After five games, the Denver Broncos are either (1) on the edge of a precipice and about to fall off, or (2) on the verge of one of the more remarkable transformations I’ve seen in some time. I wish I knew which one it was.
First thing you need to know: This is not the Denver team you’re used to– world-class offense, defense decent-to-iffy. Here are the rankings for the Broncos going into this game:
- Offense: 22.6 points per game (17th)
- Defense: 15.8 points per game (2nd)
A year ago, those rankings were reversed– Denver was second in offense and 16th in defense.
The days of the Broncos stomping opponents into submission are gone too. Over the last three seasons, they’ve outscored opponents by 192 (12 points per game), 208 (13) and 128 (8) points. This 5-0 team has a margin of victory of 34– less than 7 points. Not surprisingly, every win has been close:
Those of you who’ve been reading me for a while know I consider any game decided by 7 points or less to be attributable entirely to luck, and a record built on close wins to be a fluke. Good teams don’t win the close games, because good teams don’t play close games. Good teams blow opponents out.
If the game is close, a good team will probably be around .500 in those games– as New England (3-1) and Seattle (3-3) were last year. When you see a team play a lot of close games, one of two things are true:
- If the team is very young– like the 1985 Browns (who went 8-8, playing 7 close games)– there’s a chance that they’re developing their roster and learning how to win– that they might become dominant soon. (The 1986 Browns went 12-4).
- If it’s a veteran team playing close games– like Sam the Sham’s 1980 Browns (11-5 record, 9-3 in close games), you can bet that they’re going to decline the following year, when their luck changes (The 1981 team went 5-11, going 3-5 in close games).
Denver isn’t a very young team, but they’re not really old (the average age is 26.2 years). A look at the 8 players over 30, will tell you what’s going on:
- One is the punter
- Two are defensive players (LB Demarcus Ware and backup DE Antonio Smith)
- Five are on offense (backup WR Andre Caldwell, RT Ryan Harris, TE Owen Daniels, LG Evan Mathis and, of course QB Peyton Manning)
It’s a fairly young defense (7 starters entered the league in the last five years), with a really old offense that is trying to have one last good year. Which isn’t working. The big problem for the offense are the two players you might expect.
1. Peyton Manning: Manning is 39, and he looks done. He’s thrown only 6 TDs and had 7 balls picked off– his worst ratio since his rookie year in 1998. He’s dinking and dunking (6.5 yards per pass) in an effort to make plays. But it isn’t working.
That said, Manning isn’t playing in his pet offense anymore. After the season. team president John Elway got tired of John Fox falling short in the playoffs. To fix the problem, he brought in his old buddy Gary Kubiak. Kubiak is a solution in that he won’t underachieve in the playoffs. He’ll underachieve during the regular season, and miss the playoffs. He went 61-64 in eight excruciating years with Houston, and I was kinda hoping his career was over. No such luck.
Anyway, Kubiak brought in his former Offensive Coordinator (Rick Dennison), who’s running a the hybrid “West Coast Offense / Landry Multiple Formation” scheme that Mike Shanahan used to run. They told Manning they weren’t going to delay implementing the offense until he retired– that he’d have to learn their system. He’s lost a lot… but maybe this is just growing pains
2. RB C.J. Anderson: This isn’t surprising, because Anderson was an undrafted free agent who made the Pro Bowl a year ago, for averaging 4.7 a carry and scoring 8 rushing TDs. As Cleveland’s Isaiah Crowell (also 8 TDs, but only 4.1 a carry) has learned, it’s much harder to surprise people once everyone knows your name.
Crowell has managed to maintain most of his value (he’s averaging 3.9 yards, but is catching passes more effectively). Anderson is getting 2.6 yards per run and 8.3 per pass and he looks like a fluke.
