The state of the herd: familiarity and the defense

In Part I, I tried to look at where Denver stands right now, and to establish how a year's familiarity with the team and systems could, for most of the players and coaches, provide a noticeable benefit. In this installment, I'm going to dissect the defense and look at some strengths, weaknesses, and potential for the future.

There's a new defensive coordinator in town, and Don 'Wink' Martindale has been unabashed about his feelings on the game. He's enthusiastic, he's excited and he plans to increase the aggression level of the Denver D. There was a lot of 'read and react' during the unlamented 2008 version, and it didn't work well. You still saw some of that in 2009, but it was (thankfully) limited. What you did see a lot of was what Renaldo Hill called 'vision coverage' - the DBs watched the QB's eyes to take their cues, which is somewhat different from read and react, an approach that deals with both run and pass. Vision coverage is, according to an interview with Renaldo Hill, a little moment slower and leaves some openings that receivers can take advantage of as a result. According to  Hill, that won't be the case this year. You can expect to see the players locking harder onto the offensive players who come into their zones. Hill seemed to think that dropping this coverage and implementing the different approach would improve the secondary and the pass defense. There will also be more blitzing, and there will be an effort to avoid using eight in the box as much as is possible unless it's being done to exploit an offensive weakness. Nate Jones, the newest cornerback, is said to specialize in cornerback blitzing, so there should be some opportunity there which adds a weapon to the arsenal.

Some things will be the same. You'll still see, as far as we know, a 5-2 version of the 30 front defense. The OLBs will still be responsible for setting the edge and funneling the RBs to the ILBs, while the DL is responsible for taking up the OL as much as is possible. There is still a major expectation of the DL to harass the QB and squash running backs. With some of the size upgrades, that may be less difficult than it was in 2009.

The DL Description - It's easy to notice that the Broncos, having worn down physically and emotionally during the second half of the 2009 season, immediately brought in some very good talent in Justin Bannan, Jamal Williams and Jarvis Green, three players used to being on winning teams and used to having individual success as well. While Green likes coming off the bench (and is also good in 3rd down/nickel play), he can also play well in a DL rotation. I do see him mostly at RDE, though, whenever he does play. Justin Bannan is highly versatile and has played all three spots. Jamal Williams is so big that he gets to play wherever he wants.

NT - At least right now, NT looks like a lot of fun, depending on who Denver can keep healthy (Note - I'm excited to see if Tuten's approach bears such great fruit again this year. After years of contagious hammieitis, 2009 was a job in that respect). Bannan can play any of the three DL slots, but will probably spend most of his time between LDE and NT. With Ron Fields and Justin Bannan there to make sure that he gets a breather regularly, Jamal Williams may get through the season without major injury. Marcus Thomas has gone back to losing weight and is said to be looking for the upper 290's and a RDE slot. I think that it's his best option, and I hope things go well for him - he's athletic and has done some good things for Denver in limited play (2008) at RDE. Chris Baker is the enigma wrapped in a riddle for Denver this offseason. Time will tell for the Hampton player.

DE -  I'd call it likely that Bannan plays the starting LDE but with R. McBean hotly in competition with him this TC. Le Kevin Smith may be in the mix for either DE slot - he didn't look good last year, but that may have been medical, since he's had a knee surgery. It's also fair to say that Denver will probably keep using players in rotation to keep them fresh. NT is obvious - J. Williams, M. Bannan, R. Fields and perhaps Chris Baker can all, in theory, take some snaps at NT. That leaves M. Thomas at RDE (or perhaps LK Smith) and Jarvis Green coming in for certain D+D and in rotation. I don't say that because I think that Thomas is better than Green - it's just that Green has commented on how much he likes coming off the bench and bringing it emotionally as well as physically when other players are tired and I caught an interview of him talking about that. It's one of the weapons that NE's defense has counted on over the past few years. I think that if you look at him, taking him as a rotational pass rusher and run stuffer, as an upgrade over Kenny Peterson, his value is pretty obvious. Green believes that his motor is a weapon all by itself, making sure that it's up and raring to go when others are starting to fade.

