Of all the Q&A exchanges I've done, one of my favorites was the one back in 2011 before Titans-Broncos with Ted Bartlett of the fine Denver Broncos blog It's All Over, Fat Man! I'm pleased to have Ted back for another round of explaining our favorite team to a new audience. After reading the Q&A, don't forget to check out IAOFM for my answers to Ted's questions, where'll you get more/better expounding from me on the Titans than anything I've posted here lately once it goes up, plus lots of great Broncos coverage.
Total Titans: The Broncos are currently favored by something like 13 points. Earlier this season, the Titans lost to the Jaguars at home as similarly heavy favorites. In that game, the Titans on the whole probably outplayed the Jaguars but lost because the Jaguars were lucky on fumbles, converted a turnover into an early lead, and stopped the Titans from running the ball the way they wanted to early in the game as the Titans tried to implement their belief they were a running team. Beyond something like "get lucky on fumbles and batted balls," a Titans win probably requires them to exploit specific ways in which the Broncos are vulnerable, including things they'll stick to even if they're not working. What are those?
That's probably too convoluted to be a good question, so here's a simpler form of it: How could the Broncos potentially dig themselves into the kind of hole the Titans need them to to win?
It's All Over, Fat Man: One place where the Broncos are definitely vulnerable right now is against the deep ball, because they play a lot of man-free, and they're missing their deep center fielder. I think more highly of Rahim Moore than my IAOFM colleagues sometimes do, but I think he does a nice job as a deep middle guy in Cover 1. Since he's been hurt, Mike Adams has stepped in, and while he's been solid, he's not the rangy guy that Moore is.
Another place where the Broncos can probably be exploited is their run defense. They predictably missed Kevin Vickerson and Derek Wolfe last week, and neither are expected to play. Both are among the better players in the NFL among their position cohorts for playing the run, and their backups (primarily Sylvester Willams and Mitch Unrein for Big Vick and Tennessee's Malik Jackson for Wolfe) struggled to anchor last week against the Chiefs.
The Broncos defensive design counts on being able to stop the run with 7 men, and the key to that is the defensive line winning their battles. If they can't do that, suddenly SS Duke Ihenacho has to play a lot in the box, and then the deep ball is even more exposed.
Offensively, the Broncos rank 32nd in the NFL in fumbling, according to Brian Burke. When they've gotten in trouble, it's been when they've put the ball on the ground. Fumbling directly caused both of their losses (at Indianapolis, at New England) and it's made other games closer than they should have been all year long.
Total Titans: As much or more than any previous Peyton Manning team, it feels like what the Broncos like to do on offense is to take advantage of the favorable matchup that play, that quarter, that week. Is this a fair assessment of the Denver offense, or am I just missing their conceptual equivalent of the Texans outside zone?
IAOFM: I think that is a fair assessment. The Broncos still use all of the classic elements of the Manning Offense from Indianapolis, but they're far more likely to vary formations, and alignments, and use motion than those Colts teams were. I wrote an article earlier this week that showed how the Broncos really took advantage of poor safety play by the Chiefs last week, when the prevailing narrative was that they were after Marcus Cooper all day. Sure, he was the easiest of their corners to beat man-to-man, but he also consistently didn't get the help over the top that he should have gotten.
Adam Gase is smart enough to know that Manning's comfortable stuff is really effective, and Manning is smart enough to know that a creative wrinkle here and there can work tremendously well, when the normal character of the offense is to run the same few plays over and over, and just be really proficient at them.
I do think that Manning has always been ruthless about exploiting a particularly favorable matchup if he gets one. Broncos fans will remember (painfully) a wild card game against the Colts from January 2005, when Manning went to Reggie Wayne over and over against the woefully overmatched Roc Alexander. That game led the Broncos to drafts CBs Darrent Williams (RIP), Domonique Foxworth, and Karl Paymah in the first 3 rounds of the 2005 Draft.
Total Titans: By Football Outsiders numbers, the Broncos have an excellent run defense and a below-average pass defense, albeit one that's improved since the return of Von Miller. Has it been the pass rush or the pass coverage that's been the cause of Denver's vulnerability through the air?
IAOFM: The pass rush hasn't been as good as it was last season, and the coverage has mainly suffered due to a revolving door of players due to injuries in the secondary. The Broncos really haven't put a full game together yet this year of playing good pass defense, and each game, it's always one thing or the other.
I'm a big believer that the best way to defend the pass in an NFL that has really offense-favorable rules is to stop the run and keep the offense in long yardage situations, and off schedule. If you can do it with 7 men, it enables you to keep two safeties deep, and that's another variable that helps. Again, Vickerson was a huge loss against the run (he's developed into a much better player than he ever was in Tennessee), and Wolfe is actually the Broncos' most talented all-around defensive lineman, so I'm worried about struggles in the run game leading to 3rd and 2, and easy pass conversions.
Total Titans: Is the Peyton Manning experience in Denver a failure, or at least unsatisfying, if it doesn't end with a Super Bowl win, either this year or in the future?
IAOFM: No, that's nonsense. Super Bowl victories aren't promised to anybody, and signing Manning only made it very likely that the Broncos would be in the mix to win championships (as long as he was healthy). It didn't guarantee anything beyond that. The team still has to go out there and play well, and not get outplayed by somebody else. They also have to have a good deal of luck, which is part of football.
I think of the NFL playoffs the same way Billy Beane's approach to the MLB postseason was described in Moneyball. The name of the game is to qualify for the tournament. Once you're there, amid small samples, and the random bounce of the ball, you never know what might happen.
I think the Broncos are co-favorites to win the Super Bowl right now, along with the Seahawks, but (bleep) happens, as we saw in the Baltimore game last year, and if Manning never gets one in orange, it won't be a failure. It's better to be in the mix every year, and have a good shot than it is to be in NFL purgatory, like the Cleveland Browns, with no QB and no shot to win a championship. If Manning hadn't signed with Denver, they very likely might have drafted Brandon Weeden, and been all up in the mediocrity right now, at best.
Total Titans: Is there anything I haven't asked you about you'd like Titans fans to know about the Broncos?
IAOFM: The Broncos get a lot of press, and they've appeared in 6 nationally televised games now, so I don't think there's a lot of mystery to them. I would like to point out two unsung heroes, though. On offense, Knowshon Moreno has had an outstanding year, and if it wasn't so absurd, I'd call him the MVP of the team. (Of course Manning is the MVP, but Moreno has been terrific.) Moreno isn't a particularly dynamic runner, but he finishes with power, he's always been an excellent receiver, and he's one of the best pass protectors in the NFL. He also doesn't fumble the football, which makes him unique among the Broncos' ball-carriers.
I think the most impressive thing about Moreno is that he had been internally written off as a bust, and he changed the minds of the coaches by working hard, and having a good attitude, despite being inactive most of the first half of last season. He's finally stayed relatively healthy, and he's rounded into the player that the Broncos thought they were getting with the 12th pick of the 2009 Draft.
Another guy who doesn't get enough press is DT Terrance Knighton, who came over from the Jaguars as a free agent. He's not a big stats guy, but he wins a lot of battles up front, and along with Wolfe and Vickerson, that 3 man group could often hold the point of attack against 5 offensive linemen, keeping smallish LBs Wesley Woodyard and Danny Trevathan clean to run to the ball.