Wednesday Musings: A strange win, but still a win

Week 10, Arrowhead Stadium. What a long, strange game it was.

Actually, it wasn’t that long - it only went 3 hours and 3 minutes. Strange? Unusual, at the very least.  Keeping the clock running while you gash your way down the field, slicing off chunks of yardage like carving a Thanksgiving turkey with play after running play, forcing the Chiefs to retreat further and deeper into their own territory and all without a viable way to stop it - it takes the heart right out of a team.

There was more finesse to it than we often think - the smoothness of Von Miller, slicing past the center and the running back as if they were mere phantoms before embossing the #58 on his jersey’s shoulder onto Matt Cassel’s ribcage was particularly memorable. Enjoying watching Knowshon Moreno relive his college days in vaulting a defender, and the sadness of seeing him go down to injury.  DT Brodrick Bunkley was a Houdini in disengaging with the right guard as if he were just a minor annoyance;  Bunkley then launched himself at the running back, pulling him down from behind. And, on the other side, LG Zane Beadles displaying those light feet that make him such an effective pulling guard as he cleared the route for Tim Tebow to run for his TD. It was a very strange game, but for trench-hounds like me, it was the Bolshoi Ballet.

IAOFM reader Ponderosa reminded me of a comparison of the OL to the dancing hippos of Fantasia, and I blame him for starting up that image in my mind. Take them out of the tutus, put them in white and blue and you’ve got the Denver Dancing Hippos. For those who think this an insult, have you ever seen a hippo fight over some river territory? It gives a whole new meaning to the word scary - they’re essentially breathing tanks with teeth. Denver’s zone-blocking OL has put together 543 yards over two games. That’s scary in its own right.

One of the great questions that I’ve had is being answered resoundingly. For quite some while now, whenever someone would say to me that zone blocking requires a lighter lineup, I’d ask them, Why? The answer was always some variant on Well, the bigger guys aren’t agile enough. That’s absolute nonsense, and I’m glad to have an example of that to point to. There are, without a doubt, big guys who are agile enough to do this. Those are the ones you draft if you want to run this blocking scheme. RT Orlando Franklin had a good day on Sunday, and he’s pushing 330, according to the Broncos. He’s said in the past that he likes playing at about 315-320, so I think that he’s likely to be in that area by now, but you wouldn’t call him small.

Classic theory on the OL is that you want taller, long-armed tackles: LT Ryan Clady runs about 315, down 10 lb from where he came into the league and with lower body fat, but he and Franklin are both in the 6’6”-6’7” range and both have 35-inch arms, which is the tackles’ holy grail for somatype. Do I think it matters? I think it depends on the player - it certainly doesn’t hurt, but it’s not a deciding factor. Some great tackles don’t fit that type at all.

The classic guard is a more squatty guy with better leverage - RG Chris Kuper is 6’4”, as is Beadles - in fact, both are 6’4" and about 305. Kuper’s 305  isn’t monstrous but his skill at leverage seemingly adds about 15 lb to his weight. Beadles appears to be learning, and Kuper is well known for the fact that he teaches the young guys, much like another coach on the field. Zane Beadles had his second game in a row without a sack - the two could be linked, while OL coach Dave Magazu’s influence is unmistakable.  This time Zane didn’t let through a hit, or a pressure, either, and had no penalties. It’s good to see him starting to become the player that Denver wanted when his draft pick hit the board - his block on Tebow’s TD run was a perfect, textbook pulling block.

Most centers are on the smaller size - and many of the best are the smartest guys on the OL, too. J.D. Walton is 6’3" and 305 - he looks more like 6’2", and he’s got the leverage, and is developing the technique to go with it. I just see him getting better and better, and I loved seeing his leadership come out on the field. Right now, I’m hoping that they can keep the group together. Clady’s errors are a concern to me, but a good second half could put that behind him.

Consider this my obligatory vote for Dave Magazu as Position Coach of the Year. To be clear on the distinction, Coach D, as Von Miller refers to Dennis Allen in this video, is in my opinion a lock for DC of the Year, and I think that someone actually has such a title - you’ll love the way he references Coach D’s blitzes, too. Although this is out of order, I can’t help myself - Von Miller is the best draft pick since Terrell Davis. With decent health, he may rewrite some rule books. You’ve got to put him as the top OLB in the league right now - in fact, PFF does exactly that. I just watch his blitzes over and over - he just evaporated past the center and the RB on one play and destroyed Cassel just as the ball was leaving - you don’t know, for a split second, whether to wince or shout - it was that good. This is otherworldly play at this point in a career. It’s unreal from top, seasoned veterans. And it’s going to get better. He’s still learning the NFL game, although he seems to be grasping the principles as quickly as he’s grasping quarterbacks.

Ryan Clady had a bad game - they took away the sack he gave up due to a holding penalty, but he still let through two hits and two hurries, as well as giving up two more penalties. Clady just isn’t having a good year, regardless of the cause. It’s fair to say that seeing him tied for the league lead in penalties is a rare and strange thing, and other than hoping that he’s okay, there’s not a lot more to say - the rest of the group is developing into a heck of a unit, and his mistakes puzzle me - he was a natural for the ZB scheme. I thought the problems he had switching to Josh McDaniels' scheme were ones of transference, but it’s possible that the league has figured something technical out on him. Regardless, he’s got the rest of the year to work through it.

