AFC West: Heath Miller

Defensive keys for Denver

September, 15, 2012
It was all about Peyton Manning last week when he enjoyed a masterful debut as a Denver Bronco in a 31-19 home win over Pittsburgh.

Manning’s comeback overshadowed a strong performance by a Denver defense that continues to improve. But we need to keep on an eye on Denver’s defense. If this unit is as timely and as aggressive throughout the season as it was last week and Manning stays hot, the Broncos could be a team to watch deep into the postseason.

The Denver defense will get a good test on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” at Atlanta in Week 2. The Falcons’ offense was potent in a 40-24 win at Kansas City. Here are five keys for the Denver defense in this game:

[+] EnlargeVon Miller
Ron Chenoy/US PresswireVon Miller will need to make an impact on Monday night as the Broncos look to slow Atlanta.
1. Von Miller: We recently examined what it would take for the second-year linebacker to become a complete player. After one game in 2012, it seems like the 2011 NFL defensive rookie of the year is well on his way to becoming the total package. If Miller plays Monday night the way he played against the Steelers, Denver will be in good shape. Miller had two sacks, and he was all over the field all the time. Miller’s performance was the buzz in the press box in Oakland on Monday night before I covered the Chargers-Raiders game. People in the AFC West are worried about how good Miller is becoming.

2. The new guys: I was struck last week by the terrific play of several additions to the defense. Denver went from being the No. 32-ranked defense in the NFL in 2010 to the No. 20-ranked team. The front office felt the need to continue to improve in the offseason and made some nice upgrades, which showed in Week 1. The new players who stood out last week were rookie defensive end Derek Wolfe and free-agent pickups cornerback Tracy Porter and safety Mike Adams. All three appear to be difference-makers. And they will be vital against the dangerous Falcons.

3. Create turnovers: The Broncos' defense needs to strike again this week. A 43-yard interception return for a touchdown by Porter sealed the win last week. Atlanta is going to do its damage, but if Denver can come up with some turnovers and another score, it can pull off the upset. Atlanta QB Matt Ryan has to be rattled and kept honest or he will pick apart any defense, as he did last week against the Chiefs.

4. Get off the field on third down: The Steelers were 11-of-19 on third-down conversions last week, and Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger connected on some big plays on third down. It was one of the reasons the Steelers were leading in the second half and why they held the ball for virtually a whole quarter. Denver has to shut down Ryan on third down better than it did Roethlisberger.

5. Contain Tony Gonzalez: Pittsburgh tight end Heath Miller made an impact last week -- he had four catches for 50 yards. It seemed as though Pittsburgh thought it could exploit Denver’s defense on tight end routes. Expect the Falcons to try to get the ball in the hands of the still-potent Gonzalez often. Gonzalez was a longtime Broncos killer with Kansas City, where he spent his first 12 NFL seasons. Asked about Gonzalez this week, Denver cornerback Champ Bailey said this with a laugh: “I’m so tired of this guy. He never stops. He creates so many problems because he’s so savvy, and his experience, it shows every week.” Denver has to do everything it can to prevent Gonzalez from taking over.
Power IllustrationDallas' Jason Witten earned the top spot in our voting over San Diego's Antonio Gates.’s NFL writers rank the top 10 tight ends in the league today. Next week: Top 10 coaches.

Antonio Gates has received the Adrian Peterson treatment.

This guy didn’t do it this time.

Up from the NFC South rises Pat Yasinskas into the Power Rankings’ hot seat. Embrace the heat, my friend. In another airtight positional Power Rankings battle, Dallas' Jason Witten edged out Gates by one vote to be crowned the almighty ruler of all NFL tight ends.

How in the name of Kellen Winslow did it happen, San Diego? Talk to Yasinskas.

Yasinskas ranked Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez No. 2. He had Witten No. 1 and Gates No. 3. Witten finished with 76 voting points. Gates had 75. No other voter placed Gonzalez higher than fifth. He finished sixth.

Send your cards and letters to Yasinskas, Dallas. If you must let him know your thoughts, stay classy, San Diego.

Yasinskas reasoned that he sandwiched Gonzalez between Witten and Gates because of Gonzalez’s incredible career. Gonzalez, 35, owns every major receiving record by a tight end.

“Yes, he's nearing the end of his career, but this is the best tight end in history,” Yasinskas said. “I think that counts for something. Gonzalez still is playing at a high level. He has great chemistry with quarterback Matt Ryan and the desire for a Super Bowl ring is keeping Gonzalez going strong.”

Here is the rest of the top 10 after Witten and Gates: Indianapolis’ Dallas Clark (53 points), San Francisco’s Vernon Davis (50), Washington’s Chris Cooley (36), Gonzalez (33), Tampa Bay’s Kellen Winslow Jr. (26), Jacksonville’s Marcedes Lewis (21), Detroit’s Brandon Pettigrew (18) and Green Bay’s Jermichael Finley (15).

