Offensive-minded coach Mike Shanahan can thank his deep, cat-quick defense for the Broncos' 3-0 start
Trailing 14-7 with just under two minutes left in the first half on Sunday in Denver, Bills quarterback Drew Bledsoe, who on his previous drive had directed an 80-yard touchdown march, took charge at the Buffalo 20 following a Broncos punt. The way he had thrown this season, Bledsoe seemed perfectly capable of driving the Bills to a tying touchdown, especially with momentum on his side. But on first down left end Trevor Pryce shot through a tackle-guard gap and forced Bledsoe to throw the ball away before he got leveled. On second down Bledsoe tossed a screen pass to fullback Larry Centers, who was pancaked by linebacker John Mobley for a three-yard loss. On third down Denver sent the house, blitzing a corner and a linebacker. Nickelback Bertrand Berry sacked Bledsoe for a nine-yard loss. So much for momentum.
"Drew was one score away from taking over the game, and we couldn't let that happen," Broncos linebacker Al Wilson said following Denver's 28-23 win. "In the huddle, it was like, 'It's on us to control this game!' "
For the first time since the Orange Crush ruled the AFC West in the mid-1970s, Denver's defense is winning games for its poorer offensive cousin, which has sputtered through a 3-0 start. The front seven is as deep and as fast as any in football. The acquisition of 306-pound free-agent tackle Lional Dalton (formerly of the Ravens) enabled Denver to switch Pryce from tackle to his more natural end position. Now the line has speed at end and bulk in the middle, with Dalton alongside 334-pound tackle Chester McGlockton. The Broncos didn't make a serious effort to re-sign cagey linebacker Bill Romanowski because they thought third-year man Ian Gold was ready to play. They were right. According to Bledsoe, Gold, Mobley and Wilson are so fast that they could play in the secondary for most teams.
Denver has shown not only defensive speed but also backbone in wins over the Rams, 49ers and Bills—no offensive slouches there. Over a postgame beer on Sunday night, coach Mike Shanahan, who built his reputation on his offensive acumen, was asked about the difference between this year's Broncos and last year's. "We're playing defense," were the first three words out of his mouth.
Millen's Mess in Detroit
How Low Can The Lions Go?
Last Sunday should have been one of the great days in Detroit sports history. The Lions, who had played in the northern suburb of Pontiac since 1975, returned downtown for their first regular-season game at new Ford Field. But the Lions walked away with their tails between their legs. With the 37-31 loss to the Packers, the two-season regime of club president Matt Millen and coach Marty Mornhinweg set a dubious mark: No Detroit team in the last 51 years has been as bad (2-17) over a 19-game span as this team. What's more, other than promising rookie quarterback Joey Harrington, there is little reason to feel optimistic about the future. "In my 26 years on the beat," said Mike O'Hara of The Detroit News, "I've never seen the fans so angry."
Things could get even worse. Before this season Millen decided that it would be best to address the team's salary-cap problem over two or three years—gradually weed out players and replace them with low-cost free agents—rather than cleaning house in one year. Millen spent good money on a handful of free agents (wideout Az Hakim, most notably) and waited too long to release quarterback Charlie Batch ($4.9 million) and wideout Herman Moore ($4 million), who will eat up 12% of the projected cap in 2003. Throw in the combined $23.3 million (32%) due good-but-not-great players Robert Porcher, Luther Elliss and James Stewart, and the Lions have a cap mess on their hands next year.
Last week Millen said he would honor his five-year contract, that he wouldn't fire Mornhinweg and that he wouldn't move his family north from Hokendauqua, Pa. Callers to Detroit talk shows have called Millen a carpetbagger for leaving town every week to spend time with his family "I don't think it's had any effect on the job I've done," Millen says. "I leave Thursday after practice, and Fm back Saturday afternoon. Am I wrong to do that? I don't think so."
What's Wrong in Pittsburgh?
Offense Could Give D a Break