Thanks to Ted Bartlett of the Denver Broncos blog It’s All Over, Fat Man! for taking part in this week’s question and answer. I particularly enjoyed this week’s exchange, and hope you like it as well. Don’t forget to visit IAOFM for more coverage of the game from the Bronco perspective, and also check out my answers to his questions.
Total Titans: Sort out for us the Broncos quarterback depth chart. Does Kyle Orton have a future beyond this year after the aborted trade to Miami? If Orton isn’t around next year, or even if he is, whither Tim Tebow?
It’s All Over, Fat Man!: We’re reading between the lines, but I have come to be of the opinion that no QB on the Broncos roster probably has a future with the team after this season. Orton pretty clearly isn’t the answer for anybody, because he struggles massively against the blitz, and he lacks the throwing precision needed to be a high-efficiency player in the scoring area. He also walks into a lot of sacks rather than check the ball down. This doesn’t get a lot of mainstream attention, but I beat the drum a lot that Orton is awful at executing screen plays. His feet get hurried, and he gets off balance, and he tips the throw early, so those plays go nowhere. Good screening teams are getting 80-100 yards a game on those plays sometimes, and the Broncos practically announce that you don’t have to worry much about covering the play when Orton is on the field.
It’s interesting, because Tebow played very well in the 3 games he started last season, and that fact gets lost in all of the hyperbole about him. He averaged 16.28 yards per completion, which would have led the NFL by 3 yards over a full season, and he also rushed for 199 yards and 3 TDs in those 3 games. More than that, though, the Broncos were highly competitive in them, even as they got out to early deficits in each one. Tebow is pretty similar to Vince Young in a broad skill set sense; he throws a really nice deep ball, and always has going back to Florida, and he’s excellent at executing screens. He struggles with the timing and accuracy of the intermediate stuff. If you combined Orton and Tebow, you’d have a hell of a football player. Personally, I believe in Tebow, and I think you can win Super Bowls with a guy who makes plays, and is a high-efficiency guy in the scoring area, but the aesthetes howl about his mechanics, which is a huge red herring.
The team is currently using a lot of “best chance to win right now” verbiage about Orton, and I think it’s meant to sound as noncommittal in a long-term sense as it does. By refusing to play Tebow, I suspect that the team is protecting itself from fallout that’ll surely come when they likely decide to pursue an Andrew Luck or Matt Barkley next season. If the team just keeps leaking the word to the Mike Silvers of the world that Tebow isn’t any good in practice, and they don’t give him a chance to show his fans anything on the field, it makes the switch more feasible in a PR sense. I think John Elway wants to find his own guy that he can claim, and that the organization basically considers Tebow to be a burden that was left behind by Josh McDaniels who is handcuffing them in their ability to maneuver as they’d like to. Brady Quinn is a free agent after this season, and he’s not in the long-term plans of the team, unless he wants to return as a cheap backup.
Total Titans: John Fox’s Carolina Panthers teams at their best were known for a power running game. Is the offensive line good enough to give the Broncos a sustainable run game, and are the Broncos now the zone-blocking team they were in the Shanahan era or transitioning to more power-blocking?
IAOFM: No, this isn’t a power run game team yet. The offensive line has improved a good bit from when the Broncos visited Nashville 51 weeks ago, but it’s still very much a work in progress. This is a very young group, with two second-year players in LG Zane Beadles and C JD Walton, and a rookie RT in Orlando Franklin. I’m a little disappointed to see that Beadles doesn’t seem to have come back any stronger in his second season, and I think he really missed the benefits of an NFL offseason strength program due to the lockout. Walton has been more good than bad in the running game early on, but he could get stronger too, and sometimes he takes a bad angle and doesn’t engage squarely. Franklin is going to be an excellent run-blocker, and is already pretty good. He doesn’t have the greatest feet in pass protection, and I’m sure they’re coaching that up all the time to drive small gains. LT Ryan Clady is off to kind of a meh start this year, but he’s a big-time talent, and if he quits getting called for holding, and Orton quits holding the ball so long, or at least steps up more forcefully from the top of his drops, nobody would have much to hit Clady on. RG Chris Kuper isn’t a great fit for some of the angle-blocking stuff he’s being asked to do, and really hasn’t played that well this season. Running game-wise, Clady, Beadles, Walton, and Kuper are all ideal zone-scheme guys, and Franklin is kind of scheme-indifferent. The team is using a mix of zone-blocking and angle-blocking, as they did while Josh McDaniels was the Head Coach.
