Denver Broncos vs. Pittsburgh Steelers - Can The Broncos Keep This Up?

After taking a closer look at the Denver Broncos 2009 season to date, I'm becoming more and more convinced that this is a fringe playoff team at best, and nowhere near as good as their 6-1 record might indicate. Now, as Coach Dikta famously says - you are what you are. And the Denver Broncos are 6-1. So, I'm not taking any credit away from them for what they've done to start the year. I'm just very, very unconvinced that they're going to be able to sustain this type of success in the win column for the remaining 9 games of the season. Here's a few reasons why.

* First of all, let's look at their results so far. 

*********

Week 1 - Win @ Cincinnati (12-7)

Week 2 - Win vs. Cleveland (27-6)

Week 3 - Win @ Oakland (23-3)

Week 4 - Win vs. Dallas (17-10)

Week 5 - Win vs. New England (20-17)

Week 6 - Win @ San Diego (34-23)

Week 7 -  Loss @ Baltimore (7-30)

Again, you can only play the opponents on your schedule, and we all know how little style points mean, but there's a number of results in there that make me wonder how tough Denver really is. Let's start with that first game against the Bengals. In case you had forgotten, Denver won on the final play of the game on a fluke, tipped pass that fell in to Brandon Stokeley's lap with no Bengals defenders near him. He took it in for the go-ahead 87 yard score. Prior to that play, the Broncos had mustered roughly 220 yards of total offense. A great start to the Josh McDaniels era, but undeniably a very lucky win. Credit Denver's defense for harassing and confusing Carson Palmer, but let's not forget that it was his first game back in quite some time and he was clearly rusty. Palmer's improved incrementally since then.

In Week 2, the Broncos were solid. Knowshon Moreno and Correll Buckhalter rushed for 75 and 76 yards respectively and Kyle Orton found a couple big plays in the passing game to offset his otherwise ho-hum 19-of-37 performance. The anemic Browns offense - led by Brady Quinn that day - could only muster 200 total yards, while turning it over three times. You play who you play, but everybody is beating up on Cleveland this year. 

Week 3, the Broncos make look JaMarcus Russell look like the awful quarterback he is, while rushing all over one of the league's absolute worst rush defenses. Bravo. 

Week 4 Tony Romo gift wraps a huge turnover that gets Denver a cheap score. Then a Romo interception deep inside Denver territory kept the Broncos hanging around until their offense finally came up with some big plays and drives late in the 4th quarter. Even still, Dallas had a chance to tie it as the clock expired. The Cowboys had it at the Denver 2 after spiking it on 2nd down with time dwindling. Two incompletions - both of them thrown at Champ Bailey - and the game was over. A very nice win for the Broncos - even if it wasn't pretty. It was actually a lot like the Steelers victory over the Cowboys last year.

The Chargers victory came down to pressuring the quarterback better than San Diego and two touchdown returns by Eddie Royal on special teams. Alert to Pittsburgh - this guy's good. Denver's chances go up exponentially if Royal can be a difference maker. He wasn't last week though, so it's quite doable to keep him and check and force the Broncos' offense to do more than they were forced to do against the Chargers. 

Anyway, enough looking at their schedule. They've won some games thanks to their offense, some because of stellar defensive play, and one due to outbursts on special teams. What do they truly do great though? Can they piece together random contributions like this moving forward? Perhaps, but the great teams usually have either a top flight quarterback, or some department of their team that's truly outstanding - like the Steelers defense last year. Or the New York Giants excellent running game and pass rushing front four in 2007. Or the Patriots and Colts offenses of much of this decade that have found prolonged success.

But what about Denver's top ranked defense? Some might argue that they're 'legit' contenders because this defense is for real.  Well, they sure have been stout thus far. It helps to catch the Bengals before they got on the same page, followed by the Browns and Raiders, not to mention Tom Brady and the Patriots before they started clicking the following three weeks. But the Broncos had a hand in disrupting Palmer and Brady, no doubt. 

Here are Denver's defensive ranks so far:

Points per Game: 13.6 (1st)

Total Yards per Game: 266.7 (1st)

3rd Down %: 33% (6th)

Interceptions: 6 (t-15th)

Fumbles Recovered: 6 (t-9th)

All very impressive. But here's what I'd say other than that defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has done a nice job putting these guys in position to succeed - they've been very, very lucky with injuries. On both sides of the ball really, but I think the effect has been particularly pronounced on defense. As far as I can tell, the exact same 11 who started on opening day have started in each and every game for the Broncos. Can their entire secondary, all of whom are 30+ years of age, hold up for an entire 16 games? Can defensive end Kenny Peterson, who has only played more than 10 games in a season twice during his six year career, hold up for the long haul? What about Ryan McBean, the former Steelers draft pick that lacked the strength to make it on our squad? Can he endure the grind of his first, full professional season?

Linebackers Mario Haggan and Andra Davis have never really been that good in this league. Serviceable? Yes, definitely. But not the kind of players they've been so far this year. The scheme matters and it's possible that this particular configuration of players and schematics has them playing at a level they're capable of sustaining. But history shows they've not been this good over the course of their respective veteran careers. The same might be said of D.J. Williams, a mainstay of the Broncos defense since 2004. Denver has had some pretty suspect defenses in that time span, and he's been a part of that. He too has been playing better than he ever has - unless you want to argue that his 2007 season was more impressive, even though the Broncos finished with the 5th worst scoring defense in the league that year. As for Elvis Dumervil, well he just looks like a player. And he has looked that way since coming in to the league out of Louisville in 2006. 

