Thursday, October 01, 2009

Analyze The Enemy - Denver Broncos

broncosTHURSDAYS: We catch you up on this week’s opponent with an overall portrait of their team. This is not breaking down this week’s match-up, because that happens on Friday. This is just to set the table in preparation for laying out the gameplan.

Seven teams are undefeated in the National Football League through 3 games. Most of the 7 have major expectations this year for the playoffs and possibly the Super Bowl. The Saints, Giants, Vikings, Ravens, and Colts are thought to be amongst the best teams in the league. The final two teams are quite a surprise to the football world. The New York Jets - who offer a new coach and a rookie QB, and the unlikely story of this week's opponent, the Denver Broncos.

Having watched the last two Denver games (at home vs. Cleveland; Away at Oakland) you certainly are impressed with a few aspects of this Broncos team. But overall, you are left wondering if their 3-0 start is more just a product of how their schedule is stacked.

Denver's First 8 Games:

At Bengals W
Browns W
At Raiders W
At Chargers
At Ravens

You can see there that if they are sitting at 6-2 after 8, we will know they are the real deal. But, so far, this might be the equivalent of the Longhorns starting with North Texas and Tulsa. Let's wait to see what happens before we order our playoff tickets. The 2nd half of their schedule also includes some very stiff games, With the Chargers and Giants visiting Denver, and the Broncos heading to the Colts, Eagles, and even a trip to Washington. Let's wait before we jump to conclusions on their quality.

Here is the Broncos Depth Chart where especially on the defensive front 7, you will find one of the more anonymous groups, backed by a secondary that is easily the oldest starting 4 in the league (in fact, the oldest secondary this decade - according to the Football Outsiders).

The NFP Blue Rankings show that Michael Lombardi ranks their talent as the 29th best in football. According to him, only the Lions, Chiefs, and Rams have less. Although, his decision not to rate Brandon Marshall as blue-chip was made right in the middle of Marshall's suspension, so I don't believe it is a rating that Lombardi would support as much on the first day of October:

ALMOST BLUE: WR, Royal; CB, Bailey.

I emailed Michael this morning, and he assured me that Brandon is definitely blue chip now that he is back on the field.

Also, if Elvis Dumervil is not on his list, he perhaps should be. Dumervil has 6 sacks already this season and has 32 in 34 career starts, so he can get around a Right Tackle on you. And dominated the Raiders and the Browns in passing situations.

Meanwhile, the guy that is perhaps the very best at his position is 2nd year tackle, Ryan Clady. Clady is a dominant left tackle who is very, very good. This will be a tough day for DeMarcus Ware to get to the QB, because Clady has allowed 0.5 sacks as a pro. He doesn't get beat.

And, he is so good, that the Sporting News has already ranked him as the #1 tackle in football ...
1. Ryan Clady, Broncos. An extremely athletic left tackle who gave up just 1 1/2 sacks (EDIT: This is incorrect. All stats and other sources say 0.5 sacks) as a rookie last year, he has great feet and the ability to run block at the second level and mirror ends in pass protection.

2. Walter Jones, Seahawks. He's still a premier player who doesn't need help against any pass rusher. Age and injury will put him on the descent in the next few years, but he's still a top technician for now.

3. Jason Peters, Eagles. Peters got some bad advice on his contract issues last year in Buffalo. As a result, he missed a lot of practice time and it showed in his play. Now that he has a long-term deal in Philly, all that is behind him and he can focus on returning to the form that made him one of the top young linemen in the league.

The NFL Network discusses him on draft day of 2008, where he became the steal of the draft at #12, 11 picks and millions less than Jake Long, who Miami and Bill Parcells took at #1.

And, while we are at it, Here is Richard Seymour pulling his hair last week . Those trenches are a dirty place.

With Clady, the Broncos have a very secure OL, that has given Kyle Orton plenty of time to pass in the first several games. Orton has been sacked only 3 times in 88 passes (Romo 3 times in 89 passes), meaning only 5 teams allow fewer sacks in the entire league (NYG, NE, TB, IND, ATL), and of those teams only NE passes first.

But, Injuries could play a role on the OL this weekend .
The Broncos offensive line has protected quarterback Kyle Orton — he has not been sacked in the last two games — well and helped the Broncos top 200 yards rushing in Oakland.

But in Wednesday’s practice right tackle Ryan Harris (right shoulder) and left guard Ben Hamilton (hamstring) were not in uniform. Tyler Polumbus worked in Harris’ spot while Russ Hochstein took some plays in Hamilton’s spot.

Harris and Hamilton left Sunday’s game in Oakland with their injuries and did not return.

