Reid Fischer's World of Rants

Looking at the sports world through orange colored glasses

Not Division Champs Yet

Posted by mizzou1028 on December 15, 2008

Bad day for the Broncos.  As they took the field today against the Carolina Panthers, they did so with the knowledge that they were likely about to win the division, and sit tonight knowing they still have work to do.  See, Kansas City led San Diego 21-10 with less than 90 seconds to play when John Kasay kicked off to Eddie Royal to begin the Broncos game.  Little did the Broncos know that the Chargers would score, recover an onside kick and quickly score again to take the lead, and that the Chargers would end up winning when the Chiefs missed a 50-yard field goal on the last play.  The Broncos thought they had already clinched the division, not thinking there would be any way even Kansas City could blow THAT lead.  To boot, the Broncos themselves got run over by the Panthers, and thus can’t quite start printing playoff tickets just yet.  

To be perfectly honest, I can’t say I’m at all surprised by what transpired in Charlotte today, as the Broncos got beat by a much better team in the Panthers.  I was hopeful for an upset yes, especially after the Broncos had pulled off surprises in their previous two road games against the Falcons and Jets.  But being hopeful and being realistic are two completely different things, and I just knew the Broncos had their work cut out for them against a Panthers that in my opinion has usurped the Giants as the top team in the NFC and may just be the best team in the NFL right now.  We’ll find out for sure when the Panthers face the Giants next week, but at any rate Carolina is quickly proving that they are at the very least a bona fide Super Bowl contender.  

The Broncos employed the only defensive strategy they could in this game, and while it achieved the stated goal (stopping the run) it simply didn’t work overall.  With Champ Bailey out once again (more on that in a moment), the Broncos were severely shorthanded in the secondary against a great receiver duo in Steve Smith and Mushin Muhammad.   Despite this, Denver knew that their only chance to even have a shot was to try and slow down Carolina’s running game, which tore apart the Buccaneers for a franchise record 299 last week.  To do this, the Broncos had to bring an extra defender in the box.  The Broncos had the benefit of getting top linebacker and leading tackler D.J. Williams back at linebacker today after he had missed the last month due to injury (he had three tackles today).   Knowing this the Broncos took the unusual measure of starting Wesley Woodyard, who had been filling in for Williams, at strong safety.  In this instance the Broncos were actually quite clever in how they did this, because they had the benefit of an extra linebacker as the run stuffing safety.  For most the game the Broncos actually did an excellent job against the run.  The final stats may not indicate it, DeAngelo Williams finished with 88 yards on just 12 carries (a 7.3 average) while Jonathan Stewart added 52 yards on 16 carries (a 3.3 average).  All told the Panthers rushed for 147 yards and averaged 4.9 yards a carry, which isn’t good generally speaking.  A further look though reveals that 56 of Williams’ 88 yards came on one play, a sensational touchdown run in which Williams was completely bottled up by three Broncos and made a sharp cutback move reminiscent of Terrell Davis in his heyday.  Once Williams was off to the races there was nothing the Bronco defenders could do.  Taking that one run out of the equation, Williams had just 32 yards on his other 11 carries, for just a 2.9 average.  Overall, the Broncos allowed just 3.1 yards a carry when not factoring the touchdown run.  I realize it of course foolish to not include it, but I’m merely illustrating the Broncos overall actually did an excellent job stopping the run in this game, considering the Panthers’ offensive line dominance this season and the caliber of backs they were facing. 

So while the Broncos did well against the run, the downside of their strategy was they were forced to single up Steve Smith, without question one of the top five receivers in football, with so many defenders committed to the run.  The results of this were not pretty, as the Panthers immediately caught on to the fact that Smith was isolated.  Smith caught three passes on the Panthers’ first drive of the game alone for 64 of Carolina’s 77 total yards on the march, including the touchdown that tied the game on a bubble screen pass.   Smith was often open down the field, and finished with 9 catches for 165 yards and a score.  The Broncos resorted to double teaming Smith a few times, and he was able to gain separation anyway, and when he didn’t the Panthers could move the ball with the run.  Smith’s receiving mate Mushin Muhammad, who was also single covered most of the day, added four receptions for 70 yards.  

