Bengals vs. Broncos: Fox's “Next-Man-Up” Policy Takes Shape

Chaz MattsonAnalyst ISeptember 19, 2011

The Broncos celebrate in "Next Man Up" fashion.
The Broncos celebrate in "Next Man Up" fashion.Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

It has been said that teams are only as good as their weakest link. 

It’s an old football adage because it’s an absolute truth to live and die by.  It goes beyond logic, practice and even the games because any weaknesses eventually show up. 

In high school, college and the NFL for that matter, coaches research where the weaknesses or possible weaknesses exist with their upcoming opponents through film study.  It’s an area that helps in building schemes and philosophies for teams to live by whenever attacking an opponent.

So it’s no small surprise for teams that have injuries and talent level issues to overcome, the “next-man-up” philosophy makes a whole lot of sense to implement. 

Locally, the Air Force Academy has that approach on and off the football field.  It’s a discipline of mind and the approach that makes the group more important than the individual. 

In professional football, that is a bit of a paradox, and yet, when your team wrestles with talent issues from top to bottom, it’s a natural fit.

When looking at the 2011 model of the Denver Broncos they are clearly a team in transition, through that transition is the heart change of a team left disillusioned from the past.  John Fox knew when he came to Denver that he had his work cut out, after all, he was in Carolina, a franchise that seemingly imploded after their playoff appearance just two short seasons ago. 

When teams implode, sometimes it’s due to talent gaps or playing over their heads or losing top talent after the season.  Carolina had a mix of all those, which one might suspect, and Denver has gone through some similar struggles.

The Broncos had a tough go running the ball in short yardage at times Sunday.
The Broncos had a tough go running the ball in short yardage at times Sunday.Doug Pensinger/Getty Images


John Fox, with his years of football experience, clearly saw the mantra as something that would mean the most to transforming the Denver Broncos back into being a traditional contender. 

Rome wasn’t built in a day and the Broncos transformation is likely to take at least two full seasons if not more.  In modern NFL time, that can feel like a decade, possibly more given the actual decade the Broncos have had to lay to rest.  It’s a message that requires enthusiasm to carry it out, not just with the coaches, or even the players, but throughout the organization.  


Notes from the Game with Cincinnati – An Impressive Start

A long forgotten friend helped the Broncos find the win against the Bengals on Sunday, and it’s likely he’s already been forgotten again.  The fact is, it’s a key to creating balance on offense and it is always taken for granted (yes this is your hint).  Think about what it is, I’ll give you the answer at the end of the segment, in the meantime start here.

The fast start against the Bengals was impressive, especially considering how the team lacked solid play against the Raiders on Monday night.  The loss to Oakland was an absolute disappointment for the franchise, and the team clearly needed to bounce back from that immediately.  While the game wasn’t pretty, the Broncos found a way to get the win and put themselves on the right track.

The Broncos showed enough balance early to spring Willis McGahee.
The Broncos showed enough balance early to spring Willis McGahee.Doug Pensinger/Getty Images


One thing that should be harped on about the Broncos offensive attack should be their poor play calling and not optioning out of the current play call enough through audible.  The third play from scrimmage is an excellent example of this.  After the offensive line created a great hole for Willis McGahee’s first carry and a gain of eight; the Broncos wind up in a 2nd and 2 situation at their own 41 yard line. 

The Bengals counter by having eight in the box plus two DB’s very close with the Broncos tight set.  This allows a corner blitz from the play side and middle pressure from the defensive front seven.  Moreover, of the front 10 in or near the box, seven of them are on the play call side.  The result is a minus one yard on the play.

It’s this sort of approach, Kyle Orton not checking out of situations, that makes the attack less effective.  This is an area that really should be worked on this week because it will make the run game more effective. 

Additionally, they did have another play on 1st-and-10 where there was no accounting for Bengals linebacker Rey Maualuga (someone Josh McDaniels should have drafted).  As Maualuga blitzed the gap he hit running back Chris Ball at the line of scrimmage, fortunately for the Broncos, he was able to shake off the hit and gain four yards on the play.

The problem here, however, is obvious: that there was a poor job accounting for the Bengals middle linebacker and it comes down to being a sign of improper communication along the offensive line of the Broncos.  The Broncos did not match-up well in situations where the Bengals had 8, 9 and 10 in the box.

