Bowl season begins with the unheralded and unranked, but features several tight pre-Christmas matchups.
01 Nov 2010
by Bill Barnwell
Before the season, it might have made sense to put the 49ers and Broncos on display for a potential future market. The Niners were a consensus playoff pick, and the Broncos were a competitive team in 2009 that had a built-in London fanbase from years of John Elway games.
Unfortunately for those teams, the fans in attendance, and the NFL, this year's International Game mirrored the performance of the Broncos and Niners before the game: Dire and disappointing. Before a fourth quarter marked by big mistakes livened things up, the teams traded punts and served as a wonderful advertisement for the merits of rugby and soccer.
Even before the game actually kicked off, it was difficult to find signs of interest around the city. In the three days before the game, I saw a grand total of three pieces of NFL attire being worn by people around London. And two of those were jerseys being worn as Halloween costumes. While there were plenty of fans in jerseys on the Tube ride to the station -- I counted jerseys from about 15 different teams, including a J.T. O'Sullivan jersey on the girl/O'Sullivan family member sitting next to me -- we were met at the station by a wall of ticket touts desperately offering up what appeared to be face value tickets, an hour before gametime.
During the game, the heavily pro-49ers crowd had their interest steadily drained out of them. Although the majority clearly had a good idea of the game and knew when to be excited, fans were still told to "WAVE YOUR FLAGS" for atmosphere on kickoffs. Some booed an announcement that a measurement would be taken, which I took as a protest on behalf of the metric system. During the third quarter, the stadium got a rather impressive Mexican wave going; they really could not have been much more bored. There was no Olympics Closing Ceremony-style talk during or after about how this had been the best International game yet; when they announced an attendance in excess of 82,000, the league merely thanked the fans for their "patronage", while NFL UK Managing Director Alistair Kirkwood described the first half of the game as "dull". He was not alone.
For me, the experience was my first time in an NFL press box, and I was really intrigued to see what I'd pick up on that otherwise wouldn't be apparent from television. The two things that really stood out had to do with the passing game: I got a much better idea of how effective receivers were at running routes, and I went from having no idea of what the safeties were doing to gaining somewhat of a clue. While reading basic coverage concepts wasn't too difficult -- it was easy to see the Broncos play a lot of Cover-1 -- understanding the interplay of different defenders and the responsibility of each player in the secondary was close to impossible.
There are some specific things that stood out to me -- some were probably apparent from television coverage, while others were made clearer by being able to see all 22 players. In no particular order:
Taylor Mays is not yet good. The Broncos repeatedly used Mays as a target, and it resulted in several big plays. They ran several dig routes in front of Mays to pick up completions to Jabar Gaffney and Brandon Lloyd for first downs. They actually threw for a touchdown on a flea flicker where Mays got caught between two minds, but it was called back for a chop block on Knowshon Moreno. (Several members of the press box were confused as to what a chop block was.) A 70-yard pass to Lloyd came when Orton looked Mays off and created space for Lloyd behind him. On the penultimate drive, Orton hit Lloyd down the sideline for a big gain by pump-faking and freezing Mays.
The most obvious play, though, came when Demaryius Thomas picked up 31 yards on a screen. Thomas broke one tackle, but embarrassing attempts at tackles by Shawntae Spencer and Mays extended the play. Spencer ended up saving the game with an interception on the final drive, which was a surprise because...
Will James is still not good. The 49ers ended up, somehow, with James spending most of the game matched up on the left side of the offense against Lloyd. That would have been a great matchup for the 49ers in, say, 2004; on Sunday, it was a disaster. Lloyd's touchdown catch was a breeze, a fade that saw Lloyd just go right over the execrable James for a touchdown. On the final drive, the Broncos went to Lloyd against James on just about every play before finally going to the other side of the field, resulting in Spencer's interception.
Mike Singletary may be deliberately oblivious. I made sure to attend the Singletary press conference after the game, because I had lots of questions about the second-half turnaround that I was sure other folks were going to ask. One was on the pump-fake pass to Lloyd, which Singletary challenged and lost. Unfortunately, no one asked about it. He blamed two early second half timeouts on radio issues with Troy Smith's helmet, but credited Smith for doing "...a great job of keeping everyone in the huddle calm." Like it was a terrorist threat or something.
Regarding his gameplan, Singletary noted that "...[the Broncos] do a good job passing the ball, but we wanted to take away the run and leave them one-dimensional." Now, you may notice that the Broncos are dead last in the league in rushing DVOA. I understand DVOA isn't really Mike Singletary's thing. But they're last in rushing yards. They're last in rushing yards per carry, at 2.9 per pop before Sunday. Denver ended up running the ball 11 times with Knowshon Moreno for 40 yards, but Kyle Orton averaged better than nine yards per attempt while the 49ers were worrying about the run.
