Every Thursday we take a look at the line play in one game from the past week's action. You can read a new Between The Lines every week.
I fired up the TIVO with the plan of taking a closer look at the Patriots offensive line and all the things that have changed since we last looked at them during the 2007 playoffs. But if you rewatch Monday night's Broncos-Patriots game (something few Broncos fans will ever do) what really jumps out if just how aimless the Broncos defense is.
There are teams, like the Patriots in recent years, that shift between the 3-4 and 4-3 because they see different mismatches against different offenses. But watching the Broncos shift back and forth between the 3-4 and 4-3 against the Patriots looked much more like a defense that knows its beaten, so it keeps shifting formations in hopes of finding something, anything, that works.
Against the Patriots, nothing worked, but it was clear that the Broncos are not nearly as comfortable when playing the 3-4. Most of Sammy Morris 138 yards came in the first half when he was running against the 3-4. While the right side of the Patriots offensive line has been hit by injuries--right guard Stephen Neal is working back into the lineup slowly and right tackle Nick Kaczur missed the Broncos game with an ankle injury--but left tackle Matt Light and left guard Logan Makins dominated the right side of the Broncos' defensive line.
The Broncos have few strengths on defense, but rushing the passer is one thing they do well. The Broncos are tied for eight in the league in sacks (with 17). And even when the defense was collapsing against the Patriots, the Broncos did sack Matt Cassel six times. The Patriots had some communication problems, especially between Neal and fill-in right tackle Matt LeVoir when Neal was playing. And fill-in right guard Billy Yates was beaten a couple of times. But Cassel isn't helping either, as he sometimes pulls the ball back down and is indecisive with getting rid of the ball, which explains in part why he's been sacked 26 times--third worst in the league.
But the Broncos' pass rush comes in part because the team has drafted and acquired a number of quick, undersized defensive ends. Tim Crowder, Elvis Dumervil, Jarvis Moss and John Engelberger are all capable of rushing the passer as 4-3 defensive ends, where they get to line up on the outside shoulder of an offensive tackle and use their speed.
But when the Broncos switch to a 3-4, which requires defensive linemen who can beat an offensive lineman with their strength as much as their speed, the Broncos' defensive ends are out of their league. And while Crowder, Dumervil and Engelberger might fit as outside linebackers in a 3-4, the Broncos stuck with Jamie Winborn (5-11, 230 pounds) and Boss Bailey (6-foot-3, 232 pounds) as the outside linebackers in the 3-4. Neither are big or strong enough to hold up at the point of attack against offensive tackles, and on Monday night tight ends Ben Watson and David Thomas were able to repeatedly block them one-on-one. Inside linebackers D.J. Williams and Nate Webster were also much more hesitant and prone to poor angles when they were playing out of the 3-4.
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An even bigger problem happens inside when the Broncos switch to the 3-4. Dewayne Robertson and Marcus Thomas become the nose tackle. Robertson has been rather disappointing first-round bust for much of his career, but he does have experience and size to play nose tackle. Thomas is suited to being a 3-4 defensive end, but when he slid inside he had more trouble.
But the big problems for the Broncos came when they asked Jarvis Moss to play as a 3-4 defensive end. On one play in the second quarter, Light drove him five yards off the ball to open a massive hole on a 34-yard gain by Morris. Later in the game, Light was able to once again destroy Moss on a 16-yard Kevin Faulk carry. Moss was a well-regarded 4-3 defensive end coming out of Florida last year, and some believed he could adapt to become a 3-4 outside linebacker. But nearly no one expected him to play as a 3-4 defensive end early in his career as his lack of bulk and strength becomes a giant liability.
After seeing his 3-4 defense get blown off the ball in the first half, the Broncos switched back to the 4-3 for most of the second half. But new defensive coordinator Bob Slowick doesn't have a whole lot of options.
The final play of the first quarter illustrates how difficult it is to be the Broncos defensive coordinator right now. On the first play of the second quarter, Slowick called a safety blitz, which brought Calvin Lowrey up to try to help stuff a running play. The call worked as designed, as Lowry was left unblocked right at the gap where Sammy Morris was supposed to run through. Lowry flew up and came into the backfield untouched, but he was running up in an uncontrolled dash that allowed Morris to simply plant his right foot, juke to the left and let Lowry go screaming on by having barely gotten a finger on Morris' jersey.
This isn't the first play where Lowry had a chance to make a tackle and failed. He came up in run support on the Patriots first play from scrimmage, filled the hole nicely and then was dragged seven yards by Morris for an eight-yard gain. On the next play, Lowry was again the Broncos best chance to stopping a running play in its tracks, but although he was once again barely blocked (Randy Moss gave a halfhearted shove as he ran by), Morris was able to simply make a cut back to the inside and leave Lowry grasping at air.
This was Lowry's first start, as he replaced Marlon McCree. Going back and watching two of the earlier Bronocs games from this year, it seemed pretty apparent that McCree isn't much better in run support, and may be even worse in pass coverage, so there's not really a good option between the two. While Dre Bly and the now injured Champ Bailey gave the Broncos a solid set of corners, the Broncos safeties (Lowry, McCree and Marquand Manuel) have to be one of the worse sets of safeties in the league while the now-injured Boss Bailey and the rest of the linebackers have not lived up to their expectations. And overall, the Broncos put on a horrendous display of open-field tackling.
The Broncos' defense ranks 27th in the league in points allowed. After watching the Broncos against the Patriots, it's hard to see how Denver is going to stop this slide. The team doesn't know how to tackle, the defensive line can rush the passer but can't play the run and the linebackers seem lost much of the time. It's hard to say what Slowick can turn to next.