Bueller, Bueller, Bueller
In honor of John Hughes' recent passing and Kyle Orton's difficulty passing last Friday, I thought I'd attempt a pithy reference in the title of this synopsis for the first preseason game of the year.
I will not continue the Hughes' theme (if you are reading this mission accomplished) but will relate some observations, Q&A, and comment on what lies ahead from both the positive and negative perspectives.
Observations - Orton's 3 INTs
First impressions are lasting, and after tonight’s game against SF the image most Broncos fans have of their new QB is similar to the feeling one gets watching an airplane crash or other major disaster.
Orton was inexcusably inept in his Broncos debut but as many previous writers have noted, it is the preseason and there is time to improve. It wasn’t all bad, but bad enough.
We knew Orton was coming into a new offense and surroundings, but we didn’t think he would stare receivers down and throw interceptions that defensive players wouldn’t even have to earn. His is not a strength-of-arm problem, it is a decision-making issue.
Interception one came in the end zone at the conclusion of a very nice 14 play 69 yd first drive when the ball was thrown to the wrong shoulder of the TE (Graham) on 3rd-and-goal. There was an open receiver (Hillis) in the flat to the right but Orton seemed to lock onto the Graham from the start.
The pass would have still been completed had it been thrown to Graham’s right shoulder instead of his left. The DB (Clements) would have continued his motion to cover the flat had Orton not been so obvious where he was going with the ball.
QBs can't have tunnel vision in the red-zone, which was one of Cutler's major problems when he was in Denver, but Orton wasted his first opportunity to show he can fill the void.
Interception two came on another stare down; this time to Stokley and the ball was thrown right to Dre’ Bly who didn’t even have to make a play on it beyond just standing there and waiting for the ball.
Interception three came on an out pattern, where Gaffney was wide open on the left sideline; Orton watched him the full time finally throwing the ball about 8 yards short into the defender's waiting arms.
Again, he stared his receiver down the whole time. Detractors will say it was the strength of his arm but it wasn’t that long a throw had he not locked onto the receiver the whole time the DB would not have gone as deep in the zone.
Orton made some good throws and had some good decisions, but the interceptions cancel anything that can be considered progress. His situation will be tenuous at best in the coming weeks unless he can start going through his reads and looking the defense off from where he is going with the ball.
Q: Is the talent there up front to run an effective 3-4?
A: Yes, the front three were solid and provided a good push up the middle when rushing the passer. Chris Baker showed he will add depth and will be a force at the nose tackle position.
Q: Are the OLBs making a good transition to the 3-4 and how will they play in pass coverage?
A: Dumervil, Crowder, Reid, and Moss all struggled in pass coverage as did the ILBs (Davis in particular) on SF’s first TD failing to cover the FB in the flat when the OLB on the right side was rushing the passer.
The second TD was a blitz rushing seven where Reid had to cover two players to the same side. The one he couldn't cover when for the score. I'm not sure where the help deep was but the blitz was poor executed and coverage non-existent.
Q: Will the defense be able to rush the passer better this year?
A: It is hard to answer this as the SF QBs often held the ball too long and the SF OL isn't one of the better groups in the league, but the Broncos did have four sacks, with two of them coming from the front three (McBean and Baker) and two from the OLBs (Doom and Haggan).
There was a consistent push in the middle from the front three, the OLBs did apply pressure, but because the Broncos rushed five-plus most of the time, it would be surprising if they didn't have four sacks.
The jury is out whether or not there is enough talent to pressure the QB consistently rushing three or four but there is obvious improvement in talent. The blitz, however, was fairly ineffective (like last year), failing to get to the QB in time and allowing the 49ers to exploit them like they did on the last touchdown when they came with seven.
Q: How are the rookies going to fit into the new offensive and defensive schemes this year?
A: Moreno looked as good as advertised despite only being in camp a few days. He went down with a sprain to the MCL but he'll only miss one or two weeks. The way he ran, he won't need many reps in preseason to prepare for the season as he ran hard and with authority.
