You Got Served - Here we go (again)

Happy Tuesday, friends, even though it really isn’t.  I was in a hating-some-people mood all day Monday, and it continues today.  Last night’s game against the Raiders tells us some important things about the Broncos, and all we can really do is take the lessons and try to understand what happened, and what it means on a go-forward basis.  Feel the excitement?  Ready… Begin (or whatever…)

1.  Last night’s game was a great example of complementary football, and how the Broncos aren’t close to playing it yet.  The primary damage was done in the second quarter behind bad field position, penalties, a blocked punt, and a couple of terrible turnovers.

The offense did little in this game to help the defense, which actually played at a league-average level.  (I think that’s the best we can hope for in 2011.)  When Matt Prater missed his 56-yard field goal, it gave the Raiders good field position.  When Knowshon Moreno fumbled, it gave the Raiders excellent field position.  When Britton Colquitt’s punt was blocked, it gave the Raiders excellent field position.  When Kevin Vickerson took that awful personal foul penalty at the end of the first half, he practically asked Sebastian Janikowski to kick his record-tying field goal, which ended up being the difference in the game.

I’d say it was a comedy of errors, but nothing was funny about one second of it.  Too much of it was too familiar and goes all the way back to the Shanahan regime.  Here are a few observations that I’m sure the coaches will be seeing:

a.  Kyle Orton sucks, and I really think I can only consider him to be a borderline starter in the NFL.  I’m not just saying that as a guy who likes Tim Tebow better; I’m saying that as a guy who thinks that about 40 QBs in the NFL are better at making plays on a football field than Orton is.  For all of the hand-wringing about Tebow’s lack of pocket awareness, where is Orton’s?  How many times is he going to step into sacks that nearly all other starters in the NFL are going to avoid, either by moving or checking down?

How long are the Broncos going to stick with a guy who can’t execute a screen pass effectively, so as to loosen up the crowding at the line of scrimmage?  The good offenses nowadays are getting 80-100 yards per game on screens, and the Broncos cede that possibility by Orton’s mere presence on the field.  It’s like the TEs last year who didn’t need to be covered.

How many times is Orton going to put too much on a ball (example: Eddie Royal’s “drop” in the third quarter)?  How many times is he going to throw behind receivers?  What if the Raiders had caught two or three of the five or so passes that Orton threw to them, beyond the awful interception?  How could he not recognize that Willis McGahee was open for a TD four yards in front of him?  When is this dude ever going to be able to handle a blitz, recognize where it’s coming from, and make a throw into it?

I’m not even going to hit him too bad for the fumble, in and of itself, because that’s a really fluky play, but what happens frequently is that there are plays to be made, and this guy just consistently doesn’t make them.  He consistently fails at key times in games, and he always looks so damn nonchalant about it. 

This is a tough thing, because Orton has some competencies that you can see when everything is clean for him.  I just really believe that he’s fool’s gold, because he’s simply not a playmaker when plays break down.  You don’t have to be a great runner like Tebow in those situations, but you do have to be able to improvise and make a play.  I’ve been watching him now for a couple seasons, and I have no reason to believe that this guy should be the starting QB of the Broncos.  He can string some throws together, and he can look good in practice, but when is he ever going to play well for a whole game?  This game was there for the taking, and Orton just doesn’t seem to have it in him to take those games.  At some point, ability is all well and good, but you have to start judging performance and let it predict what is likely to happen in the future.

You guys know me - I’m not some alarmist - as much as I preferred (and prefer) Tebow, I said that I’d support whatever decision the team made.  I just think that we’re likely going to continue to see this guy fail in big situations, because that’s what his track record says that he does.  If it’s clear that that’s what you have, why would you stick with it?  For as much as Orton can occasionally resemble Tom Brady when the circumstances around him are perfect, I think that consistently, he’s more like Byron Leftwich than anybody else in the NFL.  Or maybe like a less athletic Joey Harrington.  Those guys can make the throws too, but they couldn’t make the winning plays that you need when you need them.  I think you have to eventually recognize what you have, and that it’s just not good enough, and move on from it.

b.  Orton was  far from the only problem on offense, of course.  The offensive line got owned to a larger degree than I thought was possible.  The two Guards, Zane Beadles and Chris Kuper, were atrocious throughout the game, and the other three guys were mixed bags, with each taking at least one penalty, and Ryan Clady and Orlando Franklin each giving up a sack.  In the running game, nobody looked particularly good.