The Broncos ran the ball poorly against Oakland, and pretty well against Cincinnati. I tend to think that Tennessee’s defensive line is on a similar level as Cincinnati’s (which is to say above-average) as a run-stopping unit, so it will be interesting to see how it goes. I expect it to at least be better than 51 weeks ago, when the Broncos had Beadles out at RT (where he struggled mightily), and the immortal Stanley Daniels at LG.
Total Titans: How is the transition back to a 4-3 defense proceeding, in terms of both personnel and player familiarity with the scheme?
IAOFM: You know, the Broncos never really transitioned all that well to the 30-front stuff they were doing, and they were largely trying to make it work with guys who weren’t great scheme fits. You can take a one-gap DT, and ask him to 2-gap at DE, and he might do a passable job, but it’s not really where his skill set lies. The Broncos never found real 3-4 LBs or DEs, so it’s almost like they’ve now canceled an experiment, and said, “OK, you guys have played in both base fronts, and now you can go back to playing the one that you’re all naturally better at.”
The starting OLBs in the old scheme were Robert Ayers and Elvis Dumervil, and they’re both natural 40-front ends. Ayers gets criticized for not sacking the QB, but he’s outstanding in the running game, and he really does a good job of playing with power and maintaining his gap responsibility. He also gets a fair amount of pressure on QBs for not being a fast-twitch guy, and for usually having contain-first responsibilities. Dumervil is an elite pass rusher, by which, I mean that he’s a man who can go out there and whip a man, with a really unique blend of leverage, quickness, and technique. Even as an OLB, he wasn’t a blitzer, who was running free because of the scheme; he was a pass-rusher.
The starting DTs are Brodrick Bunkley and Kevin Vickerson. Bunkley has been a nice pickup as a NT, and he’s held up very well. Vickerson is a little hit or miss, but he tries hard. The team would probably prefer to start Marcus Thomas, and bring Big Vick in as a rotation guy, but Thomas has been hurt since the preseason. The LBs are all natural 40-front run-and-hit type guys, except for Von Miller who would be outstanding in any front.
As for scheme familiarity, the Broncos are keeping their base stuff pretty simple. They’re typically using 8 man gap contain schemes, with Brian Dawkins as the 8th man, and they’re playing a lot of man-to-man, as they have the last couple years. When they do blitz, that is starting to get more complex, and they’re often showing blitz, and forcing teams to commit to max protection, and then dropping 8 men into zone to cover 3 guys. That’s been very effective in spots. I would say that everybody understands what’s going on defensively, and has been playing fast. The failings that the Broncos sometimes have on defense are failings of talent, not of scheme, or understanding of the scheme. I consider that to be a good sign in the early stages of a rebuilding process.
Total Titans: Most people thought Von Miller physically was a more natural fit as a 3-4 outside linebacker. How are the Broncos using him, and how has he played thus far?
IAOFM: Most of this nonsense was coming from Draftniks and other talking heads who don’t understand that there’s no monolithic “4-3 scheme” or “3-4 scheme.” This is one of my favorite drums to beat on IAOFM, but 4-3 is a personnel grouping, and not a scheme in and of itself. The stuff that you do with that personnel grouping ends up comprising the scheme, and it varies widely from team to team. Regardless of what grouping you prefer, if you have a great player, you’re going to try to maximize the impact and effectiveness of that player.
