Rematch of the Mismatch
How did the Broncos respond to the 35-point Super Bowl loss to the Seahawks? By changing two-thirds of their regular lineup. The proof of the makeover is stunning, especially with 10 of 12 changes to the defensive regulars. Heading into Super Bowl rematch at Seattle on Sunday, Denver is a transformed team.
Yes, a big football game will be squeezed into the NFL off-field drama this weekend: Denver (2-0) at Seattle (surprisingly 1-1), in what is the first Super Bowl rematch played in the NFL in 17 years. (True fact: The last rematch of a Super Bowl the following year was Green Bay-New England in 1997, a few months after Super Bowl XXXI.) This game will be the acid test of whether team architect John Elway, which still sounds funny to say, has done enough to narrow the gap between Denver and Seattle. Actually, it wasn’t a gap in last February’s 43-8 Seahawks victory. It was the Grand Canyon.
“Anytime you get beat like we got beat," Elway said this week from Denver, “obviously the credit goes to Seattle. We could never slow down that tidal wave. But the one thing I get more excited about now as a GM than I did when I was a player after a game like that—and I had a few of those losses when I played, obviously—is this: Now, I can really affect our team the next season. As a GM, I knew I had four months to figure out how we could get better on paper. Then it’s up to the coaches and players to make it work. When I looked at that game, I knew we had to be better on defense. If we ran into a juggernaut, we had to be able to play good enough defense to win a game where our offense is being limited.’’
Elway said he focused on three things as the sting of the Super Bowl began to wear off:
- Get a pass-rusher, most likely in free agency because the Broncos would be pick 31st in the draft, and there’d never be a sure-fire pass-rusher available late in the first round.
- Get tougher on defense—and especially more physical in the secondary.
- Make the team less offensive-centric, which obviously refers to 1 and 2.
Denver’s defense had zero sacks, zero interceptions and zero forced fumbles in the Super Bowl, and allowed Russell Wilson a 123.1 quarterback rating. In free agency, Elway bought one of the most physical corners, Aqib Talib, and one of the hardest-hitting safeties, T.J. Ward. He gambled that DeMarcus Ware—who, at 32, was a risky buy coming off an injury-plagued 2013 in Dallas—wasn’t done but rather was never right last year because of a persistent elbow injury that never healed all season.
And Elway got lucky with one change he never planned. When the Broncos’ leading tackler last season, Danny Travathan, suffered a fracture tibia Aug. 12, Denver needed a replacement for the sideline-to-sideline producer. Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio plugged in Brandon Marshall—no, not that Brandon Marshall—and he’s been a similar tackling machine through two weeks. Denver got Marshall off Jacksonville’s practice squad last year. “We tried to get him as a college free agent [out of Nevada] a couple of years ago," Elway said. “Not a blazer, but a very instinctive player." Add first-round pick Bradley Roby, the corner from Ohio State, and you can see that the surgery Elway did in the off-season has been thorough. Roby made a terrific game-ensuring pass-breakup from Andrew Luck to Reggie Wayne to cap the week-one win over Indianapolis. Roby’s 126 snaps, fifth-most on the team, is surprising for a rookie to start the season, and his 13 tackles lead the secondary.
In all, here’s how much the Denver team has changed from the Super Bowl unit, with lineup changes in bold:
|SUPER BOWL 48||WEEK 3 AT SEATTLE|
|Demaryius Thomas||WR||Demaryius Thomas|
|Chris Clark||LT||Ryan Clady|
|Zane Beadles||LG||Orlando Franklin|
|Manny Ramirez||C||Manny Ramirez|
|Louis Vasquez||RG||Louis Vasquez|
|Orlando Franklin||RT||Chris Clark|
|Julius Thomas||TE||Julius Thomas|
|Wes Welker||WR||Wes Welker|
|Eric Decker||WR||Emmanuel Sanders|
|Peyton Manning||QB||Peyton Manning|
|Knowshon Moreno||RB||Montee Ball|
|Malik Jackson||LE||Derek Wolfe|
|Sylvester Williams||DT||Sylvester Williams|
|Terrance Knighton||DT||Terrance Knighton|
|Shaun Phillips||DE||DeMarcus Ware|
|Nate Irving||OLB||Von Miller|
|Paris Lenon||MLB||Nate Irving|
|Danny Travathan||OLB||Brandon Marshall|
|Champ Bailey||CB||Aqib Talib|
|D. Rodgers-Cromartie||CB||Chris Harris|
|Mike Adams||FS||Rahim Moore|
|Duke Ihenacho||SS||T.J. Ward|
|Matt Prater||K||Brandon McManus|
|Britton Colquitt||P||Britton Colquitt|
|Eric Decker||PR||Isaiah Burse|
|Trindon Holliday||KR||Andre Caldwell|
Total starting lineup changes: Offense 5 of 11, Defense 9 of 11. Total—14 of 22. But three of the starters (Franklin, Clark and Irving) started last year at different positions. If you count the special-teams changes, and the change at nickel back for Denver, where rookie Bradley Roby has been the man in the slot, 18 of the prime 27 positions, exactly two-thirds of the lineup, have turned over.
On defense, particularly, the change has been huge—10 of the prime 12 players. Thought the unit, arguably, is tougher, it hasn’t shown up in the numbers yet. The Broncos are allowing 38 yards more per game on defense than their average surrendered per game last year. But they are allowing four points per game less. It’s too early to draw conclusions, but it’s a nastier unit just from watching them play.
“When you talk about toughness on defense," Elway said, “I’m not just talking physically. It’s a mental thing too. Will you play a little hurt? Will you have the attitude where you’ll never give in? Will you be there to make the plays other guys won’t on fourth down. Talib’s a guy who comes up and tackles as well as any corner in the league. Ward plays like a linebacker. We needed that."
Two other points about Sunday’s game:
The weather. Would you believe a forecasted game-time temperature of 84 degrees, with bright sun and zero chance of rain? “As a [college] player, I was always worried about the weather up there," said Elway, the Stanford alum, “but we’re gonna get great weather up there this week. So that won’t be a factor."
Seattle coming off a loss. Pete Carroll has definitely had his team’s attention in practice this week, coming off the 30-21 loss to San Diego. It probably doesn’t matter much, but playing at home and coming off a loss—neither is good for Denver.
“I think we’re ready for a game like this," said Elway. “But this will answer a lot of questions about where we are. We’re going into the most hostile situation in the NFL. We’ve got the ability to win this game, if we play like we’re capable of. These are the kind of games we have to win to be world champions."
About Last Night …
Atlanta 56, Tampa Bay 14. Would you believe it should have been worse? “I don’t think I’ve ever watched a game where receivers were as open all over the field," Phil Simms said on CBS as the game wound down. The three touchdown passes from Matt Ryan illustrated that. The throws to Harry Douglas, Julio Jones and Jones again had one thing in common: Each receiver was wide open. So the monumental problem with the Bucs is the defense, particularly the pass defense. Ryan had the best passing day in Falcons history Thursday night (21 of 24), and now, through three games, the Bucs have allowed an astounding 77 percent completions to opposing quarterbacks, and a 117.2 rating. What a sad day this must be in Tampa: What must it feel like to have your season over Sept. 19?
Player You Need To Know This Weekend
Matt Asiata, running back, Minnesota (number 44). With an assist from rookie Jerick McKinnon, a third-round pick from Georgia Southern, the running load will fall on Asiata going forward, in the absence of Adrian Peterson. Asiata is a powerback/fullback type at 5-11 and 234 pounds, slow but with a little bit of quickness. He has good hands, as he exhibited on a touchdown catch-and-run against the Patriots last week. The Saints have been vulnerable against the run, and Asiata will have to be a big part of the gameplan for the Vikings to have a chance Sunday in the Superdome. “He played a lot in the preseason,’’ said quarterback Matt Cassel this week. “He proved last week he could catch the ball out of the backfield. He stepped in for us last year and had a three touchdown game, so he’s a very capable back. The fact of the matter was when I got my start in New England when [Tom] Brady got hurt, nobody thought we could do anything. We closed ranks so to speak and went on to an 11-5 season. Guys get opportunities in this league all the time.’’ This is Asiata’s—and maybe for the rest of the season.