J.D. Walton has increasingly come into his own, and he blocked for 4.3 ypc through his slot, while running the OL like a veteran. On Tebow’s rushing play for a 7-yard TD, Beadles was supposed to pull and lead the way. Walton reared up his head twice to bellow out the call to his left - someone wasn’t listening, and J.D. was faced towards Beadles/Clady, and Zane’s pulling block opened the way for Tebow to score. But it was Walton’s vehemence and clear leadership on that play that was something special to watch all by itself. They were even nice enough to give us a nice shot of it on the local feed.

Here’s what I wrote about Walton back in October of 2010, when he was still eating double A-gap blitzes and was utterly out of his depth, but even then, there was something about him:

Offense: The award for this week goes to the rookie Center, JD Walton. Walton was fighting for his life on much of the day, but watching him racing Ryan Clady down the field, the second level quickly turning to the third, looking for more people to hit was a joy. Like most rookies, he is learning by doing. He’s going to get mauled at times, but he’s holding his own better and better. Congratulations to him.

The Defense

The defense was equally good this week, and ‘Coach D’ is obviously a quick-budding talent. It’s rare to get to see this kind of usage of players, scheme and aggression so quickly in such an effectively physical scheme. Both young safeties have had good moments, and rookie safety Quinton Carter played very well through the after-effects of a concussion of his own. Even David Bruton has been more than a ST ace - he took on some downs, and he played like a good veteran - more power to him. He has the signs of a better Keith Burns, and I mean that as a high compliment. Every time I look up and see the ballcarrier on a return, Bruton seems to be there, whether he’s escorting our guy or eating up blocking and making stops on special teams. He struggled last year, but I think that he’s got better play in him - it looked like it on those downs.

Chris Harris has come off the practice squad to take the nickelback spot by storm, and the cliche about the game not being too big for him doesn’t do him justice - he’s an aggressive, hard-hitting guy who’s fast, seems to be learning NFL coverages quickly and has remarkably good technique for a rookie. At 5' 10" and 190, he makes a potent argument that he’s big enough and tough enough for any play in run support and you can often find him around the ball at the end of the play. He’s solid in coverage, too. Brian Dawkins at strongbacker is a brilliant innovation by Coach Allen. Allen’s grasp of defensive principles and concepts, and his use of aggression coupled with confusion (even in the KC game, the number of alignments he used was impressive) makes for a potent group. Joe Mays upped his game, and D.J. Williams played with serious fire once again in covering for Wesley Woodyard.

The defensive line, under Coach Wayne Nunnely, is just remarkable.  I couldn’t help but think that Von Miller gets to study under both Nunnely and Richard Smith - he’s a very fortunate young superstar. Robert Ayers had two tackles, three pressures and consistently collapsed the pocket as well as his work re-routing the run. KC tried double teaming everyone at some point, but it just changes where you’re getting stabbed, not dulling the knife. Bunkley is a serious find who’s still young at 27 (he turns 28 a week from today). Marcus Thomas, also young at 26, is playing very well.  Ryan McBean is stepping up as a rotational player who is most often used at NT on 5-2 formations but also plays UT next to Bunkley and NT next to Thomas. Von Miller gets a sack and a half this week, Elvis Dumervil the other half. It seems like one of them is always finding the QB, but both have stepped up their early play against the run.

It Still Counts As A Win

It was, to say the least, a very unusual game. But, as the smart folks are saying, it still counts as a W, just the same. In that sense there are no good wins, no bad wins, no must-wins and no special wins unless you’re holding the Lombardi Trophy. At the same time, it never hurts to beat two of your division rivals in back-to-back road games. Yet, there are strange wins and this was certainly one of them. Another such game was called the Fog Bowl, and I got to watch it - sort of. Well, the parts that were visible, anyway.

It was on December 31, 1988, an NFC Divisional playoff game between the Mike Ditka-led Chicago Bears and the Buddy Ryan-version of the Philadelphia Eagles. There was no love lost between Ditka and Ryan:  Mike Ditka had been a bit hurt when the defense hoisted Buddy onto their shoulders in the aftermath of Super Bowl XX instead of him, or so went the story, but they didn’t need an incident - they just never got along. Ryan took off for Philly and a head coaching job, but by that time, the two men already hated each other. Games between the Eagles and Bears were heightened as a result.

This one was at Soldier Field in Chicago, where the Hawk wind blows in off of Lake Michigan and freezes you to the bone. The weather is, to say the least, changeable in that area of the country. This was one of those times when a Lake Michigan fog, impossible to predict, and implacable as the earth, moved in like a wall and the entire second half was played, as far as anyone could see, by vague shadows moving occasionally in and out of a bank of dingy grey-white. The announcers were flummoxed, and loudspeaker calls became rare. You couldn’t tell what the hell was happening, and apparently, it wasn’t much better on the field. It was a low-scoring event, nearly all of which was managed in the first half - each team coaxed a field goal in the second half despite complaints that they couldn’t see the sideline markers, much less the uprights. Chicago went to the locker room up by eight points and came out into the best defense to ever march up the turf - a Lake Michigan wall of fog.