Rookie cornerback Alphonso Smith, who has played as the nickel corner thus far, also missed practice with a right ankle injury. Smith was limping badly after Sunday’s game. Jack Williams has worked in the nickel.

Orton has some very qualified targets, with Brandon Marshall, Brandon Stokley, Eddie Royal, and Jabar Gaffney as his Wide Outs, Daniel Graham, Tony Scheffler as TEs, and Correll Buckhalter as a very capable receiver from RB. Lots of weapons who can hurt you as their new coach Josh McDaniels attempts to replicate his 2007 New England spread-you-out offense. Stokely, when healthy, appears to be his Wes Welker slot drag route guy, and of course Marshall is your Randy Moss horse.

Marshall, of course, put on a show in training camp to get traded like Jay Cutler before him. But, this time, the Broncos just did what they should have done to Cutler. Ignore his petulance, and eventually, he will want to go on with his life. I know that is much more difficult with a QB, but I still think the Broncos set a horrible precedent by letting Cutler whine his way out of Denver.

In case you slept through it, here is Marshall's routine at camp:

But, despite being a true knucklehead, nobody has been used more by their offense since the start of the 2007 season than Brandon:

Brandon Marshall - DEN371218
Larry Fitzgerald - ARZ349213
TJ Houshmandzadeh - CIN/SEA333218
Tony Gonzalez KC/ATL327208
Randy Moss - NE324193

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USA TODAY suggests Brandon is playing nice so far ...By the way, why are all of the psychos in football Wide Receivers?
The player who had arguably the most controversial preseason, Broncos wideout Brandon Marshall, scored his first TD of the season on Sunday. And Marshall, suspended in the preseason for conduct detrimental to the team, may have finally returned to a spot where he can contribute and helpt the surprising Broncos thrive.

"I don't know where I ever went," Marshall told theDenver Post on Sunday when asked about his performance. "I'm excited how we started and just looking forward to Dallas this week."

The Broncos' win in Oakland made them 3-0, with the Cowboys coming to town on Sunday. Marshall, a Pro Bowler for the first time last season and coming off back-to-back 100-catch seasons, now has 12 catches for 128 yards and a score this season.

Marshall asked to be traded in June, and then threw a temper tantrum at an August practice as it became clear the Broncos did not intend to move him. After serving a 10-day suspension, Marshall returned to the team and said he picked up a key lesson from agitating against his team.

"I've learned from trying to fight the system," he told the Post.

There have been rumblings that the Broncos and Marshall might even be open to discussing a new contract.

But, the Broncos are the Broncos, so until we see otherwise we should assume that they are going to try to run the ball plenty. Last week, they almost didn't even have to throw the ball as Buckhalter and Moreno (although Knowshon is hurt a bit right now) had a productive time along with some generous Raiders turnovers.

Defensively, we have to wonder how good the Broncos really are. They were one of the absolute worst defenses in the league last year. Horrid. Now, They have given up passer ratings of 61.0 to Carson Palmer, 58.7 to Brady Quinn, and 22.6 to JaMarcus Russell. But, is that the Broncos or the passer?

They are coordinated by former 49ers coach Mike Nolan, who tried to bring the Suit and Tie back to the NFL sidelines, so I always appreciate that contribution. He is a big 3-4 guy, so they are trying to figure out how to get their talent to fit his scheme. Dumervil is now an OLB, and their front 3 are awfully non-descript. The two playmakers in a 3-4 are usually the MLBs, and Andra Davis and DJ Williams are reasonable in that role.

The name that has gained my total respect over the years is the great Brian Dawkins. The long time safety and Cowboys-killer for the Eagles was pretty much taken to the curb by Andy Reid, and now is in Denver making their defense look organized. He still runs around and blows stuff up, and is so good in the blitz. Has he lost a step? Sure. But, I still think the Cowboys should have brought him in to fix what ails this Cowboys secondary, and I fear him greatly for knowing what makes Romo fail. We shall see, but just for his brain power alone, I think that is a great pick-up.

Here is a feature on the rebuilt Denver secondary :
Josh McDaniels' decision to blow up the Denver Broncos' porous secondary and rebuild it through an influx of free agents has benefited the team through tighter coverage and a tightening bond among its defensive backs.

The first-year Broncos coach brought in safeties Brian Dawkins and Renaldo Hill, along with cornerback Andre Goodman, leaving eight-time Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey, who was injured much of last season, as the lone holdover.

The foursome has a combined 42 years of NFL experience playing for 11 different teams but the group has come together to be at the center of Denver's defensive turnaround in the opening weeks of the season.

Dawkins, who became one of the league's premier safeties during his first 13 seasons, all in Philadelphia, said the communication among the secondary, from practice to adjustments made in the heat of a game have been central to the unit's budding chemistry and solidified play.

