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Don't buy those Bronco playoff tickets just yet


Denver trainers quickly realized veteran defensive end - Ebenezer Ekubans torn Achilles would end his season.
  • Denver trainers quickly realized veteran defensive end Ebenezer Ekubans torn Achilles would end his season.

Just one game, the optimists are saying. Just one forgettable preseason game.

They insist there's no reason to panic about the Denver Broncos, just because they looked so bad last Saturday night at Dallas. Down the line, they believe, Denver still should make it to the postseason and perhaps even have a shot at the Super Bowl.

That's obviously the view from the bandwagon.

It's wrong.

From a growing list of preseason indications, BroncoNation should be bracing itself for a rough ride in 2007, despite having five of the first seven games at home. In fact, the Broncos will be hard-pressed to match their 9-7 mark of a year ago, even playing in the AFC Worst excuse me, West division.

They might be on the right track in some ways, but they aren't a playoff team at this point. Not even close. Their lack of depth in some critical areas could quickly unravel Denver's season at any given moment. And the 31-20 loss at Dallas magnified almost every point on the Broncos' growing list of concerns, which had been evident even in the opening 17-13 win at San Francisco.

The biggest problem, far and away, is defense. You don't hear much about it, but changing defensive coordinators in the NFL often can mean an adjustment period as long, uncomfortable and difficult as when you bring in a new head coach. Denver's learning that now with Jim Bates, who came from Green Bay to take over the Bronco defense.

Bates' system is different from what Denver's players have known. His "two-gap" version of the 4-3 alignment depends heavily on (a) the front four being more physical, controlling the middle, stopping the run and creating pass-rush pressure, and (b) the three linebackers making plays all over the field. That puts a high priority on depth, requiring extra linemen and linebackers in the playing rotation to keep everyone fresh.

Yet, the Broncos don't have any of that. Their pass rush is nonexistent. They show no sign of being able to stop a good running attack, inside or on the perimeter. The already-shaky line depth took a big hit with the loss of starting end Ebenezer Ekuban (torn Achilles), after the coaches gave up on Gerard Warren. They now face the uneasy alternative of leaning too heavily on rookies Jarvis Moss, Tim Crowder and Marcus Thomas.

As flimsy as that situation is, the linebacker corps might be worse. D.J. Williams does not appear to be handling his move to the middle as well as hoped. Nate Webster, expected to be Williams' backup, started at Williams' former outside spot against Dallas and looked OK. But that means no dependable help for Williams.

The answer could be putting Webster in the middle, moving Williams back outside and looking for help via trade or the waiver wire as roster moves begin happening (such as Philadelphia cutting Jeremiah Trotter). That way, all three starters Williams, Webster and Ian Gold would be playing their most natural positions.

The secondary, as assumed all along, is no less than outstanding. Nobody has a pair of cornerbacks better at one-on-one coverage than Champ Bailey and Dre' Bly. But unless the total lineup stabilizes, more opponents will follow the Cowboys' patient strategy of looking for short- and mid-range mismatches with backs, tight ends and third receivers.

Given all that, here is what should worry BroncoNation the most: With the defense developing so slowly, Denver will be in serious trouble unless its offense can carry the load in September and October. All along, fans and analysts had figured quarterback Jay Cutler and Co. would do just that.

At this point, it's anything but certain. New running back Travis Henry's knee injury, though not serious, will sideline him until the season opener. And you should know Henry's history: When healthy, he's fine. But he's been injury-prone in his up-and-down NFL career.

Cutler has also shown he's still learning with his poor handling of Dallas' unexpected blitzes and pressure. He needs the run game to keep defenses honest. He also needs more receivers capable of regularly beating single coverage, not just Javon Walker.

Unless the offense can come around rapidly, the Broncos will lose some games they should have won in the season's first half.

And even in the AFC Worst, that's a recipe for being spectators in January.

Bits and pieces

Air Force's newest football staff members are familiar names to many AFA fans. Maj. Anthony Roberson, a former high school standout at Sierra who was a solid halfback and kick returner for the Falcons in the late 1980s, is working with the junior varsity. Roberson has more than 2,000 hours flying F-16s. Also, Capt. Mike Thiessen, who quarterbacked Air Force's last bowl victory (against Fresno State in the 2000 Silicon Valley Classic), i0s coaching the wide receivers after three years of teaching (calculus, chemistry) and coaching at the USAFA Prep School.

It was frustrating to see Pikes Peak International Raceway sitting vacant all summer, sold for future development but intact. While living in other states, this viewer always enjoyed watching NASCAR and IndyCar races from PPIR, with the Front Range as the backdrop. It was excellent, no-cost promotion for the area. And now it's gone.

Sports Shot

One more week:
High school football kicks off Aug. 30 with Rampart-Liberty and Mesa Ridge at Mitchell. Many more games Friday and Saturday.

See the headline?
USC is football preseason No. 1, Notre Dame and Miami unranked by AP.

Almost done:
Sky Sox wrap up home schedule at 1 p.m. Sunday against Salt Lake, then play last eight games on the road.

Worth watching:
Revamped New England Patriots at Carolina Panthers, 6 p.m. Friday on CBS.

Star of the week:
At 43, Matt Carpenter of Manitou Springs won the Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon on back-to-back days.

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