Posted Wed Sep 28th by Monty
Winnable losses are always the toughest to swallow. A yard here, better coverage there, or a pass that isn’t tipped there — the Denver Broncos execute any of these plays a little better, and they are 2-1 with an impressive, defensive, John Fox-ball road win over the Tennessee Titans. But they didn’t, and we’re left with the second-guessing…
(Sorry this is late, I’m starting a new job at work and things are a bit crazy. I didn’t want to deliver a halfhearted column though so gave the six-pack an extra few days to brew.)
1. Going for it on Fourth and One
One yard, a million arguments — John Fox’s decision to go for it on fourth and one with a four-point lead will be debated for… well, at least the next six days. When you opt not to kick a field goal and lose by a field goal, eyebrows are raised, fans are enraged, and columnists engaged.
Mathematically, there’s no questioning the logic — you’re up four points, which is a one-touchdown game. Settling for the field goal would leave you up seven points, which is, still, a one-touchdown game. Instead, go for the touchdown and a possible 11-point lead — up two scores. Theoretically, with a stingy defense and somber crowd, game over. I get it.
But there’s more to that decision than the numbers. There’s the hard-to-define “feel” of the game. There’s how the crowd would react to success or failure, how your players are executing your plays, and how well they are keeping on their blocks. At the time of that play call, the Broncos had taken three shots at the end zone from the Titans’ two-yard line: a well-covered Kyle Orton pass and two Willis McGahee runs for a yard. Broncos players were not winning their individual battles at the line of scrimmage. The Tennessee crowd, like any smart crowd should, was going nuts. The Titans were clearly, clearly standing up to the Broncos.
Was it pride or plain lack of critical self-awareness that led Fox to believe the Broncos could punch it in?
With apologies to Eric Decker, I really didn’t feel confident the Broncos would be able to run in that touchdown. “We’re going to convert that 99 out of 100 times,” Decker said in defending his coach’s 4th down decision.
Really, Decker? Kinda feels like you were 0 for 4.
The problem was the play call. For all of Kyle Orton’s faults, executing in the red zone is not one of them. He is one of the league’s best beyond the 20-yard line. A third straight run up the gut was both brutally predictable and didn’t play to the Broncos’ strengths.
Many have called for Tim Tebow in the red zone there. Great idea. Mix it up, confuse the defense, take away predictability, and put that 225-pound touchdown machine to work. But even that was truly unnecessary.
The Broncos need their coaches and coordinators to self-evaluate before they make decisions like this. John Fox says he is still learning about his team; one can only hope that’s the case. You want to have faith in your players, but blind faith and predictable play-calling loses games. Let Orton take another shot there and/or put Tebow in that lineup, if for nothing else than to confuse your defense. Your two best red zone weapons — the careful Orton and dynamic Tebow — were completely unused when their team needed them most.
2. Kyle Orton: Play better or get benched
Performances like that aren’t making it easy to defend Kyle Orton.
The Broncos’ offense is ranking among the league’s worst, and it starts with Kyle Orton. The embattled quarterback is not making the plays necessary in any quarter, let alone the fourth one, to remain the team’s starting signal caller. Cries for Tebow are as loud as ever, and while I’m not crying for Tebow, I’m beginning to mutter under my breath.
I’ve always maintained that Orton should remain the starter as long as he plays well. I don’t care if the Broncos are losing, I care that he plays well (that whole “quarterback wins” pet peeve I have). He isn’t, and he truly hasn’t in a while. He played a decent game, albeit a conservative one, in Week Two, but he hasn’t had what one would call a “great performance” since Week 12 in St. Louis. He hasn’t had a streak of three good games since Weeks 3-5 last year.
He’s had four games of bad performances and one decent game in his last five starts. Whether the team is winning or losing, that’s just not going to cut it.
I watched Orton’s game tape a few times. The guy’s footwork just seems off. His shoulders are parallel to the line of scrimmage at times. He’s holding onto the ball too long. He did a good job avoiding the Titans’ rush in the first half (Tennessee was bringing the heat), but something seems off.
