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John Lynch: The Decision, Part Two

John Lynch: The Decision, Part Two

This is a four part article that will be taking a look at one of the best safeties to ever play the game, John Lynch. A decision about his retirement looms, and its ripple effect will be felt throughout the Broncos organization as everything from the Free Agency period to their potentially strong, 8-pick draft will be shaped and altered by whichever lot he tosses into the murky pool that is the Broncos' defensive future. Will it be the decision to retire, leaving $2 mil on the table? Will it be the decision to return, possibly having to accept less playing time and risking injury?

MHR's own Hoosierteacher took some time to look at the John Lynch situation with me, and provided some of his excellent knowledge and analysis of not only Lynch but of the difficult and oft misunderstood nature of the position he plays. We will be getting his take on the situation throughout this series.

Part One was a look at John Lynch the player and the safety position in general, and looked at what Lynch has done for the Denver Broncos since signing in 2004. Part Two will take a more in depth look at John's performance through the 2007 season, a campaign that saw the Denver Broncos post only their second losing season under Mike Shanahan while fielding one of the lowest ranked defenses in the NFL. Part Three will take a closer look at the situation the Broncos are in, and what their options are at the safety position.

Part Two

Going into the 2007, the Denver Broncos defense was looking stout. Free agency and the draft addressed some needs, even as several players were lost, through tragedy, incompatibility, and injury. One area which saw little change, however, was the safety position.

John Lynch would be returning to play another year, and Nick Ferguson looked solid. Astute observers noted the lack of depth behind these two however, while also noting the age of the two veterans. Were they right to be concerned with the position? As the preseason wound to a close, and the regular season opener in Buffalo approached, Broncos Country winced at the sight of Denver’s preseason defensive struggles. The only hope was that the preseason was not a good indicator of what was to come on defense, and that our depth at safety and elsewhere would not be tested.

Buffalo, New York September 9, 2007

Opening Day

Stats can’t tell the whole story. The sight of Elam being mobbed in a college-atmosphere field rush by the Broncos sideline is the closest you can come to understanding the ebb and flow of that game. It would be definitive for both a game and a season: youthful exuberance; sacred expectations.

The scene on defense was one which Bronco fans weren’t used to: a seven man defensive front with more beef and bodyfat than a steakhouse. Gone was the speed of Coyer’s blitzing defense, and in its place were the confusing, difficult to master lanes of Jim Bates’ "run-contain" system.

HT: Under the Bates system the DTs don't really go after the QB, nor do they even go after the play in the offensive backfield. They just occupy the Center, Guards, and hopefuly either a Tackle or a Back being used as a run blocker. They have the additional burden of making lateral tackles on runs that go to their side (a likely scenario because the DEs will be lined up so wide that the runner is vectored into the resulting gap).

The job of the DEs in the Bates system is to rush from the edge, or on runs to contain the outside and let the MLB do his job. The MLB can only do his job if the DTs protect him by holding up the center of the O-line. The DEs line up wider than under most systems for several reasons. They take any remaining Tackles or TEs out of the game not occupied by the DTs, and they constantly pressure the QB.

The MLB is only as good as the DTs. He has to depend on them to protect his zone because the OLBs are going to be wider (for the most part). The OLBs contain runs to keep them from going towards the sideline. They force the runs inside of the DEs, where the other 9 or so players should be waiting.

John Lynch in his role as a FS was asked to cover half the field in a deep zone on the weakside of the play. As the game and season started, one couldn’t help but notice that Lynch indeed seemed a step slower, and wasn’t closing quickly on the line of scrimmage from his zone coverage. He even missed a tackle on Buffalo’s rookie, Marshawn Lynch, who managed to juke the savvy veteran into missing outside. Add to this that the every-down Lynch was pulled for several special ‘nickel’ formations, to be replaced by Curome Cox, and one got the feeling that Lynch was taking a backseat to his teams defensive scheme for the first time in his career.

But he still managed a sack on a rare ‘monster’ blitz and his deep coverage was stellar, paired with Bly, as no passes were attempted to his side beyond the underneath zone. Then, in the second half, you could see a change in Lynch. Suddenly you saw him involved in every play. He was seen around the line of scrimmage multiple times as the pressure in the game mounted. He was involved in or closing fast on every tackle that occurred in the middle zones. You saw his number in every defensive play.

As the fourth quarter began, Lynch flew in with a classic hit on the FB, causing two things to happen. The first was that Lynch got his first ding of the season, a calf strain, which he shook off and returned two plays later. The second was that, once he returned, running plays where he lined up weakside were changed, audibled out of and generally sent to the strongside. When he was in his deep zone, passes went to the other side. Now, I am not saying that the coaches schemed away from Lynch, but in the final analysis, the players played away from Lynch. It took one half of one game, but Lynch was back up to speed.