Even huddling was nearly impossible - players searched out their own huddles. Passing was difficult, so Randall Cunningham’s 407 aerial yards for the day were nearly miraculous - after the half, the contest was simply a matter of defense. The marrow-chilling fog also made the footing treacherous, and no one was really going anywhere. Ryan protested the game vigorously, but the referees rightly pointed out that there was no stipulation in the rule book pertaining to calling a game on account of fog. Ryan lost his appeal and the game. And among other things, Ditka was heard to say, “It still counts for a win.” And it did.

KC had no such excuse, but they lost their game to an equally bizarre situation - 55 rushing plays and eight passes (with two complete) by the Broncos. Willis McGahee started out well with four runs for 17 yards, but he pulled a hamstring and was done for the day. Knowshon Moreno went in to replace him and after a beautiful 24-yarder, one of four carries for 52 yards and the feeling that he was in a groove, Moreno went down for the season to torn ligaments in his knee. He was replaced by Lance Ball, the ‘accessory’ running back who was kept around by Josh McDaniels, who provided nearly all of the Broncos yardage - Tim Tebow only had two completions, but they went for 69 yards and a TD, while adding 43 yards on the ground on nine carries. Even Eddie Royal had three carries for 19 yards, while Spencer Larsen added five carries for 17 yards. Matt Willis caught one pass - the other was a 56-yard bomb to Eric Decker for a TD.

For the second game in a row, the Denver running game dominated to the tune of well over 200 yards. There were some zone-read options and a nearly endless slew of handoffs, pitches, WR runs, draws and keepers. Other than a nice catch by Matt (don’t call him Matthew) Willis, who fought for 12 yards, and the aforementioned bomb to Decker, who’d barely missed another pass near the end zone. Tebow will have to throw more in other games, but the simple fact is, although it’s probably only avowed trench-hounds like reader firstfan and I who really enjoy this kind of contest, if you want to see a in study in OL work, this was a game to savor. Having it end in an easy Broncos win didn’t make it harder to enjoy, either.

For whatever reason, I find defensive lines as interesting as offensive lines, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that Bunkley is ranked as the #16 NT/DT in the league by PFF - I like this guy more every game, and Ryan McBean is playing better at NT every week. He added a sack and a hit on the QB, earning stops on both plays. Marcus Thomas had a QB pressure and earned a stop on his one tackle. To be fair, I don’t think that the rankings of the DL reflected the effect on the game that they had: Cassel spent much of the afternoon gazing at the autumn skies and perhaps considering another line of work - he was quintessentially smothered. Every defensive line wants to draw a new line of scrimmage right after the snap, at least a yard behind the original one, showing that they’re pushing the opponent's OL back. Denver pretty much lived there.

D.J. Williams is showing the increased focus in his game, and he had eight tackles and a QB sack. He struggled a bit in pass coverage, but he was being asked to play Wes Woodyard’s slot, which is tough for D.J. - WW is a better coverage player. D.J. still played with intensity, and that permeated the entire crew. Quinton Carter had a solid day at safety - he had two tackles and an assist but one missed tackle. Despite that, Carter was solid in coverage and showed veteran skills repeatedly. He’s playing centerfield well.

All in all, as long as it’s working, they all count the same and Denver’s one game out of first, no matter how bad the division.

The Jets

The middle of Denver’s line could get a workout - the Jets average their best running yardage through the middle - center and right guard. Nick Mangold at center is a talent - Brandon Moore, RG, hasn’t been, although he’s started every game since 2005. He’s played well as he can this year, though, and the numbers show it. He’s also had a positive rating in five of his last six games according to PFF. He plays with leverage, and is only 6’3 and 295 lb. Across from him at left guard is Matt Slausson, who’s not having a great year as he grades out in negatives more often than not. Wayne Hunter, at 6’5 and 318 lb, who has given up six sacks, six penalties, four QB hits and 16 pressures - he’s going to be at RT, alternating across among Doom, Ayers and Miller. It promises to be a less than pleasant evening for him. D’Brickashaw Ferguson is at LT. I can see several ways to attack the Jets offensive line - if you read Ted’s YGS on Tuesday, you do too.

The Jets are a somewhat more stable team, but Denver has some strengths of their own. With both teams coming off a short week and the Jets traveling two time zones, some advantages are slightly with the Broncos. Playing a run-heavy offense at high altitude can often keep the defense on the field, and TOP matters in the Mile High City. QB Mark Sanchez is vulnerable to pressure and Denver has a high-pressure defense - this is going to be a great chance to find out how well the offense and defense play against better teams from outside the division - and to keep in mind that Oakland was able to beat the Jets with a running game.

Looks like a chance to steal a game. Go Broncos!

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

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