Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
25 Aug 2012
by Andy Benoit
(Ed. Note: Thanks to The New York Times for allowing us to re-run Andy Benoit's annual team previews. Please be aware that these previews are more scouting-oriented than what we run in Football Outsiders Almanac 2012, and they represent one man's opinion so they may differ from the forecast from our statistical team projection system. -- Aaron Schatz)
What if John Elway, Broncos executive VP of football operations, could have written an honest, cathartic, open letter to Broncos fans this past March? It probably would have gone something like this:
Dear Broncos Fans,
Enough already with Tim Tebow. Really, enough. I have nothing against the guy -– I meant it when I said I’d be happy if he married my daughter. And I’m thrilled that we were able to reach the Divisional Round with him. But the truth is, and my guess is head coach John Fox would agree, we reached the Divisional Round despite him. Yes, Tebow was great in the Wild Card upset over the Steelers, but that was the only game in our last five that we won. In those four games that Tebow was not "a winner," he completed just 39.4 percent of his passes. You find that inspiring?
No team can sustain success over the long haul with horrendous quarterback play. You can’t build your foundation on winning "miraculously." Fortunately, owner Pat Bowlen has given me the green light to go after Peyton Manning in free agency. I’d say, based on our talks, there’s a good chance Manning will come to the Mile High City. We’re willing to offer him $96 million over five years.
It might seem ridiculous to sink that kind of money into a 36-year-old with neck problems. Trust me, it’s not. Unlike with Tebow, Manning gives us a chance to win a Super Bowl. Even if it’s a small chance, it’s still a chance. And that’s all this business is about –- winning Super Bowls. Merchandise sales, inspiring storylines, media attention, galvanized fan bases –- those are wonderful, but in the grand scheme of things, they’re only sustained by winning. Winning comes from skill, not faith. Besides, as much as you might think you hate the idea of losing Tebow, most of you will be giddy with excitement once Manning arrives. That excitement will lead to ticket sales and national broadcast games and all the other extracurricular stuff that Tebow brought.
So there you have it. Sorry if this was a little blunt. I’m just tired of the politically correct nonsense. I took this job to win titles. Nothing else matters. I learned this during my playing days -– when, until the last two years of my career, half of you thought I stunk.
Here’s to an actual chance at a real Super Bowl run!
No one knows for sure whether Peyton Manning can be the same player he was before the neck problems. For the purposes of this preview, let’s assume he can. That’s what the Broncos are doing. The Broncos (and Manning himself) have acknowledged the possibility of the four-time MVP never regaining his form. They structured his contract in a way that makes it basically a one-year, $18 million deal with a team option next March to extend it another four years at $42 million guaranteed. That’s just smart business. As far as this year’s operations go, Elway and his staff are assuming they’ll have the Manning everyone knows and loves.
Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy has gladly replaced his own system with the one Manning ran in Indianapolis. System overrides are becoming old hat for the 40-year-old coach, as last year he rewrote his entire playbook to accommodate Tebow and the run-option. McCoy didn’t get much credit for that highly successful act of ingenuity and humility, and he won’t get much credit for whatever success Denver’s offense has this year. The not-so-inaccurate perception is that Manning is completely running this show.
Manning’s offense is simple in theory. Because his game is predicated on dissecting the defense, he likes to get defensive looks as consistent and static as possible. Each week you’ll see the Broncos use the same small handful of base formations featuring little to no presnap motion and shifts. This minimalistic approach makes the new system fairly easy for Broncos players to learn; what’s not easy is the execution.
Everything Manning does is based on timing and precision, so chemistry with the other 10 players on the field, particularly the wide receivers, is everything. Don’t expect a quick Indy redux here in 2012. In Indy, Manning spent the better part of 10 years perfecting this system with a familiar group of guys. Also, keep in mind that he was working in a climate-controlled stadium and on a team that, from Day One, had been constructed 100 percent around him. Even though the Broncos are catering to Manning as much as possible, he’s still stepping into an already-existing organization that plays outdoors at elevation and has (sans Jacob Tamme and Brandon Stokley) a completely unfamiliar group of guys with whom he has worked with for just a few months. These might seem like small details, but it’s the small details that make Manning who he is.
At 36, Stokley is nearing his end and may not assume a meaningful role ahead of Matt Willis. Tamme, on the other hand, with sinewy short-area movement skills and the size to work the seams, should play a major role as a starter in the base two-tight end offense. He may wind up second in Manning’s tight end pecking order, though, as fellow free agent pickup Joel Dreessen is also an excellent fit for this system. Dreessen isn't strong, but he is a good in-line blocker and runs routes fluidly. Also in the mix is Virgil Green, an über-athletic seventh-round pick from the class of 2011. Green moved to third on the depth chart after last year’s fourth-round pick, Julius Thomas, underwent major ankle surgery back in April.
