It’s impossible to avoid the Tim Tebow coverage at this point. Since you’ll be hearing about the Broncos-Lions game all week, you might as well make the best of it and be familiar with the two teams. Here is a five-point rundown of the matchup, starting with a quick ode to You Know Who.
The argument is no longer whether Tebow can become a more conventional quarterback; it’s whether the Broncos can win without him becoming a conventional quarterback. The elongated throwing motion probably isn’t going away. The flawed footwork may improve, but no guarantees. The arm strength will likely always be what it is: middling.
At this point, the Broncos coaching staff is limiting Tebow’s reads with simplified gameplans. That’s common with young quarterbacks. But usually young quarterbacks have more passing tools to work with. Tebow has running tools, which are hard to successfully incorporate into an NFL gameplan.
Tebow worshipers love to tout his “It Factor”. Twice now we’ve seen that “It Factor” late in the fourth quarter when the trailing Broncos have been compelled to cut loose Tebow’s inner sandlot soul. And it’s worked. So why doesn’t John Fox have Tebow play this way for all four quarters? Because he fears that if he did, the Broncos would trail by 30 late in the fourth instead of the usual 15 or 16.
Let’s look at the rest of this matchup.
2. Broncos offense
As we highlighted in last week’s Finer Points analysis, the Broncos have severe limitations at wide receiver. None of their targets are vertical threats. Eric Decker gets off press coverage well but is restricted to underneath stuff. Eddie Royal is an uninspiring slasher. Demaryius Thomas is solid and has upside, but only in a possession sense. And undrafted Matt Willis is untested.
Because of this, the Broncos are a throwback offense that operates out of traditional two-backs, one-tight end sets and abides largely by the laws of run-run-pass. That’s not a winning formula, but if the run game is working, it can at least be a “not losing” formula.
The run game has worked the past two weeks. Though Willis McGahee rushed for 103 yards against the Packers in Week 6, 125 yards against the Chargers in Week 5 and 76 yards against the Dolphins this past Sunday, he's out for for at least the next month with a broken hand. That means, Knowshon Moreno -- last year's first-round pick who is a mechanic, finesse-based back who has been relegated to third down duties -- will take over. Like McGahee, at least Moreno has the benefit of operating behind an offensive line that is well sized and, for the most part, athletic.
3. Lions defense
The Lions run defense is not nearly as bad as its ranking (28) indicates. A few missed tackles have led to big gains on the ground. Missed tackles are the type of mistakes that can quickly be corrected. The Lions have one of the deepest, most athletic defensive lines in football.
The line’s ability to win early in the down allows speedy linebackers DeAndre Levy, Justin Durant and Stephen Tulloch to play untouched and downhill – something all three are doing extremely well. Safety Louis Delmas is also outstanding at locating and quickly filling the point of attack against the run. He’ll see plenty of time in the box given Denver’s nonexistent downfield passing game.
Denver needs to forget about running outside and instead attack Detroit right up the gut. That may seem problematic given the presence of Ndamukong Suh and Corey Williams, but in the last two weeks, the Niners and Falcons, two other power-run teams, have taken a clever approach to this.
Instead of trying to stop Ndamukong Suh’s initial penetration, the Falcons, taking a page out of the 49ers’ playbook, found a way to use it against him. Right guard Garrett Reynolds let Suh get his amazing jump off the ball.
Center Todd McClure swept around to shield Suh backside, while Michael Turner carried the ball right to the spot that Suh vacated. Reynolds stepped to his right to take care of the defensive end (an easy block given the angle of the hole it was creating) and right tackle Tyson Clabo was able to immediately work up to the second level and block the linebacker (also an easy block given that the linebacker had virtually no time to diagnose and react).
The 49ers used a similar tactic the previous week (see the video here), only with different players. They let Suh get penetration and blocked him backside with motioning tight end Delanie Walker. Center Jonathan Goodwin went cleanly to the second level to block the linebacker, while right guard Adam Snyder handled the left defensive tackle that Goodwin left behind.
This concept did three things for the Falcons and 49ers:
1. Eliminated Suh from the play without costing the offense an extra blocker in a double team, and without asking the right guard to win a one-on-one matchup that few, if any, right guards could possibly win.
2. Opened a natural hole in the A-gap, which is the easiest hole for a running back to hit quickly.
3. Allowed an offensive lineman to immediately reach a linebacker without being touched (a run-blocker’s dream).
Expect the Broncos to try a similar tactic this Sunday. It will be interesting to see what adjustment the Lions will have made to combat this (it’s doubtful they’d ask Suh to NOT penetrate off the snap).
4. Lions offense
This unit has had the chinks in its armor exposed the past two weeks. At this point, Matthew Stafford and the Lions are overly dependent on Calvin Johnson. That’s fine when Jahvid Best is in the lineup. But with Best out, the Lions don’t pose much of a run threat out of shotgun (overwhelmingly their favorite formation).
They also lose Best’s outside presence on bubble screens. This allows defenses to be more aggressive near the line of scrimmage against Titus Young, Nate Burleson and tight end Brandon Pettigrew, all of whom struggled last Sunday.
This puts more pressure on Johnson. He’s an otherworldly talent, but he’s never been inspiring against intense double coverage (he was nowhere near as impactful against the Niners two weeks ago as his 113 yards suggested).
Also, as we saw against the Falcons, with the passing game’s quick-strike element suppressed, this unathletic front five gets exposed.
5. Broncos defense
The Broncos have the resources to exploit Detroit’s pass-blocking. Von Miller is the AFC’s answer to Clay Matthews. Elvis Dumervil has had a quiet season but will still a handful for Jeff Backus. And last week the safeties and linebackers timed their blitzes extremely well.
The Broncos also have the resources to keep up with Detroit’s passing attack. Champ Bailey is still a top-tier cornerback, shadowing the opposing team’s No. 1 receiver week in and week out. Bailey will need rookie free safety Quinton Carter (who has replaced Rahim Moore) to be a little more reliable in help coverage than he’s been, but with a respectable pass-rush, the Broncos shouldn’t feel too nervous about this matchup.
Nickel linebackers D.J. Williams (insane athlete) and Wesley Woodyard are both stellar pass defenders who can contain Pettigrew. The deciding factor will be whether cornerbacks Andre Goodman and Jonathan Wilhite can physically stymie Burleson and Young. Teams have targeted Wilhite, who’s been in and out of the lineup.
So who will win? Check our NFL expert picks for all Week 8 games.
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