Midweek Musings: Be Patient, People

Hello, Bronco fans! I didn’t get a chance to put up The Morning After because I had a lot of other things to get done earlier in the week, but I did want to touch upon a few things regarding the game against Atlanta.

It’s understandable that fans would be frustrated to lose that game because it was at home against a team that didn’t have a top defense, but signs are showing that the Atlanta Falcons are a better team than they were last year. I think some of us didn’t give enough credit to the Falcons for what they can do on offense and the scheme Kyle Shanahan has implemented.

And nobody should think twice about criticizing the performance of certain players. However, while it’s fair to point out when those players don’t play well, to throw them under the bus or start questioning what moves should or shouldn’t have been made is panicking. Let’s examine the one situation everyone knows about, that being what happened at right tackle.

There’s no way to sugarcoat it: Ty Sambrailo had a bad game. With that said, it’s important to remember a few things when it comes to how the Broncos approached the swing tackle position in the offseason and where they are at now.

First, I don’t think Ryan Harris was coming back once the Broncos signed Donald Stephenson. I believe Harris wanted a chance to compete for a starting job. Once Stephenson was signed, his chance was likely gone, unless the Broncos were that confident in Harris as a starting left tackle that they would cut Ryan Clady at that point. Instead, the Broncos focused on negotiating with Clady to take a reduced salary, prompting Harris to sign with Pittsburgh, where he could compete for a starting job.

True, Harris didn’t get the job and the Broncos later signed Russell Okung, but I don’t think the Broncos were ever serious about bringing Harris back unless it was a “third wave” free agent signing, similar to Shiloh Keo. The third wave is mostly when you acquire players you want for depth purposes and competition. If nobody had signed Harris at that point, it’s possible the Broncos bring him back. But that doesn’t guarantee Harris becomes the Broncos’ swing tackle.

As we know how things unfolded, Sambrailo was groomed to play guard with the possibility to play tackle, but he got injured and missed the preseason. Michael Schofield took over at right guard and played well, so he became the starter. We know what has unfolded since that time.

That brings me to this: Just because Sambrailo didn’t play in the preseason doesn’t mean you never play him in the regular season. The Broncos designated him the swing tackle, so when Stephenson was injured and Sambrailo was cleared to play, Sambrailo stepped in. While you don’t want to play Sambrailo for the sake of playing him, the only way the Broncos will find out how well he can play and what his future will be is to get him into games. What we’ve seen thus far is one mediocre outing (Cincinnati), one solid outing (Tampa Bay) and one bad outing (Atlanta). While it’s not what you would call promising, it’s not enough to kick him to the curb, either. He has just six starts to his name and the jury is still out as to what his future will be.

But before people trip over themselves to toss out new candidates for swing tackles, keep in mind that the two teams in the Denver-Atlanta game have multiple examples about why giving up too quickly on a younger offensive tackle can be a bad idea. Schofield is right there: He struggled at right tackle last season, but is playing well at guard now. Perhaps tackle isn’t in his future, but if the Broncos had sent him packing this offseason, they would have missed out on somebody who could contribute. Stephenson didn’t play but, based on his two starts, he fits the idea that it takes some linemen time to develop, given that he has played well in those starts. (Or have we forgotten already how so many of us scratched our heads about his signing when he failed to impress in Kansas City?) And then there’s the Falcons: Jake Matthews, the sixth overall pick in the 2014 draft, struggled as a rookie and Ryan Schraeder, an undrafted rookie in 2014, didn’t get into the starting lineup until late in the season and wasn’t that good. But in the past two seasons, both Atlanta tackles improved and they are playing their best football this season.

