If any words were to describe yesterday’s outing by the Denver Broncos against the Pittsburgh Steelers, it would be “mixed bag.”
The problem, of course, is the first half was mostly positive while the second half was mostly one we’d like to forget.
I don’t think anyone who is frustrated would feel as bad if it had been a back-and-forth game in which the Steelers happened to get the game-winning drive and the Broncos’ final drive fell short. Instead, we get a “tale of two halves” narrative and we are ready to throw everyone under the bus.
It’s easy to point fingers and assume the worst, but if players, coaches and executives did that every single time, that’s when teams fall apart. All you have to do is look at the historically good teams and the historically bad teams. Historically good teams make plenty of mistakes, will vary in the degrees that they recognize them, but move forward and try to address them with each game and season. Historically bad teams have guys who look frustrated, whispers constantly coming out of the locker room and panic moves that almost always make things worse, never better. Then they change regimes and do the same things while expecting different results.
With that said, it doesn’t mean anyone can make excuses for the Broncos or take things for granted from this point forward. The question, though, is to honestly assess what is going on so you can identify what the real problems are, then figure out which ones can be addressed now and which will have to be addressed next season, regardless of this season’s final outcome.
So I’ll present a few questions about yesterday’s game and the team and what I believe are the correct answers.
Q: Are the Broncos’ second-half struggles a problem with coaching or a problem with players?
It’s true that Gary Kubiak and company aren’t introducing new wrinkles or slight adjustments to plays in the second half. Regarding yesterday’s game, part of that likely came because they played well most of the first half. It’s fair to argue that the coaching staff should have made adjustments in response to what the Steelers did in the second half. In other games, it’s understandable that the coaches needed to adjust a few things to let the offense be more effective.
However, if the coaches do that and Brock Osweiler continues to lock onto his first target, or Vernon Davis keeps worrying about making a bigger play or somebody hitting him too hard, or Demaryius Thomas thinks too much about how he needs to make something happen, the outcome will be the same. Coaching adjustments are necessary, but they don’t compensate for failing to execute. Simply put, players who get open need to focus on catching the ball and securing it, and not think about how many yards they get after the catch. And Osweiler needs to learn how to read the field better and understand when it’s OK to throw the ball away. He did that well in the first half, but in the second half, he panicked, and while Kubes running different plays is a good idea, that doesn’t mean it fixes Osweiler’s problems.
The bottom line is that the second-half issues are a combination of player execution and coaching decisions. Fixing the latter is good, but that alone won’t fix the former.
Q: Would Brock Osweiler play better at this point if he had started the full season?
A: Not necessarily. We must remember that an inexperienced quarterback getting better is more than just about how many starts he gets. Let’s examine a couple other situations.
When Aaron Rodgers took over in Green Bay, the coaching staff remained the same. So the transition for Rodgers was smooth, because he knew right away what the playbook would be and what the coaches would expect. Had the Packers switched coaches when he took over, things might not have gone as smoothly.
When Kirk Cousins took over in Washington this year, he was in his second season of playing under Jay Gruden. Remember that Cousins spent his first two seasons under Mike Shanahan, who seemed more focused on working with Robert Griffin III. Whatever happened between Shanahan and RG3, Cousins seemed to get lost in the shuffle. But while Gruden was first tasked with working with RG3, he didn’t ignore Cousins. There were signs last season that Cousins might be a better fit for Gruden’s offense and Gruden noticed it, despite Cousins’ weaknesses as a quarterback. This season, Cousins came in with a full season and additional offseason of learning Gruden’s system and he’s getting better results, because Cousins didn’t have to worry about learning the offense and could focus on cleaning up areas he needed to improve.
With Osweiler, the struggles you see now likely happen early in the season. But they don’t necessarily go away with a full 16-game season. Osweiler more likely follows the path Cousins first took under Gruden, in which he shows signs he can run the offense, but overall he doesn’t look that good, because the weak points of his play still need to be fixed. And then the questions start rising up about whether or not Osweiler can be the long-term guy, anyway.
Starting games does help a young QB, but the young QB also needs time to learn the offense. If a coaching change happens in the middle of his development, he’s not going to pick everything up just by starting games.
Remember that Osweiler spent his first three years learning from the likes of Adam Gase, and now he’s learning from new coaches. I think he can get better next season if he sticks with the Broncos. But if he does, it’s not going to be game experience that does it. It’s going to be because he will enter his second season in the same offense, should feel more comfortable, and can focus less on learning plays and more on fixing the areas he must improve.
