What We Learned: Broncos won't blow West lead this time around
The Broncos have allowed only 10 points in six second halves this season
Denver may have the most talented offensive line in the league
The Chargers won't make another late run to the division title this year
SAN DIEGO -- After watching the Broncos outplay and outcoach the Chargers Monday night in a 34-23 victory that gave them a 6-0 record and 3½-game lead in the AFC West, a handful of truths became glaring ...
If you're going to beat the Broncos, you better get to them early. In the second half this year, Denver has outscored (76-10) and outgained (1,368-605) opponents while limiting them to just two third-down conversions in 35 chances. San Diego was totally outclassed in the final two quarters, managing only three points (on its first possession of the half), 104 total yards and zero conversions in five third downs. QB Philip Rivers was sacked four times after being dropped only once in the opening half. "That's great coaching," said outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil, who had two sacks to push his league-leading total to 10. "We prepared hard all week, and our coaches put us in positions to make plays."
The Broncos offensive line might be the best in football. Moving left to right, Ryan Clady, Ben Hamilton, Casey Wiegmann, Chris Kuper and Ryan Harris are playing like a human force field, allowing no one to get close to QB Kyle Orton, who should have been embarrassed by the significant chunks of time he had to throw the ball. At times, it looked like he could go through his entire read progression a second and third time. Overall, the unit has allowed just nine sacks, tying for seventh fewest in the league. It surrendered just one Monday, to rookie linebacker Larry English.
The Chargers can forget about another late-season surge to the division title. After a 4-8 start last year, they advanced to the playoffs when the Broncos lost their final three games, including a 52-21 whipping at San Diego in the finale. This team is too well-coached and too motivated under new coach Josh McDaniels to let that happen again. Plus, the Chargers have internal issues. It didn't sit well with some players and coaches two weeks ago when GM A.J. Smith said the defense looked "soft and bewildered" at times. That prompted linebacker Shawne Merriman to pay a visit to the executive's office. Late Monday night, the all-for-one blanket that successful teams normally wrap themselves in was fraying at the edges. Privately, some fingers were pointed at Smith for failing to address needs along the offensive and defensive lines, as well at safety, where Eric Weddle was abused by Denver tight end Tony Scheffler, en route to six catches for 101 yards and a touchdown. During one stretch in the second half, Denver's offense had consecutive possessions of nine, 10 and seven plays. Defensively, it sacked Rivers on three straight series in the half. Ugly.
LaDainian Tomlinson may not be the LaDainian Tomlinson of 2006, but he is not the problem with the Chargers' last-ranked rushing game. It's incredible how many times Tomlinson was hit before reaching the line Monday night, particularly in goal-to-go situations. Coach Norv Turner apparently was so concerned about the lack of push that he resorted to trickery on a third-and-goal from the 2 midway through the third quarter. He pulled Tomlinson for smallish back Darren Sproles, spread the formation to show pass, then tried to run Sproles up the middle. Sproles was stopped for no gain. In past years, those were money situations for Tomlinson, who fumed at being on the sideline. When Turner tried to speak to him during the changeover, Tomlinson didn't look at him or say a word. Somehow you get the feeling this is not going to end well.
The Chargers fired defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell halfway through last season because the unit looked out of sorts. A year later, little has changed. The Chargers defense has surrendered 31 or more points in two of their last four games and looked totally outclassed at times against the Broncos, who converted on 9 of 16 third downs. The unit was supposed to be stronger this year with a full offseason under coordinator Ron Rivera, but San Diego has not lived up to expectations. And please don't blame it on the loss of nose tackle Jamal Williams to a season-ending triceps injury. Last year, they lost Merriman for the season after one game, did not have inside linebacker Stephen Cooper for the first four games, had safety Clinton Hart playing with a cast on one hand and had cornerback Antonio Cromartie playing with a bad hip injury. The NFL is about results, not excuses.
Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey is playing at a Pro Bowl level. When he was matched up against wideout Vincent Jackson, you never heard Jackson's name. The only time Jackson got going was when he moved to Andre Goodman's side. Of course, it helps when your front seven is generating the kind of pressure that Denver's has thus far. Coordinator Mike Nolan has done a brilliant job of taking castoffs, never-weres and pedestrian free agents and converting them into a unit that plays with intelligence, passion and precision. Said one Broncos coach: "The guys have bought into what we're teaching. It's really been enjoyable."
Why not? The Broncos are undefeated heading into the bye with a commanding division lead.
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