Tuesday, December 13, 2022

TUESDAY TIDBITS: "Time For the Denver Broncos to Assert Themselves and Take That Step Up"

By TJ Troup 
Every Tuesday morning check the standings; especially the conference standings to see who is slated to go to the playoffs.

Four weeks to go, and we can label the upcoming games as crunch time, must-win, etc. Last Sunday watched the Eagles demolish NYG, and going back to October 24th of 2021 Philadelphia lost to the Raiders 33-22. Their record was a dismal 2-5, yet as we all know this team adjusted, refocused, and went 7-3 the rest of the way to earn a berth in the playoffs. 
Since they are 12-1 this year....do the math, an impressive 19-4 record certainly has gotten the attention of many folks across the country. 

Historically there have been many outstanding offensive lines, and Jeff Stoutland has coached/taught this Eagle bunch to dominate a game. Running behind these athletic road graders is Miles Sanders. 

He has gained 1,522 yards on 278 carries (5.5) in the last 18 games he has played. Coupled with his ability to move the chains, we have Hurts putting together a possible MVP season, they are one damn fine offensive football team. 

Three weeks from now will detail the Philadelphia defense. The Eagles travel to Chicago to take on the cuddly little inept Bears, and whether it is on Fox, or have to go to the local sports bar won't miss a play. 

Since the Bears were mentioned, let's journey back to December 11th, 1949, and the inter-city clash between the Bears and Cardinals. 

Sammy Baugh had passed for 446 yards in a game to set a new league record, but pitching the pigskin to his backs and receivers in Wrigley Field, Johnny Lujack set a new standard of 468 yards. The victory over the Cardinals put pressure on the Shaughnessy Rams to win in the Coliseum to retain first place in the western conference. 

Students of the passing game could, and should spend hours watching films of these two games. Just might be the best day of passing pre-1950. 

When Joe Collier became the defensive coordinator of the Denver Broncos he knew there was plenty of work to be done. 

The Denver defense against the run over the course of the next seven years (70-76) ranked among the top six in the league four times. Coach Collier had the Bills defense align in the 3-4 during his time in Buffalo, but he tinkered with his defensive alignments, and coverages to try and create a consistently suffocating defense. No matter what your alignment is, you gotta have the men who have the physical gifts to make it work. 

So, who are the men who took the field for Denver and became known as the "Orange Crush"? 

Left defensive end was Barney Chavous, and he was rock steady in doing his assignments. Nose guard was second-year man Rubin Carter, and he was the cover boy for the October 17th, 1977 issue of Sports Illustrated, and an explanation of the 3-4. 
The right defensive end was wild man Lyle Alzado, and though he had played strong football for many years—this was his best and came in second in the voting for defensive player of the year. Alzado was a force against both the run and rushing the passer. Rotating in and contributing were John Grant, and former All-Pro Paul Smith. 

The defensive passer rating is a tool to evaluate the efficiency of the team against the pass. Denver ranked 21st in 1970 with a mark of 75.0 (league average was 65.6), and the next few years the Broncos would never rank anywhere near the top as a group in defending the pass. Finally, in 1976 the secondary became airtight and finished seventh in the league with a mark of 53.1 (the league average was 67.0). 

Steve Foley held down the right corner position, and though lacking great speed, he battled each and every receiver he faced. Acquired in trade Bernard Jackson played right/free safety. Jackson's speed was key in him helping his teammates, though he was still learning on the job.

Left corner was manned by Louis Wright. He had the size, and athleticism rarely found, and as he gained experience. Louis could truly be called a "lockdown" corner. Wright did have one major flaw, he had hands like "waffle irons" or he would have ranked among the league leaders in interceptions. 

Left safety and former corner Billy Thompson was the captain of the defense and earned a Pro Bowl berth. Savvy, tough, and he retained enough speed after eight campaigns to get him to the ball. More on Billy later in this saga. 

Teams that attempt to align in the 3-4 must, repeat MUST have linebackers that can function in a variety of ways; especially since Collier demands so much of them. 

Tom Jackson had played left outside, and even some as a 4-3 middle linebacker, and though he was adequate at both positions, he found a home for his talents at the right outside post. 

Though undersized, he was quick, and his ability to pursue and cover in both man and zone were a key element to the success of the Denver defense in '77. Jackson recorded 4 sacks, one fumble recovery, and 4 interceptions in an all-star season. 

How many men who played at the Merchant Marine Academy went on to play in the NFL? Joe Rizzo arrived in 1976, and the adjustment to the level of competition he faced from NFL offensive linemen was a dramatic challenge. Rizzo played with a fury and was a strong tackler at his left inside linebacker position. 

Bob Swenson was a cantankerous, physical force at left outside linebacker. Many times he was aligned head-up on the tight end, and his strength and technique made for long afternoons for tight ends around the league. Swenson and Rizzo both handled zone coverage very well. The Denver Broncos allowed just 11 touchdown passes in 1977! (after tying for the NFL lead in 1976 with eight).

