Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow created the grittiest, gutsiest, "just-get-it-done" narrative of the 2011 season to date when he led his team back from a 15-point, late fourth-quarter deficit against the Miami Dolphins last Sunday. The Broncos' 18-15 overtime win allowed the Tebow canonizers to revel in his late touchdown pass and two-point conversion, and those who are sick to death of the Tebow overflow could point to the fact that he looked pretty horrible as a quarterback for most of the game. Both sides would have to admit that there were times when Dolphins defensive coordinator Mike Nolan seemed to outsmart himself.
There will not be those issues when the Detroit Lions travel to Denver to face the Broncos this Sunday — the defense run by head coach Jim Schwartz and defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham prefers to overwhelm you, pop you right in the mouth, and ask you just how you liked it. Tackle Ndamukong Suh leads the best defensive line rotation in the NFL, and this seems like a unit singularly built to mess with a running quarterback like Tebow still seems to be. Especially after two straight losses after five straight wins, and with the Chicago Bears looking more and more like a stern challenger in the battle for second place behind the Green Bay Packers in the NFC North, the Lions need this game more than any other so far.
On Wednesday, Schwartz was already game-planning for the interesting questions Tebow poses with his unique skill set. "We've seen some mobile quarterbacks, but not left-handed mobile quarterbacks, so it changes things a little bit," Schwartz said. "We're going to have to work real hard at containing him, because I think Miami did a good job of containing him most of the game, and then he was able to make a couple plays in the fourth and we can't afford to do the same thing."
In one way, Tebow's proficiency and attitude as a runner (especially in the red zone, where he's Denver's best rushing weapon by far) may cause the Lions to decrease the percentage of the one thing that's made their defense vulnerable this year — the "wide-9" concept, which slants the defensive ends wide to optimize for pass rush, but creates gaps in rushing lanes. Because the Broncos present a less formidable passing attack, Detroit may be predisposed to play the Broncos straight up, spy the quarterback with a fast player, and follow No. 15 wherever he goes. That could be bad news for Mr. Tebow.
"It's willingness to scramble for yards," Schwartz said when asked why Tebow is different than other mobile quarterbacks. "We've had a lot of guys that will scramble and buy time and things like that, but once he does scramble, he's looking to run. He was a running back, he's not going to slide and go down; he's going to treat it like a running back. And also they called designed runs for him, like you saw on the two-point play. But there's a lot of other incidents of that with lead blockers in front of him and just basically wildcat-type stuff. It presents some challenges for a defense and that's things that we need to work out through the week of practice and play well on Sunday with."
And at 6-foot-3 and 236 pounds, Tebow's built more like Peyton Hillis than Peyton Manning. He's looking to run you over as much as he is looking to elude you.
"Yeah, he's a little different than a lot of quarterbacks," Schwartz said. "I mean, we've faced some big quarterbacks this year. From the very beginning of the season, [Tampa Bay's Josh] Freeman is a giant at quarterback, Donovan McNabb has always been a big powerful guy. We've seen a lot of guys like that. I think he's a good combination of size and strength and speed, but I think it's more his willingness to act like a running back and make a play that way, willing to take a hit, and those kind of things, that make him maybe a little bit different than those guys."
The man of the hour has just been taking his ever-increasing celebrity in stride, and focusing on a defense that would rather break him up than be the latest chapter in the heroic (though not always accurate) narrative.
"Well, I think overall, they have a very good defense, a very good front seven, and their front four gets off the ball very fast and makes a lot of big plays," Tebow said this week. "You know, obviously led by Ndamukong Suh and [Kyle] Vanden Bosch and a bunch of guys — even backups that come in and are very successful, so you know, we'll have to be very consistent with what we do. Take what they give us and put ourselves in good situations to convert on third-down."
Facing that line also has Tebow thinking that living to fight another day might be the best way to go — when Suh is coming straight for you, a well-placed slide is a very good idea. "I know I have to be smart and get down and try not to take contact," he said. "And I honestly do, I try to be smart and pick my battles and when I hit people, but I also have to be a great decision maker when I'm running and not take as much contact."
What did he learn from a Miami game in which he went 13 of 27 for 161 yards, but still managed to throw two touchdown passes? According to Tebow, the offensive ugliness was more a harbinger of better things to come.
"I think the frustrating thing was that we were close to hitting several shots, to converting on third downs, to moving the ball, and several drives we moved it very good, we were in the red zone or close twice, and we weren't able to convert. So, we had some things going we just weren't able to necessarily finish drives or convert third downs. And it wasn't because we were in bad calls or necessarily anything like that, it was more … I was a step in front of the receiver here, or we just didn't have the perfect timing or I just had to make a better decision. So, it was just little things that were encouraging and frustrating. Obviously, we want to play better for the first 56 minutes, but when you look at the film, it's encouraging because we know we were close to being a lot better than that."
Encouraging and frustrating? When you take away all the fairy dust, that's a pretty appropriate description of Tim Tebow's career as an NFL quarterback to date. It will now be his challenge to avoid being roadkill for a Detroit defense that will be out for blood … and out for him.