As for the wide receivers, a lot of people are expecting big things from Demaryius Thomas, given that he’s a big-bodied former first-round pick who blossomed down the stretch last season. But a word of caution: Thomas, despite what he showed in the playoff win over Pittsburgh, is not a prototypical playmaker. His fairly ordinary acceleration and top-end speed will make him more of a possession target in the long run. In the short run, he must become a better route runner if he wants to jive with Manning.
No. 2 receiver Eric Decker is very good at beating press coverage off the line of scrimmage. It wouldn’t be at all surprising if he’s Manning’s favorite target out of the gates. Free agent pickup Andre Caldwell will handle the No. 3 duties from the slot. Caldwell is quick and capable of changing directions sharply, but he’s also prone to mistakes. If that’s a problem, Stokley, or perhaps even journeyman Jason Hill, will get his snaps.
We don’t think of Manning and the run game as one in the same because, as a scrambler, Manning’s always had the mobility of a beached whale. But Manning impacts the team’s run game as much as any quarterback in the league just with his adjustments at the line of scrimmage. Still, the perfect play call usually can’t overcome a lack of backfield speed, which is why Broncos fans should be a little worried about Willis McGahee being their primary ballcarrier. McGahee was phenomenal as a methodical mover of chains in Denver’s ground-and-pound system last season, but in a single-back offense that features a lot of off-tackle runs, his depleted initial quickness will be an issue.
Fourth-year pro Knowshon Moreno, on the other hand, has a great skill set for this system. Problem is, he’s coming off an ACL injury and has always been inconsistent. That’s why the Broncos drafted Ronnie Hillman, a small but elusive space-oriented runner, in the third round. Hillman should have no trouble surpassing downhill pounder Lance Ball on the depth chart.
You might think it’s vital for the Broncos to have an offensive line that can keep Manning upright. But Manning, with his impeccable pocket mobility and awareness, has always been able to keep himself upright. That doesn’t mean he won’t be grateful for his front five this year –- it may be the best he’s ever played behind. It is, however, a better run-blocking than pass-blocking unit.
Left tackle Ryan Clady is the stud. He has very stellar athleticism and, most of the time, solid technique. The statistics from last season that suggest Clady struggled are mostly misleading. He had a few mental gaffes but, most of the time, he nailed tough assignments with no tight end or running back help. Opposite Clady, second-year right tackle Orlando Franklin can be a load in the run game, but he must develop quicker feet and sounder technique, especially in pass protection.
Inside, center J.D. Walton and guards Chris Kuper and Zane Beadles form an excellent trio. None are perfect, but all have just enough power to survive in a phone booth and the mobility to stretch outside. They function well as a unit, too. To develop some much-needed interior depth, and perhaps have insurance in case Kuper can’t bounce back from the horrendous ankle injury he suffered in Week 17 or the broken forearm he sustained in training camp, the Broncos spent a fourth-round pick on Philip Blake. Blake's a 26-year-old from Baylor who primarily plays center, but has some experience at right tackle.
It was John Fox and coordinator Dennis Allen’s stalwart defense that pulled the Broncos out of the mud and carried them to a division title last season. But this unit has been largely retooled since then. Allen is now the head coach in Oakland. His replacement, former Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio, should be every bit as proficient. Personnel-wise, all three levels of the defense have experienced notable changes. Defensive tackles Brodrick Bunkley, Marcus Thomas and Ryan McBean left in free agency. At linebacker, D.J. Williams is suspended for the first six games. In the secondary, Brian Dawkins retired and starting corner Andre' Goodman was released.
Replacing Goodman may have been Elway’s second finest accomplishment this past offseason. He signed 25-year-old Tracy Porter, a risk-taking playmaker who made several significant highlights for the Saints. Porter doesn’t quite have the physicality to thrive in the aggressive press-man coverage that this defense frequently played last year, but Del Rio’s predilection for classic zone coverages could change the defensive approach anyway. In off-coverage, Porter can be an electric, fluid, playmaker.
Porter is capable of sliding inside and covering the slot, but the Broncos may have stumbled upon a nickelback gem in undrafted second-year pro Chris Harris. He was very solid down the stretch in 2011. Still, his body of work is not large enough to elicit serious trust just yet. That’s why the Broncos pounced when Buffalo released veteran corner Drayton Florence. Florence is a strong short-area defender who can play inside or outside.
