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Opening Day is Here! Rams-Broncos: What to Watch
Saturday, September 9, 2006
By Nick Wagoner
1. For Whom the Bells Toll
For as long as Mike Shanahan has been the head coach of the Broncos, it seems not to matter who his running back is. No matter where that player comes from, he seems to always find his way to the 1,000-yard mark.
The names over the years have included relative unknowns such as Terrell Davis, Mike Anderson, Reuben Droughns and Olandis Gary. By the time their seasons are finished, those names are not unknown anymore.
This year, the Broncos have a trio of running backs capable of being the starter in Mike Bell, Tatum Bell and Cedric Cobbs. Shanahan won’t reveal which of those three will get the starting nod, but it apparently doesn’t matter much considering the Broncos recent history. Since 1995, they have had 10 1,000 yard rushers in Shanahan’s zone blocking scheme.
“I think it’s more of a challenge to stop their running game,” coach Scott Linehan said. “Their running backs are all good, in my opinion. They’re running game is the biggest challenge we have. They’ve proven over the years that no matter who’s back there it’s a lethal weapon and we’ve got to stop that before we worry about who’s back there.”
Of that trio, Tatum Bell is the fastest of the group, but more of a straight line runner who has had fumbling issues in the past. Cobbs and Mike Bell are the unproven commodities. Mike Bell has speed and power, but is an undrafted free agent with no NFL experience. Cobbs spent last year in New England and has speed, but also has little to no experience.
The Rams, meanwhile, are looking for resurgence against the run after finishing among the league’s dregs in that category last year. The additions of Will Witherspoon, Corey Chavous and La’Roi Glover are expected to help, but it remains to be seen whether it will.
Denver’s system has been extremely successful mainly because of that zone blocking system. Watch for the Broncos to turn their offensive line in one direction with the running back making a single cutback and turning up field. That offensive line also isn’t afraid to use the cut block to its advantage.
“I think they execute and they just believe in it,” Linehan said. “It’s a little bit different, a little bit unconventional. I noticed another team complaining about that style of running recently. It’s a little intimidating to play because of the style. They get up in their legs and I don’t think people like that. I know you’ve got an advantage if that becomes the issue of how they’re blocking you and all that, then I think they’ve probably won before the game even starts. I think that has a lot to do with it. They just do it with how they play and how they finish.”
2. Misdirection Maneuvers
Of course, the Broncos running game wouldn’t be nearly as successful if not for at least some sense of balance offensively. Denver’s passing game hasn’t been particularly explosive since the departure of Hall of Famer John Elway, but it has gotten better in recent seasons.
Quarterback Jake Plummer has grown more confident and comfortable in Denver’s system and has taken advantage of the opportunities that the run game affords him. Plummer had his best NFL season in 2005.
“He’s very dangerous,” safety Corey Chavous said. “He can throw either to his left or right. So, basically you have to be prepared for him to be able to throw on the run in either direction. I think he’s a guy who’s improved over the years, in terms of being patient and taking what the defense gives and he’s a playmaker. He’s a guy who, no matter what the score is can bring his team back from behind. I’ve been on plenty games with him when we were down by 20 or 25 points and he brought us all the way back for victory. He’s a heck of a quarterback.”
The Broncos made a big offseason move to acquire game-breaking receiver Javon Walker, who was unhappy in Green Bay. Veteran Rod Smith remains a dangerous threat in the air as well.
Denver’s passing game is predicated on misdirection and play action fakes that create openings down the field. After pounding away with the running game, Plummer will regularly fake a hand off, roll out and have a receiver open down the field. That makes it the Rams’ job to stay regimented and not overpursue.
“They have been in that system for a long time,” Chavous said. “They do a good job of blocking areas with their line. They have mobility on their line. The other thing that makes them so successful in their running game is the misdirection they offer in the passing game. Often times that sets up some of their runs so that requires you to play disciplined football.”
