Denver Broncos Inside Slant - 1/13/07

After a disappointing finish to the 2006 season the Denver Broncos look to make some significant changes over the next few months.

INSIDE SLANT
After a disappointing season in which hopes of a Super Bowl turned into a 9-7 record and no postseason, the Denver Broncos were going to make some changes.

The first major change was at defensive coordinator, where Larry Coyer was fired. Coyer's defenses hadn't been bad in his four years as coordinator, but came up short at inopportune times.

Denver's defense faded down the stretch, one of the main reasons the team faltered after a 7-2 start.

"Anytime a season goes as this season has gone, somebody has to pay the price," Coyer said in the statement.

All four years, Coyer's defense finished in the top 10 in the NFL in points allowed. But his first two years, Indianapolis blew the Broncos out in the playoffs. At the end of the 2005 season, Pittsburgh took advantage of Denver's blitzes and beat them soundly in the AFC Championship Game.

Denver changed its philosophy after that loss, changing from a blitz-happy unit to one that used the front four to get after the quarterback.

The Broncos started very well. They were the first team since the 1934 Detroit Lions to allow one or fewer touchdowns in the first five games of a season. But late in the year, teams started to figure out the defense.

Denver allowed at least 20 points in six of its last seven games. Injuries played a part, but Coyer took the fall.

In his statement he said he knew changes were coming, and referred to philosophical differences between he and Broncos coach Mike Shanahan.

"I have the highest regard for him and have no choice but to accept his decision and do so with as much dignity and grace as I can muster," Coyer said, referring to Shanahan.

The Broncos will have most of its starters back on defense, including Pro Bowlers Champ Bailey, Al Wilson and John Lynch, so whoever is hired will step into a good situation. The top in-house candidate is defensive backs coach Bob Slowik, who has been an NFL defensive coordinator before.

NOTES, QUOTES
--Broncos coach Mike Shanahan canceled his season-ending press conference, which had tentatively been planned for the week after cornerback Darrent Williams' funeral. The Broncos and Shanahan are still reeling from the loss of Williams, who was shot and killed on Jan. 1.

The NFLPA announced at Williams' funeral that a scholarship fund has been set up for Williams' two children, 7-year-old Darius and 4-year-old Jaelyn. Every NFL player will contribute.

--Assistant defensive line coach Andre Patterson was also let go by the Broncos, who fired defensive coordinator Larry Coyer. Patterson was instrumental in recommending and bringing former Browns defensive linemen such as Gerard Warren, Courtney Brown and Michael Myers to Denver. Patterson coached them in Cleveland before coming to Denver.

The Broncos were once again average rushing the quarterback in 2006. They finished 16th in the NFL with 35 sacks. The Broncos tried rushing the quarterback with their defensive line this season instead of blitzing, and had inconsistent results.

--Cornerback Champ Bailey finished second in the defensive player of the year voting, behind Miami's Jason Taylor. Bailey intercepted 10 passes and the Broncos thought he should have won the award considering how rarely teams throw in his direction.

Bailey did receive another honor -- he was a unanimous pick to the Associated Press' All-Pro team.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I was well aware when accepting the change from linebacker coach to the coordinating position I could always be the first to be replaced." -- fired Broncos defensive coordinator Larry Coyer.


STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
COACHING CAROUSEL: The Broncos dismissed defensive coordinator Larry Coyer after four seasons as coordinator and seven seasons on staff. Denver's defense started very well but faltered at the end of the season. Coyer said he knew some change was coming in the defense at the end of the season and waited to find out his fate.

Denver changed its scheme last season. In 2005 the Broncos blitzed a lot, and went 13-3. They were exposed in the AFC Championship Game, when Pittsburgh picked them apart, and decided to blitz less and let the front four get after the quarterback. That worked for a while, but the Broncos allowed 20 or more points in six of their last seven games while going 2-5 and missing the playoffs.

The Broncos' top in-house candidate is defensive backs coach Bob Slowik. Slowik is the only defensive assistant who has been a coordinator in the pros. Slowik was a defensive coordinator with Chicago, Cleveland and Green Bay.

Assistant defensive line coach Andre Patterson was also let go by the team.

FREE AGENT UPDATE: The Broncos only have a couple of key free agents. Starting guard Cooper Carlisle is one, but the Broncos have young guards Chris Myers and Chris Kuper behind him if he goes elsewhere. Starting defensive tackle Michael Myers, who has played well as a plugger the last two seasons, is also unrestricted. Backups like end Patrick Chukwurah and linebacker Keith Burns are also up for free agency.

FEELING A DRAFT: The Broncos will have the 21st pick in the first round, and plenty of needs. They will take the best player available at that spot. Denver would probably be thrilled if a top-flight defensive lineman fell, but that's not usually the case. Running back, offensive line and defensive back are a few other top needs.


TEAM NEEDS
Defensive line: The Broncos would like to add a superior pass rusher on the line, although almost every team has that same desire. Denver's pass rush with the front four was good in some games but disappeared in others.

Offensive line: The Broncos had problems after left tackle Matt Lepsis went down with an injury. Erik Pears, his replacement, should be better off because of the experience, but the Broncos would still like to bolster the line. Center Tom Nalen is aging, although effective. The Broncos like smaller, athletic linemen, so they can usually wait until the middle rounds for that position.

Defensive back: Safety was a problem for the Broncos late in the year, after Nick Ferguson and Sam Brandon went down with injuries. John Lynch is still playing well, but he is 35. And although the Broncos are still dealing with enormous grief over the tragic death of cornerback Darrent Williams, football-wise his death will affect the team.

MEDICAL WATCH: S Nick Ferguson should be back to 100 percent by the time the team starts its offseason workouts. He had knee surgery in November and his timetable for recovery was about the end of the playoffs.

--OT Matt Lepsis should be fine for next season. He tore his ACL, but should be able to recover and return to play at his usual high level.
--S Sam Brandon tore his ACL in November. He is a key backup, and the Broncos will probably take it slow with him as he returns.
--DE Courtney Brown, who missed the season because of knee surgery, is a major question mark. He has had physical problems his entire career, and it's uncertain if he can return and be effective.



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