The Home Opener

The following week against Oakland saw more of the same. Playing from FS as normal, he was rarely called to the line during the game, remaining in a deep zone covering the left side of the field with Bly. And when he was called up in run support? Superior backside pursuit on running plays to the strongside, seemingly choosing the perfect gap every time and making perfect backfield tackles. When he was back in the deep zone, Oakland failed to complete a pass, or to ever really look downfield, and when they did, Lynch broke up a pass that led to an interception.

As the half came to close and the second half began, Lynch found himself being used exclusively in a deep zone that Oakland could not penetrate. Only three times was he brought to the line in support in the second half. The first time, he shot the gap and made a tackle for a loss. The second time he blew up the FB, sending the play into chaos resulting in no gain. The third time he hit the FB and wrapped up the RB, stopping the play behind the line of scrimmage.

Better to be sure.

The Slide

The defense was riding high going into a three game slide that saw the 2-0 Broncos fall below .500 by the bye week.

Against the run-heavy Jaguars, Lynch was a pivotal part of a scheme designed to put the game on Garrard’s shoulders. They featured a heavy "61" type formation that regularly put 8 in the box and gave Lynch total autonomy in regards to run versus pass. One safety remained deep, while John would vary between a three-point stance on the line to an up close fourth LB, or even dropping into a middle zone at the snap. The result was 10 yards rushing on 5 carries and a sack. His constant motion at the line, in and out of strongside support proved disconcerting for Garrard, but on the second play of the second drive, Lynch left the game with a groin pull. He returned two plays later, but immediately left again, this time for good. In his absence, the Jaguars went on an 80 yard, 18 play, 11:46 drive that netted a touchdown, and gave them the lead. For the day the Jaguars netted almost 200 yards rushing, and Curome Cox became a study in what not to do at FS in Bates’ scheme. Denver returned to the basic scheme soon after Lynch left the game, as Cox was always out of place when near the line of scrimmage.

For the rest of that game, and in the Indianapolis game to follow, Cox showed that playing the FS position wasn’t about speed alone. Undoubtedly faster than Lynch, Cox was rarely seen involved in plays that were not to his side, and sometimes, even in plays that were. When he was cut weeks later, it would come as no surprise to anyone who watched the safety position with any interest. Having been kept almost exclusively in a deep zone, Cox was never trusted with making decisions on the field.

But in the San Diego game where Lynch made his return, Cox alone wasn’t embarrassed. There are a lot of drive stats, rushing statistics and individual plays and efforts that could be pointed to in that game, but it would hardly be necessary. The Broncos were so severely embarrassed that Shanahan would step in over the bye week and demand a return to an 8 man front. And of all the players hurt by the beating in San Diego, Lynch among them saw his grimace of disgust featured on national television. His look seemed to say it all. Disappointment, frustration, anger.

Pittsburgh

In the first game following the bye, Denver would be without its best defensive player, Bailey, and without the "run-contain" system that had dropped Denver to last in the league against the rush, allowing almost 190 yards per game.

From an analysis point of view, this game was very exciting, and seemed to come down to "players playing," rather than "coaches coaching" on defense.

It had been noted that Denver would feature an 8 man box in this game, but no one was truly prepared for the way in which Denver would do it. For Pittsburgh’s first three drives, the Broncos lined up in a different formation on almost every play, and Lynch was at the heart of the shifts. He started in middle zone, shutting down a TE crossing route. The next saw him back in a deep middle zone, rushing up to the line to put a hit on fast Willie Parker. And the next saw him line up at SS, where he covered the TE perfectly on an out.

He traded back and forth with Ferguson from SS to FS and back for the rest of the half. One thing I noted from play to play, when Lynch came to the line, PIT would go over the top successfully. When he dropped back, Ferguson would be plowed under by Pittsburgh’s rushing attack. I even saw him take on double blockers once from the SS 4th LB position! The camerawork on this game also showed a sight to behold, in Lynch’s perfect form as a play developed. His eyes were always in the backfield, his hips were always square and his shoulders were parallel to the line of scrimmage. His back was never to the play, a refreshing change from the "turn and run" play of Cox, and occasionally of Hamza later. Say what you will about Lynch not being very fast, but he is equally as fast running sideways or backwards as he is running forward, and his first step is always in the right direction. It was truly a sight to see.

But there were mistakes as well. Called to the line on a SS blitz, Lynch saw a quick completion to the TE lined up in the slot. On shooting the gap on another play, Lynch was stiff-armed by Roethlisberger, being denied a sure sack. On another strongside blitz, Lynch was also tossed aside with ease by Pittsburgh’s right guard. Of course, on that particular play, the guard neglected to pick up Moss, who forced a fumble that Crowder recovered and ran into the endzone. Can’t win them all.

Another impressive play by Lynch was a QB scramble late in the first half. Lynch was in a deep right coverage at SS, and as Big Ben scrambled out of the pocket and to the left, Lynch began to drift within his zone, his eyes on the QB. As other defensive players scrambled to keep up with their coverages, Ben motioned to a particular receiver to drop left. No sooner had Ben made the motion than you could see Lynch break from his zone, cross the entire field and be part of a triple coverage that saw the pass fall incomplete in the end zone. A perfect read.

