|11-17-2005, 11:12 AM||#1|
Join Date: Sep 2002
Location: South of Boston
People finally beginning to notice all that's working right in Denver
People finally beginning to notice all that's working right in Denver
By Trent Modglin (email@example.com)
Nov. 17, 2005
Don’t look now, but in a talent-laden AFC, the Broncos are finally making believers out of people.
A co-worker of mine, Mike Wilkening, congratulated me the other day after the Broncos’ new-look defensive line sacked Oakland’s beleaguered Kerry Collins for the fourth time in a 31-17 win. “Your boys are playing well,” he said. “That’s not a bad little team there.”
Seems I hadn’t realized how much I had been chirping about the Broncos’ defense here at Pro Football Weekly. Tatum Bell, too. Always liked that guy. And I guess over the course of the year, as the Broncos have rather quietly marched their way to a 7-2 record, it surprised me a bit how other media types were just now starting to join the bandwagon and give recognition where it is due in the Mile High City.
And to think, if they had not been victimized by Eli Manning’s late-game heroics in Week Seven, they would be sitting at 8-1, merely one game behind the seemingly invincible Colts, who, by the way, have a tough schedule on their way to unseating the ’72 Dolphins, who are nervously waiting to uncork the bubbly and light the stogies at another one of their undefeated parties.
Let’s take a look at what all is working well for the Broncos, shall we?
— The former Browns defensive linemen who came to Denver in the offseason are making Mike Shanahan look like a genius. When the back surgery for Trevor Pryce made the Broncos realize how little depth they had on the D-line last year, they went out and raided Cleveland’s cupboards for an injury-plagued former first overall pick (Courtney Brown), a talented but underachieving tackle with a reputation as a loafer (Gerard Warren) and a pair of journeymen (Ebenezer Ekuban and Michael Myers). Cynics chuckled, wondering if Shanahan had hit his head on something. Brown, Ekuban and Warren each registered a sack against Oakland, and Warren’s infectiously positive attitude and production have been one of the biggest surprises of the season, starting from the first day of camp. Denver is so pleased with its new seven-man rotation, in fact, that two starters from last year, DE Marco Coleman and DT Monsanto Pope, have yet to be activated this season. A big reason for why the Broncos are ranked fourth in the league against the run lies with this group. And while the sack total isn’t anything to write home about, the pressure generated on opposing quarterbacks has been substantially improved. “I think we all believed in ourselves, but we have found a good fit here,” said Ekuban. “We talk about it a lot.”
— If you don’t know where the best LB corps resides in the NFL, get to know Al Wilson, Ian Gold and D.J. Williams. Defensive coordinator Larry Coyer utilizes their strengths well, and no trio tracks the ball or tackles quite like this one.
— Who would’ve thought that a nagging hamstring injury to one of the best defenders in the game would actually prove beneficial in the long run? Champ Bailey didn’t play at all in the preseason, opening the door for rookie CBs Darrent Williams and Domonique Foxworth to get more field time and smooth the inevitable rough edges. They learned the ropes in a baptism by fire of sorts and haven’t looked back, with Williams being elevated to the starting lineup early in the regular season and Foxworth vaulting up the depth chart as well to see time on obvious passing downs. Bailey has been hobbled by recurring problems with the hamstring, and to the rescue has come the feisty Williams, who has held his own against some of the league’s better wideouts. His 80-yard interception return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter sealed the deal against the Raiders. Foxworth puts himself in good position consistently and has two picks of his own. Their rapid progress has made life without a completely healthy Bailey at least bearable, not to mention made former starter Lenny Walls expendable. Now just imagine when Bailey is able to prove he’s back at full strength.
— The running game has been sick. Not “sick” as in anemic. “Sick” as in what the kids say to describe a skateboarding move or a LeBron James windmill dunk. Mike Anderson is on pace for 1,189 yards. Tatum Bell is on track for 1,077. Two running backs. Same team. Both headed for 1,000 yards. Anderson runs over tacklers, setting them up for Bell, who sprints by them. Casting ego aside to keep fresh legs in the game, this duo is proof that a committee system can thrive.
— While not deep, the offensive line is playing quite well. The holes and cutback lanes are prevalent for Anderson and Bell, and the Broncos have allowed only 10 sacks all season, including just two in the last five games. Scouts have told me that C Tom Nalen, a free-agent-to-be, is playing his best football in years. Looks like he may finish his career in Denver after all.
— Rod Smith shows no signs of slowing down at the age of 35, when most players have traded their cleats for slippers or golf spikes. He is as reliable as ever, having just passed Terrell Davis for the distinction of being the club’s all-time leader in touchdowns scored with 66. The Broncos would like to see more consistency and toughness out of Ashley Lelie, but he remains one of the more athletic deep threats in the game.
— I cannot formulate a list like this without highlighting Jake Plummer. No longer is he Jake, the quarterback who could, and would, cost the Broncos games in the past with an ill-advised throw to the wrong-colored jersey or some other form of meltdown. Shanahan and offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak went over the playbook with the team’s quarterbacks during the offseason and broke it down piece by piece, dissecting options and putting an emphasis on decision-making. The result of stressing to Plummer that all he has to do is guide the ship: 13 touchdowns and only three picks. The bearded wonder tossed 20 to the other team last year but hasn’t thrown an interception in the last seven games. “There’s been times I’ve played better in my time in the league, but right now, I’m taking what defenses give me and leading this team,” Plummer said. “They’re not asking me to go out and win every game.”
— Last year, the Broncos could get it down the field, they just couldn’t punch it in, finishing 28th in red-zone efficiency. This year, with Anderson healthy, Plummer making better choices with the ball and more creative play-calling, they sit at seventh in that department. In terms of turnovers, they were minus–9 in differential in ’04. This year, they’re plus-10. The punting, with Todd Sauerbrun, is better. Starting field position, better.
These Broncos didn’t get much publicity in the preseason. Talks about power rankings and AFC supremacy, even AFC West supremacy, failed to mention much about Denver. And not so surprisingly, the neglect has led to them playing with a chip on their shoulder. They knew they had something special brewing, even if no one else acknowledged the possibility.
But now they’ve got your attention. Keeping pace with the Steelers and Bengals behind the Colts won’t be easy, but shoot, if Tommy Maddox struggles this week and the Bengals or Seahawks are ready for Peyton, Edgerrin and the boys, the Broncos could be looking at…
“You don’t look too far forward,” Anderson said. “You just don’t do that.”
Alright, Mike. I’ll keep it in the here and now. And brief.
That's not a bad little team there.