You Got Served - Losing respectably

Happy Rebuilding Tuesday, friends.  Since I got my mind right last week and remembered what was really going on, I found myself significantly less upset about Sunday’s game than I’ve historically been about Broncos losses.  I also decided that I think Foxball is a great way to rebuild, because as TJ pointed out Sunday, it makes it hard to get blown out of games.  As much as I can be a pretty good sport about losing 17-14 on the road when I expected practically that exact result, it remains to be seen how I do with something like the 43-13 stinkbomb against Arizona last season.

In any case, this might be the busiest week that I have all season, because it’s my month-end close, I have a test in my MBA class on Thursday night, and I’m heading out with my girlfriend for a weekend in Key West on Friday morning.  I was a crew member of the original USS Spruance (DD-963), which was the lead ship of the Spruance class, and as such I was invited to attend the commissioning of the second USS Spruance (DDG-111), the 61st ship of the Arleigh Burke class, which will take place on Saturday evening.  I’m going to do the best  I can today and Friday, and I’ll be watching the game on my iPad on Sunday but no other games, because you know, it’s Key West.  Anyway, it’s down to football as time allows.  Ready…BEGIN!!

1.  I got out of work later than I would have liked Monday because it was Day 1 of my close, so I didn’t get a chance to watch as much game video as I would have liked on Monday evening.  I usually rush home and watch 4-5 games and then listen to/watch the Monday Night game as I write this column.  Monday night, I only got to watch the Broncos game.  Here are some observations:

a.  One thing that really jumped out at me in general in this game is that the pass protection was really pretty good by the Broncos.  In fact, I’d say it was about the best that I’ve seen in as long as I can readily remember.  All five players showed well, and the only sack that was allowed was on a bad decision by Kyle Orton to keep running toward the sideline in the Broncos’ last possession rather than turn it upfield and get a few yards.  There was minor pressure here and there, but I’m very encouraged by the line’s performance against an above-average D-line.

b.  I thought that during the couple of parts of the game where Orton hit a few throws out of run personnel, the running game opened up a bit.  This shouldn’t be surprising, and it should be taken as reinforcement of a basic football concept.  Defenses are stressed when they have to account for multiple options.  The pass can set up the run, or the run can set up the pass, but in the modern era usually the threat of the pass opens up the run.  In any game, though, it’s imperative for an offense to determine which offers the best chance for sustained success and to use that approach to open up the other.

c.  I was fairly complimentary of Mr. Orton at times during our IAOFM game chat, which turned into yesterday’s Chewing the Fat.  After re-watching the game, I think I overcredited him for checking down a few times and throwing two scoring-area TDs, the one to Willis McGahee being a really good throw.  He had an excellent downfield throw to Daniel Fells, too.  Those were good things that I’m not used to seeing, but for the majority of the game I think Orton missed a number of opportunities where he was well-protected, and he threw a lot of passes inaccurately.  I suppose that it is what it is with Orton, who is playing like he wants to spend the rest of his career after 2011 as a Jon Kitna-type of semi-trusted professional backup.  There are worse things than getting paid $3-4 million per year to chill on the sideline in a baseball hat, right?

d.  Not to pile on, but I got a little verklempt on Sunday when Steve Tasker pointed out that Orton was tipping his screens, and that the Titans were all over them because Kyle’s backpedal looks different lately on screens than it does on any other pass play.  He backs straight up with his shoulders parallel to the line of scrimmage, when on any other pass play, he uses proper technique, with his front shoulder facing the line of scrimmage, and his back shoulder facing the end zone behind him.  Tasker pointed out that the Titans were keying specifically on that weird style of dropback, and that was why the two screens got stuffed. 

