— Tim Tebow inspires irrational football discussions. He turns normally sober analysts into emotional fanboys. The anti-Tebow crowd revels with barely contained glee when he struggles.
It all feels political. You are either a member of the Tebow Party or you are against him, a non-believer.
This article is not going to delve into why all this happens. It’s going to examine the very real football reasons Tebow has struggled lately and what that means for Sunday’s matchup with Pittsburgh.
It will try to be rational.
After the peak
Tebowmania peaked after the victory over the Bears in Week 14. That incredible, inexplicable comeback pushed everyone over the edge. It inspired a great "Saturday Night Live" skit. It started “Tebow for MVP” talk, which looked just as silly back then as it does in retrospect.
Tebow actually played one of his better games in the loss to the Patriots in Week 15. Since then, he’s 19-for-51 with one touchdown, four interceptions, three fumbles and a 3.37 yards-per-carry average.
So what changed?
I looked at five Tebow starts spread throughout the season, and a lot less has changed than you’d think. Yes, the turnovers and sacks have increased. But it’s not as if the Broncos' passing game was ever clicking. That’s what made the long winning streak so wild.
There were good half-quarters (Dolphins), there was a fantastic winning throw (Chiefs), there was an amazing drive (Jets), and there was even an excellent half (Minnesota). There was never a complete game.
All of the magic happened at the end. Hence, Tebow time.
When the magic wasn’t happening, there were long periods of stasis not usually associated with modern pro football. There were a lot of punts. A lot of punts. No team has gone three-and-out more often. (Denver had a streak of eight straight possessions without a first down between Weeks 16-17.)
Tebow’s best statistical game of the season was instructive. It came in a 35-32 win against Minnesota. The final numbers were very impressive, but the Broncos offense had only 48 total yards in the first half.
The Denver defense forced three turnovers on that day and scored a touchdown. Three Broncos drives started in Vikings territory, leading to 10 points.
Two of Tebow’s touchdowns came on blown coverages. Tebow hesitates to throw unless a receiver is wide open, and they were really wide open in this game.
The other touchdown came after Tebow did an amazing job extending the play outside the pocket before finding Demaryius Thomas for a touchdown. At this stage of his development, that’s Tebow’s best bet for big play.
Eleven of Denver’s 15 drives against the Vikings went for 13 yards or fewer. This was on Denver’s best offensive day with Tebow.
The other side
The Broncos play a different brand of football with Tebow. They play things ridiculously close to the vest with a run-pass ratio that calls to mind 1950’s football. This strategy works only if the team’s defense and running game remain dominant.
Willis McGahee and the ground attack have continued to roll during the losing streak, in large part because of the threat of Tebow running. But teams are attacking the Broncos defense in new ways.
New England spread Denver out, exposing holes in the Broncos secondary. The Patriots threw quick passes to mitigate the Broncos impressive pass rush. The formula worked to perfection, and the Bills effectively copied it the following week.
The Steelers have the receivers to try the same approach. They excel at going three- and four-wide at receiver. Getting rid of the ball quickly will help out a gimpy Ben Roethlisberger.
Denver’s defense was the biggest key in the team’s winning streak all along. They forced nine turnovers during their six-game winning streak. They only have one the past three weeks. The Broncos need big plays from their defense to survive.
Coaching Tebow up
There have been some complaints that the Broncos coaching staff is holding Tebow back. In one sense, the run-pass ratio indicates that’s true. Then again, Denver's winning streak was sparked by taking this approach.
The team’s most effective drives during the losing streak primarily came from the running game. When the Broncos have tried to get more aggressive throwing lately, it hasn’t worked.
Overall, the Broncos' offensive coaches have done a fabulous job. Tebow throws predominantly from shotgun and the Broncos line up in shotgun more than half the time. They use a heavy dose of the read option every week, but it’s not the base of their offense. (During most weeks, option plays account for less than 20 percent of the offense.)
Tebow’s best plays can be broken down into two categories: He either improvises outside or the pocket, or his primary read is wide open, often because of deception. That’s coaching.
Letting it fly
It’s often tough for spread quarterbacks entering the NFL to realize what “open” is in the NFL versus college. Broncos executive John Elway said what everyone was thinking this week: Tebow needs to “pull the trigger” faster when his receiver has a step on defenders.
This has really shown up the past two weeks. Tebow continually passed up on throwing into one-one-coverage against Kansas City. Things were worse against Buffalo.
On Tebow’s first interception of the Bills game, he had his primary read wide open but passed on it. He scrambled for a while, and eventually threw across his body into an interception.
On his last turnover of the game, Tebow’s primary read was his running back in the flat. He pump-faked even though the running back was open. By the time he re-set to throw the ball, a defender hit Tebow from behind and popped the ball in the air and was taken back for a touchdown.
One of my big takeaways from watching all the games: Tebow generally has a lot of time to throw. Almost too much time. Tebow holds the ball waiting for the perfect play, then takes a sack. He’s been sacked 15 times over the past four weeks, leading to seven fumbles over that span.
This is all partly by the opposition’s design. Rushers are hesitant to fly up the field because they don’t want Tebow to run.
Coaches now have a lot of NFL film on Tebow, and have adjusted how they attack him. Now he has to adjust back. Tebow has rushed for only 54 yards on 16 carries over the past two games. Denver might be hesitant to call too many runs for him because of the fumbling, but this is a do-or-die game.
The Broncos' best chance may be to double down on the option plays. Let Tebow run even more. When the team has absolutely needed a drive, that’s what they lean on. It doesn’t always work — like in the Chiefs game — but it’s clearly where Tebow’s decision making is at its most confident.
The Steelers are a difficult matchup because they are disciplined and tough to run against. But that beats trying to throw against them.
Pittsburgh would love Denver to be more aggressive through the air. They give up 5.6 yards-per-attempt passing, which is best in the league by a massive margin.
The Broncos won't need to score a lot to win Sunday. Pittsburgh’s past three road games: a 13-9 win over Kansas City, a 20-3 loss in San Francisco, and a 13-9 win against Cleveland.
That is the type of game the Broncos want to play. Denver can run all game and keep things close. They have the powerful running game, not the Steelers. Denver’s offense is at its most dangerous when Tebow is a threat to run almost every play, and they mix in some well-timed vertical throws.
No use for logic
Was Denver’s six-game winning streak the start of something lasting? Or was it just a special moment in time, a poorly written sports movie, a string of increasingly improbable endings that made everyone a little crazy — good and bad — for six weeks?
The NFL is a cruel business. Job security is only as good as your next four-game losing streak.
If Elway was lukewarm on Tebow’s future heading into the season, another disastrous performance will call into question how much progress Tebow truly made this year. A strong outing against a great defense would go a long way toward easing Elway’s fears.
Logic points to Tebow struggling badly. It’s rational to expect the league’s top-ranked pass defense to stop the 31st-ranked passing offense.
Yet we’ll watch Sunday, still half-expecting something incomprehensible to happen. Tebowmania has never been about logic and rationality.