Process is apparently irrelevant with the Niners if there's a good outcome. The game turned on a 38-yard catch by Delanie Walker that was born out of mad desperation; a scrambling Smith tossed up a prayer into double coverage as he was falling down, and Walker subtly (but clearly from our angle in the press box) pushed off on Brian Dawkins to come down with the ball on the Broncos 1.
Singletary, naturally, compared Smith to a very similar sort of player. "It's kinda like watching Brett Favre. I don't want to put [Smith] in the same light", Singletary said. "Sometimes he makes a decision and throws the ball ... I will say 'Be careful' but that's about it."
To his credit, Smith laughed off the Favre comparisons, but his logic in why he made the throw was a little weak. "What we work on is throwing to our guy and away from their guys. If there's a tight hole I can put the ball in, I trust that my guy is going to come down with the ball." Saying there's a tight window on a quick slant is one thing; lofting up a prayer into coverage is no hole.
Players and coaches invent narratives for winning more than most media members. At least, the 49ers' guys did. Singletary, Smith, and Frank Gore each attributed the team's victory to an improvement on offense in the second half, when the Niners scored three touchdowns on three consecutive drives. Smith pulled out a quote about rhythm that blew my mind, saying "The reason why we came out today was to get in a rhythm and be in a rhythm ... You have to be able to keep your head down and stay on an even keel."
Why did the Niners score on three consecutive drives? Look at the drive log. Their first seven drives, which produced a total of three points, came with an average starting position of their own 21-yard line. The three touchdown drives came from their own 44-yard line (good return), Denver's 48-yard line (a terrible 21-yard punt from Britton Colquitt), and Denver's 18-yard line (a strip of a scrambling Kyle Orton by the impressive Manny Lawson). That is unquestionably the most important factor in why they scored, and yet field position never came up once in any of those post-game speeches.
Also: If you're going to be attending a press conference after a game as a member of the media, maybe you shouldn't be wearing a Steve Young jersey. Just saying.
The Broncos are who the stats say they are. They can throw the ball, but they can't run the ball very well, and the defense is in shambles. They ran more 4-3 looks because they're so thin at linebacker, but the defensive line has the same total lack of push that they showed during the second half of last season. It wasn't quite as bad as last week against the Raiders -- and they had a couple of key stops on runs up the gut -- but the Broncos were on skates far too frequently.
While the pass defense was good last season, though, this year's unit looks awful. It was easy to go back over the past few weeks and attribute that to injury fill-ins like Perrish Cox, but the same veteran foursome that the team was built around last year started on Sunday, and they offered little resistance. The biggest target was cornerback Andre' Goodman. A sample play reveals why the pass defense has fallen off so much. On a third down, the Broncos big-blitzed and brought six guys, maybe even seven. The running backs didn't have time to declare whether they were blockers or receivers, though, because Goodman was playing eight yards off the line of scrimmage, and Smith just threw an instant quick slant to Vernon Davis for an easy first down. The Broncos just don't have a pass rush without Elvis Dumervil, and if they blitz to try and alleviate that, the secondary isn't strong enough to hold the fort. Despite playing against a mediocre offensive line and a quarterback that was prone to tucking and shuffling at the slightest hint of danger, the Broncos were unable to sack Smith even once.
Goodman was also responsible for the coverage on Michael Crabtree's 28-yard touchdown catch. After Crabtree ran a nice out in front of Champ Bailey to pick up a first down, Crabtree moved to the other side of the field and just ran a go route by Goodman for a touchdown. Goodman never turned around for the ball from the moment the play started; the first time he saw the ball after the snap was when it fell into Crabtree's hands.
The one bright spot for the Broncos was that Ryan Clady played well. He was probably the only offensive lineman who can walk away saying he had a good game; most of the pass pressure from the 49ers came up the middle, with left guard Russ Hochstein in particular looking overmatched. Zane Beadles continues to start ahead of Ryan Harris at right tackle, with Harris not getting on the field for a single snap. Whether that's related to Harris's ankle injury or not is up in the air, but Beadles was erratic at best as a pass blocker. And at this point, all the Broncos really should concern themselves with is being able to pass the ball.
In the end, it was two bad football teams living up to their records. Most of the breaks went the 49ers' way, and they came up with the two jump balls (Walker's catch and Spencer's interception) that defined the game. For the NFL, it was a dismal presentation for fans that deserved better. If there is an International game next year, I have to imagine that the NFL will send a "guaranteed" good team like the Colts, Ravens, or Falcons. If the league wants to sell its product to Europe, it needs something better than the mediocrity on show Sunday in London.
50 comments, Last at 04 Nov 2010, 12:38pm by sebajoe1