Witten and Gates clearly stand out as the game’s elite tight ends. Witten was ranked first on four ballots and second on the other four. Gates received the other four first-place votes. He received three second-place votes and Yasinskas’ third-place vote.

The only thing that separated Witten and Gates in 2010 was health. Witten, 28, had 94 catches for 1,002 yards and nine touchdowns last season. Gates, 30, was on his way to a brilliant season when it was derailed by nagging ankle and foot injuries. Gates ended up on injured reserve and missed six games. He finished with 50 catches, 782 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said both Witten and Gates are game-changers.

“Witten to me is the class of the two-way tight ends,” Williamson said. “Receiving needs to trump blocking because that is what the league is right now. If someone put Witten first on the list, I can buy that. In terms of doing it all, I think he is the best. … I think he is the best of the two-way guys if you put an equal amount of faith in both receiving and blocking. He is the all-around tight end prototype. If you put more weight on receiving, which I would, you have to give the nod to Gates. He was awesome last year. He was hurt and that was the only negative other than blocking. He played hurt a lot and was great.”

Let’s dig deeper into the rankings:

Not easy pickings: Several of our voters were surprised by the difficulty of this process. This is our fourth position in the series. We previously looked at receivers, running backs and pass-rushers. The pass-rushers process was very difficult. This vote was not a cool breeze, either.

This is a very strong league for tight ends these days.

“After a hellish pass-rusher ballot, I thought tight ends would be far easier,” AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky said. “They were just as difficult. There is a great deal of young talent too. I steered clear of first-year guys, but in another season or two, this could be even more brutal to sort through.”

Blame injuries: In addition to the glut of talent, a primary reason this vote was so difficult was the fact that there were major injuries at this position in 2010. In addition to Gates, Clark, Finley and Houston’s Owen Daniels were injured. That changed the voting landscape.

“I thought it was tough because there are a lot of guys with mitigating circumstances,” NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert said.

Clark’s injury prompted Yasinskas to rank him 10th. No other voter placed him lower than fourth.

“There's no doubt this guy has had a great career,” Yasinskas said. “But I ranked him a little lower than most and that's almost entirely because he missed 10 games last season. Clark is 31 and I'm not sure he'll be the same player going forward.”

[+] EnlargeTony Gonzalez
Dale Zanine/US PresswireWill star Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez finally notch his first playoff win on Sunday?
Not everyone loves Tony G.: Clearly, Yasinskas believes in Gonzalez. He gets to see him play regularly and thinks he’s still an impact player. That’s why he ranked him second. But not everyone agrees that the future Hall of Famer is still an elite player. Kuharksy left Gonzalez off his ballot altogether.

“Gonzalez is still an excellent player,” Kuharsky said. “But as I struggled to find room for the 10 I felt needed to make the cut, he fell off. In 2010 his numbers suggest he was more quantity than quality. I'm not looking for giant plays from my tight end, but Dallas Clark replacement Jacob Tamme matched Gonzo's 9.4 yards a catch, and while Gonzalez's first-down percentage was good (55.7), it was way lower than that of the three top rookies and smaller than that of guys like Heath Miller, Ben Watson and Todd Heap, whom I hardly considered. One final note: As I've got access to Frank Wycheck during three shared radio appearances a week, I asked him for a ballot. I'm sure he admires Gonzalez's body of work. But right now Gonzalez wasn't in Wycheck's top 10 either.”

The Davis flip-flop: The 49ers’ immensely talented tight end received a wide range of support. Four voters had him third. Yet, I had him ranked ninth and Yasinskas had him eighth. I like Davis, but I’m not convinced we always see his best effort.

NFC West blogger Mike Sando was among those who voted Davis third. Sando argued that Davis has made an impact despite playing with subpar quarterbacks.

“It's easy to forget about Vernon Davis because he plays for a low-profile team that has struggled,” Sando said. “If you've seen the 49ers much, you know Davis makes the huge play better than any tight end in the league. He'll catch touchdown passes for 60 or 70 yards, outrunning even cornerbacks. He remains unrefined and can still improve his all-around game quite a bit, but his 20 touchdown receptions over the past two seasons rank first among tight ends.”

This position is in it for the long haul: I remember a conversation I had with Gates prior to the 2009 season. He was glowing over all the young talent at the position in the NFL. Gates rattled off several young tight ends he expected to have bright careers.

There’s no doubt, this is a special time for tight end play. As Gonzalez puts the cap on the most brilliant career by anyone at the position in the history of the game, the position is well stocked for the future.

Five players on the list -- Davis, Winslow, Lewis, Pettigrew and Finley -- are 27 or younger. The only players who are 30 or older on the list are Gonzalez, Clark and Gates.

Oakland’s Zach Miller and the Jets’ Dustin Keller, who finished 11th and 12th, respectively, are also young players. Miller is 25 and Keller is 26.