Michael Lombardi
Friday September 26th, 2008

After leaving the Raiders in May 2007, I received a call from Denver coach Mike Shanahan, who asked if I might be interested in assisting his staff with personnel evaluations. The offer sounded wonderful to me, the only downside being that Mike couldn't pay me. However, I saw it as an opportunity to learn from one of the coaching legends in the game and to be involved with a first class organization. And if you love football as much as I do, sometimes you have to forgive money to keep learning, which I did for six months with Denver.

This year, the Broncos have gotten off to an amazing 3-0 start and their offensive numbers are better than the record-setting ones the Patriots posted through three games last year. But the Denver defense has been porous. Can they win this way? I'm not sure, but here are the positives and the negatives of their team after three weeks.

POSITIVES

Can quarterback Jay Cutler play any better? He has proved to the draft prognosticators, me included, that he was the best quarterback of the 2006 draft class. In fact, he may end up being the best player in that entire draft.

Last season when I watched him at practice, I thought he was sensational. He has that certain swagger to his game. He knows he's capable of doing some amazing things. His size, his exceptional ability to move in the pocket. And what has caught my attention this season is the way he slides slightly in the pocket to avoid the rush and still make a play downfield.

Having been a competitor for so many years against the Broncos, and having seen their system first hand, I have respect and admiration for their offense. But this Broncos offense is different than any other Denver offense in past Shanahan eras.

For the first time since their Super Bowl teams, the Broncos have a legitimate left tackle in first-round pick Ryan Clady. They also have a solid right tackle in 2007 third-round pick Ryan Harris.

Adding size and pass protection skill to the offensive line is something I've mentioned in my columns since before the draft. Now, Denver finally has the size that allows the offense to have a drop-back passing game, which plays right into the strength of their quarterback.

With the afforded protection, the Broncos have a pass-first mentality and call the game as if they were playing in the CFL, not the NFL -- trying to accumulate first downs in two plays instead of three. Last season the Broncos were a traditional offense trying to establish the run. They passed 54 percent of the time in the first half. But this year, with a new playcaller in quarterback coach Jeremy Bates, Denver comes out throwing from the opening whistle. They are 61 percent pass in the first half to 39 percent run.

Bates, along with the offensive staff, modified the offense around the players they have and developed their own style. Still using their signature zone run game, the Broncos are no longer relying on the running backs to carry the load.

The relationship between Bates and Cutler cannot be underestimated, and the willingness of Shanahan to allow his coaches the freedom to call the game is very impressive. But what I think is most impressive about Shanahan is his willingness to be adaptive and change the offense based on the talent around him. He knows Cutler is a dynamic passer and that Bates is a very smart and talented young coach who can be trusted with each play call.

NEGATIVES

As good as the offense has looked, the defense has looked equally as bad. Based on what I have seen on tape this year, I am not sure they could slow down the USC offense, and I mean South Carolina, not Southern California.

There is no facet of the pass coverage defense that the staff can feel comfortable or secure with. No lead is ever going to be safe with this defense on the field. Even with all-pro cornerback Champ Bailey suited up. As I have mentioned before, the shut-down corner concept does not work in the NFL, and it really doesn't work when there is no pass rush at all. And the Broncos have no ability to rush the passer with their four down defensive linemen.

Elvis Dumervil is a solid rusher and the Broncos' best, but he can be neutralized. No one else on the line can get close to the quarterback. So this means more blitzing, and more blitzing exposes this bad secondary. They have allowed 13 pass plays over 20 yards already and it makes no difference if they play zone or man, the results are the same -- just another completion.

In the past two games, the Broncos have allowed almost 1,000 yards of offense. What might be the most amazing stat of this young season is the Chargers accumulating 456 yards of offense in only 26 game minutes against the Broncos. Wow! Denver's last in pass yards allowed, giving up 978 yards, almost 100 more than any other NFL team, and it's also last in allowing over 500 yards after the catch. So not only do the Broncos fail to cover any wide receivers, they also fail to tackle. And when teams give up yards after the catch, it signals two area of weakness -- lack of athletic ability and speed.

