Why it's important for Broncos to establish an identity soon
"We're going to have a top-5 defense this season. Von Miller and Bradley Chubb are primed for a career year."
"The offense is going to be much better. Our running game is going to be much improved."
These are a couple of the many predictions from Broncos Country at various points throughout the offseason. After watching the first game against the lowly Oakland Raiders (4-12 last year), most are probably left wondering if their expectations are going to become realities at any point this season.
Okay, it's one game. I get it. But after watching that putrid performance against the Raiders, you can't help but ask yourself — what exactly is this team's identity?
And don't say "death by inches".
Look around the league and you'll notice one consistent theme with the top teams in the league — the best squads know exactly who they are as a team and how they want to play in games.
The Kansas City Chiefs lean on their elite, high-scoring offense to outscore opposing teams. The New England Patriots play disciplined football and force their opponents to make mistakes. The Dallas Cowboys lean heavily on their run game and play solid defense.
You get the point.
So again, what is the Broncos' identity? Let's look at the last handful of years:
In 2012, it was a balanced approach. Solid defense, balanced run/pass offense.
In 2013, it was all about offense. Put up 35-plus points game and you'll win a lot of games.
In 2014, it was playing solid defense and not putting all of the success on the offense (after getting blown out in Super Bowl XLVIII).
In 2015, it was leaning entirely on the defense and game-managing on offense.
In 2016, it was the same game plan, sans Peyton Manning (we all know how that worked out) and also less a few defensive pieces from Super Bowl 50.
Heck, even in 2011 the Broncos had an identity — recall this hashtag? #TebowTime.
So what exactly has the team's identify been the last three years?
We know GM John Elway wants to keep the defense elite. A good chunk of draft capital and free-agent dollars in recent years have been spent on the defense to support this model.
The team is not lacking in top-tier talent on the defensive side of the ball either. Von Miller, Chris Harris, Jr., and Bradley Chubb are all elite talents in the league. You also have very strong supporting cast members around them.
This offseason, in particular, saw a decent investment into the offensive side of the ball. The tight end and right tackle positions have been nightmares for a while now. Elway addressed both concerns by drafting Noah Fant in round one and signing Ja'Wuan James in free agency.
Elway also brought in an upgrade at QB in Joe Flacco, and drafted what appears to be a homerun pick in LG Dalton Risner to help shore up the offensive line.
If you had to craft an identity for this team prior to the season, you'd predict something like "play elite defense, lean on the run game".
That's fine and dandy — and a great strategy, especially in the postseason. So why didn't it work in Week 1 for Denver?
This is not a team built to play from behind
It's that simple. Why was Derek Carr able to carve up this defense for 3-5 yards at a time all night? Because he had no pressure or urgency to score and come back.
The Raiders played away from the Broncos' defensive strength (pass rush) and played to their weaknesses (throwing to TEs and CBs not named Harris). If Isaac Yiadom is going to line up 10 yards off the line of scrimmage, the opposing offense is going to take the five yards all day.
Let's imagine for a second that this game started much different than it did. Let's say Denver got the ball first and went downfield to score a touchdown. 7-0 Broncos.
Do you think the Raiders would have come out the next series dinking and dunking for three yards at a time? They might have early in the game but the pressure to move the ball downfield would have grown significantly the longer they played from behind.
Pump the brakes
It's obviously way too early to overreact to just one bad game. This defense is going to be good. It won't get worked over every week like it did in the opener.
The 'bend but don’t break' strategy is not necessarily a bad one. However, for it to work, the offense is going to have to start moving the ball down the field and converting in the red zone.
The defense is also going to have to find ways to get off the field on third down. The Raiders finished the game going 10-of-14 on third down. Their first three drives consisted of 10 plays, seven plays, and 13 plays (this one went for 95 yards and a T).
In those first three possessions, the Raiders won the time of possession 18:49 to 7:41. You simply cannot allow your defense to be on the field that much. They will tire out quickly, which is especially concerning given the lack of depth on this team.
It's obviously still early with a number of new coaches, schemes, and players who are still settling in. So it will take some time to establish the identity they want to play as. Until that happens, though, I would expect the product you see on Sundays to be mildly inconsistent week-to-week.
Vic Fangio is known for making adjustments so let's see how he recoups and prepares to play his former team in Week 2.