10 QUESTIONS: Patriots vs Broncos Sept 24, 2006
1) Jake Plummer appears to be struggling a bit in the early part of the season. While it may only be week 2, is Jake on "shaky ground" at this point?
Not if you believe Mike Shanahan. The head coach has publicly gone on record with his support for Plummer, claiming there was no way he was going to throw Cutler in the mix right now, and its doubtful anything will change in the foreseeable future.
With that said, Shanahan won't sink the ship either, and it wouldn't be out of the question to consider a change if it meant a legitimate shot at the playoffs. Keep in mind, when Jake is on - this team is pretty hard to beat and Shanahan's got a mile of patience…up to a point.
2) Mike Shanahan made headlines when he said that he planned on scaling back the playbook a bit to help some players. Was that specifically directed at helping Jake Plummer, or are other there other players included in that discussion?
Actually the entire Broncos offense was probably included in that discussion. With a rookie in the backfield, a new offensive coordinator and Javon Walker still learning the playbook, Denver has struggled, and heading into the third game of the season, something needed to be done.
Excuses aside, this is Shanahan's attempt to find anything that may get these guys on the same page. Whether or not he actually scales it down remains to be seen, but the message was sent.
3) The Denver defense has undergone some significant changes in the last season or two. What is the biggest change that people who aren't familiar with the Broncos may not know about?
Pretty much anything you really want to now about the Broncos defense can be found in the 2004/2005 Cleveland Browns Media Guide. Five former Browns found their way onto the Denver roster over the past two years and all have enjoyed measurable success in the Shanahan system.
The Broncos are hoping that success continues this year and have all but abandoned last years blitz package in favor of stronger defensive line pressure on the quarterback, relying on the defensive backfield to assist in run coverage.
4) Mike Shanahan has been credited with the ability to make 1,000-yard backs out of all types of running backs. What is it about the Denver offense that helps make that possible, or is it the talent of the backs that Denver has?
There's no question that Shanahan has had more than his share of 1,000-yard rushers over the past few seasons, but the key to that success is twofold. The Broncos' system is designed around a strong blocking scheme, which works effectively with certain style running backs. Find that style and its plug and play.
Both players have nice breakout speed, but Tatum is clearly the fastest of the pair. He got a knack of spotting the opening and cutting on a dime behind his blockers. The three-year vet has experience in his corner, but has shown a tendency to cough it up in critical situations, leaving him vulnerable late in the game.
Rookie Mike Bell is being used as the more all-purpose back, filling the role Mike Anderson held last season. While he's not as strong as Anderson, he's got that ability to pick up those extra once the initial contact is made, and that's a big plus in Shanhan's book. The biggest question mark lies in the rookie's ability to take a pounding over the course of a sixteen-game season.
6) With Ashlie Lelie gone, are the Broncos better off? Tell us what Denver picked up in Javon Walker and what they may have lost with Lelie gone.
The release of Lelie was huge for Denver, both on and off the field. Lelie had become a distraction and the negativity surrounding his holdout had a definite effect on the team, whether they're willing to admit it or not.
While they may have lost some of the long-ball threat Lelie brought to the table, the addition of Javon Walker gives Plummer a legitimate target alongside Rod Smith in the ten to twenty-yard range as well as spread the defense against double coverage.
7) The Patriots have TE Ben Watson who has become a major factor in their passing attack. How will the Broncos slow him down? Do you see other vulnerabilities that the Patriots may be able to exploit?
The Broncos have had great success against two of the top tight ends in the NFL - both coincidentally in the AFC West - Kansas City's Tony Gonzalez and the Chargers' Antonio Gates. Denver primarily uses reserve free safety Sam Brandon in their nickel package to cover the tight end. Brandon, at 6-2, 200 pounds, has been able to neutralize "receiving" tight ends. Strong side linebacker D.J. Williams has also been a force in coverage with his speed and quickness. Those two will team up to try to contain the dangerous Watson.
Defense has been Denver's strong suit so far this year with equal success against both the run and pass, however they've not faced a quarterback anywhere close to Tom Brady in ability. The feeling in the Mile High City is that the Patriots best chance to exploit Denver's vulnerabilities is to do what the Broncos' first two opponents have done on the defensive side of the ball - that is to contain quarterback Jake Plummer in the pocket and force some turnovers. If New England can control the time of possession, Brady's skills when the Patriots take over the ball will probably allow them to prevail.
8) A lot is being made of the gameplan the Broncos used against New England last year, specifically the 11-up Blitz. Is it a part of the Broncos regular strategy and Do you see the Broncos trying the same thing this game or will they change it up?
The blitzing Broncos are no more, in fact the blitz may not even be in the playbook. This season, the Broncos are relying on their front four to supply pressure on the quarterback to allow their back seven, including Pro Bowlers Al Wilson, cornerback Champ Bailey and safety John Lynch, to concentrate on coverage and run support. So far, the change of philosophy has worked, but it must be said again that the team hasn't faced a Tom Brady yet.
Cobbs may understandably be bitter after being cut by the Patriots, but it's well known that the Broncos' front office and coaches have long had a reputation of good rapport with their players. It's rather rare for any of Denver players to desire a change of scenery. Belichick does, in fact, have a reputation of being "all business." How can one argue with success, however?
10) Give us your three keys to the game for the Broncos in order to win
STRIKE EARLY -
The Broncos' opening possessions have been abysmal this year. For this team to have any success against the Patriots they need to make a statement early and force New England to battle from behind. That philosophy has worked in the past - Denver owns a 4-1 advantage against Tom Brady.
TIME OF POSESSION -
Control the clock and you control the game - this is crucial for Denver. Limit New England's opportunities to score and you at least give yourself a fighting chance to pull it off on the road.
ELIMINATE THE MISTAKES -
There's no question that Denver has to find a way to eliminate the turnovers - but they also need to eliminate the mistakes that go unnoticed. Missed blocking assignments, blown pass routes and a porous front line have all contributed to the Broncos disappointing start.
Sunday's goal is simple - Eliminate the mistakes. And to do that, Plummer and Co. will need a near perfect performance.
Prediction: (Game and season) What is it and why
Despite their recent struggles, I think Denver has the ability to steal this one, but it will take an all out effort on both sides of the ball. While it may only be the third game of the season, it's a critical point for the Broncos, and Shanahan has spent the better part of the past week making sure his players understood this.
I'll take the Broncos by seven - thanks in part to the best defensive stand of the season. Denver 21 - 14 over New England
SEASON OUTLOOK -
Expectations were high headed into the season, especially after falling just one game short of Super Bowl XL. Unfortunately, to this point, the Broncos have failed to live up to those hopes, and out of the gate look more out of sync than a Jessica Simpson concert.
The problems can be corrected, but the clock is ticking and coming out of the bye week on Oct. 1, there's little room for error against Baltimore, Indianapolis or Pittsburgh.
There's no doubt that the Broncos have enough talent to turn this season around, the only question is whether or not they have enough time.
Michael John Schon has covered the National Football League and the Denver Broncos for the past ten years. As a member of the Pro Football Writers Association he has published and syndicated columns to both newspapers and magazines throughout the United States and Canada. His syndicated radio broadcast: “Schon Live” airs weekly on various radio stations around the country.
Schon can be reached at Schon@prostarmediagroup.net
Steve Waters, a long time contributor to Broncos Update, also contributed to this report.