Can this team win? With its soft schedule, which features the Chiefs twice, the Raiders, Miami, Cleveland and Atlanta, I would be surprised if they don't win at least 11 games. But that doesn't mean they can really win once the playoffs start. When the Broncos have to face teams that can control the ball and not let them build a lead, they will struggle. And at some point weather, tipped balls and turnovers might creep up and the Broncos will need to find a solid game from their defense. But for right now, if you are a Broncos fan, enjoy the offensive fireworks.

Buffalo at St Louis. I'm really not a glutton for punishment, but this game will give me a clear indication of what kind of team Buffalo has and, more importantly, what kind of leadership it has in the locker room.

Now, on paper, this game is a not a contest, but they don't play the game on paper. And the hardest thing to do in the NFL is to get ready for a game you should win. Your team's focus and interest is not the same. Getting a team ready for the big game is easy, but Dick Jauron had his hands full this week preparing his team and having them focused. This is the kind of game in which mental mistakes creep. And no matter who you play, when you make mental mistakes, the chances of losing greatly increase.

FROM THE NEW YORK DAILY NEWS ... Tom Coughlin, on Plaxico Burress: "I think we're all saddened by it. But we wanted to make sure the message is loud and clear. We've had success here because of the team concept, and the team concept is basically that everyone is accountable and responsible and we don't let the other guys down."

I think when a team rewards you with a new contract after a successful season, they have every right to demand your commitment to the team. I respect the talents of Burress greatly, but he needs to be a pro and have a sense of responsibility to his job.

FROM THE NEW YORK DAILY NEWS ... Agent Drew Rosenhaus, on Burress: "We're acknowledging that this is something where there should be some repercussions. But not to the extent where he's denied his right to perform his livelihood, to play. We think that it's very, very serious. It's not very common."

In the long run, the Giants might lose the grievance in terms of docking Burress' pay for two weeks, but the message they are sending is more important than the money. Often times it is hard to always win the grievance, and since this is not a first-time offense, I am sure the Giants have good documentation of his missed meetings. But at the end of the day, it is the message that needs to resonate loud and clear, and the Giants accomplished that.

FROM THE DETROIT LIONS PRESS RELEASE ... "I have relieved Matt Millen of his duties effective immediately,'' William Clay Ford Sr. said in the statement. "I believe that this decision is in the best interest of this organization. I appreciate Matt's efforts. Matt worked tirelessly during his tenure to win, and he would be the first one to tell you that you have to win in this league. It just didn't work out. The support of our fans continues to be incredible and they deserve a winner. Every decision we make must focus on that goal, and I believe this decision today will allow this team to move forward in a positive manner."

The only place to go is up for the Lions. And like what the Dolphins did this offseason in hiring Bill Parcells, the Lions need to hire someone who can come into the organization and give them a comprehensive, detailed NFL championship program of how to build an organization from top to bottom. Programs win in the NFL, not schemes.

• FROM THE INDY STAR ... Peyton Manning: "Offensively, our job is to score more points. As the quarterback, my job is to protect the ball better and be accurate with the football and make good decisions in the run game and the pass game. That's something I haven't done well enough in two out of the three games, and it's something I plan to do a better job of starting this week and next week.''

The mark of a great player is his willingness to accept responsibility and the will to constantly improve his craft. And Manning is doing what all great leaders do by holding himself accountable.

• If I were the St. Louis Rams, I would be very worried if Trent Green gets hit this week. The last time Green played, he suffered a very hard hit and had a concussion that knocked him out. Behind this line, Green will get hit. I worry that this injury might happen again.

• If I were the Houston Texans, I would give quarterback Matt Schaub a very short leash this week in Jacksonville. Schaub is 2-9 in his last 11 starts and this team has lost eight of nine on the road. Schaub will throw for a high completion percentage, but he does not throw the ball down the field. The Texans need to make plays down the field.

• If I were the Kansas City Chiefs, I would call the New Orleans Saints and judge their level of interest in running back Larry Johnson. The Saints need a big back and the Chiefs need picks.

• If I were the Green Bay Packers, I would be worried about losing Al Harris for an extended period. The Packers love their man coverage, and without Harris, they will struggle to cover as their depth does not look very effective.

Our prayers and heartfelt condolences go to Tampa Bay kicker Matt Bryant and his wife, Melissa, for the death of their infant son, Matthew.

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