Rick Jussel Column October 12, 2008

Is last week’s Denver defense really for real?

Denver Broncos 16, Tampa Bay Bucs 13.

Mirage or the real deal?

Do the Broncos, all of a sudden, have a defense that can hold its own against more-than-respectable teams?

Was last Sunday’s lock-down effort against the Bucs something we can expect to see on a regular basis, or was it the fact that Jon Gruden and his Tampa Bay squad went ultra-conservative?

Let’s hope the Broncos are actually starting to get it.  I mentioned last week that the Broncos need to improve their defensive line, especially the pass rush, if they were to continue their winning ways.

They did that in spades against the Bucs.

Denver pressured and eventually did away with starting quarterback Brian Griese, claiming three sacks in the first half and constantly harassing the former Bronco. They even managed, despite allowing a late touchdown drive, to continue the pressure on Griese’s more efficient replacement, Jeff Garcia.

This was the first time since the first game — that romp over the Raiders — that Denver had shown any semblance of a defense.

There were several defenders who took it up a notch, the most obvious being defensive end Elvis
Dumervil. Elvis never left the building, he just needed to move to the other side.

The coaches lined him up on the left side, going up against a bulkier, slower offensive tackle than he had seen over the first four weeks. He constantly pressured the Buc quarterback, be it Griese or Garcia.

It also took the relatively small Dumervil away from the run to the right side of the defense, the side that teams had been hammering.

Well-conceived. Bravo.

Now, for a real test: Jacksonville.

Surely you remember the Jags from last year, when they advanced to the playoffs, beat Pittsburgh, then pushed then-unbeaten New England before falling in the divisional finals.

They are a good team, a team built on defense much like the Bucs.

However, the Jags are having problems this season, starting 2-3.

Don’t let that losing record fool you. While Denver has been winning the close ones on its way to a 4-1 start, the Jags have been losing.

They lost two straight tight games to open the year, losing at Tennessee 17-10 in the season opener, then falling to Buffalo 20-16. Then came two straight close wins, a 23-21 stunner over the Colts at Indy, and 30-27 in overtime against Houston.

Last week, the Jags hosted revenge-minded Pittsburgh and fell 26-21.

There is a common denominator in whether the Jags win: the running game.

If Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew, the team’s two-headed monster, run well, the Jags control the clock, keep their monstrous defensive line fresh, and beat up the foe.

That’s what happened last year in Denver when Jacksonville won 23-14 in a game that wasn’t nearly as close as the score would indicate. The Jags physically dominated throughout and controlled the clock for an incredible 38 minutes by rushing for 186 yards.

This year, however, they haven’t been able to do that against their foes.

Taylor, long one of the league’s most consistent ground gainers, is starting to show signs of slowing, averaging only 3.4 yards per carry. He has only 232 yards on 69 carries.

Jones-Drew, a thick-thighed gnat, hasn’t had as many carries as many fantasy owners would like to see, carrying only 43 times for 176 yards. He has been a threat out of the backfield with 19 catches for 161 yards, but hasn’t put up the big numbers this season that he put up last year.

Taylor has been Jacksonville’s leading rusher in four games this season, but in those games has gained only 18, 49, 121 (in the win over the Colts) and 19 yards. More than half of his season rushing total came against the Colts.

It’s obvious what Denver must do today on both sides of the ball to win. They have to stuff the run and force David Garrard into a drop-back passing situation that he does not excel in, and Denver will have to pass protect to the max, keeping the aggressive blitzing front seven off Jay Cutler.

The Broncos will have to replace tight end Tony Scheffler, wideout Eddie Royal and running back Selvin Young, all of whom were injured last week.

Can it happen? Can Denver run its record to 5-1 and stay at least two games in front of San Diego, which hosts New England tonight?

I’m not sold enough on the defensive resurrection.

I’ll take my 3-2 record picking with or against Denver (2-2-1 vs. the spread) and say Taylor and Jones-Drew rack up the yardage and the Broncos, a 3-point pick, can’t score many more against Jacksonville than they could against the Bucs.

I make this one Jaguars 24, Denver 21.


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