 Five weeks into the season opponents had gained just 389 yards rushing on 145 attempts, and the longest run by an opponent was 26 yards. Collier's boys were by far the best in the league at team pursuit, and one of the reasons for their nickname was seeing a group of these hard-bitten men gang tackling an opposing ball carrier. 

The pass rush was also effective as they had amassed 19 sacks. Standing alone in the AFC West undefeated with a record of 5-0 and having finally beaten the Raiders in Oakland they became the talk of the league.

Denver defeated Cincinnati, but the Bengals carved out 177 yards on the ground, and Pete Johnson chugged away on a 65-yard run; so is there a chink in the armor? Beating the Raiders twice in a season would be historical for the Broncos since their record since Al Davis took over in '63 was 2-24-2. Oakland demonstrated to one and all that there was a reason they won the Super Bowl in 1976, and the silver & black gained 200 yards on the ground on 57 attempts to dominate the game. 

The next six weeks tells the tale for the Denver defense. The Broncos allowed just 653 yards on 195 attempts (3.34) as each opponent thought they also could run the ball against the Denver 3-4 like the Bengals and Raiders did. Folly, pure folly! December 11th, 1977 the Broncos trailed the Chargers early, but won 17-9 to claim victory and a sparkling record of 12-1. 

Years ago had an opportunity to talk with Billy Thompson about Collier's defense, his responsibilities as a strong safety, and the key man in the Orange Crush defense—Mr. Randal Charles Gradishar. This is not a textbook on all the alignments and coverages of the 3-4, yet will detail one that Billy T. shared with me. 

Ready? Here goes

For sake of discussion, the ball is in the middle of the field and the tight end (Y) is aligned left. Third down and ten and Collier dials up a strong side blitz by Jackson through the B-gap (tackle/guard), while Alzado comes hard from the outside, and nose tackle Carter absorbs two blockers in the a-gap strong side to hopefully create the opening for Tommy J. 

Rizzo's zone drop is the middle of the field and he is responsible for the draw. Swenson's zone drop is to the curl to help Wright cover the split end (X). Wright is in man coverage as is Foley on the flanker (Z). 

Jackson's zone drop is deep middle. That leaves Thompson and Gradishar, and their ability to disguise and cover the tight end, and back out of the backfield in the flat. Let's say Billy T. takes the tight end man to man, that means Gradishar has the back in the flat man to man. 

How many inside 3-4 linebackers in any era could successfully handle this assignment? Gradishar could, and did so with aplomb. 

Billy T. shared with me that he and Randy would "change up" the coverage. Billy would retreat with the tight end a few steps, then dash to the flat and take the back man to man. That of course means that Gradishar must now take the perfect angle and take the tight end man to man up the field or to the sideline deep. Thompson shared with me that he was amazed at how many times Gradishar handled this assignment to perfection. 

Walter Payton stated the hardest hit he ever took in his Hall of Fame career came from Gradishar. Early in the game opening day in the 7-0 victory over the Cardinals Gradishar on 4th and one at the Bronco four-yard line stopped Jim Otis in his tracks for a loss of one. Gradishar in '77 recorded 3 sacks, 3 interceptions, and 4 fumble recoveries. 

He had a sack, fumble recovery, or interception five times in the first six weeks of the season. Gradishar finished third in the voting for AP Defensive Player of the Year.  (He would win the award the next year). 

Randal Charles Gradishar should already be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and will be a celebratory day for me when that finally happens. Recently read an article online at the New Arena website of the 25 best linebackers of all time. We all have opinions but was very disappointed that Gradishar was not on the list. 

Last week was fortunate to tune in and watch NFL Films presents and see an outstanding feature on Hall of Fame writer Ray Didinger. If you get the chance to watch it, please do so. 

Tomorrow the 14th at 6:30 pm on Fox Sport 1; NFL Films presents a detailed look at the history of the sack. Historians John Turney and Nick Webster have been instrumental in bringing to light who and how many sacks can now be listed. A tremendous achievement by two dedicated men and their passion for this stat. 

The producer of this segment is Todd Schmidt, and boy oh boy has he done some creative and outstanding work over the years for NFL Films. Hope you check it out.


  1. From Brian wolf ...

    Always a pleasure to read TJ.
    I feel Gradishar will be elected to the HOF next year but Thompson was underrated like Steeler great Carnell Lake. Both were safeties that could play corner as well and do whatever asked of the defense. Both might have had more accolades had they stayed just safeties.

    If the Eagles can just keep running the ball, this could be a special year but with everyone patting their backs, they could also get upset in the playoffs, which Vegas loves to see. Hopefully, they can have another loss to bring the players feet back on the ground before the postseason begins but if they can keep their momentum, we will see how good Hurts can truly be ...

  2. Randy Gradishar should have long ago been inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And one can make a valid case for Louie Wright.

    1. From Brian wolf ...

      Taylor, Jackson, Thompson, Alzado, Odoms, Wright, Mecklenberg, Smith, Fletcher, Nalen and Rod Smith all have cases along with Gradishar but I believe there may be a Bronco bias.