Part of the issue is that the Raiders’ defensive line is really good at playing with power.  Independent of that, though, the Broncos’ guys showed no ability to drive block or to anchor in pass protection.  If you can’t do those things, you’re in real trouble.  I know these guys can play better than they did Monday, and we’re going to need to start seeing it.

c.  I tend not to blame Knowshon Moreno and Willis McGahee for struggling to gain yards on the ground when nobody blocks anybody.  Moreno had the bad fumble but was individually good in pass protection and in catching the ball.  I really liked that open-field move where he juked two guys to the ground.  McGahee also looked good catching the ball, and should have had a TD catch if Orton hadn’t been looking for a defensive lineman to cuddle with.  The circumstances of this game prevented either Moreno or McGahee from having much of an impact.

d.  The key to this whole game, to me, is that the Broncos' offense was so unproductive that it never made the Raiders feel pressured on the scoreboard, and thereby forced the Raiders to have to drop back straight-up and throw the football.  It was really clear that they wanted no part of Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller off the edge, and because the Raiders mostly led in the game, even when they got into 3rd-and-long they played really conservatively and ran draw plays or threw short.

This is what I mean about complementary football.  This Broncos defense has pass-rushers and Champ Bailey, and to be at its best it needs to generate leads.  If the other team leads, and they can run the ball a lot, the Broncos are eventually going to give up some plays there, even though they were mostly solid in run defense on a play-to-play basis.  We know that stopping the pass is the strength of the defense, and the offense needs to help position the defense for success in that area.

e.  I thought Brodrick Bunkley played really well throughout the game, and that the other DTs ran the gamut on a play-by-play basis.  Jason Hunter was mostly good, and Robert Ayers was solid.  Joe Mays was a mixed bag for me, like he has been.  I liked what I saw from Wesley Woodyard and Von Miller in the running game, and I continue to prefer Woodyard to D.J. Williams.

f.  Brian Dawkins was a beast throughout the game.  He looked rejuvenated and quick to the football.  I liked Rahim Moore’s proximity to the football for most of the game, even if he didn’t make any big plays.  Champ Bailey’s impact was limited by the lack of downfield throwing, and I thought Andre’ Goodman had a below-average game, especially tackling.  There was one time where it looked like he didn’t want any part of trying to hit Marcel Reece, and that’s not acceptable.  Cassius Vaughn didn’t play much, because the Raiders used very few 3+ receiver groupings.

g.  As for playcalling, I really liked what Dennis Allen did.  I think he did a nice job of mixing things up, and he caught the Raiders max-protecting against three-man rushes a few times while three receivers tried to get open against eight coverage players.  When Allen did bring the blitz, it had the desired effect.  It was a strong debut for him.

h.  For Mike McCoy, I wasn’t too thrilled at all with the first half playcalling, but I did like the adjustment at the half to spread the Raiders out and throw it on them.  The Broncos started running blitz-beating plays that attacked the Raiders mostly inside, where they’re weak.  Orton didn’t play well enough to fully realize the success that McCoy was setting him up for, but it was clear that the plan was better in the second half.

I will say that even without the benefit of all-22 film, I wasn’t too impressed with a lot of the route combinations.  Under Josh McDaniels, the offense schemed a lot of dudes open, and I didn’t see that happening as much on Monday night.  Where were the rub action plays?  Where were the Cover-2 beaters for when the Raiders went to that?  TJ was saying that Brian Griese noted on the radio that the Broncos were running a lot of man-beating routes against zone, and I agree with that.  I’d have put Eric Decker in the slot and told him to read man or zone, and if it’s man, run a slant, and if it’s zone, find a spot to sit down and make yourself big.  The Broncos could have worn that out against the Raiders.  I think that the offensive scheme and playcalling is clearly a work in progress.

2.  Here are some thoughts from the other games I got to see over the weekend:

a.  Philadelphia does not have three elite CBs; it has one, and that’s Nnamdi Asomugha.  Beyond him, it has a guy in Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie who flashes brilliance and is very talented, but is at the same time very inconsistent.  Asante Samuel is an un-favorite of mine, and he’s really only useful when you want to play a lot of zone defense.  Neither DRC nor Samuel are good tacklers.  The Eagles are better than most teams at CB, but let’s not let people get carried away about how good they are.  By the way, Asomugha took a really bad pass-interference penalty in the end zone Sunday because he was beaten deep by Brandon Gibson.  Sam Bradford overthrew the ball, and Gibson was unlikely to even get to it, but all Nnamdi seemed to know was that he was beaten.

