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Published on 06/21/2008 at Sat Jun 21 09:59.
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This is the first in an irregular series I plan for the off-season. I want to take this space to analyze what we know now about the current team, and figure out where the real question marks are. There’s a lot of them, and these are the areas we need to watch more closely as training camp and the most wonderful time of the year, preseason finally approaches! (Yes, preseason isn’t all that great, but after 6 months I’m ready for a game, even games that don’t count! Especially with NFL Europa gone, and I just can’t make myself watch Arena ball).

Last year, the Broncos defense collapsed basically overnight, and went from being one of the top rated defenses in the league to one of the worst rated defenses in the league. There is a lot of talk out there about what happened; most of the mainstream media just sees last year’s numbers and assumes that nothing in particular has changed on defense, so they’ll see those numbers again.

But what people who don’t actually follow this team don’t seem to realize…a LOT has changed! To start with, two years ago Shanahan fired Larry Coyer in what turned out to be a somewhat questionable move. The defense collapsed near the end of the 2006 season, and Coyer ended up holding the bag there. It’s not clear that Coyer was really even at fault, but the decision was made: the team had to go in a new direction.

Thus, Jim Bates was brought aboard. Bates made himself well-known through his very successful defenses in Miami and Green Bay; he uses a somewhat unconventional system, where the defensive line is basically asked to just hold as long as they can, while the linebackers are expected to flow to the ball. It requires a superior middle linebacker — which we had, in DJ Williams — but it also requires a very consistent defensive line, which we’ve never had. Worse, it requires very large, stout players on the line, which meant that the best player, Gerard “Big Money” Warren became superflous. In training camp he got traded to the Raiders for a mere 5th round pick, which in hindsight is probably one of the worst deals we’d ever made. That said, the organization was unhappy with him because as occasionally happens, once he got his big money contract, his effort seemed to drop a little and he was not the dominating player in 2006 that he had been in 2005.

The Bates system failed dramatically in Denver. Despite what the fans say about Bates, the system is sound, but the Broncos had neither the personnel nor the patience to run it. Word across the league, and this came out in training camp, is that it really takes 2 years for a defense to learn the system. It’s a very complex system, and little nuances can change how a player is supposed to react, which causes more thinking and thus slower reaction times. And in general, the system is not a run-stopping system anyway — it’s a pass stopping system. So the idea is to let them have the run, but take away the pass. Eventually, the runs will fail and the ball will be turned over. Unfortunately, the run has to actually fail sometimes, and that didn’t happen last year.

Worse, Jarvis Moss and Ebenezer Ekuban both went out for the year early; Ekuban in training camp and Moss in game 6. It seemed that Moss had just started to start to get comfortable in the NFL and show a little bit of what he was capable of when he went down. Both of these players are back.

This year, we’re reverting to Bob Slowik‘s defense, which is basically the same as Larry Coyer’s defense. That means 8 in the box on running downs, it means a lot of zone defense (which is great for Champ Bailey and John Lynch, both of whom read a zone like they’re psychic) and creative blitzing schemes. It will mean Lynch will see the field primarily in run support.

That said, there are a LOT of questions on this defense, questions whose answers will determine if the Broncos can return to being a top tier defense or if the team spends another season limping home. The press has already decided the team will suck at defense and that the Broncos will be a mediocre team. The answers to these questions will be what proves them wrong. Or right.

  1. Was Jarvis Moss worthy of a round 1 pick? Personally, I was not sold on Moss from what I had read of him. He didn’t have enough time last season to prove me wrong, but I’m unsure that Moss is going to pan out. We need him to.
  2. Will Marcus Thomas meet his potential this year? Shanahan said — often — that Thomas would’ve been a top ten pick if he hadn’t gotten thrown out of school. Technically Thomas is a character risk, but the stories I’ve heard suggest he was a good risk. This summer’s incident in Florida is iffy, but if he gets it as a learning experience and stays on the straight and narrow, good. But that has nothing to do with his on field performance. What does is the fact that he missed most of his senior year, and wasn’t in great football shape last year. It wasn’t until the end of the season that he started to come on, and by then there were other problems.
  3. Will Dewyane Robertson work out? He’s a low risk buy — chances are we’ll not pay more than a 6th rounder for him even if he’s a monster — but from my perspective, we need him to be Gerard Warren, only better. On paper, he can be. The guy is 26 years old; we could get another 5-8 years out of him. If his knee doesn’t get worse. But he’s had that knee the way it is for 5 years, and has managed to play on it, and miss very few snaps. If things change now, that’s going to be bad for him, but he renegotiated his contract and he has to be looking for an opportunity to get a better one.
  4. Is Hamza Abdullah worthy of being a starting safety? This is a big worry spot for a lot of people. Sure, we have Lynch, but Lynch is just a touch slower than he once was, and he was never a fast safety. Smart, yes. Hard-hitting, yes. Able to read the play before it happens, absolutely. But sometimes what the safety needs to do is get to the ball, and get to it fast, and that’s not going to be Lynch’s strong suit. But aside from Lynch, we’ve got…Marlon McCree, who was often considered a weak link on the Chargers, and Abdullah. Last year he showed some promise, but he’s a worry spot.
  5. Will Niko Koutovides make it as a starting middle linebacker in this league? There are some very good excuses for him not starting. Those excuses are Lofa Tatupu and perennial Pro bowler and they go in the same sentence. So the fact that he was a backup behind Tatupu doesn’t actually mean that much. But here’s the thing: Seattle went and drafted Tatupu knowing they had K2, so does that say something? Or does that just say something about him when he was a rookie, and that was 4 years ago? Or is it just that Tatupu was the kind of player you simply take, regardless of who you have. Sometimes “Best Player Available” is actually taken. Also, he has been a special teams ace. That actually says a lot; despite the fact that he was behind Tatupu, he never gave up. He didn’t demand a trade, he didn’t lose heart. He played for years behind Tatupu and contributed where he could. If nothing else, we know he has the heart and leadership qualities to be the Mike. We need to know if he has the on-field skills to be the Mike. Shanahan thinks he does.