I think the Broncos saw Miller as a Derrick Thomas type of talent, a once in a decade guy, and I do too. The guy is an all-downs, all-phases terror, and just to think of him as a pass rusher doesn’t do him justice. A lot of his best work so far has been getting underneath a Tackle, and playing with power to set the edge. That doesn’t show up in the stat sheet, but Miller has been instrumental in stopping several short yardage plays, and he’s been outstanding all around in the running game. He also looks smooth in both zone and man coverage, in the limited opportunities he’s had in those areas.
As a pass rusher, Miller looks like he was shot out of a cannon. There isn’t one RT in the NFL who can handle him one-on-one on the speed rush. Miller has outstanding balance to go with his speed and quickness, and the way that he can get a quick step, and then dip-and-rip and bend back to the launch point (even a 3-step launch point) really does evoke memories of Derrick Thomas. With Dumervil on the other side, you’re going to have protection issues, and the Broncos can really dictate to teams on 3rd and long, because they’re going to have to max-protect a lot against 4 and 5 man rushes. Dumervil was out against Cincinnati, but the Raiders basically refused to drop back and throw the ball straight-up against the Broncos. They were all run and play-action, and they basically played conservatively on 3rd and long, because they didn’t want to have to account for Miller and Dumervil.
As for Miller’s deployment, this is where it gets interesting, and the egg is really on the face of the Mel Kipers of the world. The Broncos have a base look where Miller is just a normal Sam, 5 yards off the line on the TE side. They have what is essentially a 5-2 look where Miller is a standup 7-technique DE. It looks a lot like what you’d see in a 3-4 alignment, from a spacing standpoint, and it’s been very effective against the run. Finally, against sub packages, Miller usually moves to Left DE, and Ayers kicks inside. A DT comes off the field, and is replaced by the third CB. Usually, when teams go nickel, a LB comes out, but not for the Broncos, so you can see how fast that would make their nickel group. The line of Miller, Ayers, Bunkley, (but probably eventually Thomas when he’s healthy), and Dumervil is really going to hit some QBs, and allow the Broncos to drop 7 guys into coverage a lot.
Miller is already the best all-around player on the Broncos defense, and if I were an offensive coordinator, the first thing I’d have my QB looking at is where Miller is on every play. If there is a run called to where he is, I might want to check to the other side. If he looks like he’s rushing, I might want to slide the protection. The guy is going to be a monster for a long time, and the way that he’s being used is going to make him much more of an impact player than if he was just lining up in the same place, and rushing the passer all the time.
Total Titans: Last year’s game featured some chippiness, with Kyle Orton declaring Cortland Finnegan a dirty player. Is that going to be part of John Fox’s motivational speech for Sunday, or is that just part of the gone and not really lamented Josh McDaniels Error?
IAOFM: You know, the Broncos are downplaying all of that, and I think it’s the right move. We know that the Titans are going to try to physically intimidate the Broncos, who’ve had kind of a soft and technocratic character for the last 15 years, which reflected the personalities of Mike Shanahan and Josh McDaniels, who are both trying to outsmart other teams more than out-hit them. John Fox is no technocrat, and I like that the Broncos are taking on a more physical character. They lack the personnel to really carry it off very well yet, but I like the effort and the attitude.
I think that the Broncos will be very aware of the Titans MO, and that poise will be preached all week. You don’t want to get drawn into taking stupid personal foul penalties, and more than motivation, I think that Fox will be reminding the Broncos to be physical, but to be cool about it.
Total Titans: Finally, if you’d like to make a score prediction, please go ahead.
IAOFM: Both teams have some warts, but I think the Titans are a bit better than the Broncos from 1-53 right now, and especially since they’re playing at home, I’ll take Tennessee 20-14. Their key will be staying on schedule with the running and play-action game, because I don’t think that they want Matt Hasselbeck having to drop back too much in obvious passing situations against Dumervil and Miller. I think the Titans are going to hit Kyle Orton a lot, and that he’ll struggle to attack their zone coverage.