I guess to me, the reality is the stars have aligned very nicely so far for Denver. It's just not very common for teams to go an entire season without losing a key player or two. Can Denver overcome that when it most likely comes? Will they have little time to overcome the loss due to that potential injury coming later in the year when there's less time to adjust? Could this Broncos defense be a little bit like the 2007 Steelers defense? Very good statistically for much of the season, only to come crumbling apart later in the year when an injury or two occurs and there's a higher premium placed on violent, physical football? Denver's sound technically on defense, and they have savvy ball hawks and sure tacklers in the secondary, but they ain't that physical a team, particularly up front. My hunch is that will get exposed more and more as the year progresses.

Here's something else that jumped out at me. Take a look at the defensive rankings of the teams they've faced this year.  The first ranking is their total yards allowed per game, followed by their DVOA Ranking as measured by Football Outsiders.

Cincinnati (21st; 21st)

Cleveland (32nd; 29th)

Oakland (26th; 25th)

Dallas (22nd; 22nd)

New England (6th; 8th)

San Diego (12th; 23rd)

Baltimore (13th; 9th)

By my count, that's really just two solid defenses that they've faced. Let's all agree that Cleveland and Oakland are a joke. We should all be able to agree that San Diego is really quite suspect on that side of the ball too. Dallas is probably a little better than their current ranking - at least in the last couple of weeks they've improved. And we might also agree that the Bengals are a bit better than their ranking, while New England is not quite as good as the numbers might suggest (playing Tennessee and Tampa Bay the past two games will do that). 

Anyway, Denver's offense has failed to really do all that much against the type of defenses they've played. They did have a fairly solid output against the Patriots - 424 yards and a ridiculous 27 first downs - but they nevertheless only manged to get it in the endzone twice. But against San Diego, it was mostly the defense and Eddie Royal's return abilities, not the play of the offense that helped them escape Qualcomm with a huge road win. And it was two inexcusable turnovers Tony Romo - the type he's so, so good at producing - that kept Denver in the Dallas game before their offense found its rhythm and engineered a field goal drive followed by a circus catch by Brandon Marshall that he would take to the house for the improbable, come from behind victory.  A win's a win, but the Broncos had only 280 or so yards of offense leading up to the touchdown, and around 220 through almost 3 and 1/2 quarters.  And then of course most recently, there was the Baltimore game this past Sunday. Kyle Orton looked horrible under pressure - he had only 152 passing yards on 37 attempts. That's terrible. The running game was bottled up as well and Denver finished the game with an anemic 200 total yards of offense, averaged just 3.4 yards per play, and converted just 3/13 on 3rd down. 

Through 8 weeks, Denver's offense is:14th in total yards and 20th in points scored. Kyle Orton is a fine quarterback - gets rid of the ball fairly quickly (though sometimes too quickly for his own good), doesn't turn the ball over much. But he definitely doesn't scare me when thinking about how he might fare against the Pittsburgh Steelers improving defense. And it goes without saying that the Steelers rush defense should be able to bottle up the average run game of the Broncos. That's not to say the duo of Buckhalter and Moreno isn't a solid one - it is, and they've had some individual and collective success this year. But they're viewed unfavorably by FO's rushing the ball (18th), and they've been just average on the ground since carving up the Browns and Raiders for 186 and 215 yards in Weeks 2 and 3. The bottom line is neither are Adrian Peterson, and the Steelers did just fine slowing him down two Sundays ago.

It's just one man's opinion of course, but I think the Steelers will be able to shut down this Denver offense for the second week in a row. It's hard to make the Broncos look much worse than they did on Sunday, but credit Baltimore for playing a big role in that. While the Ravens beat up on Denver, Pittsburgh rested up and began scheming for the Broncos. Sounds like a good recipe for success if you ask me.  That said, Denver will surely be eager to atone for last week's embarrassing showing, and can be counted on to put up a spirited fight in front of their rabid home crowd.

But I still think Pittsburgh has too much for the Broncos provided they tackle well in the short passing game, shore up their coverage units on special teams, and limit it to two or fewer turnovers (and in non-costly spots of the field). From there, I think Denver has to win at Washington the following week or they'll be in a potential dogfight for a playoff berth. The trump card of course is San Diego is so mystifyingly inconsistent that who knows if they'll even put pressure on Denver to win 10 games to win the division. The Chargers travel to New York to play a reeling Giants team in a game that's huge for both teams. If San Diego wins, they'll be within a game essentially of the Broncos with their second meeting of the year looming in Week 10. If the Broncos do need to get to 10 or 11 wins to make the playoffs, I don't see them holding up with the schedule they have remaining.

If you add up the success they've had so far in close games (it tends to balance out), combined with how fortunate they've been injury wise, combined with not having a quarterback that can really carry a team on his back when the going gets tough - all of it makes me skeptical of this 2009 Denver Broncos team. I commend them for their fine start, but I don't see them as a legitimate contender this year in the AFC, even if they were to hold on and make the playoffs in year one of the Josh McDaniels era.

Whew. Enough for now. I can't wait for this one. The Steelers first game in 15 days and their first appearance on Monday Night Football. 

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