Ron Fields as a 5 technique LDE as well as an alternate NT has some serious advantages, so you can't count him out, either. It's easy to say this, far from the season, but this corps has begun to look like the most versatile group on the team. I've literally lost track of the number of options that Denver can put out and have at least one NT player with two DEs on the field. One of the stat guys really should work that out. It has to be impressive.

LB Description - There's no question that with the variation of the 3-4 defense that Denver runs, the quality of LB play is one of the central keys to the defense. For this reason, the effectiveness of the LBs that were created from DEs and ST players has been remarkable. Just as far as outside linebackers, Elvis Dumervil quickly became one of the best pass rushing LBs in the league. Darrell Reid was a standout ST player for Indianapolis, but he seems to be picking up the nuances of the OLB position quickly, and if his knee heals in time for TC, he could make further strides to take him into the new season. Reid did well as a rotation backup, but I think that it's in his heart and abilities to become more than that.

OLB - Robert Ayers, the Broncos second 1st round player from 2009, took some time learning the NFL game at the OLB position - he had some background there from his first year in college and his versatility has resulted in his being placed at OLB, DE and DT on different plays for Denver. Because of his primary usage - generally, Ayers was responsible for sealing off the backside on pass plays and driving the play toward Doom or as a nickel back. In addition to the ability to push the play toward the QB, making it easier to rack up sacks for Doom, Ayers himself managed 17 QB hurries in limited play and was also very good at dropping into zone coverage.

How did Robert Ayers do? Better than his detractors like and not as well as his protagonists hoped would be my bet. You have to give him a lot of credit for the hurries, and he was holding up his end of the push when Doom got several sacks. I saw him do well in zone coverage and I saw him get burned a few times - welcome to the pros, young man. There's lots of fast, strong, smart guys who've been doing this much longer than he, but he'll learn. He's got mad athletic skills, but he also has a nose for the game. He may not blossom quite as fast as many will hope, but every game I watched him, he improved in some aspect. That's what I like seeing. On a similar note, Mario Haggan has shown that he has always had the skill to play OLB in a 30 front but never got the opportunity. But, will he again in 2010?

ILB? At inside linebacker, Mario Haggan could probably fit the bill but he has not, at this time, been called on to fill the position. There has to be some level of question as to whether either he can move inside, or whether he's more valuable at one slot than the other. DJ Williams, he of the wandering positions on the team, has settled in at RILB. While his work in coverage left a great deal to be desired, DJ may well need to be in a position that properly suits his skillset (Sam did not, for example). I have always seen him as an All Pro weakside linebacker in a 4-3 system. At the cost that he is paid by the team, one hopes that he can improve at his slot. It's not unreasonable - he played very good Will and pretty good Mike, better as the year went on. He might do fine at RILB this year. If not, he is potentially (Ok, maybe I use the term loosely) an All-Pro level weakside linebacker for a 4-3 system and he might have to be moved to one. Right now, though, Denver claims to be very happy with his level of play. It's almost certain that Denver will add an ILB or OLB in the upcoming draft. 'Both' is also an option. Even if you like Haggan for LILB, you need a backup for the position, and I'm not sure that 268 lb Baraka Atkins, a converted OLB/DE is the answer, although stranger things have happened. Due in part to their problems with the salary cap when Belichick came on as HC, NE did convert a couple of DEs to ILB, so it's been done.

Other Questions - Reid is still a cipher, and Doom, while he'll come back, may need the assurance of contract talks to get him into camp. Setting NFL annual records does that to a man. Here's an analysis of Doom's run tackleing that may cost the Broncos some dollars:

One of the surprise names at the top of the list is a guy who struggled in run defense in Elvis Dumervil. He may get caught out of position, but in addition to being a fine pass rusher he was extremely successful when making tackles. Dumervil attempted 40 solo stops (including sacks) and made them all. He might struggle to fight off blocks or to anchor against the run but based on 2009, if he gets his hands on the ball carrier, he is going to the ground (which helps explain why he was able to get so many sacks, considering his total number of pressures).

I'm finding that I'm more fond of WW the man than I am of the player - he's good on STs, but he just was toasted too often on the field. If someone can be found who will play a little better, he'll be on the bubble. That bothers me, too - after starting with 10 tackles a game, he was a bright spot in a dim season over 2009. Perhaps he'll still improve - he's just a young, hard working guy, one who found a willing mentor in Andra Davis and was smart enough to make full use of it. I'd love to see him do well, and the same for Braxton Kelley, also of Kentucky (Bronco!). Expect a young addition or two in TC.