All in all, it was a pretty good day for the Broncos in the trenches.
All in all, it was a pretty good day for the Broncos in the trenches.Doug Pensinger/Getty Images


Later in the game, with just over a minute left in the first half, the Broncos ran the exact same play and were up against a very similar front from the Bengals.  This time, the Bengals front seven penetrated to get McGahee two yards behind the line on a second and one situation. 

This issue remains outstanding, the Broncos offensive line failed to account for the front in this situation.  This is something the Bengals picked up through film study, absolutely without question; they knew how to play the Broncos short yardage out of that set.  What’s troubling is that the Broncos did not account for the Bengals defense against the same front.  There really is no excuse for that, it’s something that needs further attention.

On the up-side the Broncos' line created more running lanes than they have in a very longtime.  This is really attributed to two things; they showed much more leg drive than they did against the Raiders and this allowed them to open running lanes and gain yards in good sized chunks. 

Additionally the implementation, of fullback Spencer Larsen made an impact. 

He rushed once for four yards and caught three balls out of the backfield for 23 yards.  It almost makes sense to put him on your fantasy team for nostalgia sake in a slightly humorous way, so LOL if you must.  Think about it, a fullback on your fantasy squad that actually has stats!  Sure he should strictly stay on the bench, but it’s a way to intimidate your opponents—but I’ve digressed and I do need to mention that I don’t endorse any fantasy roster moves unless a floating Benjamin is nearby.

The Broncos defense did bend but it would not break against the Bengals.
The Broncos defense did bend but it would not break against the Bengals.Doug Pensinger/Getty Images


Anyway, the previous paragraph was your second hint to the original question.  Who was that old friend that showed his face for the Broncos on Sunday against Cincinnati?  Have you figured it out yet?  Well stay tuned it’s coming up.

One of the best plays made on the day did come from Kyle Orton on a seemingly meaningless play, however, he chose not to force the ball down near the goal line and it saved the Broncos' touchdown drive. 

On 1st-and-goal from the three, the Broncos were in shot-gun formation and Kyle saw everyone was jammed and covered at the line.  He gave things time to develop, but made the right choice in throwing the ball away.  That saved the drive no doubt.  Two plays later, Willis McGahee hits paydirt for the touchdown.

On 2nd-and-goal and on 3rd-and-goal, the Broncos used that old friend again.  Have you figured it out yet—well with film study it might have helped your cause, but the old friend is the “I” formation.  Teams that run and throw with balance use it for power and for play-action.  Even in the modern NFL, this age old, tried and true formation brought strength to a lack-luster Broncos run game.  Face the facts, the Broncos should have utilized the “I” a bit more against the Raiders.

On the day Willis McGahee toted the rock 28 times for 101 yards and one touchdown.  The other Broncos backs carried eight times for an additional 30 yards.  In the Broncos run game “next man up” proved to work, with the veteran McGahee and the supplemental committee gaining over 100 yards to keep the Broncos in control throughout the game.  Perhaps Willis McGahee should be the starting tailback, time will tell, but for the veteran to step up in a time of need was huge.

Kyle Orton occasionally has shown mental lapses with the football.
Kyle Orton occasionally has shown mental lapses with the football.Doug Pensinger/Getty Images


Overall on the day, you have to give the Broncos pass protection an A- / B+ for the game.  Additionally, there was much more push this game from the offensive line.  They struggled in some short yardage situations, so they deserve a B-, but could move that grade up easily in the future if they correct some of the communication and execution errors. 


Defense Holds Off the Bengals

The old Joe Collier Orange Crush did a lot of bending without breaking, it’s what kept games close. 

While this current Broncos unit has a ways to go and some injuries to overcome before ever being great, the formula is there and it’s clear this defense will bend, but the hope is they won’t break.  Yesterday was as close as it gets late in a ball game and the Broncos were out-gained in total yards 382 to 318.

Last week, against the arch-rivals in silver and black, Darren McFadden scorched the Broncos defense for 150 yards on the ground.  Yesterday, it was former TCU QB turned NFL rookie Andy Dalton lighting up the board for 332 yards in going 27 for 41 with two touchdowns and no interceptions.  The Broncos did shutdown Cedric Benson to the tune of 16 attempts for 59 yards, and the Bengals failed to reach 75 yards on the ground. 


Sorry fantasy footballers, Cedric Benson only gained 59 yards.
Sorry fantasy footballers, Cedric Benson only gained 59 yards.Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

Good defenses can adapt and great defenses can dictate.  At times, the Broncos were the latter, but most of the day, they were the former. 

