If you've been wondering when you'd see the sort of Denver Broncos team new coach John Fox would like to field week in and week out, you got your answer yesterday. The Broncos played the Fox way versus the Tennessee Titans, but still came up on the bottom of a 17-14 score. Is that because the Broncos don't have the personnel and ability to execute such a method requires?
Fox's dream Broncos squad would be one with a stout defense and the offense focused on the sort of running attack that eats minutes and demoralizes opponents, with chain-moving short passes far more prevalent than attempts at big strikes. This sort of approach generally leads to low-scoring contests that become tests of will as much as skill. And on Sunday, it almost worked.
On the plus side, the Broncos managed to control Chris Johnson, one of the league's best running backs, albeit a guy who hasn't really gotten untracked this season. CJ managed just 21 yards on thirteen carries -- the sort of stat line that should have translated to victory.
But when Johnson couldn't make headway, Matt Hasselbeck took to the air, and the lack of a consistent pass rush against him allowed this ultra-adequate passer to look like an All-Pro. Only nine of his 36 passes weren't caught by a Titan, and he managed to rack up more than 300 yards even with fave target Kenny Britt on the sidelines for the majority of the game.
Fortunately, Tennessee penalties cooled Hasselbeck's fires when the Broncos secondary couldn't. But Kyle Orton and the offense failed to capitalize as often as they should have due largely to the offensive line. Willis McGahee did just enough to solidify his status as the Broncos' number one rushing option (Knownshon who?), but his 52 yards on the ground weren't nearly enough to turn KO into a mere hand-off machine. And when Orton faded back to pass, he frequently had too many Titans in his face. Even if he'd wanted to go long on a regular basis, he wouldn't have had nearly enough time. Although that doesn't excuse his first pick, an air-mail special over the outstretched arms of Eric Decker (who he's relying on too much at this point), it does offer solace for the second, on a tipped ball.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Before interception two sealed Denver's fate, the Broncos had the sort of opportunity the Fox's methodology is intended to create and exploit. After Denver scored late in the third quarter to take a 14-10 lead, Von Miller stripped Hasselbeck, giving KO and company possession inside the Tennessee fifteen. Moments later, thanks to more friendly yellow flags, Denver had a first and goal inside the two. But after an awful attempt at a corner lob and three inconsequential, unimaginative runs into a Great Wall of Titans, the Broncos came away with squat, setting up the crew for the one-two gut-shot of a second Hasselbeck TD pass and that game-killing turnover.
This outcome doesn't mean Fox's scheme won't work eventually. But the lack of pressure generated by the Broncos' defensive line, which seemed especially anemic in comparison with Tennessee's, and the inability of the O-line to protect Orton and open more holes for McGahee makes it more difficult to pull off. The result when it works is a boring but methodical W -- and when it doesn't, fans get to witness a drawn-out, slow-motion, ultra-frustrating loss like yesterday's.
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