Defensive Secondary

CB Description: I can't say it clearly enough: Champ Bailey is still one of the best in the game. Yes, he was beaten on some plays last season, but every CB is; overall, he did a great job. In part, many Broncos fans have huge expectations because for quite a while the CB position was so bad that you just threw to whoever Champ wasn't covering and did fine. Now, he's in the mix regularly, and still had a great highlight reel for the season. His salary is huge, but so is his potential impact on any given game. I mostly recall a reach-around pass defense in the end zone that sealed a Broncos victory when folks start to talk about how he's getting older.

On the other hand, well, yes, he is - I don't know anyone who is getting younger, for that matter. Bailey is still one of the best (last year, a group of 50 active players labeled him the #1 CB over OAK's Asomugha, and to keep him right now, Denver has to pay him like it. I don't mind - he changed at least a few games with his skills in 2009. Need more proof? In the last 4 years, Champ Bailey has started 56 games and been called for pass interference just once. When you look at the cumulative effect of the 2009 penalties, you get a quick idea of how important that statistic is. Put that up against his ratio of stopping the pass, his skill on special teams (which he doesn't have to play on, either) and his ability to mentor young players and he's one player who really is worth that kind of scratch. There aren't many, but he surely is one.

Andre' Goodman, coming from Miami where Josh McDaniels does much of his offseason shopping, has a weakness with his tackling technique, but is a great cover player. An improved DL would help out a group that did a very good job in 2009, as witnessed by their team overall rating of 3rd in the league, according to NFL.com's page.

Nate Jones was an offseason pickup who could be anything from insurance to starter at nickel to starter. He, too, is a former Miami Dolphin. One of his strengths is the cornerback blitz, which must thrill Wink Martindale. Alphonso Smith will have a chance to redeem himself and we'll see if factors that we don't know about - witness the 'vision coverage' comment (By the way, I wouldn't take the comment too far - it's only one aspect of the coverage. You're still in this or that zone or man, press, bump, etc. ). There was an oddness to something about Smith - He looked very good in training camp according to several MHR observers as well as the press; in week 1, he had 5 tackles, 4 of them solo, and then he hurt his ankle. He was never the same, and it was a strange timing. I know - some are sayiung that I'm making excuses. Maybe so, too. But I'm also willing to find out why a player goes from doing very well to stinking, pretty much overnight. If he didn't play that well at first, sure, OK, he just won't make it in the NFL. But he did play well and something suddenly changed. I'd like to know what, is all.

Tony Carter, late in the season activated from the PS, will also have a shot in training camp. This is a good group that may be adequately deep, but if another CB is added before the end of the draft to improve it, I won't be surprised. For one thing, most teams carry one more CB than Denver usually does. Nate Jones can switch to safety if need, and has done so before. For that matter, Renaldo Hill got his start in the NFL as a cornerback, and can play the position in an emergency.

Denver may bring in a CB but they aren't in bad shape, although they could get even better here. Joe Haden would immediately improve the team - competition brings out the best in teams, and he is potentially competition for anyone but Champ. I don't usually expect that from a rookie, even an upper 1st round layer, and I'm not 'predicting' that he would. What I am saying is that he's an unusually good player with excellent pro potential, and rosters can get very fluid once the season starts and injury bugs hit.

Safety Description - Any discussion of safety on the Broncos has to start with Brian 'Wolverine' Dawkins, Weapon X, the vocal and emotional leader of the Denver defense (he isn't shy about lecturing the offense, either, if that opportunity arises). The authorities in Pensylvania still have a warrant out on Josh McDaniels from stealing him from the Philadelphia Eagles. Team McX also snatched Renaldo Hill from the Dolphins and Hill was a very bright spot last season. With Nate Jones rounding out the triad from Miami, the Denver secondary has a distinct tone of ocean, sun and sand.

