Chargers Scout: The Denver Broncos

<b>Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer: a study of the Denver Broncos</b><br>Who would've thought that Mike Shanahan would be on the hot seat. Many did feel, however, the coals would've been cooking under his lawn chair if he didn't do something quickly to amend the previous lackluster seasons. The Broncos shook things up by making a change at the most important position on the field. By seasons end, Shanahan was yet again elevated to one of the coaching "untouchables" in the NFL.

This off-season the Broncos have taken the next step in putting together a Super Bowl contending team. Since they had limited success when Jake Plummer went down, they made it a point to shore up the rest of their roster. The Broncos were 9-2 when Plummer started at quarterback. Statistically, the Broncos had one of the best offenses in the NFL. Their running attack was dominant, and even though their passing game finished 11th in the AFC, the majority of their passing woes came when Plummer was on the sidelines. In the ten games he started and finished, Plummer average 234 yards a game passing. This, of course, is a far cry from the 154 yards a game they averaged with him injured. Needless to say, with Plummer starting, their passing game is much to be feared.

This season, however, the Broncos will have a slightly different look to their offense. With Shannon Sharpe's retirement and the trade of Clinton Portis, many assume the Broncos offense will not be as potent. This attitude is very dangerous because Denver still has a very good receiving core in Rod Smith, Willie Jackson, and Ashley Lelie (who should have a break out year). In addition, Denver returns one of the best offensive lines in franchise history. Even though they lost a very good tackle in Ephraim Salaam, the Broncos expect big things from his replacement in George Foster (the Broncos 2003 1st round pick). So, whether Denver finds a guy to replace Portis or conducts a "running back by committee", it will still be behind an offensive line that helped Denver set their single season rushing record last year. This, obviously, will aid in Portis's replacement.

There is no doubt the loss of Portis will hurt last years numbers, but the Broncos are renowned for getting more out of their running backs than any other team in the league. With the additions of Garrison Hearst and Tatum Bell (the 2004 2nd round pick from Oklahoma State), and the return of Quentin Griffin, the Broncos will have a solid nucleus to start from.

In rounding out the offense, the Broncos looked to free agency to offset their loss in Sharpe. Denver signed two solid veterans in O.J. Santiago and Jed Weaver. While these two are not as flamboyant as Sharpe, and probably cannot give good mutual funds advice, they should do a commendable job in taking the pressure off of Jake Plummer.

Defensively, the Broncos are a very tough team as well. They finished third in the AFC in passing and sixth in rushing. How, then, were the Indianapolis Colts able to pick them apart in playoffs you ask? It is obvious the Broncos did some soul searching on that question also. Denver addressed the few weaknesses they had with additions of Champ Bailey and John Lynch in the backfield. They also drafted linebacker DJ Williams (from Miami) in the first round of the 2004 draft; and upgraded the depth of an already very good defensive line by adding veterans Ray Lee Johnson, Luther Ellis, and Marco Coleman. If linebacker John Mobley is able to find his way back to the football field, the Broncos should easily have one of the top two or three defenses in the league.

This is not good for the San Diego Chargers and the rest of the AFC West. Last year, the Broncos put two whippings of biblical proportions on the lightning bolts. When comparing the two, there are some scary mismatches that jump out. The Broncos have crafty veterans up and down the football field. The Chargers, on the other hand, are relying on too many players who are still in the midst of "dues paying". But with the recent changes, there is a glimmer of hope for Charger fans.

The Chargers' defense should do a solid job in containing the Broncos' offense. So if there is one silver lining, it is that the Broncos will not beat the Chargers up and down the field. Unfortunately, San Diego plays Denver the third game into the season. Early on, much depends on how quickly the defensive players adopt the new scheme or things could get ugly.

The second game should be more of a head-knocker. The Broncos, though, should still be victorious due to their depth and experience more than anything else. The match up in the second game that could give the Chargers an edge, however, is Quentin Jammer and Sammy Davis taking on Rod Smith and Ashley Lelie. If Jammer and Davis hold their own, the Chargers have a chance. Since the 3-4 is a great run defense, the Broncos will have fits getting their running game going. Consequently, San Diego might find themselves with an opportunity to win late in the game.

Regardless, the Chargers will still be hard pressed to move the ball on offense. The experience of the Broncos' backfield should have no problem shutting down the Chargers' receivers. This will allow them to commit solely to stopping the run. In 2003, Denver did the best job of any team in the AFC West in containing LaDainian Tomlinson. And if the Chargers are starting a rookie quarterback, Trevor Pryce will be licking his chops to welcome him to the NFL.

If there is one offensive bright spot San Diego has with Denver, it would be the tight end/linebacker match up. At times last season, Denver had trouble containing opposing teams' tight ends, which is probably the main reason they used their first round pick on an outside linebacker instead of a running back. Marcus Pollard, Todd Heap, Tony Gonzalez, Desmond Clark, Matt Schobel and Daniel Graham all had good games against Denver. Of course, some of these guys are the best in the business. There is no doubt Antonio Gates will be good in time, but if he wants to have an impact against the Broncos next year, he will have to develop into one of the better tight ends in the AFC fairly soon.

The Broncos are very similar to the 2002 Oakland Raiders. They were already good going into the off-season, but added the needed parts in getting to the next level. They have a very solid team with no true weaknesses. Granted, they did take a gamble by trading Portis. But in the modern age of the NFL, every team gambles in the off season is some form or fashion. The moves the Broncos made play into their traditional strengths as a franchise. In the past, Denver has always found good running backs and has always played good defense. If these changes and additions work again, then expect another AFC West division championship and possibly a run for the Super Bowl.

Byran Martin can be reached at

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