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Sunday, September 13, 2009

Broncos v/ Bengals: An Ugly Start to the Lost Season (Updated)

The Broncos weren’t as horrible as some of us might have expected, but that doesn’t mean that they were anything like good.

Originally, I was going to note that the Broncos defense looked to be pretty good today right up until it really counted. Nursing a hard-fought 6 point lead near the end of the game, the Broncos defense, which had harassed, sacked, and out-worked a Bengals offense through a good bit of the game, let the Bengals put together a great, touchdown scoring drive. In fact, the defense hardly put up a fight in those last few minutes, never pressured Carson Palmer, and left receivers open in the flat with tons of room to run.

It was one of just a couple of really good scoring opportunities that the Broncos defense gave up all day. It didn’t hurt that through much of the rest, the Bengals were working hard against their own success--whether it was a bobbled snap on a chip-shot field goal or dropped passes by Coles, the Bengals were inconsistent and bumbling, giving the Broncos D the chance to work through their early mistakes and put together some really good plays. Certainly there were too many long third down conversions and some ugly play, especially in the secondary. But it looked better than through most of last year--the sacks, the interception, and some good upfront play by the defensive line kept the game manageable.

Right up until when it counted most. Which is where I thought it would end.

The Broncos offense simply wasn’t good throughout the day. Knowing the Broncos quarterback, Kyle Orton, who isn’t known for his accuracy on the long ball in the best of times, was still nursing an injury, the Bengals defense put pressure on from the beginning. There was very little respect for the long pass and a smart focus on dominating the line. The Broncos running game was mediocre and the passing game was mostly ineffective. Like the Bengals, the Broncos were burdened by their own bad decisions. In particular, dropped passes (Brandon Marshall’s miss on a well-thrown long pass from Orton was particularly galling as Marshall spent much of the game looking completely unprepared for regular season play--and that’s a purely dumb self-inflicted wound from a guy who thinks he’s worth the really big money) and ugly penalties made most of the Broncos drives short and ugly.

So, losing by one point with less than a minute left on the clock, only one time out, and bad field position, it looked like the Broncos day was over and that they would be on the losing end of a truly ugly opening game. That probably should have been the end.

But the Bengals had one really good mistake in reserve. With the Broncos trying to work the sidelines on a long pass, hoping to get Prater (who hit field goals from 48 and 50 today) in position for a last-second kick, Orton aimed at a well-covered Marshall. Three Bengals defenders converged, one of them tipped the ball, and the ball popped up and over to an attentive Brandon Stokely. Stokely, smart player that he is, turned on the burners (okay, that’s probably overstating it--but he got every ounce of speed left in his body moving down the sideline and leaving defenders chasing him and desperately hoping that he would stumble or fumble or something. Which he didn’t. In fact, he smartly turned right at the goal line and burned off seconds while waiting for the defense to catch up.

Let me say this in big, bold letters: BRANDON STOKELY IS ONE SMART PLAYER. Not only does he put himself in position to make a play (in an interview after the game, he said that he was watching carefully so that he could make a block if Marshall had caught the ball or to make a catch if the ball was tipped), but he had the clarity of mind to burn off a little extra time to make it harder on Palmer, who has a big arm and a good receiving corps.

When the Bengals got the ball back, there were only five seconds left on the clock, which proved to be just enough time to throw a very long interception.

It wasn’t pretty, but it’s nice to see the Broncos get their first win under Josh McDaniels. It also showed that the Broncos aren’t working from absolutely nothing; there is some talent on this team and they might well be able to surprise a few people this year. The defense truly does look better and, while quarterback will continue to be a big question for the team, there is enough running, receiving, and blocking talent on the team that they should be able to put together a credible offense.

They have a long way to go to being good, though, and some of the decisions made by McDaniels are confusing. For example, how does Payton Hillis get so few looks in a game like this? Throughout the pre-season, Hillis proved himself to be tenacious, punishing, and efficient in running and catching the ball. On his one catch today, he caught the ball for what looked like very little gain, put a little move on the defender, and then bulled forward for 6 yards. The play ended up looking good, but it had more to do with Hillis than it did with the play call. When your offense is having a tough time putting up the yards, how do you leave this guy on the sideline for so much of the game?

It was better to watch a win than it would have been to watch a loss, but hope and change don’t build winning teams. It takes folks doing their jobs and coaches tapping into their players’ talents, two things that were largely lacking this week for the Broncos.

Update: Amen, brother Combs, amen.

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