I actually suspect that the Broncos have been coaching Orton to drop back that way on his screens, because it’s a pretty recent development.  If the thought is that it keeps his balance better and makes him hurry less, that’s true; unfortunately though, it completely tips the play.  Here I was thinking that I’m the only guy who saw that Orton struggles mightily with the screen game.

e.  I haven’t seen a real attempt at a deep ball by the Broncos in the last two games, and they really need to start trying to stretch out defenses.  I know that the deep throw is not really Orton’s strong suit, and that the receiving corps isn’t the fastest right now, but taking the top off the defense has benefits that trickle through to all areas of the offense.  Hopefully when Demaryius Thomas gets back this is a contribution that he can make, and if Tim Tebow ever gets to play, his excellent skill at throwing the deep ball would help too.

f.  I was really happy with the run defense for the third week in a row.  (Yes, I even thought it was solid against Oakland.)  I was talking to my brother Sunday night, and we talked about how much better your run defense gets when you go from having one front-7 player who’s above-average against the run (Robert Ayers) to having four of them (Ayers, Brodrick Bunkley, Joe Mays and Von Miller).  Throw in solid play against the run by guys like Wesley Woodyard and Jason Hunter and inspired play from Brian Dawkins, and you’re cooking with gas.

g.  Overall, this is looking like what we’ve been wanting for years: a league-average defense.  I think it’s going to improve as some guys get healthy, too.  Von Miller is already the best all-around 4-3 OLB in the NFL, and he’s barely scratching the surface of what he’s going to be.  I could not be more impressed with how well Miller plays the run, and he continues to be unblockable one-on-one by a RT as a pass rusher.

h.  Somebody asked yesterday about why we’ve been giving some love to Rahim Moore, and I wanted to take a moment to discuss his play as a rookie.  First thing, he’s a rookie, and he’s being asked to usually be a single-high safety.  The Broncos have given up two pass plays for over 50 yards this season, and both came when Moore wasn’t in the deep area where it was hit.  The 84-yard Jerome Simpson play from Week 2 happened when Moore was all the way outside the opposite hashmark in Cover-2.  When Craig Stevens caught his 58-yarder on Sunday it was the same story, and Cassius Vaughn was actually the deep safety who gave up the play.

What I like about Moore is that he sees plays quickly, and that he has the range to get to where the ball is.  On the Kenny Britt injury/fumble Sunday, Moore had that thing diagnosed really quickly, and just by getting to the tackle point, he made the play.  He had a similarly big-time play against Cincinnati that stopped Brian Leonard a yard short of a first down and forced a Field Goal.  Neither of these plays were right in front of Moore where it was his responsibility, but he got to the spot and made big plays.

Having a Free Safety with elite range and really impressive recognition skills for a young rookie is a great thing.  Eventually, he’s going to recognize plays even better, and he’ll be making interceptions instead of tackles.  I’ve been a Broncos fan since 1987, and they’ve never had a guy like this in those 24 years, so seeing him make his plays excites me.  And still, even if Moore just has a quiet and steady game where nobody got behind him for a big play, there’s a lot of value in that too.

i.  Cassius Vaughn didn’t have a very good game, but I’m not really down on him.  You can tell that he has all of the physical ability that a CB needs, and that he just needs to improve some on his technique.  Broncos secondary coach Ron Milus is very highly regarded, and if you remember when I said that player development is king, this is the sort of thing I am talking about.  Good teams grow key contributors from low draft picks and undrafted players.

j.  One thing I’ll credit the Broncos for, and presumably the coaching staff, has been their improvement in not taking as many stupid penalties as last year.  To be clear, I don’t think that holding or pass interference are stupid penalties.  Those are penalties that usually happen where somebody beat your player, and they indicate a lack of talent or skill more than a lack of awareness or discipline.  Talent and skill are a work in progress, but we can demand awareness and discipline right now.  We’re not seeing many illegal formation penalties, defenders lining up in the neutral zone, or false starts, and these things have been a huge problem the last couple years.

2.  Here are some other observations from the limited slate of games that I got to see.  (As always, I only comment on football that I saw with my own eyes.)

a.  “Pro Bowler” Devin McCourty is really struggling for the Patriots this year.  It seems like every time I look at him, he’s getting beat for a big play.  I don’t know if he’s hurt or has just regressed, but it’s been an issue.  Really, he didn’t deserve to make the Pro Bowl last year anyway, and he just did on the strength of making some picks and playing for a high profile team.  On another interesting Patriots secondary note, old friend Josh Barrett has started all three games and has looked pretty competent.

