprisingly common and broke up many Denver drives and lengthened opponents' possessions unnecessarily.
Allen has coached on a Super Bowl-winning team, and he seems to understand exactly how to get from here to there. Sure, it’s early and not too much should be read into anything right now, but pounding the issue of communication from Day 1 is something that can make a lot of difference when it’s later in the season, everyone is hurting, they’re tired late in a game and if you don’t confirm that they’re all on the same page, you’re likely to waste a series or give up long yardage - it has to become automatic, starting now. It’s Teaching 101, but it’s good to see. Hmmm - tackling drills and emphasizing communication. When you come down to it, there’s nothing better than being prepared and well drilled in the basics.
Although it hasn’t been as much as I’d like, everything that I’ve seen from Allen - and he’s not a media darling who gets a lot of airtime - tells me that he’s serious, professional and knows his job very well. he’s too focused on his work to be a good interview. I’m looking forward to seeing what he does with the D this year.
I ran into the tail end of an article on the Bears moving tight end Greg Olsen to the Panthers. From what I've seen of him throughout his career, Olsen did whatever Chicago had asked him to. He blocked, he went out on routes, he caught the ball and he blocked downfield. He says the Bears' FO had him into a meeting last year and congratulated him. We know that there was a meeting, apparently, and it would make sense to congratulate him because he'd done a great job. Yet, Chicago shipped him to Carolina earlier this month and cited that year-plus-old meeting as part of the reason - claiming that Olsen had emphatifcally demanded a trade. Predictably, Brian Urlacher was blunt about his feelings. He’s happy for his buddy:
"They'll use him," Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher told the Tribune. "They'll spread him out. They'll move him around. I understand about guys fitting systems. I'm no offensive guy, but we have a system and I guess we use tight ends in a certain way. And I guess he didn't fit that role."
I remember Phil Simms telling a story one time, about how the media made a big deal because they were creating their offense around this guy. Simms pointed out that the TE happened to be the best football player on the team, and he kept getting open and blocking well when he wasn’t targeted. Simms said that they were running the offense through him because he was the best player they had - who else should they be using?
Sometimes, teams don’t handle things that way. If the guy is a head case or if there’s a performance reason not to make use of him, I can understand it. But if the guy is performing well, why trade him?
OC Mike Martz has strict beliefs about the way that he runs his system. He’s done well, and he’s had difficult stretches. I just remember what Bill Walsh felt about using the players that you have, and I guess that I’m still basically a Walsh-ite in a lot of ways. If you don’t have a better TE lined up, why not use the one you have, who’s trustworthy and will get you yards? It’s a mystery to me. I never did get that, but Martz is having success in Chicago and I can’t argue with that.
Offense in Dallas
Depth on the OL continues to be a concern. The starters overall played well - best in run blocking, but generally handled pass protection fairly well, beyond the first play of the game from scrimmage, where Ryan Clady was caught napping (although DeMarcus Ware made a typically great read and play). In case there’s an injury during the year, Denver should be haunting the waiver wire looking for help now. RT Orlando Franklin looked about like a rookie going up against a talented DL on pass protection but he made some nice blocks, especially in the running game. Give him time and I think that he’ll show considerable rewards.
Once the first snap was behind him, Clady went back to being a mobile mountain - he’s a heck of a player. J.D. Walton and Zane Beadles both had better play than I was expecting, especially on run plays - Walton is still a sucker for a delayed blitz in the A gap, but he showed noticeably better awareness, which is good. Run blocking was decidedly better overall, and Franklin’s power made a difference on several plays, even if he was late when Chris Kuper pulled and let in a defender essentially untouched.
Speaking of the run game, LenDale White and even Lance Ball (who’s becoming a fixture) may need to look out behind them - Jeremiah Johnson is gaining on them, the way he seems to do everything - fast. Willis McGahee may get more carries than I originally expected - it wasn’t that Knowshon Moreno didn’t look good (he did a nice spin move that got him out of the grasp at the LOS and turned a dead play into a nice gain) as much as McGahee had a power and clarity to his running that I haven’t seen in Denver for quite a while. Moreno will get his chances, but Johnson and McGahee looked like they were more than up to the job of leading the way, with or without him. Moreno’s skill as a receiver won’t go wanting for use, though: he’s still a very effective two-way weapon. Johnson also has nice hands out of the backfield, and so does McGahee. It’s a strong group, and there’s no clear fourth RB yet.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the great job that Julius Thomas did in his first preseason game, even if he didn’t register a reception. Yes, he made a few mistakes, especially on his blocking, but he also was in on both two-TE sets and split out wide in three-WR sets. He’s going to be a fixture this year, and over the next few, he’s going to be a huge pain in the asparagus for DCs around the league. This guy is going to be gold. Daniel Fells, the 272-lb blocker/receiver free agent out of St. Louis (where Josh McDaniels doesn’t have a lot of need for TEs) is going to be matched with him on a lot of occasions, and looks to be an excellent pickup for Denver. TE is quickly becoming a position of strength for Denver. Fells doesn’t lack confidence in his skills:
If there are some opportunities for you out there, you try to pick the one that suits you best. I know I can contribute to this team, with Coach (John) Fox's philosophy. It's just a matter of getting the opportunity.
It’s strange to look at a box score and see that the first three receivers were Matt Willis with 2 catches for 50 yards, Eron Riley with 3 for 43 yards and a TD, and David Anderson with 3 receptions for 38 yards. Willis, with his blazing speed (and the kind of blocks he threw on Tebow’s scramble), is going to make the squad, as is Anderson - I think that Eron Riley, the 6’3” 210 lb player out of Duke, has to make the PS (where he spent 2009 with Baltimore and 2010 with Carolina) and when there’s an injury, he could come in and make a name for himself. He’s played very well in practice and he’s one of the lower end players who can obviously play but hasn’t found his slot in the numbers game at WR. Denver is blessed with an abundance of riches at WR right now - they are likely to have traded Jabar Gaffney in part to create room for the up and coming youngsters.
Matt Prater is money, 3 for 3. It’s like having a Jason Elam who can kick off...actually, even Elam might have been able to kick off from the new distance. But kickers do make enough money - take a cab, man, take a cab.
With one game behind them, Denver now knows where they have the greatest need for improvement and where they are getting their systems together. I like the options at ST, and the young players and returners - Brandon Bing had a runback of 23 yards, Cassius Vaughn of 19. K/O returns will be greatly reduced in the coming seasons. Punt returns went to Perrish Cox and Anderson, with neither having much luck.
My overall impression was that Denver has made a number of strides between the end of last year and today. How far that will go is anyone’s guess - the schedule is brutal and the team has changed coaches, many of the players and their offensive, defensive and ST schemes. When you’re looking at a three-year rebuild, the first preseason game doesn’t tell you all that much. You can bet the churchbox money that no OC or DC ever showed his scheme in the first preseason game.
What it did tell me is that there are a lot of very good players on the Broncos. They need to be molded into a team, and that will take some time. Even so - from the receiving of Willis, Anderson and Riley to the running of Johnson, Moreno and McGahee, and from the new DL to the safety slot, Denver players have stepped up and into new roles. The draft produced new starters, the run blocking was greatly improved and Denver still needs to work out the right side of the OL - probably by using Fells to supplement Franklin.
I saw good ST work for a first preseason game. The improvement in Cassius Vaughn, Kyle McCarthy, Braxton Kelley and Joe Mays, among others, was noticeable, some also in special teams play. McCarthy was particularly effective. It’s only the first preseason game - but they did a heck of a job. Nice start, guys.