But Jones, while he can play safety in a pinch, isn't really a safety. He's generally a cornerback. Happily, Denver has three good young safeties - Darcel McBath, David Bruton and Josh Barrett. McBath and Bruton came in last season's draft and Barrett came in the 7th round of the 2008 'Goodman' draft. Barrett was very raw when Denver got him - he's been seeing increasingly successful time on the STs and has been tapped at times to cover larger receiving TEs like Tony Gonzales. Whether those two qualities will be enough to get him a slot on the 2010 team or not may be decided by whether the Broncos choose to add a cornerback or not.

The Broncos change from vision coverage to locking on in zone will be interesting to watch. The affection that McD has for zone coverage guys became obvious last year. ESPN said:

David Bruton: Bruton impressed as a run defender in Notre Dame's early-season win over Michigan, showing speed, range and willingness in run support and sound open-field tackling. The concern for Bruton is his inconsistent footwork in coverage. He is not fluid and takes choppy steps when gearing down to change directions, raising questions about his ability to match up with slot receivers at the next level. Bruton would fit best on a team that plays a lot of zone coverage and asks its safeties to play a big role in run support.

Never forget that 1/3 to 1/2 of the teams in the NFL use some variant of the West Coast Offense. While they don't look like the one's that Bill Walsh preferred, they are its descendants. The Cover 2 approach - the use of linebackers in the second level as pass defenders, was in essence a zone defensive scheme.

The next came from New Era Scouting on A. Smith. What's interesting is not their opinion on him - he's going to have to earn any playing time this year, and didn't do that last year - but their take on his possibility in zone coverage. In the past, McD has chosen zone when possible, and as I've said, the people he drafts reflect that.

Smith is a great playmaker at the corner position. He has the potential to change games when on the field. Beyond his excellent ball skills Smith has shown to be a complete player with his ability to blitz and play the run. His lack of size and top end speed make him an ideal zone coverage corner, and with his instincts and playmaking ability he will be able to play the long side of the field in that scheme and be left out on an island at times.

Barrett is certainly a project - but McBath and Bruton aren't, in the sense that both are producing already. They are two of the three best ST players on the Broncos - excellent early news for players who fans hope will develop sufficiently to replace Dawkins and Hill when those times come. To put it bluntly, someone will play in his safety slot, but no one will ever 'replace' Brian Dawkins. He's that good. While McBath is usually considered the more developed of the two, David Bruton is even faster than McBath and he can hit like a nail gun.

McBath got some playing time when there were injuries, but don't expect McBath or Bruton to sit around and just wait for their turn. They are in the process of earning their new positions. Consider this article from denverbroncos.com:

Regarding 2009, Bruton said,

"I had a chance to learn from great veterans such as 'Naldy (Renaldo Hill), Champ (Bailey), Dawk (Brian Dawkins) and Goody (Andre Goodman). I understand with those veterans there my role primarily now is on special teams, but it does not hinder me from competing and trying to go out there and take a starting job." Bruton gained that starting job against the raiders, when an injury moved him up in the depth chart:

Bruton earned that starting job against the Oakland Raiders when Hill sat out due to injury. The second-year player said he was just trying not to "wreck the ship" when he entered the lineup, but he finished with five tackles -- four solo -- and a pass breakup in the end zone.

"For me, it was kind of a eye-opener in the sense where I actually feel like I can play in the NFL," Bruton said. "I've got that experience under my belt that I know how to prepare for a game. If I need to do extra stuff to know the opponent, I have a feel for how to go about that."

McBath was no less up front about his plans.

"I compete every day," McBath said. "These guys, they've been doing it for a long time and they're really good, but if I wasn't out there competing to be what I want to be, then I wouldn't be myself. And they wouldn't have it any other way. We're all out there competing. That's what makes everybody better. That way, when any one of us are in the game, we're playing at our best. I'm pushing them and they're pushing me.

"I think from the time that I got here to the last game that I played last season, I think I made a huge change," he added. "I'm excited about this year. Any little opportunities that I get on special teams or defense, I'm excited about getting out there and making an impact."

