by Gus Ramsey
So here we are. AFC West Champs, hosting the Pittsburgh Steelers in a playoff game. Given that I said the Broncos would be 6 and 10 this year, I can't say I'm unhappy with an 8 and 8 season that produced a playoff appearance. And yet....
After the Patriot game, I felt (as did many others) that Tim Tebow was starting to throw the ball well. He was coming off his first option, finding other receivers, throwing the ball with zip and some accuracy, there were positive signs. All of those feelings went away against the Chiefs. Kansas City spent the bulk of the game in press, man-to-man coverage with one deep safety. Somehow the Broncos receivers never won at the line of scrimmage, or so it seemed. You would think once in a while a receiver would beat his corner off the line and get a step. Or maybe Tebow never read it when it happened or never had the confidence to throw it. It's truly perplexing. Are the Broncos receivers that bad? I will say it was the most tentative I've seen Tebow since the first Chiefs game. This is the same defense that slowed down the Packers, so I guess it's not surprising they stuffed Denver most of the day. But you have to expect Dick Lebeau and the top rated Steelers defense will have their own game plan that will be equally effective.
As for Tebow the runner, defenses appear to have stymied the QB part of read-option. Tebow almost never keeps the ball on that play anymore. He seems to be most effective running when the Broncos are spread with 4 or 5 receivers on the field. Yesterday there were few times, if any, when Denver went four wide. When Denver only sends two receivers out on patterns, there are seven or eight defenders around the line of scrimmage, clogging it up and making running lanes hard to find. Tebow's best runs of the year came against Jets and Bears defenses that were spread out.
Is it the play-calling or the quarterback? It's kind of become a self-fullfilling prophecy. Fox plays everything close to the vest, and has clearly told Tebow not to force anything, but now when he needs to throw, he throws without conviction, or worse yet, doesn't throw at all. As Phil Simms said during the game, "Tebow needs to learn what open in the NFL looks like." You would think Eric Decker and Demayrius Thomas are "open" more than it appears. They are big guys with a size advantage on most DB's. Sometimes you have to throw it at them and let them make plays. Think of the throw Orton made to Bowe along the right sideline over Bailey. Champ could not have played it better, but Bowe is taller and Orton threw is centimeters above Bailey's fingertips for a completion. Tebow doesn't seem to have the confidence to attempt that throw. They did pass the ball twenty-two times yesterday. That's a decent number. Tebow completed six passes. Six. That's not a decent number.
Denver had decent success on first down against the Chiefs, when they ran it. In looking at the play-by-play, Denver threw the ball on first down six times. Tebow was 0-5 on those passes and drew one penalty. Sooner or later you have to be able to complete SOMETHING on first down. For every four or five yard first down run, there's the loss of a yard or minimal gain. It's kind of the law of averages with so many men in the box. Many fans, myself included, wonder why a screen pass isn't in the arsenal, especially on first down. Maybe it's because the defense is so focused on maintaining the edge and containing Tebow that screens are kind of pre-defended. Regardless, Denver needs to find the 5-10 yard passing game.
Here's a great note from ESPN's Stats and Information people. Denver's -81 is in the top six worst point differentials (2nd only to last year's Seahawks) for playoff teams. All of those other teams WON their wild card game. http://espn.go.com/blog/statsinfo/post/_/id/35558/struggling-broncos-could-surprise-steelers
Can they beat Pittsburgh? Sure. That's why they play the games. Will they? No. Denver struggles defensively when teams spread them out and that's what Pittsburgh does really well. They may be even more inclined to do it without Mendenhall in their lineup. With Harrison, Polamalu, Woodley and the rest, Pittsburgh is an extremely athletic defense that shouldn't have trouble running with Tebow. In fact, the running game in general will likely struggle. The injuries to Kuper and Larsen are huge. McGahee and Ball both looked dinged up by the end of the Chiefs game. The explosion play is gone from the offense. Every time McGahee looks like he might break one, it ends up being a ten-to-twelve yard gain.
Denver is going to need a special teams AND defensive touchdown to win this game. It sure feels like ten points would be enough to secure victory for Pittsburgh.
The week leading up to a Broncos playoff game is one of my favorite things in life. I dissect the game. I talk about it with friends. I try and find ways to talk myself into the Broncos winning the game. And as the week goes on, the excitement builds and by kickoff I'm ready to explode. And that should be what happens this week, I just don't see it happening. The last few weeks have been so bad, so depressing, I can't see myself getting extra jacked up for this game. Don't get me wrong, I'll be excited and thankful to have a playoff game for the first time in six years, I just don't see how it's going to be enjoyable.