Six observations from Sunday’s 23-49 loss to the Green Bay Packers.
1. John Fox kept Tim Tebow sidelined in the fourth quarter, with the game out of hand, and it made it absolutely no sense.
The Denver Broncos, down 49-17 with 7:46 left in the game, were not coming back from a 32-point deficit. Any hope of Kyle Orton lifting the team on its shoulders and delivering a comeback win with eight minutes left in the fourth quarter was out the window.
Yet there head coach John Fox went, trotting out his Best Chance to Win when there was No Chance. Meanwhile, Tim Tebow, potential franchise quarterback in dire need of some real-game snaps in Fox’s system, sat on the sideline, likely staring intently at a clipboard.
I’m not saying Tebow should be the starter. I’m just not there yet, folks. I’ve seen the kid practice and I’ve seen him in the preseason. I see “potential” (and that only sometimes). I don’t see “production.”
But that is exactly why the fourth quarter against Green Bay provided the perfect, disappointingly unused opportunity to see if one “p” could become the other. Even Packers fans were chanting “TE-BOW!”, for crying out loud.
Fox’s hilarious explanation after the game was that Orton needed more reps. “We need our starting quarterback to get experience for us to improve,” Fox said. “That’s the idea behind that. You know he needs to get better in our system.”
You know who else needed to get better in your system? Andre Goodman, Cassius Vaughn, Brian Dawkins, and Rahim Moore. The Broncos secondary was abused. Yet that didn’t give you pause when were you trotting out Chris Clark and other backup DB’s with the game out of line.
John Fox showed a willingness to invest game action in the development of his young defensive backs. He was not willing to make any such investment in Tim Tebow. One wonders why.
2. Orton’s pick-six was really the turning point of the game
Don’t tell me that Kyle Orton’s three interceptions cost the Broncos the game, because the last two were more or less meaningless. You take chances when you’re down by 20 in the fourth quarter you wouldn’t otherwise. Am I excusing those picks? No. I’m simply countering the mass’s argument before it gets there.
But you can tell me, and I’d agree, that his first interception was brutal, and a game-changer.
The Broncos had a bit of momentum before Orton’s underthrown ball was jumped by 2008 Defensive MVP Charles Woodson and returned 30 yards for a touchdown. It’s true that Aaron Rodgers had just hit Jordy Nelson for a 50-yard touchdown, but before that, the Broncos had a fourth-down stop and a long field goal drive of their own. They were still clearly in the game.
Orton’s pick-six changed the game’s entire dynamic. The Packers’ surprise onside kick that followed was a brilliant, aggressive move by Mike McCarthy to knock the wind out of Denver’s sails, and it worked. They were down 21-3 in what felt like an instant.
I was happy to see the Broncos claw their way back from that. They fought back to 21-17 with two minutes until the half. But then Rodgers sandwiched halftime with touchdown scores, and the Broncos were down 35-17 when the offense got the ball again. The game had gotten out of line.
Fox said he was also glad to see his team fight back through that initial fire.
“Our offense got off to a rough start as did all the Broncos, but our team fought back to make it 21-17,” said Fox. “Two drives, and only one play on offense later, it was an intentional kneel down and it’s 35-17.”
If Orton doesn’t throw that first quarter flop, maybe things don’t get out of line in the first place.
3. The Broncos need Champ Bailey back
In the NFL, you’re only as strong as your weakest link. Over the past two Sundays, that has clearly been the Broncos’ secondary. In Week 3, a decent quarterback, Matt Hasselbeck, shredded Denver defensive backs on multiple third-and-longs that ultimately gave the Titans just enough for a victory. In Week 4, an exceptional quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, threw for four touchdowns and ran for two more. The Broncos mixed coverages and gave Rodgers different looks, but they sold out to contain Jermichael Finley, and Rodgers’ solution to the problem was simple: pick on Vaughn or Wilhite any given play.
Bailey has promised to return this week against San Diego. Just in time, too — a pivotal, season-changing home match against the Chargers and Philip Rivers needs #24 on the field.
4. Encouragement: the offensive line played its best game of the season
Tight end Virgil Green‘s contributions were well-noted in the staff’s Studs and Duds, and I echo those sentiments while giving kudos to the offensive line as a whole. It was the offense’s best performance of the season, and it started up front.
5. Von Doom Sack Count: 4
The return of Elvis Dumervil had the effect many people thought it would: increased chances for Von Miller. It was our first chance to see “Von Doom” in extended action this season, and it was worth the wait. Miller consistently handled Packers right tackle Marshall Newhouse, and the Packers were left to leave a running back to chip the rookie more often than not (if not the tight end). Dumervil, still not quote 100%, received the most attention, as the 2009 league sack leader should. But it opened the door for Miller.
“I think they both got some of those chips,” Fox said. “The tight end was lined up fairly tight, and he would give them a little shoulder before he went out.”
Miller and Dumervil got around those chips often, registering several pressures on Rodgers. The rookie was even able to bring down the All Pro twice, doubling his season sack total and ranking him fifth in the league. Rodgers had several near-sacks as well, at least one other by Miller and another by D.J. Williams that were one-yard gains.
“I think they’ll both (Miller and Dumervil) get a lot of attention moving forward,” Fox said. “I think Elvis will just get better as we go. He has been out, not only this year but last year, so he hasn’t had a lot of football in his background since a year ago.”
Most quarterbacks aren’t going to be able to get around that type of consistent pressure. Most quarterbacks hit the turf five or more times with that type of pass rush. Rodgers is just the type of exceptional player where he can throw and move. Furthermore, he doesn’t get rattled, so one play of decent blocking results in 50-yard gains.
Just imagine if the Broncos draft a DT that can bring pressure inside… watch out world, 2012.
6. Measuring stick
49 points is the most a John Fox-coached team has ever surrendered. Blowout losses aren’t strangers to the Broncos in recent years, but Fox and Allen had doctored more-or-less impressive performances with this defense in the Broncos’ first three weeks. Facing the Super Bowl champs was a measuring stick for Denver, and they’re further from competing with the NFL elite than I had thought.
As Ted Sundquist pointed out at length in his latest column, as a front office executive, it’s prudent to reflect on your team’s personnel and be prepared to make hard decisions. You owe it to your players, and you owe it to your fans. So where is the Broncos’ talent missing? Where are veterans no longer getting the job done?
Clearly depth in the secondary is a huge concern. It feels like Bailey hasn’t had a fully healthy season in some time, and Brian Dawkins‘ aging body has forced him to leave the conversation of the league’s elite safeties. Defensive line depth is needed, and the Broncos could use an infusion of talent at defensive tackle.
Offensively, the Broncos appear set at wide receiver (assuming they re-up Brandon Lloyd, which they clearly should), and tight end is a position on the upswing as well. The offensive line needs a lot of work — while three new players sounds nice, I wouldn’t be opposed to moving the nimbler Zane Beadles to right tackle and seeing how Orlando Franklin handles guard work next to Ryan Clady. J.D. Walton has really struggled, and I’d still like to see the Broncos pursue a veteran center in free agency next offseason, if one is available.
Then, of course, there’s quarterback. We just faced the league’s best. As far as measuring sticks go, the Broncos need a few yard-lengthed ones to illustrate the gap between Orton and Rodgers.
At least they’re not alone in that regard. 26 other teams are also on the lookout for their own Aaron Rodgers.