This is the second of a three-part series breaking down the Denver Broncos and their upcoming matchup with our beloved Buffalo Bills. The first installment: Shanny's Offense.
The Denver Broncos have consistently been playoff contenders ever since their back-to-back Super Bowl run in 1998-99; sure, there were a couple of down years, but the consistency that Mike Shanahan has brought to the organization has kept the Broncos a powerhouse in the AFC. But for all the success the organization has had, one thing has held them back: the lack of a dominant defense.
The fact of the matter is that Denver's defense is always pretty (or very) good, but never have they been great. Great as in good enough to put the team on their shoulders and win games by themselves. They certainly never did that for Jake Plummer. But things are changing in Denver - a new coordinator, Jim Bates (a familiar face to Bills fans, as he held the same position with the Miami Dolphins just a few years ago) and some new faces have brought a whole new outlook to the Broncos' defense. In this case, change is good.
Bates Brings an Aggressive Scheme
In my honest opinion, Jim Bates is a top-five defensive coordinator in the NFL. Wherever he's gone he's brought tenacity, stability and big plays to his defenses - that includes Miami and Green Bay. Now that he's in Denver, he has some of the best raw talent he's ever had to work with, including one of the deepest secondaries in the league.
Bates doesn't hold anything back. Ever. He puts his corners up in press man coverage, daring receivers to beat his corners (which is especially difficult when those corners are Champ Bailey and Dre' Bly). He specializes in diverse and complicated blitz packages, and rarely does he ever sit his defenders back and let quarterbacks pick his players apart. The result is far more often than not positive. Making his job easier is Denver's secondary. Bailey and Bly form one of the top corner tandems in the entire league; add smash-mouth safety John Lynch, and you begin to see the variety of talent in the back four. If these guys are put in position to make plays, they will make those plays.
But therein lies the potential downfall of this defense - at least early on in the Bates era.
Question Marks in the Front Seven
When you read "question marks", don't make the mistake of thinking that this group isn't talented - because that's decades away from the truth. The only issue I have with this group is that there's been so much overhaul, it may take the group a while (including the Bills game) to really get rolling.
Denver spent their off-season upgrading the defensive end position. That includes a draft in which ends Jarvis Moss and Tim Crowder were their first two selections; it also includes the recent signing of Simeon Rice, one of the most prominent pass-rushing presences of the past decade. Despite that (almost scary) upgrade at end, the pass rush is still a question mark for the Broncos - Moss and Crowder are still unproven (and aren't starting), and Rice must prove that he's got something left in the tank. DT is much more bleak, where Sam Adams (another familiar name to Bills fans) teams with Amon Gordon and rookie Marcus Thomas as the bulk of the depth there. Adams was over the hill in Buffalo; he is by no means a fix in Denver either. With questionable tackles and light ends, Denver is a team that can be run on.
At linebacker, the Broncos have very fast athletes. Ian Gold and Nate Webster are quick players who pack a punch, and D.J. Williams slides over to the middle after the release of Al Wilson this off-season. Williams has struggled this pre-season with his position switch; he's been hesitant and seems to be holding himself back trying not to screw up. Once he gets comfortable there he'll be fine, but he's still in that transitional period. The result is that Denver gave up massive chunks of yardage this pre-season and looked, to be blunt, pretty bad. In the long run this defense is going to be good, but like any project, a grace period is needed.
How to Beat This Defense
The formula for beating this defense is simple: run the football. Given the choice, it's obvious that you want to challenge Jarvis Moss to stop the run rather than Champ Bailey to stop the pass. With question marks along the D-Line and in the linebacking corps, expect the Bills to exploit this potential weakness by running the football, controlling the clock and throwing the ball underneath to Josh Reed, Roscoe Parrish and Robert Royal. Sustained drives will be a big factor in this game.
But don't sleep on this Denver defense, either. Buffalo is equipped with the right weapons to beat any defensive scheme, but we're not ready to dominate games ourselves either. Good football players make plays, plain and simple. Both sides have good football players. It's going to be a ton of fun to watch these two units square off against each other; keep the Bailey's, Bly's, Rice's and Williams' off the board, and the Bills could put up a fair number of points in this one.