Here’s to the Defense

On the Monday night before (October 23) The Eagles and the Redskins combined to put up 58 points in a sort of coming-of-age party for Philadelphia’s rising star, Carson Wentz.  Last Monday (October 30) was a day for the defense.

With their backs against the wall, and in desperate need of a victory, the Denver Broncos (then 3-3) took the field at Arrowhead to face the 5-2 Kansas City Chiefs.  Kansas City boasted the second-highest scoring offense in the league (having scored 207 points through their first 7 games), the third-ranked offense in the league based on yards, and ranked fifth-ranked in both rushing (129 yards per game) and passing (behind quarterback Alex Smith’s impressive 120.5 passer rating).

Denver opposed them with the number one overall defense in football.  They also ranked second against the run (allowing just 71.8 rushing yards per game), sixth against the pass (although with a higher than expected 91.7 rating), and ninth in keeping opponents off the scoreboard (they had allowed just 118 points through their first 6 games).

When the dust had settled, the Chiefs walked off the field with a 29-19 victory (gamebook) that would seem to indicate that the #3 offense had taken care of business against the #1 defense.  In actuality, the story was much different.  The victorious Chiefs finished the night with just 276 yards, going 2-for-12 on third down, 0-for-3 scoring touchdowns in the red zone, and 0-for-2 in goal-to-go situations.  Of their 29 points, 13 were scored off of Denver turnovers and 3 others resulted after the Broncos failed on a fourth-down play at mid-field.  Of Kansas City’s 14 offensive drives, only one gained more than 50 yards.

The second half domination was even more complete.  After halftime, the Chiefs managed just 77 yards and 3 first downs.  Superstar rookie running back Kareem Hunt carried the ball 12 times in the second half for just 8 yards.

None Shall Run

Stopping the run was the first plank of Denver’s defensive game plan.  Hunt regained his league leadership in rushing yards, in spite of the fact that he was held to just 46 yards.  The team that allowed less than 72 rushing yards a game and had not allowed a rushing touchdown all season, left the field having given up just 79 rushing yards – and still no rushing touchdowns.

With the running game stuck in neutral, the KC offense would rest on the arm and head of Alex Smith.

The Game Plan

The discussion about Smith continues.  Is he a franchise quarterback?  Is he a game managing, system quarterback?  Can he put a team on his back (like Russell Wilson did on Sunday) and win a game when his running game was struggling to produce?  For the first seven games, the 2017 season had been Smith’s breakout season.  In 6 of the first 7 games, he produced a passer rating of at least 104.9 – on his way to the best rating in the league at the start of the night.

But as with Pittsburgh a couple of weeks ago, the Denver defense proved too tough a nut to crack.  The Bronco game plan relied on its five principle secondary players – cornerbacks Aqib Talib, Chris Harris, Bradley Roby and Will Parks; along with safety Darian Stewart – to stick tightly in man coverage to the KC receiving corps.  They would challenge Smith all night to make precision throws into tight windows – a challenge he was mostly not up to.

As the evening wore on, and Alex’ frustration mounted, he began to play fast.  Even though the actual heat in his kitchen was only moderate (right tackle Mitchell Schwartz was extremely effective keeping Von Miller at bay), Smith began rushing his decisions and giving up on plays early.  The play-action and misdirection plays that had provided some offensive spark in the first quarter were mostly abandoned by the third.  And once Denver could get Alex on the run he was 0-for-4 throwing the ball.

Alex finished the night just 14 of 31 for 202 yards, on his way to a season-worst 77.6 rating.  He was just 5 of 14 for 55 yards in the second half.  Yes, the coverage was tight, but not at all perfect.  There were plays there to be made.  Alex just didn’t make them.

On the Other Hand

Luckily for Smith and KC, they didn’t have to be miracle workers that night.  If they had their hands full with the Denver defense, the Broncos’ offense was having an even worse time.  Already an area of concern, Trevor Siemian and his unit turned the ball over four times on the evening (with the special teams contributing a fifth turnover).  And, again, it was the same concern.  Once Denver falls behind, they knew they were in trouble.  They are an offense built to play from ahead.  Or, at least, they were.  In the aftermath of his disappointing afternoon (Trevor scored a 43.5 passer rating on 19 of 36 throwing for 198 yards and three interceptions) coach Vance Joseph has given Denver’s next start (in Philadelphia this week) to backup Brock Osweiler.

It’s an unfair thing to blame Denver’s 3-4 start on one player.  It is, nonetheless, true that most of the other aspects of this football team do seem to be functioning at a fairly high level.  Their defense has been among the best in football, while the running game ranks tenth in the league, averaging 123.4 yards per game.  The receiving corps that includes Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders (when healthy) and Virgil Green is sufficiently talented.  The perception all along has been that Denver has been held back by the limitations of its quarterback.

Despite flashes of excellence, Osweiler has mostly disappointed in his opportunities to prove himself as a starting quarterback in the NFL.  There is no way – at this point – of telling how short his leash will be.  But this Sunday will begin his next opportunity.

The Protest – Again

As I noted in Wednesday’s post, since the National Anthem protests are still in the news, for the next little while I will be including a link back to my position on all of this.  It is here, and, if I do say so myself, worth a read.

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