I’m not counting these next two weeks as automatic losses (more on that later), but we’re not going to win if Orton isn’t playing better.
3. Welcome to Foxball
Noun. A boring, conservative, low-risk low-reward football playcalling paradigm insistent on conservative passes and one-cut running on offense and aggressive fundamentals on defense. Fun during a win, beyond frustrating after a loss.
We get our deepest taste of Foxball against the Titans, and it wasn’t sweet. The passing game was either pedestrian or putrid, the running game was more or less stuffed, and the idea of a creative offensive playcall must have seemed preposterous to the coaches.
Offensive coordinator Mike McCoy has been with the Broncos for two earlier seasons, although he’s been calling plays for less than a season. He knows Kyle Orton; he knows Orton knows the system. He knows Orton is easily capable of 300-plus yard passing performances. So why the training wheels? Are they his or Orton’s?
If I’m John Fox I’m talking to McCoy about the need to open up the playbook. Brandon Lloyd is getting healthier and faster each week. It’s time the Orton-to-Lloyd connection returned.
4. Consider the outcome with Elvis Dumervil and Champ Bailey in the game
The Broncos defense had the Titans figured out for much of the game. There were two aspects that ended up costing the Broncos the game defensively:
a. Matt Hasselbeck was a surgeon on third downs. The Broncos were unable to bring pressure consistently, and the Titans got out of third-and-long situations, especially in the second and third quarters.
b. That 58-yard completion to tight end Craig Stevens. Simply a blown coverage. It’s unclear who’s fault it was. Brian Dawkins was covering Chris Johnson as Hasselbeck’s dumpoff at the line of scrimmage. Joe Mays got beat on the route, but he was probably expecting help (possibly from Dawkins). Wesley Woodyard was floating around in no-man’s land, so I tend to blame him, but maybe he had a role there too.
Now imagine Dumervil and Bailey back in the game:
alternate reality a. Hasselbeck doesn’t have three seconds to drop back and pick a target; he has two or less. Dumervil and Miller are on his heels, and Nate Washington is not really an option, what with Champ Bailey covering him. Something tells me he converts a lot fewer third downs.
alternate reality b. Substitutions don’t do a thinking defender any favors. Instead of Bailey you have Cassius Vaughn. In Vaughn’s place you have Jonathan Wilhite. Brian Dawkins and Rahim Moore are thinking and compensating for weaknesses that much more. I’m not saying that blown coverage doesn’t happen again, I’m just saying it’s a lot less likely. And maybe the sure-tackling Bailey brings down Stevens 20 yards more quickly than Vaughn did.
Get well soon, fellas.
5. Von Doom Sack Count: 2
When Dumervil comes back (hopefully this week) I expect this number to skyrocket. But still, the kid has two forced fumbles on top of his two sacks. Miller is the real deal and a cornerstone of this defense for years to come.
6. Looking ahead at the Broncos schedule
The glass-half-empty crowd (which represents the vast majority of Broncos country these days) saw Week 3 at Tennessee as the last hoorah before the hell stretch began. And they were right. The next two weeks before the bye look dreadful, and the rest of the schedule doesn’t look that great either. Even supposedly winnable games at season’s start — at home against Detroit, at Buffalo — look intimidating now. For your perusal:
- @Green Bay (3-0)
- San Diego (2-1)
- @Miami (0-3)
- Detroit (3-0)
- @Oakland (2-1)
- @Kansas City (0-3)
- New York Jets (2-1)
- @San Diego (2-1)
- @Minnesota (0-3)
- Chicago (1-2)
- New England (2-1)
- @Buffalo (3-0)
- Kansas City (0-3)
Eight of the Broncos’ thirteen remaining games are against teams with a better record than they have now. Of the other five games, only two are at home — against Chicago and against Kansas City very late in the season. That’s a long stretch of could-lose games; unless the Broncos upset either the Packers or Chargers, they won’t be favored again until December.