Over the coming weeks, attempts will be made to answer a handful of burning questions facing what was perhaps the NFL's second-most disappointing team in 2007. Those questions include:
• What's going on in the secondary?
• Are there addressable problems in the offensive line?
• Can free agency help?
• And what is up with the red-zone offense?
On this Friday, let's look at the first question.
Against the broadly painted pastiche of Denver disappointment Mike Shanahan and friends produced in 2007—surely only San Francisco 49ers fans can complain of a greater underwhelming—was the secondary.
After the team landed Dre Bly in the offseason, Bronco backers had a reason to create those high expectations in the first place. Two things were supposed to happen with the Bly acquisition: The man himself was to break out of the relative obscurity he labored under while playing for the hapless Detroit Lions, while the pairing of Bly and Champ Bailey at the corners together with John Lynch and Nick Ferguson as safeties would result in a defense that was destined to lead the league in interceptions.
Instead, Bly and Bailey produced just eight picks combined, five of which came at the expense of the Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders—a pair of beatdogs nearly insignificant as divisional rivals in 2007, Oakland's fluke standing atop the division after Week Four aside. Out of necessity, Bailey had an excellent season off the ball in recording 84 tackles mostly when ball carriers blew past the box. Bailey has racked up 171 tackles in 31 games over the past two seasons while the opposition ran and ran in defiance of former coordinator Jim Bates' would-be heavy-pressure defense.
Meanwhile, Lynch, in his 15th year played like, well, a 36-year-old on a defeated team. Lynch missed three games altogether thanks to various minor injuries and recorded his lowest tackle total (just 59, including nine registered in the utterly meaningless Week 17 game against Minnesota); additionally, the man hasn't picked off a pass in two-plus seasons now. Ferguson was a non-factor in the second half of the season and sat out the last four games entirely.
Statistically speaking, the Broncos' pass 'D' ranked seventh in yardage allowed, but the surrounding numbers are far more revealing. Opposing QBs threw at a success rate just under 61 percent and, in allowing 25 touchdowns, Denver put themselves into a bottom-10 ranking with the likes of Detroit, New Orleans, Cincinnati, Miami, Baltimore—you get the idea.
Worst of all, those two-dozen-plus TDs came on just 458 attempts (third lowest in the league, after Oakland and Miami), for a ridiculous average of six points per 18.32 pass plays, a mark well behind 30 franchises and "better" than only the Dolphins' pitiful showing. (In fact, if you remove Tom Brady's stats in two tee-offs against Miami, the Dolphins' defensive ratio of attempts-to-TDs drops to 18.47.)
So what went wrong? Jokes about "games aren't won on paper" aside, a major problem here was depth. After Bly and Bailey, pickings were slim in Denver. In today's pass-happy NFL, the 2007 Broncos were woefully unprepared to play against four-receiver sets Dominique Foxworth finally seemed to be living up to his potential until he disappeared in about Week 10 or so; as a free agent, it seems unlikely Foxworth will re-sign. (Surely many fans will be wishing him "good riddance," too, despite the lightness in this aspect of the roster.)
Other guys used as backups for the Broncos included household names like Hamza Abdullah, Steve Cargile, Karl Paymah and Jeff Shoate. Shoate, at 26, is the oldest of the lot; he's also currently listed on depth charts as a third-string strong-side receiver.
After seemingly addressing the secondary's needs in offseason 2007, it seems the Broncos are going to have to look at things here again in 2008. On December 18, the front office moved young safety Roderick Rogers from the practice squad to the active roster: Is he the future?
There are at two options to improve the secondary. Denver might be well served by pursuing a few big and medium-sized names up for grabs—we're talking guys like Asante Samuel, Randall Gay, and Marcus Trufant here—but they have to keep it young as well to stay afloat in the high-flying AFC. As a Bronco, too, you've gotta be looking to the draft as well for that rare safety out of college that can make an immediate impact.
Figure Shanahan & Co. to go both ways and for yet another new-look secondary in Denver. Maybe it'll work this time.
Putting out fires throughout the year at RealFootball365.com