As far as the overall Denver secondary goes, I had some questions for this next season. There are two things that McD said that Denver was doing last year that they say that they won't be in 2010 (and yes, I am aware that it's 'Lying Coach' season, the time before the draft when 'How are you today?" can be an opportunity to throw a smokescreen or simply obfuscate on any subject that comes up). Even so - the Broncos were, for a while during the season, using a read and react approach (far less than in 2008, btw, but it did come into use and wasn't very effective). Second, the Broncos were reportedly using the 'vision coverage' approach, with the cornerbacks and safeties reading the eyes of the QB, and that system was reputed to lead to openings in coverage.

That experiment is over - which is great. I'm a believer in imposing your will on the offense, rather than sitting back and responding to their actions. The increased blitzing and attacking sounds great to me, but I have one question on that. Is Wink the kind of coordinator who can set down immediately if the offense has caught on to his blitz packages and develop new ones on the fly? I remember Larry Coyers having trouble with that (after watching enough Indianapolis Colts football this year, it seems to me that Coyers has overcome that problem. Will Wink?

Q and A: I asked a bunch of smart football guys the same questions and wanted to share some answers. Ben Boyd just added his answers in red to the questions, so he goes first. The color change didn't come through to the FanPost, so I'm putting his in bold:

Q's: Hi, folks:  I've been working on a little article, and I'm at a point where I'd appreciate your thoughts on a couple of things that involve the defensive secondary. Here are some things that came to mind:

Q: More sky or cloud coverage?

Cloud (definition) zone pass coverage in which cornerbacks cover passes to the flat; both cornerback and cloud start with the letter C; opposite of "sky" coverage, also called "invert"

Sky (definition) zone pass coverage in which safeties cover passes to the flat; both safety and sky start with the letter S; opposite of cloud overage which has the corner covers the flat

When thinking of the way McD plans games, I think we will see a mixture dependent on who we play. For example, more cloud against team like SD and players like Sproles, and more sky when we play teams with legitimate deep threats.

Q: 2 safeties back more often than not, splitting the field, (especially on passing downs, or just more often than not?).

I hope! Hoping that we use the speed McBath and Bruton have, which sets up more success for Dawkins. I would be STOKED if we got someone like Mays or Berry, as it just makes our defense so much more attacking. This is a great safety rotation and allows Goody, Champ and our other CB's to attack.....I like that!

I think that Goody and Champ are about as good as any twosome in the league, and with coverage over the top to protect them, they can really be more aggressive. Thoughts? See comments above.

I can't wait to see Nate Jones in coverage. When I heard how good he is at CB blitzes, I really got excited. Wink will be a very happy DC.

With upgrades to the DL, CBs and the safeties that we have, is the onus on the LB corp to produce? YES!!! Missed assignments....again....by this group saw our DB's playing clean up again. This takes them out of making plays. I think the two are mutually INCLUSIVE...good play by both helps both. I just want to see a run stopping better at ILB that we can get in 3rd and 4th, some improvements from Ayers and Hagan/larsen inside and I think we will be looking better than most think!

Kirk came in, singing 'Am I Blue.'

Q: 2 safeties back more often than not, splitting the field, (especially on passing downs, or just more often than not?).

I think Wink will be able to use Dawkins as a blitzer at times, or have the option of taking out the "hot" receiver.

Q:  With upgrades to the DL, CBs and the safeties that we have, is the onus on the LB corp to produce?

It has to be. I was one of the people calling for Rey Maleuga(sp?) last year. I would have liked to see the ILB spot addressed better than the band-aid known as Andra Davis (class act though he was). James Laurenitis was another that I would have taken. He made over 100 Tackles in 2009, and I was actually surprised that the Patriots didn't take him. I am pretty high on Donald Butler in the 2nd/3rd round unless McX selects Ducasse or Benn. Micah Johnson would be my later choice. I am ok with the possible move of Haggan to the inside and Ayers starting at OLB. If that is the case, I think we still need to address depth there late in the draft. Like Colinski, I am not sure Larsen or Woodyard are a viable answer. (I really love that they are great TEAM players though) I'm also not opposed to taking Haden either. I am thinking he may be an upgrade to Phonz as a returner. Eddie Royal needs to be able to focus on WR.

BShrout tossed in,

The onus is most definitely on the LB corp to produce more consistently -- especially late in the year. There were too many missed assignments and LB's out of position which led the D-line and the DBs having to make the tackles. I commented on this in a couple of different posts. When you look at the tackling in the first 8 games vs the last 8, the LB corp had the lion's share in the first half of the season. In the second half, they still had the majority of the tackles, but the ratio of LB tackles to other sections' tackles went way down.