Q: Why did the defense miss so many tackles and assignments?
A: Some of it goes back to the Steelers having some good playmakers, and a few times Broncos player took bad angles, but that’s happened a few times throughout the regular season. But much of it goes back to the Broncos’ thought process that they need to go for the ball first rather than going for the tackle first.
The Broncos were aggressive in going after the ball early this season, but many of the interceptions they made came because they did a good job of reading plays and took advantage because either quarterbacks didn’t account for them or receivers didn’t run good routes. As for fumbles, they noticed tendencies of certain players and were able to poke the ball out, but did so after being in position to make a proper tackle.
The Steelers are not that type of team. Ben Roethlisberger did make a few mistakes, but he doesn’t make them often. Antonio Brown is seldom going to run a bad route. More importantly, when Brown catches the ball, he secures it and can do a good job of getting yards after the catch. Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton are the same way.
If you go back and look at most of the missed tackles, they came because Bronco defenders thought about going for the ball first, whether it was a pick attempt or knocking the ball loose, rather than making the tackle first. Going for the pick first means you are more likely to take a bad angle and can’t make the tackle. If you try to dislodge the ball before you are in position to tackle properly, the offensive player is more likely to slip away. When you are up by several scores, sometimes it’s better to just make the tackle first and not worry about a turnover. (Just ask the Steelers about that, too, as two potential interceptions were dropped because the defender was thinking more about a pick six.)
You never want to give up scores, but teams are going to score, particularly when they have a top offense and everyone is healthy, and that’s what the Steelers are. It’s better to focus on limiting the yards after the catch in hopes of holding a team to punts and field goals than it is to worry about knocking the ball loose from a quality receiver or picking off one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. There is a time and a place to force a turnover, but some of the Broncos’ defenders thought about it too much.
Q: If the Broncos make the playoffs, are they really going to go far?
A: That depends on a lot of factors. But let’s keep a few things in mind about each of the AFC playoff contenders, focusing on those who are very likely going to the playoffs.
Patriots: Like the Broncos, they are banged up. And while the Pats may be winning games, they are either winning ugly or capitalizing on key mistakes by weak opponents. They will likely get the No. 1 seed, but that could be the worst spot to be, because it means if the No. 6 seed wins, the Pats must face that team, no matter what. We’ll get back to that No. 6 seed in a minute.
Bengals: The offense is very productive, but it runs better if Andy Dalton is behind center. The defense, however, has issues. Against good teams, the Bengals have trouble keeping teams from moving the ball and need to rely on the offense to compensate. That doesn’t make for a team that’s positioned to make a deep run.
Chiefs: They are doing good things but have played a soft schedule and some key players are hurt. If they get the No. 5 seed, they might win in the first round, but I’m not sure this team can keep winning on the road against good teams. The Chiefs can’t count on getting four turnovers and great field position against a good team again.
Texans/Colts: Whoever wins the AFC South is not going to the Super Bowl. Those teams just have too many issues that must be addressed.
Steelers: They are the healthiest of the teams that appear to be playoff bound. They are putting up good performances against good teams. They have players and a coaching staff that understand what it takes to make a deep playoff run. They certainly look like the team in the best position to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, even if they are the No. 6 seed and have to play on the road every week.
However, the one thing you probably don’t want to be considered down the stretch is the “team du jour” that everybody talks about as the one putting everything together for a playoff run. If you think about it, when the Broncos beat the Patriots several weeks back, they started entering the “team du jour” discussion and everyone thought Brock Osweiler was going to lead the Broncos to the promised land. Look what’s happened since that time and ask yourself if you really want to be the “team du jour” down the stretch, even if all signs point in the right direction.
Sometimes it’s better to be the team that falls under the radar. If the Broncos fall into that category, so be it. The important thing is for the Broncos to take care of business the next two weeks, which would give them the No. 2 seed. From there, let everyone trumpet the “team du jour” narratives, because that’s when the team nobody wants to pay attention to becomes the team with a chip on its shoulder, which just might mean that team plays its best ball at the right time.
Of course, the Broncos can’t take anything for granted. The first order of business is winning the final two games. And after back-to-back disappointing losses, we should all hope the Broncos start carrying that chip on their shoulders.