b.  I’m sure I’ve probably said this before at some point, but the way to beat Michael Vick is to play coverage against the Eagles.  It's not about pressure with him, it’s about keeping 11 sets if eyes on him and forcing him to make precision throws into tight windows.  You accomplish that by mush-rushing and dropping seven or eight men into coverage.  Vick can’t make those throws consistently, and he'll eventually throw a few to the defense.  By zoning him up, you also keep eyes on him for the containment of his run threat.

c.  The Browns have to be really disappointed in Sunday’s result, but one thing they can be happy with was the outstanding play of YGS Favorite Joe Haden.  He’s really gifted at seeing angles and passing lanes, and in playing receivers so as to cut down those angles.  I’ve been watching Haden for years, and I always marvel at the innate feel that he has for geometry.  He was in A.J. Green’s shirt all game, except for when Green made his game-changing first NFL catch for a 41-yard TD.  On that play, of course, the Browns were still in the process of breaking their defensive huddle when Bruce Gradkowski called for the snap, and Haden was nowhere near Green.  It was a really bad bust by the whole defense, and Browns coach Pat Shurmur complained to the NFL that the Bengals had substituted, and not given the Browns ample opportunity to do the same.

d.  It was a really up-and-down performance from Colt McCoy on Sunday.  He can be a good starting QB because he’s in a scheme that fits him, but he has a way to go.  His first TD pass was very impressive on McCoy’s part as much as it was a busted coverage by the Bengals.  The West Coast Offense almost always has a half-field read, which means that the play is designed to either go to the left or the right, and the other side doesn’t figure in the play.  On the TD play, McCoy rolled right, which is going to result in a throw to the right 99% of the time.  This time, though, the whole back end of the Cincinnati defense rolled right, and that left Ben Watson wide open down the seam on the left hashmark.  McCoy threw back across the field, which is usually ill-advised, but was a great idea in that case, because Leon Hall couldn’t catch up to Watson.  I’m sure a Safety should have stayed at home there, and McCoy did well to see the bust.

McCoy also had two chances to win the game late, and the result was a possession with just one first down, and then a three-and-out, and then a four-and-out.  After Cincinnati went up by 10, McCoy threw a pressure-caused interception to seal the deal.

e.  Browns TE Evan Moore is a matchup problem when he’s split out in the scoring area.  He’s too big for a CB to handle, and I can definitely see him getting seven or eight more TDs this season to go with the one he had Sunday.

f.  The Texans really left no doubt that they could physically dominate the line of scrimmage against the Colts on both sides of the ball.  YGS Favorite LT Duane Brown continues to improve.  He’s not the quickest-footed pass protector ever, but he’s more than passable in that area.  Where he really shines is in the zone running game, though.  He was dominant Sunday, along with the rest of the Houston O-line.

f.  The Colts loss isn’t on Kerry Collins, per se.  He can play better than he played, but he’s not ever going to be good enough to make up for an atrocious offensive line like Peyton Manning is, and he’ll be hard-pressed to take the Colts to the kind of leads they need to have to play defense their way.

Don’t buy into the nonsense that Collins is still learning the Colts' offense.  They run by far the simplest offense in the NFL, and it includes maybe six or seven running plays and no more than 10 or 12 passing plays.  It’s always been about Manning getting to the line, deciding what looks the best against the defense he sees, and then executing something he’s executed hundreds of times.  It’s all about player execution, and the Colts are hurting without their key player.

g.  Matthew Stafford was outstanding on Sunday, and his stats should have been even better.  He’d have had a fourth TD pass if Brandon Pettigrew hadn’t dropped a perfect throw on 3rd and goal.  Stafford looks every bit like the real deal as a QB you could win some Super Bowls with.

h.  My Navy buddy Chris Dillon, who is a regular reader of this site despite being a long-suffering Lions fan, was disappointed to see that I picked Tampa Bay to win on Sunday.  I felt like both the Lions and Bucs were good teams, and I could go either way on them, so I went with the home team.

I left thinking that Detroit is a much better team than I thought, and that they have a legitimate chance to win the NFC North this year if they can play coverage as well as they did on Sunday.  Their Cover-2 heavy scheme looked fast and sure-tackling, and I was especially impressed with the play of #32 Aaron Berry, who did a really nice job throughout the game.  I had been thinking that the Lions were still probably vulnerable in the back end, but it didn’t look like it Sunday.  Beware a team that can rush the QB with just four players like the Lions can; those teams can play really soundly behind that rush, given some quality players.

i.  The Chiefs got smoked at home, and I would say that it was just about as embarrassing for them as the 59-14 game was for the Broncos last season.  You never want to get blown out at home, especially against a team that nobody thinks is very good.  I don’t want to pat myself on the back too violently, because I missed on some other games, but I was all over this one.  I think the Chiefs are going to fall off significantly this year, because they were a fluky 10-6 last year, and because the loss of starting TE Tony Moeaki is enormous.  Now having lost Eric Berry, the Chiefs are suddenly not a very talented team.