Denny Clifford went contrarian on his thoughts. He's Irish - we can't help it. Do you know the definition of an Irishman with a happy outlook? Mentally ill....Yes, I'm Irish on both sides for generations back to County Cork, and I know of at least on other Corker on MHR. At any rate:

Hello Em and everyone,

I'm going to go against the grain here a bit and say I prefer the sky coverage more than the cloud. My thinking is that impact plays in the flat are more likely to happen with big hits by the safety with deep coverage more reliable by the corners. Remember Ed Reed's hit that dislodged the ball from Moreno? I agree with everyone that linebacker play, both inside and outside has to be significantly better to allow either cloud or sky to work effectively. I really want to see N. Jones in coverage too.

And that pretty much covered the highlights, although I wish I had more time. Thanks to everyone on that question, by the way. Great conversation.

That brings me to the final aspect of the State of the Herd -- The State of the Coaches. Here is a little about who they are:

Josh McDaniels - For a rookie coach, he made some 'rookie' mistakes (in other words, he made mistakes during his rookie year, as you'd expect) and still did a good job overall. He has to improve his clock management, certainly. Overall, I thought that he handled several difficult player situations fairly well. He admitted that the OLine was a problem in 2009, and while some folks felt that he shouldn't have done so, I applauded his honesty on that one. He wasn't insulting them. He was stating a fact, and one that I've no doubt that he's seriously looking at how to overcome.

What I'm not going to do here is to start looking at smaller, single situations (like arguing the benching of Marshall and Scheffler for the final game of last season) and to try to access McD's abilities through them. I'm of the opinion that if a player hampers the team, you sit him. Generally, I thought that McD said no more than was reasonable last year, although he was surprisingly up front about the final game week benchings. Overall, I felt that he did a very good job for a rookie. I expect some mistakes when a person gets a new job, and McD had some. I thought that he also showed some good things that will bear long term fruit.

The first is hiring good coaches. Mike McCoy is still the offensive coordinator and helps with the QBs and Mike Nolan - to whom I wish the best to as he chooses to move on - has gone to Miami. Clancy Barone has moved from TEs to the offensive line and the well-experienced Wayne Nunnely is still handling the defensive line with Bob Wylie as his assistant. Wink Martindale, last year's LB coach, will run the defense this year with Craig Aukerman as his assistant. Martindale's emphasis on the importance of the linebacker position in this defense is made clear simply by the coaching chart - the Linebackers Assistant is Roman Pifer, but no LBs coach (other than Martindale) is listed. Mike Priefer is, to many people's surprise, still the special teams' coach with Keith Burns as the special teams assistant. Ed Donatell is the defensive secondary coach, and Adam Gase has the WRs. Rich Tuten remains the strength and conditioning coach and resident sadist, and they've now given him an assistant, Greg Saporta, to carry his whips and clean them as needed. Bob Ligashesky is the Tight Ends coach, taking over for Barone, and young Ben McDaniels is now the QBs coach. Brian Callahan has taken a slot as Coaching Assistant and Jay Rodgers is the Defensive Assistant.

The next thing that Josh McDaniels has to work on is bringing players like Eddie Royal into the game more. Royal struggled last year, and McDaniels' comments about Eddie's concussions - Josh used the plural, which concerns me medically - might explain a lot about why Eddie wasn't quite (or even nearly) himself. There are other players who earned more time, but that's something that you work out over time, and Denver had darned little of it last year. I had to admit though - Gaffney did as good a job. I'd like to see a tougher competition between them.

One thing I will go out on a limb and guarantee is this - McDaniels and company have looked over their OL situation in great detail, and they are executing a plan to solve it. Talk about big running backs until you're blue in the face - if you don't get a good push from the OL, you won't get the 1st down in short yardage. Whether Dustin Fry is ready to play center or not, whether they prefer Olsen or even Russ Hochstein (oh lord, I hope not, but we'll see), or whether they have their selections already in the books on the 1st round of the draft (Pouncey will be there, as a possible example) they have a solution in mind and are already putting it into play. With all its faults, there's one nice thing about pick 11 - it gives you a lot of directions to go in, and there are top rated players available at all of them.

