Three weeks into the 2008-09 NFL season, one thing is for certain. The Denver Broncos offense is a force to be reckoned with thanks to the emergence of QB Jay Cutler, WR Brandon Marshall, and a revamped offensive line anchored by 2008 1st round pick LT Ryan Clady. With the perennial favorites (Patriots and Colts) in the conference aging and reeling from injuries, are the Broncos legitimate Super Bowl contenders or are they entertaining pretenders?
Head coach Mike Shanahan has entrusted the play-calling duties this season to Cutler and QB coach Jeremy Bates. It is Bates who is in control of the passing game and Cutler hears his voice through the headset on gameday. Offensive coordinator Rick Dennison is in charge of the rushing gameplan and protection schemes. According to Sports Illustrated's Peter King, Shanahan hasn't called plays on gameday for over nine years. He stopped in 1999, where he gave those duties to then offensive coordinator and current Houston Texans head coach Gary Kubiak. Now the pressure is on Bates and Dennison to keep the offense rolling. After three weeks, the Broncos offense is 1st in the NFL in scoring and total yards.
When Brandon Marshall first stepped onto the practice field in his uniform, he was told by Champ Bailey, the best cornerback in the game, that not many corners in the league could handle Marshall's blend of size, speed, and strength. Judging by his performance last season and the first two games this season, Marshall is finally starting to put it all together. Rookie WR Eddie Royal and Brandon "the slot machine" Stokley give Cutler his new version of the "Three Amigos" that John Elway once had. Daniel Graham, the best blocking tight end in the NFL, leads the group with Tony Scheffler and Nate Jackson as reliable receivers who can stretch the middle of the field.
The trio of Selvin Young, Andre Hall, and Michael Pittman works because they are unselfish, team-oriented players who sacrifice individual statistics for the good of the team. Young, the starter, leads the team in carries and yards through the first three games. He is also averaging 6.9 yards per attempt. Pittman is the short-yardage and goalline back. He leads the team with 4 rushing touchdowns. Rookie 5th rounder Ryan Torain, sidelined the first 2 months due to an elbow injury, could provide a boost during the second half of the season. Shanahan has compared Torain's running style to that of Terrell Davis and is not afraid of using rookies, especially at RB.
Keeping defenders off of Cutler was a major issue for Denver last season. There needed to be changes made. Starting with the team's decision to draft Clady with the 12th pick in the draft, the team revamped the whole line. Last years starters at tackle, Matt Lepsis and Erik Pears, failed to give Cutler adequate protection most of the time as the pocket consistently collapsed around him. With Clady on the left side and 2nd year T Ryan Harris manning the right side, Cutler has two young athletic tackles who can give him the time to look downfield without worrying about defenders hanging all over him. LG Ben Hamilton, who missed all of last season with a concussion, is back along with RG Chris Kuper. All-time Bronco great C Tom Nalen was recently put on IR, ending his season. Ex-Kansas City Chief C Casey Wiegman has stepped in admirably and this unit has not skipped a beat. They have allowed only one sack of Cutler (the Hochuli call).
If this team is to make a serious Super Bowl run then the defense has to play better under new defensive coordinator Bob Slowik. Not much better but better than the past two weeks against San Diego and New Orleans when they nearly squandered 21-3 leads in both games only to hold on at the end. It is obvious what haunts the Broncos most on defense: 3rd Down conversions. SD and NO each converted around 60% on third down. This unit has to get off the field because that means Cutler and Co. are on it.
In 2007, the team drafted 3 defensive linemen who they thought could be impact players in Jarvis Moss, Tim Crowder, and Marcus Thomas. So far the results have been less than encouraging. Thomas, started 5 games at DT last year, has shown some flashes this year alongside veteran Dewayne Robertson, acquired from the NY Jets in the offseason. Moss was an inactive for the first two games and Crowder was inactive for last week's game. Denver needs Moss and Crowder to make more plays than they have. Elvis Dumervil, the team's sack leader the last two years, has been hampered by a pinkie injury and is finally starting to show he is healthy. The other starter at end, John Engelberger, is a high-motor, high energy player who plays well against the run. Ebenezer Ekuban is back from an Achilles injury and can play DT or DE.
WLB D.J. Williams, recently signed to a 5 year extension, is the most indispensible player the Broncos have on the defensive side of the ball. One of the defensive captains, he calls the plays in the huddle and directs the defense pre-snap. MLB Nate Webster showed up to training camp in the best shape of his life and won the job from free agent Niko Koutovides. Champ's younger brother, Boss, was signed to play the strong side and cover playmaking TE's like Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates.
Since entering the NFL in 1999, CB Bailey has 43 interceptions and CB Dre Bly has 38. That is good for the 1-2 spots for cornerbacks in that time span. What these two have lost in speed, they have made up for in preparation and anticipation. They might get beat by double moves, but in the end they will make their fair share of plays. Nickel corner Karl Paymah has been an enigma since being drafted in 2005. He has the size, speed, and tackling ability you want in a DB but he does not make plays on the ball like Bailey and Bly. Rookie Jack Williams is currently the dime corner but that could change if Paymah continues to struggle. At safety, Marlon Mcree and Marquand Manuel are the starters. Both are stop gap players at best so look for the Broncos to address this position in the offseason.
Jason Elam will forever have a place in all of Broncos fans hearts. Since being drafted in 1993, he is the franchise's all-time leader in points and proved to be one of the best clutch kickers in NFL history. But with his leg strength diminishing, the team decided it was time to part ways with the popular Elam. His replacement, Matt Prater, has been perfect on all of his attempts and leads the NFL in touchbacks. Now can he hit the big kick in the clutch like Elam did time and time again? Only time will tell.
So are they contenders or pretenders? If last season's Super Bowl taught us anything, it is that great defense can stop even the greatest offense in NFL history. Cutler to Marshall is becoming the new Manning to Harrison or Young to Rice. The offense is going to put up huge numbers every week. The Broncos don't have to become a dominant defensive team, just a more opportunistic one. They must get off the field on third down and get more pressure on the QB, which creates turnovers. If not, they will not be playing come February.