Anderson’s defenders note that there are problems with 60% of the offensive line. LT Ryan Clady, who has been to 4 Pro Bowls, tore his ACL and will miss the season. Imagine the Browns without Joe Thomas and you have some idea of the magnitude of the loss. Both LG Mathis and RT Harris are over 30– and Mathis’s hamstring has been troubling him (he might or might not play).
To make things even rougher on Denver, Ty Sambrallo, their #2 pick this year (Denver’s version of Cam Erving– he was going to replace Clady or Harris) is listed as doubtful (75% chance he won’t play). So they have a player who would be the third stringer (Tyler Polumbus, who was picked up when Atlanta cut him) on Manning’s blind side.
That said, RB Ronnie Hillman isn’t having trouble. He’s averaging 4.6 yards and looks like he might be ready to go from supporting player to lead back. Hillman is the reason why I’m not saying “Denver is averaging 3.3 yards a carry and shouldn’t give the Browns much of a challenge.” They’ve been splitting carries between someone playing very well and someone playing badly.
As for the rest of the platoon, the TE Daniels is 12-26 for 61 yards (5.1 per pass). You’d say that was age except that Manning is playing badly. WRs Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas are both struggling too, and they’re in their 20’s.
Fortunately, the defense is picking up the slack. That can be attributed to three people:
1. Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips. Kubiak brought his old DC in, and it’s supercharged the unit. Every time Phillips brings his “blitz the gaps” 3-4 to a team running a “control the gaps” scheme, the defense gets very good, very quickly. It’s like he takes the shackles off players and they go wild.
It doesn’t last– after 2-3 years they get sloppy– but he gets a big boost. A year ago, Denver had 41 sacks in 16 games. This year they have 22 in only 5– a pace that would give them 70.
2. CB Aqib Talib. He often doesn’t play with enthusiasm– it was why Tampa traded him to New England and why the Patriots let him leave after 2013. But this year, he’s going all-out.
3. SS T.J. Ward. He owes the Browns a debt of gratitude for signing Donte Whitner. That seems to be the event that he wasn’t Greatest Safety Ever. He’s still not good in pass coverage, but he’s making an effort. And his tackling (as opposed to playing demolition derby with ballcarriers) has substantially improved.
Of course LB Von Miller is still difficult to stop, and (until he got injured last week) Ware could still turn it on when the offense was on third down. It’s not that the Broncos are playing great fundamental defense– they’re just wreaking to much havoc that they’re forcing mistakes (14 turnovers).
I’m not sure if I’m watching Denver (which has always tried to outscore opponents) switch gears into a good defensive team that is supported by an offense that tries to be careful and deliberate. I have a feeling they just didn’t expect to be scoring so little.
I don’t traffic much in the “Boo-hoo-hoo, look at all our injuries” excuse, but I’ll agree that not being able to play CB Joe Haden or FS Tashaun Gipson will really hurt them. The Browns are facing a quarterback playing at the level Josh McCown usually does (Manning has 6 TDs and 7 INTs), and they won’t have their two best ballhawks.
On the other hand, the Broncos are the second opponent with major problems on the offensive line. With Sambrallo unlikely to play and Mathis questionable, Manning’s blind side protection will be hobbled at best and absent at worst.
If all these young pass rushers are as good as the Browns claim, they should be able to exploit gaps. Of course that was true about San Diego as well and the Browns made no headway. So we’ll see.
Another guy Cleveland won’t have– or they shouldn’t have, at least– is QB Johnny Rehab. When you send someone through a program to give up alcohol and he relapses, the correct move (as Mary Kay Cabot notes) is to send him back.
That is probably the best piece Cabot has ever written, by the way. Normally she rewrites someone else’s stories or lets someone– the agent, the player, a coach, the team– plant one with her. But this piece isn’t carrying water for anyone. And she’s 100% right.
As for the people talking up the Browns’ offense… well, this ought to be a good test. The last two weeks, the Browns scored 60 points– against opponents who allowed 54. This opponent allows 15.8; it’s made 7 interceptions and recovered 7 fumbles.