b.  The most surprising thing about the Bills isn’t the play of all of the various low-drafted/undrafted skill-position guys, it’s the play of the offensive line.  After looking so pathetic against the Broncos in the preseason and for most of the last few years, they’ve really stepped it up - especially LT Demetrius Bell and LG Andy Levitre.  If that group keeps playing this well, it’s going to go a long way toward landing Buffalo in the playoffs this year.  They’ve been better than the Jets so far this season and they beat the Patriots straight-up, so it’s not absurd to think that that could happen.

c.  Second-guessing watch: Marcell Dareus has been pretty solid so far, but nowhere near as good as Von Miller.  I continue to feel confident that the Broncos made the right call.

d.  I caught parts of the Tampa-Atlanta game, and the young Defensive Line of the Bucs is really starting to get it in gear.  DT Brian Price has been a beast two weeks in a row now, and I was really impressed with the play of both DT Gerald McCoy and DE Adrian Clayborn on Sunday.  Both really got after Matt Ryan and helped the Bucs to a really important early division win.

e.  The Falcons Offensive Line, conversely, had an atrocious game.  After getting annihilated by Trent Cole last week, LT Sam Baker merely kept it at the level of “defeated soundly” by Clayborn.  Baker was a first-rounder, but he’d make a really excellent swing Tackle off the bench.  RT Tyson Clabo just got paid a bunch of money, and he’s off to a pretty bad start this season, himself.  The Falcons need to clean this up, or they’re going to be very disappointing this season.

f.  The Lions are three-quarters of a really good football team, but they have a major weakness in pass protection.  Nobody could fault the Lions for taking the best player available in Nick Fairley this April, but they did so at the risk of leaving Matthew Stafford vulnerable.  LT Jeff Backus is a long-time solid starter, but he has always struggled with elite pass rushers, and Jared Allen ate his lunch for him on Sunday with three sacks.  Stafford hadn’t been sacked at all in the first two games, but the Vikings got him five times in total.

As we know, an elite QB can mitigate iffy protection, and the extent to which Stafford is able to do so will go far in determining how well these Lions are able to compete at an elite level throughout the year.  For the future, the Lions need to find a better answer at LT and move Backus inside or to RT.  That would improve two positions, and it would go a long way toward setting them up as a perennial Super Bowl contender.

g.  The Giants sure seem to have hit with DE Jason Pierre-Paul, who was dominant at times against the Eagles' overrated LT Jason Peters.  Pierre-Paul had two sacks on Sunday and now has five in three games.  The Giants are moving Pierre-Paul around a lot, which is something you can do when you have a bunch of quality players up front.  As much as they’re ravaged by injuries, I wouldn’t count that team out as a darkhorse playoff team, because they can really hit QBs, and Eli Manning makes enough plays to win.

h.  There seems to be a widespread notion that the Colts aren’t going to win a game this year, but I think that that’s way off base.  They looked pretty good Sunday night, especially on defense.  Whether it be from Kerry Collins or Curtis Painter, I think that the Colts are going to get competent enough QB play to win five or six games this year.  They really seemed to get their legs under them against Pittsburgh, and I thought they outplayed the Steelers for most of the game.  Rushing for 97 yards on 21 carries against that Steelers defense is really laudable, and they held Pittsburgh to 28 carries for 67 yards.

i.  Pittsburgh is in really big trouble on their Offensive Line.  I’ve been saying that for years, and they’ve made Super Bowls despite the fact that I’ve been right, but this time I really, really mean it.  The Steelers aren’t good enough up front, and they’re going to get exposed (again) by a better team than the Colts one of these weeks.

j.  I watched a pretty good bit of the Washington-Dallas Monday Night game while I wrote the bulk of this article, and the Redskins lost that game because their OTs didn’t do a good enough job blocking the OLBs of the Cowboys.  LT Trent Williams showed some encouraging signs here and there, but he gave up quite a bit of pressure and RT Jammal Brown gave up three sacks, including the key play where Rex Grossman fumbled with about 30 seconds left.  There was really nowhere to go with the ball because the coverage was good, but Brown has to get at least some engagement with Anthony Spencer on such a key play.

That's all the time I have for today, friends.  I'll have a Digesting piece on the Packers that'll post on Friday while I'm on my way to Florida.  Have a great Tuesday.

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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