A. Smith was all over the field and showed a good burst in the return game. He was good in coverage and showed a knack for making plays against the running game even when he was in traffic.
McKinley not as explosive as Smith as a returner and dropped an easy pass for a first down late, but ran good routes and had a TD reception on a broken play. Overall this rookie class is very good and many of them will play important roles this season.
Q: Will the new offense focus on the pass or the run more?
A: The mix was roughly 45 percent run and 55 percent pass for this game but the Broncos ran the ball well when they committed to it. The play calling seemed to favor the pass to allow the QBs to get into their rhythms as the run worked well when they committed to it and ran a decent play.
For some reason they ran a delayed draw-ish looking play up the middle, misdirection, from the shotgun on a three or four plays that was too cute to work but they stuck still ran it again.
Strange play, strange to run it more than once. Moreno and Hillis will be featured backs this season with Jordan and Buckhalter filling in for depth and other offensive 'wrinkles.'
The passing game was effective when the QBs made the right reads as the receivers were usually open beyond the 60% completion rate achieved. The shotgun will be a staple and they will run a lot out of it.
Q: Will special teams and field position improve?
A: The coverage on kickoffs and punts was good, as was the return game especially when Smith was the returner. Kern dropped a couple of punts down inside the 15 and showed good touch.
Prater made his only short FG (almost blocked—gulp!), and had one deep kickoff for a touch back after putting the first one well short. Coverage, lane assignments, and tackling on special teams was improved—which is a pleasant change.
The glass is half full because…
...other than Moreno’s MCL sprain, there were no major injuries.
...the offense has the talent to be very good if the QB doesn’t turn the ball over.
...the running game will be a strength with Moreno and Hillis dominating the carries.
...the defensive front seven are not as big a worry against the run as previously thought. They weren't stellar by any measure, but overall they delivered well for playing the 3-4 (5-2 really) for the first time in a game situation.
...the pass rush is improved.
...special teams are better and the return game will be in good hands with Smith and possibly Royal filling the role of returner.
...there is more talent on both sides of the ball this year, and the rookies look good!
The glass is half empty because…
...Orton isn’t comfortable with his reads or progressions and had tunnel vision on most of his throws—leading to 3 INTs.
...Orton has one more preseason game to get comfortable before Cutler comes to town and the pressure will be 100 times worse. If he doesn’t have a good second game the position will be Simms’ to lose the way they both played.
...the linebackers continue to struggle making sure tackles in open space. DJ missed several times by taking the wrong angles (again, same problem last year) and he has to improve. The success SF had was usually the result of LBs being out of position, making the wrong reads, and taking poor angles.
...the OLBs are leaving the edges and short zones very vulnerable in pass coverage.
...the defense continues to have trouble stopping teams on third down and getting off the field. They must improve on this.
...the defensive backfield still plays very soft, very soft. Very few passes were defended aggressively.
Overall - Summary
It is the first preseason game where chemistry on offense and defense are expected to be a little off. Denver dominated the game for the most part on both sides of the ball. The 49ers had six pts off of turnovers and the Broncos gave away three or six pts with the interception in the end zone.
The other SF touchdown was the result of a broken play by the third and fourth string. In the regular season the Broncos win this game if Orton doesn’t telegraph his passes and should have won it anyway.
The improved talent level on both sides of the ball is notable. There are three more games to tune things up for the season and a lot of work left to do and a lot to look forward to.
Orton needs to play well enough to get through game two to gain the confidence to face Cutler in game three. The comparison machine is out there and Orton needs to go into the game with some success behind him to help his confidence.
I think you’ll see him playing at least one-half of each game throughout the preseason to work on his technique (happy feet), rhythm, reads, and progressions.
It isn’t time to panic...yet. There is a lot to look forward to and we'll see how the new coaching staff works to smooth the rough edges this week as they go to Seattle to play a team that many predict is a dark horse candidate to contend in the NFC.