The running game could look different, because Crowell has a toe injury and RB Robert Turbin (whom they claimed on waivers from Seattle) is supposedly going to play. Turbin spent three seasons being a very reliable backup for Marshawn Lynch, so if his high ankle sprain is healed, he could provide a big boost. He runs over people– something the Browns haven’t had in many moons.
Assuming he can play. I mean, he’s here only because Seattle released him.
If this game were in Denver, I’d assume Denver would win. Since it’s in Cleveland, it gets interesting.
The Broncos are easily the worst undefeated team in the NFL (maybe Carolina is worse, but they look more impressive). Denver has had 4 close wins in 5 games. We know how good Baltimore and Oakland are; we’ve seen them. Minnesota and Kansas City are mediocre teams; Detroit is 0-5.
When I look at the components, Denver isn’t as strong as the Jets. If Ben Rothlisberger were playing, I’d probably rank Denver behind Pittsburgh too. They’re not running the ball well and they’ve had only one acceptable day passing (the Lions). Defensively, they’re causing lots of trouble with their athleticism, but they could be beaten by a team that could handle the rush.
The big question is “Which Cleveland Browns will show up?”
The Browns should– if their defense is going to be any good at all– be able to tie up the Denver backs and shut down every receiver except Demaryius Thomas (who is 6’3″ and 230). Sanders is a good player. but he isn’t a big receiver.
The way they win is very simple: CB Pierre Desir (who is 6’1″ and 198 pounds) steps in for Thomas and impedes him, while Tramon Williams handles Sanders. While that happens, the rush makes Manning regret that he returned.
On offense, the Browns vaunted line shuts off the pass rush, giving McCown time to spread the ball around. When they run, the blockers use Denver’s speed and aggressiveness to open holes on the backside for the runners.
That could happen… but I strongly doubt that it will.
Last week’s win was easily Cleveland’s best performance in terms of execution, but Baltimore was so crippled that it didn’t put up much of a fight. The Ravens couldn’t cover anyone, so they ended up giving enormous cushions. McCown was erratic (he had 11 passes thrown off-target), but because there was so much space, the receivers were still able to make the catches.
They won’t get that space this week. Talib has been to the Pro Bowl twice; CB Chris Harris once. TE Gary Barnidge will be covered by Ward– a Pro Bowl player itching to show up the Browns for picking Donte Whitner over him.
McCown doesn’t respond well to pressure– he makes mistakes and commits unforced errors. And unless the line begins playing like everyone believed it would, he will have pressure.
Bottom line is that the Browns have played 5 games and the offense has scored more than the defense’s average for points allowed only twice– against Baltimore and Tennessee. They scored 20 against the Raiders (who allow 24.8); they scored 10 against the Jets (who allow 13.8).
And they scored 28 against Tennessee (22.8) with a different quarterback playing.
It’s hard to see them scoring more than the 15.8 points Denver allows.
Defensively, the Browns are tied for 30th in yards per carry. Denver has struggled– but again, it’s because they have Anderson and Hillman splitting time. If they let Hillman do more, they could do better.
The pass rush should, assuming the Browns knew what they were doing when they added NT Danny Shelton, DE Xavier Cooper and LB Nate Orchard, be able to get pressure. I don’t expect it– but high draft picks playing against weakened lines should wreak havoc.
If the last two weeks are evidence that the Browns are rounding into form, this would be an upset special. Cleveland has a chance to reach .500– and win a lot of praise by knocking off an unbeaten team.
If the Browns were going to start Gipson and Haden, I could imagine them making a few big plays that will turn the tide. Without those guys– or LB Craig Robertson— with LB Karlos Dansby and DE Desmond Bryant at less than 100%…
Maybe the problem is that I watched the Baltimore tape too many times to be impressed by the win– and I haven’t watched enough tape of Denver to be thoroughly contemptuous. But I just can’t see the win.
Prediction: Denver 21, Cleveland 13.