SAN DIEGO — Shell-shocked.
That’s the only way Bob Slowik’s demeanor could be described after the collapse of his Denver Broncos defense Sunday night.
The coordinator tried gallows humor, reminding his inquisitor that, yes, he did know that his group allowed 52 points in a winner-take-all, AFC West showdown with the San Diego Chargers.
At the same time, he acknowledged there was nothing remotely funny about how Denver’s defense responded when the stakes were highest.
The Broncos allowed season-highs in total yards (491), rushing yards (289) and points (52), capping off a year in which the defense ranked 29th overall. It finished a season ranked 24th or worse in 16 major defensive categories listed in the league’s official statistics. The only area Denver was better was fourth down efficiency (18th).
“The disappointing thing is there was no mystery to what the Chargers were doing,” Slowik said. “They were running the ball. We never worked harder on the run – ever, anywhere I’ve ever been in 17 years of coaching. You have to execute fundamentally in big games – read your keys, believe your keys, get off your blocks and make tackles, things like that.
“I really don’t have an answer.”
Yet Slowik can bet there will be, and already are, plenty of questions about how to get a group that’s allowed 409 and 448 points, respectively, the last two seasons – only the 1963-64 teams were worse back-to-back – to a respectable level.
One big piece already has been decided, apparently, when coach Mike Shanahan announced that Slowik would stay past his first season overseeing the defense, averting the past fates of Greg Robinson, Ray Rhodes, Larry Coyer and Jim Bates since 2000. But Slowik knows in the public realm his scheme will be dissected and that he’ll become a scapegoat to many.
“Sure, and that’s no problem,” he said. “It’s a bottom line business. Everybody that coaches knows that. In the end, how you perform on the field is a reflection of what kind of coaching they have.”
Other items such as personnel, or a lack thereof, can’t be overlooked, either; nor can a lack of continuity. Replacing Slowik along with the roster overhaul on defense brings everything back to square one again, given all the previous changes. At some point there has to be some sense of permanence on that side of the ball in terms of approach.
“It’s one of those things where I mean it when I say it, because it would be very easy to say this under the situation we’re talking about right here that it’s the obvious answer,” Slowik said.
“But continuity is something that sooner or later is going to have to be established with this group, so that they can draw from experience and say, ‘Yeah, we know exactly what you’re talking about,’ and the terminology remains the same. And I’m not pleading any case. That’s the fact. Anybody in the whole NFL would tell you that. So hopefully that will be the case.”
Denver’s defense hit its lowest point Sunday night in season replete with less-than-stellar moments. San Diego’s 296 rushing yards was the worst performance by a Broncos team since an infamous 407-yard debacle vs. the Cincinnati Bengals in ’00 that contributed to Robinson’s firing. The five Chargers rushing TDs tied for the most ever against Denver.
It’s the third time this season the Broncos have allowed 200-plus rushing yards but first occasion since the Oct. 20 bye. Ten times this year the Broncos gave up at least 139 yards on the ground and finished 27th overall at 146.1 per game.
“I’m shocked, friggin’ flabbergasted, whatever words you can use, completely surprised,” Slowik said about the poor tackling and lack of gap integrity vs. the Chargers. “If they would have thrown the ball for an extraordinary amount of yards then that would have been different, because so much has been put into the run defense. But when it happens this way, after your whole emphasis from Day 1 has been to stop the run, play the run better, play tough, be physical, and not get it done in a big game is disheartening as a coach.”
There were plenty of those feelings to go around in ’08. In the end, Denver finished with a franchise-low 13 takeaways all season. Its 67.3 percent completion rate allowed broke the team-record high of 63.6 set in 2002. The number of first downs allowed (327) smashed the 1995 record. The yield of 26 rushing touchdowns was five more than the ’65 season.
“Defensively we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said. “We’ll try to do that this off-season.”
How deep the personnel changes go remains to be seen. But it’s safe to say the safety position and defensive front will be emphasized, both in free agency and in the draft, where Denver has nine draft picks, including No. 12 overall.
The Broncos also will look to find a spot for promising rookie linebacker Wesley Woodyard, perhaps even necessitating another shift by D.J. Williams back to the middle.
But the main point of emphasis – an eight-man front to curtail the run out of a base 4-3 alignment is fundamentally sound in Slowik’s view. It comes down to execution, and ultimately, expansion of principles.
“The point there is when you’re starting a scheme in the first year and you simplify the scheme to establish fundamentals, techniques and terminology, that’s just the beginning,” Slowik said, alluding to an early-season switch out of a 3-4 look. “If you can maintain continuity then you can grow and expand from there. But until you get a base that you’re comfortable in and the players are comfortable in, that they know how to execute, then you don’t have a chance.”