Offensive genius Shanahan rides defense to victory

Updated: October 11, 2006, 12:49 AM ET
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

DENVER -- As an offensive-minded coach, Mike Shanahan must be going out of his mind watching his 2006 version of the Denver Broncos.

Brian Bahr/Getty ImagesJake Plummer had just enough of a grip on Denver's offense Monday night to get the Broncos to 3-1.

The fastest draw in the West the past 10 years now plays games with his gun in his holster. Since 1995, Shanahan's teams have outscored opponents 1,058-583. No NFL team is even close to those numbers. The 2006 Broncos, on the other hand, have not scored in the first quarter in their four games to date. As they've done all season, the Broncos relied on their defense to beat the Ravens 13-3 on a rainy, chilly October Monday night.

Considered a mastermind on offense, Shanahan is winning games along the lines of a Bill Belichick or a Lovie Smith or a Marty Schottenheimer. Denver's 3-1 record pleases him, but the offensive coach in Shanahan must be going crazy.

"Offensively, we struggled, but we managed to move the ball a little bit in the fourth quarter against an excellent defense," Shanahan said after Denver handed Baltimore its first loss in five games. "That's what good football teams do -- they find a way to move the ball and score some points when you have to. Obviously, we have some work to do on [the offensive] side of the ball."

Obviously.

Jake "The Snake" Plummer has been Jake "The Snakebit" in the first quarter of Denver's games. Talk about slow starts. Plummer came out and completed only three passes for 6 yards in a first quarter in which the offense totaled just 9 yards. Tatum Bell lost a fumble on his first carry, setting up a Ravens field goal. Plummer misconnected with Javon Walker and ended up firing an interception to Ravens cornerback Samari Rolle.

For sports talk shows in the Mile High City, Plummer is a target. Antsy fans want a change at the position. When the Broncos traded up in April to grab Jay Cutler with the 11th pick in the draft, fans thought a quarterback controversy was brewing. It wasn't. Shanahan thinks in terms of Super Bowls each year, so he's not about to turn his defending AFC West champion team over to a rookie. Plummer is his man for better or worse, and at the start of games, it's been pretty bad.

How far can they go?
Steve McNair
McNair
The Broncos beat the Ravens on Monday night in a battle of two of the league's top teams. But of the NFL's elite, Denver and Baltimore have two of the worst quarterbacks. Here's a look at the top teams and how their QBs stack up:
TEAMRECQBRTGRNK
1Bears5-0Grossman100.94
2Colts5-0P. Manning95.67
3Eagles4-1D. McNabb107.23
4Patriots4-1T. Brady82.614
5Rams4-1M. Bulger97.25
6Ravens4-1S. McNair67.027
7Saints4-1D. Brees91.69
8Bengals3-1C. Palmer88.812
9Broncos3-1J. Plummer60.928
10Chargers3-1P. Rivers94.58
11Falcons3-1M. Vick69.824
12Seahawks3-1Hasselbeck74.623
In four games, Plummer has generated only 57 yards of passing offense in first quarters. That's right, 57. He has completed 9 of 20 passes in four first quarters for a total of 74 yards, a number that is lessened by 17 yards because of sacks. The result has been zero first-quarter points in four games. Thankfully for Denver, its defense has allowed only six first-quarter points.

Playing without the lead isn't Mike Shanahan-style football.

Fortunately for the Broncos, a philosophical change on defense has made theirs one of the top units in the NFL. Last year, defensive coordinator Larry Coyer blitzed everyone. He seemed to call more all-out blitzes than just about any team in football. Coyer would constantly call "cover zero" blitzes in which the middle of the field was open because the safeties were coming.

During the offseason, the coaches had a change of heart. They noticed this particular group of defenders didn't need blitzes to make plays. The linebacking corps of Ian Gold, Al Wilson and D.J. Williams is considered one of the league's best. The defensive line, stolen from the Cleveland Browns, had the talent to dominate blockers. Defensive linemen hated dropping into zone pass coverage for zone blitzes, but they did it because they loved their coordinator, Coyer.

So this year, Coyer let the Broncos defenders play more conventionally. So far, the Broncos have allowed only one touchdown in four games.

"I think we caught some people by surprise last year," Shanahan said. "We didn't start blitzing until the Philadelphia game [Week 8 of the 2005 season], after we played the Giants. We felt in that game that we had a lot of five-man rushes and we had a few holding calls that weren't called. We thought we'd put it in our hands to try and get after the quarterback in certain situations. That has worked well for us, but they're going to catch up with you when you blitz constantly. You just can't do that consistently. You can't blitz like we did last year and be one of the best defenses in the National Football League."

The Broncos beat the Ravens the conventional way. They lined up in a 4-3 defense and just played simple football. Ravens quarterback Steve McNair dropped back to pass and had little time to throw. He completed 20 of 34 for 165 yards with three interceptions. Jamal Lewis had no running lanes, finishing with 43 yards on 15 carries.

"In the OTAs [organized team activities] and in training camp, seeing the guys up front getting pressure on defense -- especially in practice -- it kinda grew on them," Broncos defensive tackle Gerard Warren said. "Then to basically go out and do that to New England and Kansas City with the front four gave them more confidence not to have to go in with a blitz package."

Monday night's game came down to one simple play. With the score tied at 3 in the final seconds of the first half, the Ravens mounted one drive to the Broncos' 10-yard line. Even though Shanahan rode last year's Broncos blitzing defense to the AFC Championship Game, it ranked 28th at stopping teams in the red zone, one of the worst in football. On third-and-9 from the 10, McNair tried a fade pass to Clarence Moore, who was covered by Broncos Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey.

"Obviously, I'm a little surprised they went for a fade route because that's saying they thought I didn't do my homework, but I did," Bailey said. "And they paid for it. Moore is a big receiver. What else are you going to do in the red zone? You throw the ball and hope he can outjump you. And what is that guy, about 6-foot-9?"

Bailey killed the scoring chance with an interception and allowed the Broncos to preserve a 3-3 tie. Jason Elam kicked a 44-yard field goal in the fourth quarter, and the Broncos put the game out of reach when Plummer hit Rod Smith on a 4-yard fade route with 1:55 remaining in the fourth quarter.

"The defense is really playing well and keeping us in ball games when we're not perfect," Plummer said. "We don't expect them to hold teams to no touchdowns and just a field goal. As an offense, we need to keep picking it up. It's a team effort, but we can't keep our defense out there all the time because they will eventually get tired."

At 3-1, the Broncos are fresh on defense and doing well for now, as opponents run up against a red light in the red zone -- they are 0-for-9 on third down with one touchdown and five field goals inside the Broncos' 20. In fact, Denver is the second team in the NFL since 1940 to allow only one touchdown in four games, matching the 2000 Dolphins.

That's right, the Broncos out-Ravened the Ravens.

"I've been telling everybody that we've been building the Ravens up all week and giving them their respect, but they ain't played nobody," Tatum Bell said. "Our offense goes against one of the best defenses every day. We just had to stick in there and do what we do."

McNair lamented his three interceptions. Ravens coach Brian Billick might have regretted the fade pass to Moore that was picked off by Bailey. "That play was one of the options we had, and it didn't turn out for us," Billick said.

Billick, considered a brilliant offensive mind himself, has been playing with a limited offense on a club that runs on its defense. Shanahan's offensive mind must be swimming at the thought of being just a defensive team.

But at 3-1, he'll take it until he can fix his offense.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer