- Vance Joseph inherits an elite defense and some question marks at quarterback. But perhaps more importantly: Can Denver get the ground game going?
1. First-time head coach Vance Joseph should study Mike Tomlin’s career in Pittsburgh. Prior to the Steelers job, Tomlin had been an assistant on teams that ran classic 4-3 zone schemes, but he inherited a Steelers defense that was coordinated by the legendary Dick LeBeau and stocked with players who fit the franchise’s hallmark 3-4, disguised-blitzing scheme. So, instead of “putting his stamp” on his new club and converting it to a traditional 4-3 zone, Tomlin humbly let the defense be and rode it to two Super Bowl appearances in his first four years. Joseph, like Tomlin, is a young coach who most recently hails from 4-3 zone-based schemes in Miami and Cincinnati. He’s inheriting a Broncos defense that has dominated with man coverage and blitzing. He should let it be.
2. What stands out with Denver’s secondary is how well cornerbacks Chris Harris, Aqib Talib and Bradley Roby handle pick and rub routes out of man coverage. That’s what carried them to victory in the 2015 AFC title game (that tight coverage forced Tom Brady to hold the ball, allowing Denver’s pass rush to take over).
3. Once everyone is healthy, in obvious passing situations, expect the Broncos to occasionally feature Shane Ray as a standup defensive tackle, alongside Derek Wolfe. Von Miller and Shaquil Barrett are the edge guys. These four are potent on stunts and twists, especially when they’re all playing together.
4. For reasons that never became clear, this defense ranked a dismal 18th against the run last season (in terms of yards per carry). It was strange because, on film, it looked great. Miller set the edge well. Wolfe was as destructive as almost any interior defensive end in football. Strong inside linebacker Todd Davis took on blocks well and showed the same sharp play recognition that weak inside linebacker Brandon Marshall has. And Sylvester Williams had athleticism rarely found in a nose tackle. Williams is now in Tennessee, but his replacement, ex-Bengal Domata Peko, still has some juice left. Peko has always been good sliding laterally down the line. Don’t be surprised if this run defense returns to being top 10.
5. There was a blueprint for facing this defense last season: playing base personnel. Offenses put only two wide receivers on the field, which kept the Broncos out of their dynamic dime sub-package. The defense was more predictable and the linebackers struggled in coverage. (Uncharacteristically, so did strong safety T.J. Ward.) It’ll be interesting to see if teams continue to play base against this D now that Wade Phillips is gone.
6. It won’t matter who won the quarterback job (on Monday, Vance Joseph announced it was Trevor Siemian) if this offense doesn’t run the ball better. Denver ranked 27th in rushing yards per game (92.8) in 2016. Expect more inside rushing concepts under Mike McCoy and O-line coach Jeff Davidson, as opposed to the outside zone runs you saw under Gary Kubiak.
7. The running game went south last season when fullback Andy Janovich went down with an ankle injury in Week 12. Janovich has terrific vision as a lead-blocker.
8. Like most young quarterbacks, Siemian sometimes struggles to process information from the pocket on time. That’s a problem when your arm is good but not great. But here’s the upside with Siemian: he’s tough in the pocket. He keeps his eyes downfield when big hits are looming, and he willingly steps into those throws. That’s a good foundation to build on.
9. We only saw Paxton Lynch for 10 ½ quarters last season; that’s not nearly enough to render any sort of meaningful judgement. But here’s what we can glean from the sample: Lynch’s physical traits are excellent. He has size, mobility and arm strength. He needs to tighten his throwing motion; poor lower-body mechanics caused him to lose power and velocity at times. Addressing this will also help correct some of his accuracy issues. It won’t be easy. Lynch hasn’t shown Siemian’s sense of comfort in the pocket. But that’s not uncommon with a raw prospect in his first professional action.
10. Perhaps no wide receiver has a better toughness-to-size ratio than Emmanuel Sanders. His willingness to play in traffic and lay out for balls expands the route concepts coaches are willing to build off of him.
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