That is not to say Sambrailo is guaranteed to improve in his third season. It’s understandable to remain skeptical, given his recent performance. But keep in mind he’s had just six starts, so his long-term future is far from decided. And just as importantly, the Broncos shouldn’t just rush to sign a veteran tackle just to sign one. They may have done that with Tyler Polumbus last season, but Polumbus was familiar with the Broncos’ scheme. Don’t expect the Broncos to chase after veterans unless they have a slew of injuries, like the Minnesota Vikings have (and by the way, the Vikings also have a young tackle who is struggling, and that’s T.J. Clemmings, who had to start at left tackle after Matt Kalil was lost to injury).

The truth is, the pickings for quality backup tackles in the NFL are slim. Most teams who have had to make changes on their O-lines at tackle because of injuries have seen significant downgrades at that position. It’s easy to see why left tackle is a premium position in the NFL and why right tackle might turn into that as more teams adjust defensive schemes to attack both sides of the line. (If you want to know more about what other teams are like with their O-lines, you can check Pro Football Focus’ rankings and their comments about individual players.)

I will add one other thing: Gary Kubiak hinted in his postgame interviews that he didn’t adjust the offensive game plan to ensure Sambrailo got some help on the right side. So while it’s true Sambrailo played badly, it’s also true Kubiak and the coaches erred in at least not adjusting to have someone help Sambrailo on the right side and that played as much a factor in the outcome as anything else.

The other area to address is the Broncos’ issues with defending running backs who are utilized as receivers. One thing to keep in mind here is, while it is something the Broncos have to get better at if they want to do well defensively, that there aren’t that many teams with backs who excel at this. They may have backs who are good in the screen game, but what the Falcons did was have their backs run closer to traditional routes rather than a simple screen or checkdown play. Cincinnati has a back who can do this well, too (Gio Bernard).

The Patriots will use backs in traditional routes and the Raiders have a back who can do that as well. The Chiefs have good pass-catching RBs, but they are mostly used on screens and checkdowns. The Chargers had a back like that (Danny Woodhead) but he’s out for the season. Dexter McCluster could do those things but it remains to be seen how often he’ll be utilized in that role. More importantly, I don’t think McCluster is anywhere near as good as Devonta Freeman or Tevin Coleman in any facet of the game.

Even with those struggles, the Broncos remain fourth in defense in Football Outsiders DVOA, so it’s a testament to what DVOA had to say about the Broncos’ performance against one of the top offenses in the NFL. The defense should be fine as long as everyone stays healthy; it’s a matter of making sure Todd Davis improves his coverage skills and Corey Nelson being mindful of how he plays in coverage (his defensive holding penalty was not necessary because Matt Ryan had thrown the ball earlier than he wanted to).

Lastly, I don’t believe the Broncos sat their players who were coming off injuries because they figured it was better to hold them out until a divisional game on a short week and not worry about the non-divisional game. They did it because they are being cautious with players and believed those replacing starters could handle themselves. Paxton Lynch was solid against the Bucs, ditto for Sambrailo and John Phillips, so the Broncos put faith in those three to come through against Atlanta. Things didn’t work out that way, but it allowed the Broncos to give Stephenson, Trevor Siemian and Virgil Green more time to get healthy. I suspect we’ll continue to see that approach so long as the Broncos see solid play from replacements.

Of course, the main thing we, as Broncos fans, need to hope for is the Broncos can avoid too many significant injuries. We’re seeing that happen with the Vikings (and the fact they are still playing well is a testament to what their coaching staff is doing) and the Chargers (who aren’t getting as much good coaching). Those aren’t the only teams having to overcome a slew of injuries.

And while it’s true we’d like to see the Broncos win another Super Bowl, that’s the ultimate goal, but the primary goal is to get the playoffs. That requires some patience that things will come together at the right time. We all remember the endless debates we had last season about various players and positions but, in the end, things came together at the right time. Don’t take one loss to be the end of the world – be patient and hope the Broncos keep learning from their mistakes.

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Bob Morris

I'm a sports writer in real life, though I've always focused on smaller communities, but that hasn't stopped me from learning more about some of the ins and outs of the NFL. You can follow me on Twitter @BobMorrisSports if you can put up with updates on the high school sports teams I cover.