Frankly Football: Broncos offense playing as good as defense is bad
After leaving the Raiders in May 2007, I received a call from Denver coach Mike Shanahan, who asked if I might be interested in assisting his staff with personnel evaluations. The offer sounded wonderful to me, the only downside being that Mike couldn't pay me. However, I saw it as an opportunity to learn from one of the coaching legends in the game and to be involved with a first class organization. And if you love football as much as I do, sometimes you have to forgive money to keep learning, which I did for six months with Denver.
This year, the Broncos have gotten off to an amazing 3-0 start and their offensive numbers are better than the record-setting ones the Patriots posted through three games last year. But the Denver defense has been porous. Can they win this way? I'm not sure, but here are the positives and the negatives of their team after three weeks.
Can quarterback Jay Cutler play any better? He has proved to the draft prognosticators, me included, that he was the best quarterback of the 2006 draft class. In fact, he may end up being the best player in that entire draft.
Last season when I watched him at practice, I thought he was sensational. He has that certain swagger to his game. He knows he's capable of doing some amazing things. His size, his exceptional ability to move in the pocket. And what has caught my attention this season is the way he slides slightly in the pocket to avoid the rush and still make a play downfield.
Having been a competitor for so many years against the Broncos, and having seen their system first hand, I have respect and admiration for their offense. But this Broncos offense is different than any other Denver offense in past Shanahan eras.
For the first time since their Super Bowl teams, the Broncos have a legitimate left tackle in first-round pick Ryan Clady. They also have a solid right tackle in 2007 third-round pick Ryan Harris.
Adding size and pass protection skill to the offensive line is something I've mentioned in my columns since before the draft. Now, Denver finally has the size that allows the offense to have a drop-back passing game, which plays right into the strength of their quarterback.
With the afforded protection, the Broncos have a pass-first mentality and call the game as if they were playing in the CFL, not the NFL -- trying to accumulate first downs in two plays instead of three. Last season the Broncos were a traditional offense trying to establish the run. They passed 54 percent of the time in the first half. But this year, with a new playcaller in quarterback coach Jeremy Bates, Denver comes out throwing from the opening whistle. They are 61 percent pass in the first half to 39 percent run.
Bates, along with the offensive staff, modified the offense around the players they have and developed their own style. Still using their signature zone run game, the Broncos are no longer relying on the running backs to carry the load.
The relationship between Bates and Cutler cannot be underestimated, and the willingness of Shanahan to allow his coaches the freedom to call the game is very impressive. But what I think is most impressive about Shanahan is his willingness to be adaptive and change the offense based on the talent around him. He knows Cutler is a dynamic passer and that Bates is a very smart and talented young coach who can be trusted with each play call.
As good as the offense has looked, the defense has looked equally as bad. Based on what I have seen on tape this year, I am not sure they could slow down the USC offense, and I mean South Carolina, not Southern California.
There is no facet of the pass coverage defense that the staff can feel comfortable or secure with. No lead is ever going to be safe with this defense on the field. Even with all-pro cornerback Champ Bailey suited up. As I have mentioned before, the shut-down corner concept does not work in the NFL, and it really doesn't work when there is no pass rush at all. And the Broncos have no ability to rush the passer with their four down defensive linemen.
Elvis Dumervil is a solid rusher and the Broncos' best, but he can be neutralized. No one else on the line can get close to the quarterback. So this means more blitzing, and more blitzing exposes this bad secondary. They have allowed 13 pass plays over 20 yards already and it makes no difference if they play zone or man, the results are the same -- just another completion.
In the past two games, the Broncos have allowed almost 1,000 yards of offense. What might be the most amazing stat of this young season is the Chargers accumulating 456 yards of offense in only 26 game minutes against the Broncos. Wow! Denver's last in pass yards allowed, giving up 978 yards, almost 100 more than any other NFL team, and it's also last in allowing over 500 yards after the catch. So not only do the Broncos fail to cover any wide receivers, they also fail to tackle. And when teams give up yards after the catch, it signals two area of weakness -- lack of athletic ability and speed.
Can this team win? With its soft schedule, which features the Chiefs twice, the Raiders, Miami, Cleveland and Atlanta, I would be surprised if they don't win at least 11 games. But that doesn't mean they can really win once the playoffs start. When the Broncos have to face teams that can control the ball and not let them build a lead, they will struggle. And at some point weather, tipped balls and turnovers might creep up and the Broncos will need to find a solid game from their defense. But for right now, if you are a Broncos fan, enjoy the offensive fireworks.