Here’s a bonus SIXTH question for you: Is Bob Slowik’s system really good enough for the NFL? Slowik hasn’t had success as a defensive coordinator in this league, yet. This will be his fourth chance. Now, he has the advantage of having been there. He has the support of the team, right now. And his system isn’t too different from what the team ran in 2006 and prior. But can he do it?

These are the questions. If all five six of those end up with favorable answers, then the team should be able to be top ten again. If we hit on half of them, then we can be league average and hope that the potential on offense is realized. If we blow all 5 5 or 6 of them? Well, there’s always 2009. If we’re lucky. Unfortunately, if we blow most of them, that means our 2007 draft class was a bust, and that’ll affect the team for a long time to come. We don’t want that.

  • Richard

    1: Jarvis Moss will be fine.
    2: Marcus Thomas will improve and be ready the whole season.
    3: Dewayne Robertson will do well because he has something to prove, and he happens to be a very strong willed person.
    4:Hamza Abdullah is a ?, and I don’t think he will work out.
    5: K2 will be acceptable to competent. Al Wilson is still a hard act to follow.
    6: I wasn’t impressed with Slowik when he was with Da’ Bears, but that was more than 12 yrs ago. Hopefully he has learned a few things.

    Overall, I see 4 out of 6 questions answered positively. That alone should improve the D, although it won’t get us to top ten territory. That should help us win three more games this year, and we go 10-6. Playoffs maybe.

  • mikebirty

    K2 is the big question for me on defense. If he is average or better then the defense will hold firm.

    The line has to be better for the main reason being that it can’t be worse – can it?

    And if that happens and the front 7 are, say, only twenty percent better then the secondary will benefit so much.

  • dbroncos

    They were talking about Jarvis Moss on ESPN today. They said he has solid technique and will be an impact player. It was a scene with Marcellus Wiley and Trey Wingo. They were reviewing how the 2007 DEs from the first round will do.

  • flbronc

    1. We took Moss too high. Never should have traded up to get him. He will be servicable, but not an impact player as reported by espn.

    2. He’ll do well. I think that if he can keep his nose clean, he will be a strong force on the inside for a long time. Maybe not a household name outside of Denver, but he’ll be pretty good.

    3. Robertson is gonna thrive, and thus make it easier for Thomas to blossom.

    4. Hamza, it’s make or break time buddy. Agree with the first poster here, he’s gotta prove it this year… but it’s questionable.

    5. This one is my big question mark. I dont really know a thing about him. He’s come in with the right attitude and said/done all the right things. We’re used to Wilson then Williams in the middle. You up to that Niko? I know you are rock solid on ST but we need a MLB too.

    6. Call it not doing my homework, but I thought his only other gig as a DC was with Green Bay. It never worries me too much to see an assistant coach move around (HC is another matter), there’s a lot of politics in the coaching world. That being said, he has a big mess to clean up. He’s in a pretty good position- the defense cant get much worse, and he’s a hero if he puts us back in the top 10.

    My prediction is that we are much improved defensively this year. We’ll be better on both pass and rush. I think that our pass defense will rank higher than the rush, and overall we will be ranked 10-12 by the end of the season in total defense. We upgraded at some key spots in the offseason. We’ve got the talent to be much better, but we need to kick the hangover from last year.

  • E. Halsey Miles

    Slowik has been the DC for Chicago, Browns and Packers. Broncos counts as his fourth, so I misspoke above when I said four, I should have said three. See here:

  • Tony

    Overall I think the defensive line is going to mold together pretty well this year with Thomas, Robertson, Powell in the middle and Dumervil, Moss, Crowder, Ekuban rotating at end positions. Safety and linebacker are the biggest question marks for me. Lynch keeps losing steps and I don’t think Hamza is going to fit the bill as a starting safety in this league. Also the only LB position I am comfortable with is DJ. Just because Boss is reunited with Champ doesn’t mean instant success. And you can’t feel good about Niko at MLB when he’s been a backup his whole career. I do like what he brings to the table on special teams though, and I expect our STs to improve dramatically.

    The Giants certainly didn’t have amazing personnel on their defense last year, and they were shutting teams down in the playoffs thanks to a solid scheme. Hopefully Slowik’s defensive scheme will be effective enough to overcome the personnel weaknesses we have on that side of the football.

  • Kyle

    Interesting article Earl. :)

    I would say that there is quite a difference between Jim Bates and Bob Slowik, in a lot of ways. Bates almost stubbornly didn’t use 8 men in the box, while Slowik seems more willing to do just that to help the run defense.

    The whole thing fell apart last year once Bailey and Bly had to keep putting their noses in the run defense on not just focus on playing man coverage. All the highlight reels with the ball going over their head – every single time – it’s because the first five-ten yards of the play, they’re watching the running back and not watching their guy.

  • E. Halsey Miles

    Oh hey! I didn’t misspeak! I misremembered what I wrote. That’s even better! =)

  • Kyle

    Wow, I misread your article Earl. Thought you were comparing Slowik to Bates and saying they were similar. Sorry. :/

  • E. Halsey Miles

    Yea, I was saying Slowik is theoretically going to be a lot like Coyer.