j.  Buffalo looked better than expected, obviously, and it was mainly because they were able to protect Ryan Fitzpatrick.  It gets lost in the discussion of Franchise QBs, but there is such a thing as a good starting QB, and Fitzpatrick has proven to be one of them.  He’s smart, athletic, accurate, and he throws it more than well enough.  He was just underdrafted, because he’s a little short and he came out of Harvard, so he’s had to take the back stairs.  In terms of pure skill set, I think that Fitzpatrick is comparable to Drew Brees.  Chan Gailey’s scheme is really good, too, and they actually do have a couple of weapons in Stevie Johnson, Fred Jackson, and C.J. Spiller.  It’s just all about how the O-line plays for the Bills.  After looking terrible against Denver a few weeks ago, they were much better on Sunday.

k.  The Patriots make such outstanding use of Tight Ends, and it's so interesting because for years they ignored them in the passing game.  Rob Gronkowksi and Aaron Hernandez are both excellent players, of course, and they're very complementary.  Gronkowksi is big and strong and moves suprisingly well.  Hernandez is shorter than an average TE, but he runs like a WR, and after the catch he runs like an elite WR.  This is a case of the Patriots finding some really good talent at bargain prices in the second and fourth rounds of the 2010 Draft, respectively, and then employing that talent to help advance the cause of winning every game.

l.  I was really impressed with the play of CB Chris Cook for the Vikings.  He is a big CB who was drafted at the end of the first round in 2010 and was thought at the time to fit the mold of a Cover-2 CB.  Sunday, the Vikings played a lot of man-to-man, and Cook was shutting down Malcom Floyd in press coverage, as the Vikings frequently blitzed Philip Rivers.

m.  Speaking of Rivers, he eventually had a good game, but it came when the Vikings quit getting to him.  I think that a team with two good pass rushers can really bother the San Diego passing game, because neither Marcus McNeill nor Jeromey Clary is special in the least in pass-protection. 

n.  Cam Newton was really impressive, obviously, despite a couple of unsurprising bad decisions.  I saw some Broncos fans thinking that Newton may offer some kind of clue to the way Tim Tebow would look if he were allowed to just cut it loose, but I don’t think that Newton and Tebow are similar at all.  Newton is tall/big, athletic, and has a strong arm.  He’s most similar to guys like Ben Roethlisberger and Josh Freeman.  Tebow is shorter and stockier, and with quicker feet, and not as much arm.  He’s more like Steve McNair, or for the old-timers, Roger Staubach.  It’s easier to envision Newton in a homogenized “pro style” offense, because he is so tall and has the big arm.  This is not to say that one is, or will be, necessarily better than the other, but just to make the point that I think they’re apples and oranges.

o.  I never really give up on players who have skill sets that I like, especially QBs, even when public sentiment turns against them.  For that reason, I was glad to see Alex Smith and Rex Grossman both play well on Sunday.  Smith executed a conservative game plan very efficiently and ran for a TD.  He managed the game, and I don’t mean that in a pejorative way.

Grossman shone with an aggressive game plan and carved up the Giants.  Nine yards per attempt and no interceptions gets it done in the NFL.  He made especially good use of TE Fred Davis inside the numbers, and his only real mistake was a fumble that he lost. 

I think both players can continue to play well and help their respective teams, which have good running games and defenses, be competitive each week.  If only somebody would hire J.P. Losman… (I kid, I kid... Okay, only partially)

3.  Throughout all the games I’ve seen, here are some rookies who I felt played very well on opening weekend, in no particular order:

Player Position Team
Cam Newton QB Carolina
J.J. Watt DE Houston
Randall Cobb WR/KR Green Bay
Nate Solder RT New England
Ras-I Dowling CB New England
Ryan Kerrigan OLB Washington
Akeem Ayers OLB Tennessee
Jason Kelce C Philadelphia
Mike Pouncey C Miami
Da'Quan Bowers DE Tampa Bay
Von Miller LB Denver
Rahim Moore FS Denver

That's all the time I have for today, friends.  Well, no that's not true.  Really, I'm just kind of depressed and don't feel like writing anymore.  I bet I'll snap out of it by Friday, though, and I'll have some strategy notes on the Bengals.  See you then.

1.  I’m not in the arguing business, I’m in the saying what I think business.
2.  I get my information from my eyes.

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You Got Served