Rounding out the cornerbacking group is, of course, Champ Bailey. Remarkably, the 14th-year veteran has shown virtually no sign of decline. Bailey still shadows the opposing team’s top receiver almost every week, and offenses still think twice about throwing his way. There have been whispers about the 11-time Pro Bowler moving to safety. Perhaps that will happen if this year’s fourth-round pick, cornerback Omar Bolden, fulfills his high athletic potential and avoids the knee problems that hounded him in college. But that day, if it ever comes, is not coming this year.
For now the safeties will be last year’s fourth-round pick Quinton Carter and free agent pickup Mike Adams. Frankly, it’s not a great tandem. Carter gets exposed in man coverage (which the Broncos asked their safeties to play frequently in sub packages last season) and Adams, though versatile, is just a guy. The Broncos would love to see physical 2011 second-rounder Rahim Moore claim a starting spot, but he’s been up-and-down thus far.
Depth in the secondary will be critical if Fox and his staff use their nickel and dime packages as often as they did late last season. The sub packages are where they can let second-year stud Von Miller roam the front seven or line up as a speed-rusher along the edge. Miller is worth building entire defensive packages around. Uncommon strength and startling fluidity, as well as sensationally quick hands, could make him the best pure pass-rusher in the NFL by season’s end. While that part of natural progression plays out, Miller must dedicate himself to improving his surveying skills as a first- and second-down strongside linebacker.
The Broncos’ only other veritable pass-rusher, Elvis Dumervil, also happens to be a better player in nickel and dime packages. At 248 pounds, the seventh-year veteran isn't an outright liability, but also doesn’t have the girth to anchor against the run or get off blocks inside against the pass. What he does have is an 5-foot-11 stature that creates great natural leverage when blended with his quick first step. Another reason Denver’s defense came alive late last season was Dumervil busting out of a two-month slump in November.
Miller and Dumervil make for a potent duo on passing downs, though the rest of the front seven could struggle in those situations until athletic stallion D.J. Williams returns. The Broncos have a heady, fairly fluid pass-defending linebacker in Wesley Woodyard, but he’s it. They still need someone to fill in for Williams. Second-year pro Mike Mohamed has been floated as a possibility, though a seemingly more sensible solution would be second-year pro Nate Irving. The book on Irving coming out of North Carolina State was "agile, athletic and adept at making reads in space." It’s those traits that got him drafted in the third round, rather than in the sixth like Mohamed.
But for various reasons, Irving barely saw the field in 2011. In the playoffs, Denver turned to middle linebacker Joe Mays in nickel instead. Mays doesn’t have the change-of-direction quickness to thrive in coverage. He is, however, a superb run-defender who plays well in traffic and has good instincts that can override his so-so speed when hunting down ballcarriers outside. His physicality in the middle will be particularly crucial when the finesse Woodyard is filling in for the thundering Williams.
All of these linebackers’ jobs will be tougher in 2012 because they likely won’t get as much protection playing behind this year’s crop of defensive tackles. Four years ago, a starting duo of Justin Bannan and Ty Warren would have made a defensive coordinator giddy. But Bannan, though still very good as an inside run anchor, is now 33 and will likely need to be in a rotation. Warren, 31, has missed virtually two full years with a hip and triceps injury. He has to prove he can still play, let alone perform at a high level. If he can’t, Kevin Vickerson, a serviceable rotational player, will assume a heavier load. The Broncos may also turn to their second-round rookie, Derek Wolfe. He was not a highly-touted prospect coming out of Cincinnati, as scouts trumpeted his hustle more than his explosiveness. Elway, however, was struck by Wolfe’s consistent productivity on film.
On the outside, starter Robert Ayers is an athletic run-defender opposite Dumervil. However, with agile-but-mundane Jason Hunter, fifth-round rookie pass-rushing specialist Malik Jackson and 2011 seventh-rounder Jeremy Beal all vying for backup reps, there’s not much to be particularly excited about with the defensive end position as a whole.
Kicker Matt Prater was successful on a few pressure-packed attempts last season and, as a reward, got a lucrative four-year, $13 million contract over the summer. Punter Britton Colquitt led the league in total punting yards last season, thanks to Tebow. He ranked eighth in average net punting. Denver’s return game is not very dynamic, with receivers Matt Willis and Eric Decker expected to handle most of the load.
The Broncos are a much better team than they were a year ago, but that doesn’t mean they’ll run away with the AFC West. It will take some time for Manning and the rest of the offense to get acclimated with one another, and even then, there may not be enough ball-handling talent to make it work.
26 comments, Last at 29 Aug 2012, 5:36pm by Joshua Bennett