The 2008 season has taken shape and one thing we know for sure is that the Denver Broncos and their ridiculous offense aren't going anywhere. Broncos fans and I know plenty of them may have something to cheer about come January.
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Denver fans who drank the "John Elway is the greatest quarterback ever" Kool-Aid have moved on to Crystal Light Cutler. Once considered the third-best quarterback in the 2006 draft, Jay Cutler will in all likelihood throw three times as many touchdown passes as fellow first-rounders Matt Leinart and Vince Young combined.
While Leinart rots on the bench in Arizona, at least he's enjoying the nightlife and the reasonable price of import beer in Phoenix. Meanwhile, Young has played inconsistently, but at least he's made up for it by sulking. Both quarterbacks are sitting behind starters that are old enough to remember Van Halen pre-Sammy Hagar.
Meanwhile, Cutler has overcome struggles as a young quarterback, his well-publicized bout with diabetes and a very impatient fan base. Throw in Philip Rivers acting like Philip Rivers, taunting him in a blowout loss to the Chargers last year, and Cutler has jumped through the necessary life hoops to take the next step as a quarterback and as a person.
Perhaps that's what makes Cutler likeable. He has his own set of talents and his own set of problems like the rest of us and as we aspire to do, goes out everyday and performs in workmanlike fashion.
This week, Cutler and the Denver offense have another tough test, facing a physical Jacksonville defense that's hurting after an emotional loss to Pittsburgh. Like Cutler, the Jaguars have been talked up in the media lately, mostly because they're considered to be a contender ready to take the next step.
Unfortunately, a 2-3 start doesn't translate to fulfilling promise. At times, the once-stout defense has struggled, particularly the front four.
In this week's Film Study, the Jag defense meets the Broncos offense.
The Jaguars defense met Ben Roethlisberger Sunday night. Everything defensive coordinator Gregg Williams tried in the first half failed as the Steelers ran 40 plays, held the ball for all but eight minutes, and scored 20 points.
The principal problem for Williams was the lack of pressure or penetration from his defensive line. Paul Spicer, Reggie Hayward, Rob Meier and John Henderson all struggled at times, rarely taking advantage of the Steelers' offensive line. Yes, the same offensive line that allowed nine sacks to the Eagles a couple of weeks ago.
Williams' approach calls for the defensive tackles to occupy blockers, freeing up the linebackers to make plays. But that has happened about as often as Marc Bulger touchdown passes this season. Meier was blocked out of position several times Sunday night while Henderson continues to struggle getting a strong rush in 2008.
One play in the second quarter perfectly sized up the effect the poor front four's play had on the Jag defense:
Knowing he wasn't getting any pressure on Roethlisberger, Williams sent linebacker Mike Peterson on a blitz up the middle. The Jags played only three-deep, so as to cover the zone vacated by Peterson. But that meant leaving deep safety Pierson Prioleau alone with much space to oversee.
Corner William James, playing for an injured Drayton Florence, bit on the pump 'n' go and Prioleau couldn't get over in near enough time. Seconds later, Pittsburgh receiver Nate Washington was skipping into the end zone with a 48-yard touchdown.
It was the same old story to the Jags' young season: The opposing quarterback has too much time. Roethlisberger had all day to gleefully pump fake and bomb the secondary into submission.
In the second half, the Jags' offense, as well as David Garrard, came to life. Even the front four got an occasional pass rush, a big assist toward keeping the Steelers in check.
With the Jags holding on to a tenuous 21-20 lead late in the fourth quarter, Roethlisberger exploited their coverage and the sometimes-anemic push of the front four, marching right down the field. When Hayward and Henderson did get to the Pittsburgh quarterback, he shook them off and threw completions anyway.
Williams had no choice but to send people after Big Ben with the game slipping away. Finally, Jacksonville made a couple of stops inside the red zone to force one huge third down.
Third-and-five from the 8-yard-line: The Steelers come out in a double-tight end formation to the right, receivers split, with Mewelde Moore in the backfield.
The Jags' outside linebackers creep up, showing blitz, while Peterson follows Moore going in motion to the left. Six guys are coming on this play.
When tight end Heath Miller runs a skinny post, two defenders follow. That leaves Hines Ward in single coverage on the right side.
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Fade route. Touchdown.
Blitzing because he felt he couldn't give Roethlisberger time to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich again, Williams left his corner on an island.
What I learned
It is incumbent on Jacksonville's front four to bring some pressure without help. I believe this game truly rests on their shoulders.
Blitzing to mask deficiencies on the line will not beat Denver. Cutler has foiled the blitz all season with a quarterback rating in the stratosphere when defenses use such tactics. In fact, Cutler has hit the ground less per pass attempt than any other quarterback in the league.
The Jags can't just play back either because when head coach Mike Shanahan sees linebackers several yards back of the line, or seven or less "in the box," he will run, run, run. He's been doing that since 1995.
So what can Williams' unit do?
Rotate the defensive lineman as much as possible, particularly Henderson, so they stay fresh. Second, beg offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter to run Maurice Jones-Drew and Fred Taylor against the Broncos' less-than-stellar defense. A sustained running attack shortens the game and lessens the offensive possessions of the opponent. Fewer opportunities for Cutler means fewer points allowed as well as keeping the defensive lineman fresh. Lastly, take away the quick slants and short zones, forcing the offense to try a more vertical passing attack. If they don't, Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal will Jerry-Rice-and-John-Taylor the Jags to death.
But I don't think that will be enough as David Garrard and the Jacksonville offense may not be able to keep up with Cutler and Shanahan, especially in Denver.
Odds and endsIt's difficult to think of the Jaguars traveling to Denver without instantly remembering one of the biggest playoff upsets of the last 20 years: the 1996 Divisional Playoffs. The 9-7 Jags, in only their second season, beat the top-seeded and 13-3 Broncos at Mile High to earn a berth in the AFC Championship.Flozell Adams watch: No sacks allowed versus the Bengals and the big guy hasn't been penalized since Week 2. This after his false start-filled 2007 campaign.