So while the Broncos did what they had to do to the stop run, the only strategy that even gave them a chance to do it, Smith was able to burn them all day long.  I am convinced that if a healthy Bailey were able to check Smith, the strategy would have had a much better chance to succeed.  Smith is way too good to be shut down by anyone,  but Bailey would have at least had a chance to contain him enough to where Jake Delhomme wouldn’t have been near as confident to throw Smith’s way.  With all respects to Dre’ Bly, he is not near the corner Bailey is, and frankly he never had a chance in his matchup against Smith.  It is worth noting that Bailey has now sat out seven consecutive games since the bye week, and he has been rumored to be returning for five of them, all the way back to the Atlanta game.  If Bailey wasn’t healthy enough to go when the Broncos needed him against Smith, it seems clear that his injury is much more serious than has been let on.  This is not to put any blame on Bailey by any means, but it is an illustration of the defensive troubles the Broncos have experienced this season.

The thing that doomed the Broncos above all else though, was what else, turnovers and lack of execution offensively.  The Broncos were brilliant on their first two drives, which resulted in a touchdown pass to P.J. Pope and a long field goal.  After that, it was all downhill from there.  Here is what happened the rest of the game, in order:

– Drive 3: Cutler throws an interception on the first play after the Bronco defense forced a punt, a poor decision throwing into double coverage, and the pass was picked after a deflection.  Resulted in a Carolina field goal to tie it at 10-10.  

– Drive 4: Punt, after the Broncos unsuccessfully hand off to Selvin Young on 3rd & 16

– Drive 5: Punt, after a drive stalls around midfield.  The Panthers take the ensuing drive 75 yards for a touchdown.

– Drive 6: Young fumbles at his own 25 with 10 seconds remaining in the first half, a turnover that results in a Carolina field goal (Two problems here: of course the fumble is inexcusable, but why didn’t the Broncos just take a knee and enter halftime with a seven point deficit.  Ridiculous play call, but that still doesn’t excuse Young).

– Drive 7: (After the Williams TD run put Carolina up 27-10) Three and out.  Punt.

– Drive 8: Three and out.  Punt

– Drive 9: (After a Bronco interception)  Missed field goal by Matt Prater.

– Drive 10: Three and out.  Punt

– Drive 11: Broncos gain 70 meaningless yards, end of game.

The Broncos once again lost the turnover battle, which is obviously costly.  These two turnovers were particularly bad timing however.  The first came when the Broncos were ahead 10-7 and had a chance to add onto the lead with a good drive, and the second came right before the half and essentially handed Carolina three points to give them a 20-10 lead when it otherwise would have been a one score game at halftime.  Had it not been for the fumble, it is reasonable to argue that the second half could have unfolded differently.  The Broncos made mistakes that simply can’t afford to be made on the road against an excellent team, and Carolina was able to take advantage and put the game away early in the second half.  

If I had a chance to offer a revised Super Bowl pick, right now, I would take the Panthers.  They are easily able to keep teams off balance with their two-headed monster running game and the presence of Smith.  Even a great defense will have trouble stopping them if the Panthers are clicking.  The X factors for Carolina are Delhomme, who is not always consistent and has a tendency to sometimes make bad decisions if he faces pressure, and the defense, which at times has been prone to big plays.  If the Panthers beat the Giants next week, they clinch home field throughout the playoffs, and being that they’re unbeaten at home this year, I think that would be case closed for the NFC if that happens.  The Broncos should not be ashamed of losing to Carolina on the road, but they do need to play better next week against the Bills, a team that has nothing to play for.  Beat Buffalo and the Broncos are in as division champs, but the Broncos must approach it as if it’s a playoff game, because let’s be honest.  At this point it is a playoff game, one that could define the Broncos’ season.  Or they could root for Tampa Bay against San Diego, but they’d better not count on the Bucs.  Next week the Broncos are much better off simply taking care of their own business.

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