The second half saw Lynch’s first penalty of the year, a late hit call out of bounds, tickytacky at best. Lynch spent the second half covering a deep middle zone from FS, while Ferguson was up in run support. The second half also saw a 21 point lead evaporate. The weaknesses of the 8 man front were already showing.

The Slide, Continued

When rewatching the GB game, in the back of my mind I was secretly happy that Lynch would be injured in the first quarter with a scary neck injury, thus freeing me of having to suffer through some of the worst television broadcasting in the history of the universe. Cox’s trouble at safety are already documented here, and leaving him back in a deep middle zone was merely a compounding of the trouble. It is enough to say that on the deadly strike in OT, it would have been Lynch helping Bly in that particular coverage. Would it have been enough? No one knows, but it would have definitely been better, and any decision regarding whether or not Lynch plays should consider that fact.

Lynch was listed as ‘inactive’ for both the Debacle in Detroit and the Broncos later visit to Arrowhead, though he was anything but, calling in defensive plays from coach Slowik, and in constant communication with the defensive players.

During Lynch’s absence during this period, Hamza Abdullah finally got healthy enough to contribute, and in the Detroit game he led Denver tacklers. The following week in KC, Abdullah started for Lynch, listed at FS, and showed that he could be just as versatile as Lynch. His technique needed work, but he used his strengths to accommodate, and Bronconation dared to breathe a sigh of relief.

Last Chance for the Postseason

Lynch returned from his neck injury on a Monday night vs. Tennessee. Though scary at first, Lynch was assured that his injury was not a reaggravation or worsening of the neck condition that threatened to end his career while in Tampa Bay. But when he returned this time, it was to find that his season long partner at SS had been benched in preference of Hamza, and that Lynch would be taking Ferguson’s place.

This game also saw the return of an event Lynch hadn’t seen since the first game of the season: coming off the field in certain situations. This time it was to come off the field for certain down and distances where the coaching staff felt that Vince Yo9ung would be a threat to scramble. He was replaced in these downs with special teams standout, Jamie Winborn, a LB responsible for "spying" on Young. This strategy had mixed results, failing early but becoming more effective late in the game.

Lynch’s play was as strong as ever, but he was noticeably better at his already great tackling. A strong safety at heart, Lynch rarely found himself put into deep zone coverage until the game was being sealed up at the end. Working with Champ this time, his zone coverage seemed as good as it had been when working with Bly, never burned and great in support coming up from his deep starting position.

The last significant game worthy of analysis was the Chicago game. In this game there were two final elements to add to the final picture of Lynch’s 2007 season.

  • 1. The good news first. Lynch spent the Bears game lined up as a SS, in the box around 80% of the time. A noticeable difference from his earlier in the year FS games was his run support at the line. At FS Lynch would routinely be the unblocked player on the weakside. He would pursue and overcome the play from the backside, showing patience and judiciousness in taking the right angle each time. At SS however, Lynch would always find himself on a blocker, and I was impressed with his ability to shed blockers, of any strength or size. His patience when pursuing on weakside became his patience for reading the run on the strongside. He always seemed to make the right choice for which gap to take and could get off his blocker to make the tackle at the line of scrimmage.
  • 2. Now the bad news. At the end of both halves in this game, Lynch was pulled, though there were no noticeable down and distance situations or injuries reported. He missed 6 consecutive plays at the end of the first half, and 17 plays over Chicago’s final four drives. No reason was ever given for this, though it should be noted that he returned to the defensive lineup for the OT drive, where he was at SS. One of the plays he was out for? The Peterson TD run that went in via a rugby scrum…Does anyone think Lynch wouldn’t have thrown a hit into that pile before it mosied into the endzone?
The following games are anticlimactic from a positional analysis point of view. There weren’t really any surprises, and Lynch’s play at SS continued uninterrupted from lineup quakes. I watched the rest of the games looking for indications for which situations Lynch would be pulled in. There did not seem to be any underlying consistency in terms of the games, but I don’t doubt that in the instances where he was pulled, (there were many), they were being done not in terms of winning and losing, but in terms of personnel evaluation. He finished out the season without any more injuries, averaging 5 tackles per game.

The only other thing which I looked for in the final games was any indication that he was wearing down, or slowing up, but if anything I only saw a renewed vigor, even after Denver’s technical elimination, and great games against KC and Minnesota.

In Part Three we will take a look at what Denver’s options are at the position, as well as seeing if what Lynch had and has to offer will be enough to make a difference for the 2008 Broncos defense under new/old coordinator, Bob Slowik.

Thanks again, and much credit to HT for his helpful analysis and knowledge in preparing this series. More to come soon, so stay tuned...

This is a Fan-Created Comment on MileHighReport.com. The opinion here is not necessarily shared by the editorial staff of MHR

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