"The communication back there is some of the best that I have been a part of," Dawkins said. "The way that we talk in the back end makes the game that much easier. Each one of us, we each study film and we may pick up different things throughout the course of a week. If one of us sees something, we let everybody else know and correct things on the sideline.

"That is one of the things that people don't realize. They say that we are a veteran group, but we are a veteran group with talent. All of us can play ball. It is exciting to be able to line up and look to the left and right of me and see the playmaking potential we have back there."

McDaniels said the foursome's level of experience and the players' willingness to engage one another and embrace the challenge of coming together to forge a viable secondary convinced him early on that the radical makeover carried low risks and the potential for major rewards.

Here is a great column comparing Marshall and Dumervil ...
They are twin sons of different destinies, rich 25-year-old athletes who share a locker room, a football history and ambition.

Denver linebacker Elvis Dumervil is putting a hurt on the NFL. The game has become a pain for teammate Brandon Marshall.

We should not be surprised.

Dr. Doom and B-Marsh are close friends headed in opposite directions, one rocketing toward stardom, the other stuck in a downward spiral.

In the Not For Long, the only constant is change.

Dumervil adapted and thrived.

Marshall pouted and withered.

So fans at the stadium now stand and shower new nicknames of affection on Dumervil as he sacks the quarterback, while those same Broncomaniacs scream at the team bench, "Hey, Brandon, wake up!" and call Marshall words not fit for print in a family newspaper.

"All I can do is my job. Me being out there, not being out there as much as I used to be, is something I have to get used to, but it's the National Football League. Things change," Marshall said Wednesday. He made 104 receptions and the Pro Bowl a year ago, but has caught little but grief, and made himself nonessential to a 2-0 team this season.

Then Marshall said something that better be the 100 percent truth, if he ever wants a raise from a $2.2 million salary that has caused him angst: "I've learned from trying to fight the system."

Know who is the most underpaid Bronco? It is the man who can often be seen sitting alongside Marshall during the lunch hour in the dressing room: Dumervil.

B-Marsh and Dr. Doom both entered the league in 2006, taken seven selections apart in the fourth round by the Broncos.

Dumervil plays with a chip on the shoulder that seems naturally attached to a 5-foot-11 man who has long heard he was too small to be a big hit in football.

Although the talent of Marshall towers above a league in which he has few peers, his personality swings between sweet charmer and petulant malcontent, a guy never quite comfortable in his own skin and reluctant to trust anyone.

So is there any wonder their destinies have taken decidedly different routes?

After three years in the NFL that saw Dumervil establish himself as clearly the most reliable pass-rusher on a defense frighteningly short of playmakers, the former defensive end entered this season underpaid at $530,000 and dealing with the challenges of adapting to a new coach, a new system and, most daunting, a new position he had never played a minute in his life.

If anybody on the Broncos had the right to be ticked, it was Dumervil. So don't come whining to me about the team not showing Marshall the proper respect. Change is hard for us all.

Instead of showing up for practice in his pajamas, Dr. Doom laced his cleats a little tighter and dug in for the challenge.

"It has been tough, man," Dumervil said after recording four sacks against Cleveland. He admitted to times of self-doubt about making the transition to linebacker.

But here's the thing: Dumervil trusted the coaching staff to help him. More important, he believed in his ability to evolve.

Interesting read. But the only question we care about is "How good are the Broncos"? One writer Tackles that topic here as we close this :
Before the season started, there were plenty of people predicting a down year for the Denver Broncos.

Now that the Broncos are off to a 3-0 start, there’s talk that they still haven’t beaten anyone. The three teams they have beat — Cincinnati, Cleveland and Oakland — won a combined 13 games last season.

As far as the Broncos are concerned, however, 3-0 is 3-0, no matter who those wins come against.

“When people say we haven’t played anybody, that kind of makes me laugh, because every team in this league is good,” receiver Brandon Stokley said. “If you don’t prepare yourself and you don’t come out ready to play, you’ll lose.”

Safety Brian Dawkins said the Broncos don’t care what outsiders think.

“The only thing that matters is what’s coming out of the locker room,” he said. “As long as we believe in one another, we believe in the scheme that we’re playing and we’re disciplined and accountable to one another, it matters not what’s outside of this locker room.”

The Broncos figure to get their toughest test yet on Sunday when they host the Dallas Cowboys (2-1) at Invesco Field at Mile High. They view this game not as a chance to prove themselves, but as a chance to get better.

“We have not accomplished one thing yet,” head coach Josh McDaniels said. “We’ve won three games and that’s it.”

Tomorrow, we put together a game plan.

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