OT/OG - Trent Williams, for example. NT - Dan Williams (or if he's still there at 45, which I doubt, Terrence Cody); Safety (I'd be shocked but it could happen) - Eric Berry (otherwise we'll probably see him two times per season in KC), or Earl Thomas; LB - Rolando McClain or Sean Weatherspoon, OG/OT, Iupati, CB - Joe Haden, etc, etc.

No matter who we take, there's one thing about this upcoming season that excites me. The players will have had a chance to generally get to know each other - tendencies, preferences, moves, abilities and weaknesses. That familiarity will give Denver a greater chance to step up and to implement their systems with a deeper understanding of the schemes and of each other; with one eye toward the problem that showed up in 2009 and the other toward the future and how those problems can be overcome.

The defensive line needs just as good a quality of communication as the offensive line - the ILB may get the helmet with the radio receiver, but the DL has to have its own plan in place on every play. The same is true in the secondary - often, the free safety is considered the QB of the defense. In Denver, that might be either Hill or Dawkins - both are nearly brilliant at analyzing defenses, and they seem to prefer to play as a team, together, with each covering one side of the field and trading off on calling the plays just as it seems most comfortable for both of them. It's hard to argue with - Hill is a huge upgrade over the recent Denver 'talent' (and I use the word loosely) and Dawkins is even better than Hill is. David Bruton and Darcel McBath are coming on to the team together, and may end up with a similar connection before all is said and done with.

"...the more you play in an offense, the more little details that, you know, you kind of learn, the little things that you can add instead of just run a route a certain way, the more you've been in an offense the more that you can, the parameters that you can mess with a route, that you kind of learn, just, little things that you can do with certain routes to get open, it becomes easier to do that the longer you've been in an offense." - Brandon Stokley

The same issue of familiarity and the improvement it can create is equally true with a defense and with special teams. Players who have the time to get to know each others tendencies can often be there before a mistake is made or a hole opens. Familiarity permits one DL player to notice the double or triple team on another, and to scoot through that hole before the offense can regroup. Familiar QB and WR pairings tend to produce more yards, more 1st downs, more touchdowns and more wins. Familiar defenses trade off coverages, plug gaps, trust each other to be in the right place at the right time and know, deep within, that their teammates have gotten their back covered.

Last year, Denver managed to make it to .500. Many of us were disappointed - making the wild card should have been easy, and a good playoff berth shouldn't have been out of the question. But things are what they are - Denver took a nosedive in later 2009 that seemed eerily reminiscent of 2008. It reminded me that it generally takes time to change the locker room culture of a team, and all the reading that I like to do about the history of the game tells me the same thing. That's one reason that coaches tend to bring in players they have had on their teams before - they are familiar with them, and know what things they can and cannot count on them for. They also know that more often than not, if the coach has a good relationship with a player, they can bring more out of them and count on them more.

But it's time to do something that Denver isn't familiar with: It's time to make it to the playoffs. The Chargers aren't an easy team to overcome - but so what? You have to beat good teams to get to the playoffs, and you have to beat good teams to be successful in the playoffs. The playoffs are the goal. Each year that I expected to be steamrolled in the playoffs, I've stopped caring if Denver gets to them or not. But Denver has taken a giant step forward, and there are early reasons to hope that success in the playoffs isn't far away.

We'll probably about right around Thanksgiving as to exactly where the team is, but with a bigger, tougher DL, some individual improvements and the familiarity that mutual experience brings, the team may take a big step forward. Now we get to see what raw material we have in the draft. I wouldn't expect them to salvage the year - that is more the job of the vets in FA and the developmental players, who need to take that yearly step upward. It's also the job of the coaches, the scouting departmental team and Brian Xanders people. One thing that I will say - we have one of the best owners in the game, and the town and team are fortunate in that respect.

I put it at three questions that have to be answered:

  1. What do we do at center? *knowing about the rest of the line wouldn't offend me, either
  2. What do we do in terms of a developing NT?
  3. What do we do at linebacker?

And the best question of them all - what do you think the questions are? Go Broncos!

Originally posted at MHR

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

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