The Broncos showed strengths and weaknesses on both sides of the ball, but the strength they must have moving forward to stay competitive is their defense.  The Broncos are missing Elvis Dumervil and just put their starting defensive tackle Ty Warren on injured reserve earlier in the week, keeping him out this season. 

So, the middle of the defensive line has been a concern.  However it’s important that the vast majority of rushing yards they have given up thus far on the season have come on the outside edges of the defense and not in the middle, so that is something.

The Broncos did have two sacks credited to their defense on the day, but they showed that they were good-but-not-great by letting the Bengals creep back into the game. 


Mental Lapses and Lazy Plays Need More Attention

On the Broncos second possession, Eric Decker was called for pass interference, clearly a miscue, as he was clearly not on the same page as the rest of the offense.  The very next play, Kyle Orton tried to do a lazy dump off to Eddie Royal instead of giving the play more time to develop.  Orton’s throw hit either the hand of the Bengals D-lineman or the back of the Broncos' Zane Beadles’ helmet.  Fortunately, the ball was not intercepted. 


Perhaps the legacy of the Mile High Salute should traditionally be valued with the "Next Man Up" philosophy.
Perhaps the legacy of the Mile High Salute should traditionally be valued with the "Next Man Up" philosophy.Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

Had Orton stepped up and over to the left side, he could have avoided pressure and found Eric Decker on an out route for the first down.  That in a nutshell is the strongest criticism against Kyle Orton being a starter; in some regard he’s afraid to take chances that could help the team. 

Yes, anything is possible in these situations, but not making the right decision or being too afraid of making a mistake is not the right approach either.  What ends up happening is this sort of play keeps games closer than they should be or takes the Broncos out of having a chance to win.


Players Who Were the “Next Man Up”

Without a doubt, the offensive star of the day was second year receiver Eric Decker.  He has shown the potential to be a starter for a very longtime; he’s had a series of injury setbacks that have held him out of action.  The thing about Decker is, you can’t mistake the obvious parallels between him and former Broncos great Ed McCaffrey.  They share the same jersey number and very similar builds, along with the knack to find open space and they both have great hands (even though Decker did fumble once yesterday). 

Decker made five grabs on the day and scored two touchdowns and now leads the team with three thus far on the young season.  The fact is, he is on the verge of being a starter, he should be the other starter opposite Lloyd and, with Royal’s injury, no doubt will be next week.  However, upon Royal's return, Eddie should move back to the slot where he can always create mismatches.


Defensively, Joe Mays stood out, as did Broderick Bunkley, Robert Ayers, Brian Dawkins and Wesley Woodyard.  All of them stood out at different points of the game in short yardage situations, forcing the Bengals to stay at arms length most of the day.  Woodyard lead the team in solo tackles with ten, and assisted on three more.  Joe Mays had five solo tackles and three assists, most of which looked like all-out train wrecks.

Von Miller had a pretty solid game with the pass rush, forcing Andy Dalton to make some quick decisions which were incomplete. 

So, defensively, as was the thinking during the preseason, there are great things to draw upon with this group.  The thing that keeps this defense competitive going forward is the “next man up” approach—it’s paying off, especially when you consider the defense is missing three defensive starters in Elvis Dumervil, Champ Bailey and D.J. Williams. 


The Final Note on “Next Man Up”



In Dove Valley, a win is certainly a welcomed sign, but, make no doubt, these are tough times for the franchise.  Much of that was evident when Oakland found a way to keep Denver at bay and kept a cloud over the franchise last week. 

Then, the Broncos had a short work week from Monday night. They were clinging to a lead and needed a little Mile High magic to hold off a late power surge by one of the weaker NFL franchises, the Cincinnati Bengals.  Cincinnati is a team the Broncos probably should have dominated, but they failed to do so. 

That has opened the door to some criticism from fans who have a sense this team is not quite as strong as maybe they should be.  Certainly, they are a work in progress, one that has issues that especially impact offensive communication and execution, and one that needs to tighten up the defensive side a bit more. 

What stands out is that the Broncos are fortunate to be 1-1 and not 0-2 without any hope in sight at this juncture.  At 1-1, there is something to build upon; at 0-2, things could start to roll into a hopeless feeling, even for a team that knows it’s in transition.  In holding off the Bengals, the Broncos may have averted a deeper emotional scar that could hinder progress fro some time.

Next up for the Broncos is a very physical road game with the Tennessee Titans who downed the Baltimore Raves yesterday 26-13.  If the Broncos want to take a major step in their development this week, they will fix their short-yardage communication and execution offensively and start their road schedule with a ground game that brings home the victory.


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