Bose Sound Bite of the Week
What does a coach say to his team after it just stood toe-to-toe with the Super Bowl champs, and won? Here's Mike McCoy after the Chargers beat the Seahawks last week:
“What’d we talk about all week long, men? Hey, we’re gonna take it one week at a time. You’ve gotta put one behind you and move onto the next. It’s about being a football team. Hey, we went through a lot in the last couple of weeks. All camp—even going back with everything that happened personally. People losing their friends or their family members. Losing some key players before the season and during the season. It’s been brutal on all of us. But you know what? We all stuck together and believed in what we were doing. That’s what we said all week long, men. Just keep fighting. We lose a brutal loss on Monday night. We lose a guy who’s been the cornerstone of the offensive line for eleven years. Then we go out there today and don’t skip a beat. Because we believed! Because we all believed in each other and what we’re doing! That’s the key, men. You gotta believe! Look what happened. We went out there, we worked our ass off all week long, and we beat a damn good football team."
Regular Old Quote of the Week
“It can’t be a rivalry if you get your ass kicked all the time.”
—Arizona coach Bruce Arians, whose Cardinals play the big, bad Niners on Sunday in Glendale. Over the last five years, San Francisco is 9-1 against Arizona.
Ten Things I’ll Be Watching For This Weekend
1. Another bombshell. Will an NFL player have another off-field incident?
2. A revived rivalry. Used to be the only reason we’d care about Baltimore-Cleveland is that it was The Modell Bowl. John Harbaugh is 11-1 against the Browns. But Brian Hoyer and Terrance West and a decent defense might have something to say about that Sunday. The Browns have had two winnable performances so far, and though they’re 1-1, I could see them winning against the rested Ravens. (By the way, interesting stat from the remnants of the Ray Rice story: Justin Forsett is averaging 6.6 yards per rush on 19 carries so far. He looks legit.)
3. The Bengals, establishing a dominant home-field presence. Cincinnati has won 10 straight regular-season games at Paul Brown Stadium, and Tennessee is a nice candidate to make it 11. If you saw my stat of the week Monday, you’ll see how all opposing quarterbacks (except Andrew Luck last season) have struggled mightily in the past two seasons at PBS. Welcome to town, Jake Locker.
4. A.J. Green and the Injured Masses. It only feels like half the league is questionable for the weekend games. But a big one is A.J. Green (foot), who will probably play … and will he have the iffy but very talented Jason McCourty (groin) across from him? Stay tuned.
5. EJ Manuel, to be able to win a shootout. We’ve seen Manuel be efficient and mistake-free, relatively, in the first two games. But can he go toe-to-toe with a gunslinger in a game against San Diego that might end up in the thirties and win? Much of what we’ve seen so far from the Bills is highly encouraging, but we still don’t know if Manuel is the real deal. This is a great week—at home, against a 2013 playoff team, with a packed house watching—to prove it.
6. Houston, we don’t have a problem. The 2-0 Texans go to New York to face the 0-2 Giants. Factoid of the Weekend That May Interest Texans Fans: Since 1990, 75 percent of the teams that started 2-0 went on to make the playoffs.
7. Aaron Rodgers staying hot against the Lions. He’s 9-0 in games he’s started and finished against Detroit, with a 114.0 rating.
8. The Kirk Cousins Audition continues. Cousins probably has six games to show he should be starting at quarterback for Washington instead of Robert Griffin III. Game one, last weekend against Jacksonville, was a rousing success (67 percent completions, 109.4 rating). This one, on the road at Philly in a rivalry game, will be much tougher.
9. A quarterback change in Tampa Bay. I was wrong, as was Lovie Smith, about Josh McCown. Lovie Smith has to make the call to make Mike Glennon the quarterback in Tampa Bay. Now.
10. The strange case of Jameis Winston. Who’s going to be the one to investigate the NFL future of Winston? He will be the most investigated prospect before the draft if he comes out next winter. We don’t know yet if he will, but I can feel NFL teams quaking at the thought of picking him high in the first round already.