by Ned Macey
One week ago, somebody named Kolby Smith ran for 150 yards against the Oakland Raiders. Just imagine what the vaunted rushing attack of the Denver Broncos could do to them. Actually, you don't have to imagine. We now know, and it is not as exciting as you expected. Sunday, Broncos running backs totaled only 77 yards on 22 carries, and team-wide sloppy play set up enough short fields for the Raiders to pull off the upset.
Just two weeks ago, the Broncos were tied atop the AFC West with a 5-5 record after an excellent Monday night win over the Tennessee Titans. Now, the Broncos' playoff hopes are effectively gone, and the team has gaping holes on both sides of the ball.
Two consecutive wins by Oakland highlight a team that is significantly improved from last season. Their pass defense and rushing offense are both solid units. Their run defense is admittedly horrendous this season. The good news on that front is that the struggles are largely attributable to the weak interior of the defensive line and easily fixed in the off-season. The other huge weakness is pass offense, and this game's victory marked the beginning of the JaMarcus Russell era. Seven passes are too soon for any substantive analysis, but he could be the missing piece.
The Raiders struck first on Sunday, largely featuring their revamped running game. The emergence of Justin Fargas has given the offense a spark. Since taking over full-time for LaMont Jordan, Fargas has brought an effective slashing style to the running attack. In their first possession, Fargas carried on eight out of 13 plays for 43 yards. The revamped Oakland running attack has had a great deal of success running to the right, but on Sunday, they excelled by running to the left at undersized defensive end Elvis Dumervil. The run-heavy offense also led to numerous downs where Dumervil came off the field, providing more time in the pocket for Raiders' quarterbacks.
This initial drive was symptomatic of the whole game, as it was only made possible by a Denver mistake. The Broncos had forced a punt after one first down but picked up a running into the kicker penalty to prolong the drive. Mistakes continued to set up the Raiders' suspect offense. A Travis Henry fumble set up the Raiders with a short field for their second touchdown. Their next score was a field goal after a Jay Cutler interception, on a drive where Oakland did not even gain a first down. Their next touchdown came after a Cutler fumble at his own 12-yard line.
These offensive miscues are in part the result of a flawed offense that struggles to run the ball. The Broncos have been built on the run since Terrell Davis was a rookie in 1995. We have calculated DVOA since 1996. During those years, the Broncos have only had a below-average running attack in 1999, 2001, and 2006. Not coincidentally, those are three of the four years during that period where Denver has missed the playoffs.
After a disappointing 9-7 campaign last season, the Broncos placed a great deal of faith in the development of Cutler. He has delivered for the most part,with dynamic play considering his suspect receiving corps. Injuries have severely hampered presumptive number one receiver Javon Walker, leaving Cutler with the unproven Brandon Marshall and the aging Brandon Stokley. Nonetheless, Cutler has been good, particularly on third down.
His one weakness, however, is his carelessness with the ball. After two interceptions and a fumble on Sunday, Cutler has 12 interceptions and eight fumbles on the season. However, while his turnovers cost the Broncos on Sunday, Cutler has rarely been the Broncos problem during a disappointing season.
Much more damaging has been the poor running of Travis Henry. In his defense, Henry has battled a fairly severe knee injury and a potential season-long suspension for a positive drug test. What Henry has done on the field, however, has been substandard. According to DVOA, Henry has been substantially below average, while undrafted rookie Selvin Young has been above average behind the same line.
That line, however, is not an asset to either Henry or Young. The middle of the line, in particular, fails to get any push. The weakness of the line was very evident against the Raiders, who are normally so susceptible to runs up the middle. Even against this foe, the Broncos failed to open holes. Center Tom Nalen's torn bicep is an enormous loss. According to Football Outsiders' adjusted line yards, the Broncos were sixth in the league in runs up the middle last year and are 30th this year. Last year, they were 16th in runs in short yardage situations, while this year they are dead last.
Henry's failure to exploit the Raiders defense is a low point for his season, as the Raiders run defense is the worst in the league. The runs were admittedly highly ineffective, but the Broncos played into the Raiders hands by abandoning the run too early. After their first drive, which featured eight runs and five passes, the Broncos handed off to running backs on consecutive plays only twice the rest of the game.
The strategy is inexcusable since the Raiders are actually among the top ten pass defenses in the league. The Raiders specialize in stopping opposing number one receivers, which took away the emerging Marshall. Marshall made one huge play when he escaped a tackle on third down and busted a 32-yard completion. On eight other passes to Marshall, Cutler gained only 35 yards and had a pass intercepted. Much of the credit should go to the exceptional play of Nnamdi Asomugha, but several cornerbacks took turns covering Marshall on Sunday.
Even given the numerous opportunities, the Raiders still had to convert them into 34 points. Fargas and the running game were obviously crucial, but nearly as important was the surprising play of Josh McCown. It was a banner day for the McCown clan, the natural heirs to the Detmers. Josh's win in Oakland was matched by little brother Luke's win for Tampa Bay. Sunday's result may have been a bit of an aberration. Before this game, Josh had been the single worst quarterback in the league.
Against Denver, he looked like a young Jeff Garcia, working bootlegs and hitting tight ends down the middle. This strategy highlighted the major weakness in the Broncos defense. Denver features two cornerbacks who excel in man-to-man coverage in Champ Bailey and DrÃ© Bly. After both were burned on national television by Brett Favre, the conventional wisdom is that the Broncos pass defense struggled in part because of them.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The Broncos rank fourth in the league in defending both number one and number two receivers. They are last in defending other wide receivers and 29th in defending tight ends. On Sunday, Bly was beat for the first touchdown by Tim Dwight, but otherwise, each cornerback only allowed a couple completions. McCown only completed one pass to his top two receivers that gained more than ten yards.
The good news for Oakland is that in two drives, first overall pick JaMarcus Russell completed two such passes. Russell only attempted six passes, but he showed a good arm to the outside and good mobility in the pocket. Both drives he led ended up without points, but both drives moved the ball comfortably into Denver territory.
Nobody knows how good Russell will be, but he is unlikely to fail because of a poor offensive scheme. The Raiders' new scheme has shown some success in the passing game with Daunte Culpepper. Head coach Lance Kiffin took over one of the worst offenses in history, and not only has the run game been adequate, but Culpepper has been roughly a league-average quarterback in the scheme. Culpepper's lack of complete understanding of the offense and over-reliance on the shotgun formation have limited the unit's overall output, but the foundations of the new offensive scheme are clearly NFL-caliber, which is not something that could be said last season.
For Denver, the offensive scheme is not the problem, but the team will struggle for consistency unless it upgrades the offensive line and limits Henry's carries. Defensively, the Broncos are unable to use the advantage they have with Bailey and Bly to compensate for substandard pass defense from their linebackers and safeties. This team is arguably the worst of the Mike Shanahan era, and the continued growth of Cutler and Marshall will not be enough make it a regular playoff participant once again.
Each Tuesday in Any Given Sunday, Ned Macey looks at the most surprising result of the previous weekend. The NFL sells itself on the idea that any team can win any given game, but we use these surprises as a tool to explore what trends and subtle aspects of each team are revealed in a single game.