not merely superfluous, but ridiculous
After four games, the Denver Broncos seemed unstoppable. Despite the departures of lineman Malik Jackson and linebacker Danny Trevathan, they had retained much of their depth on defense, and were racking up frightening numbers of quarterback hits per game. On the offensive side of the ball, quarterback Trevor Siemian had been doing a serviceable job, certainly no worse than Peyton Manning during his injury-plagued final season, and with fewer turnovers. And when he injured his shoulder in a game, rookie Paxton Lynch stepped in and acquitted himself admirably.
Best of all was the schedule: after four games against what were projected to be some of the best teams in the league, Denver had a relatively easy two games: a contest against the one-dimensional Atlanta Hawks, and a Thursday game against division punching bag San Diego Chargers. Even if Siemian had to sit one or both games, neither team should prove much of a threat after the gantlet of elite teams Denver had bested.
Alas, as the actual scores of those two games revealed, this is the NFL, where anything can happen. Denver is now 4-2, and their defense, while elite as ever, is not going to be winning them any more games at this rate.
Don’t get me wrong–the defense remains world-class. Even with teams getting the ball out quicker in the face of a suffocating pass rush, the Broncos are still good for a barrage of behind-the-line hits on quarterback and running back alike.
But at some point, the offense has to show up. And although they have a second-year quarterback who was selected in the 7th round of the 2014 draft, the Broncos have the tools to mount a fearsome offense. Receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders are top-of-the-line receivers, capable of getting separation in almost any situation. Running backs CJ Anderson and Devontae Booker are bruising runners, capable of breaking tackles and getting deep into the backfield. And rookie fullback Andy Janovich is showing that the I formation still has a place in the modern NFL.
The problem is, in order to use these weapons, the Broncos need the time and space to deploy them. And that comes down to the current weak link in the Denver offense: its offensive line.
It’s telling that nearly every significant play the Broncos managed in their game against the Chargers yesterday was called back for a holding penalty somewhere along the line. That’s the sure sign of a group that finds itself outmatched and unable to deal with the pressure an opposing defense is placing on it.
Against the Falcons, this seems somewhat understandable. No one saw it coming, but they have an excellent defensive line, as their last few games have showed.
Against the San Diego Chargers? There’s trouble in Paradise, or at least near Paradis.
The weak spot in Denver’s line for the last few games has been clear: the right side of the line is a shambles. Last week, with starting right tackle Donald Stephenson out, that was understandable: backup Ty Sambralio did what he could, but it wasn’t enough to keep Atlanta’s defensive ends from making his afternoon a nightmare. This week, however, Stephenson was back, and his performance made me wonder whether he hadn’t been brought back too soon.
Not that he was the only one having issues. Center Matt Paradis committed an unfortunate hold in the second quarter, and recently-acquired left tackle Russell Okung is probably wishing that he’d asked for some guaranteed money in his contract after getting pushed around for much of the game.
(Worse still, Okung was taken from the field in an ambulance after the loss to the Chargers).
The issue may not lie with the players, but with the system: coach Gary Kubiak favors a zone-blocking scheme that, while extremely effective during the Broncos’ Super Bowl wins in 1998 and 1999, is slightly antiquated 18 years later. There might simply be a ceiling on how far that sort of blocking scheme can take you in the modern NFL.
And of course, we shouldn’t discount Kubiak’s effect on the game. He was feeling bad enough to be taken out on an ambulance after the Broncos’ loss to the Falcons (there’s got to be some sort of psychodrama that played out as Mike Shanahan’s son destroyed his former offensive coordinator), and he sat today’s contest out after being diagnosed with a “complex migraine.” When he comes back, the Broncos will benefit from his playcalling expertise.
Until then, however, the Broncos have a complex migraine of their own, and it starts with their front five.