3. Speedy Trio
While the Broncos keep teams off balance with their running game and misdirection in the air, the Rams are attempting to find an offensive balance. But Denver’s defense boasts a number of talented athletes with no group more fearsome than its linebacker corps.
There is, perhaps, no group of linebackers more physically gifted than the Broncos’ Al Wilson, D.J. Williams and Ian Gold. All three are capable of playing physical against the run, covering tight ends, running backs and some receivers out of the back field and getting after the quarterback.
“Sideline to sideline, the three of them together, it would be hard to find three guys better than that as a group,” Linehan said.
Wilson is the leader of the group in the middle. Linehan called Wilson one of the most underrated players in the league earlier in the week and it’s probably true. Wilson has been one of the league’s leading tacklers in the past four seasons and is the emotional leader of the defense. Gold is one of the top coverage linebackers in the league and Williams is poised for a breakout season because of his physical tools.
Needless to say, it will be a tall order for the Rams’ offensive line to get to the second level and block the talented group, particularly in the running game.
“We just have to run at them,” running back Steven Jackson said. “We can’t run side to side and expect them to overrun things. I think we have to try to run action and get them to bite on some runs and capitalize on the chances we get.”
4. A Champ-ionship Matchup
When the Rams drafted receiver Torry Holt in 1999, some fans were upset that the team decided to pass on what was perceived to be a more pressing need at cornerback.
The player that was the object of their desire was Georgia’s Champ Bailey. Fast forward to 2006 and the Rams certainly have no regrets about their decision to take Holt, who has become one of the league’s best receivers. Washington drafted Bailey right after Holt went off the board, but he was traded to Denver for running back Clinton Portis.
Both players have ascended to the top of the league at their positions, setting the stage for what should be an exciting one on one matchup Sunday afternoon.
“I feel good about that,” Holt said. “I think that will be exciting. I think a lot of people out there would want to see us two going at it and see who would win that battle. I’m sure he’s looking forward to it, I’m looking forward to it and if it happens, hopefully I’ll win the majority of them.”
Holt knows the Rams can’t get caught up in individual battles, but he is also aware that Bailey is going to be a tough test.
“Champ’s deceptively fast, amazingly quick, has incredible ball instincts, can jump, I mean he has it all,” Holt said. “(He has) great size, (he’s) physical on the outside when it comes to tackling. I would say he is definitely a complete corner and one of the better corners in the NFL. I’m excited to be able to have an opportunity to go up against him and see where we are.”
5. Balancing Act
Linehan has preached the virtues of a balanced offense all through camp. After a perfectly even offensive effort in the preseason opener against Indianapolis, the offense became fairly stagnant.
Denver’s ability to stop the run could make it hard for Jackson to get on track early, meaning quarterback Marc Bulger will need to find a rhythm early to open things up underneath for Jackson.
“I think that’s the key to us winning,” Jackson said. “Not only having the defense do what they do and cause confusion and turnovers, but I think we have got to be balanced. I think in both areas, passing and running, we have to keep the defense guessing and not allow them to make us guess.”
After years of a predominantly wide open offense in which the Rams routinely went to three, four and even five receivers, they expect to give the Broncos a healthy dosage of Jackson and the running game.
Linehan has called plays as offensive coordinator at Minnesota and Miami so he is used to that aspect, but Sunday’s game will be the first opportunity to display the renewed commitment to the running game.
“I would say that would continue,” guard Adam Timmerman said. “I don’t see why it wouldn’t. I think it just depends. There will be a lot of situations and game plan-type play calling as far as we know what they’ve been doing. They have more of a track record because their coaching staff has been there longer so we’ll have some good preparation tape and stuff like that. We’ll have a good feel for them.”
Re: Opening Day is Here! Rams-Broncos: What to Watch
Kevin Curtis could be the sleeper in this game not to mention BrUUUUUUce. Champ is going to focus on Holt which is an advantage for us, Holt will dominate Champ in one on one situations.