As we have talked about, this periphery to the redzone is a good chance to look at how a team views its own capabilities: opponents field position is still an issue at this point, in the case of a turnover, failed conversion or missed FG, FGs themselves will be in the 40 yard range, so 3 points isn't guaranteed, and defenses are quickly compressing passing lanes, outside runs and other offensive advantages enjoyed between the 20s.
So far in the analysis, when Denver has gotten into this area they have favored the inside running game, and short high percentage throws. What has intrigued me the most is that they haven't even called any routes that probe the endzone: forget whether someone is open deep or not, they aren't even attempting it. The implication of this is clear to me, this team wants to grind out points in the redzone.
But we all know that the IND game created situations where Denver was a team desperate to score points. Did they change their redzone philosophy to account for these situations? Or do they truly view themselves as capable of being a bruising, methodical redzone team, slowly but surely grinding points out of their opponents?
Week 3 vs. Colts
Context: 2nd quarter, :34 seconds remaining, Denver behind 0-13. Denver is trying to rally after their previous 80 yard drive stalled on the one yard line, and then were within inches of making IND punt from inside their own 15 (two VERY generous spots for the colts on that drive). Add in the non-call on the horsecollar tackle of Eddie Royal on the punt return and there is a very palpable air of frustration in the stadium. However, the Broncos have gained over 40 yards in their 2minute offense this drive with several good passes, despite the Colts starting to bring heavy pressure, and now they have a 2nd and 1 from the colts 21 yard line.
Formation: Shotgun, no-huddle, 4WR 1Back (Gaffney Split-L, Royal Slot-L, Graham Flank-R, Lloyd Split-R, Buckhalter backfield)
Defensive notes: Cover 2, soft man outside, zone underneath, nickle package. All DBs are in place before the snap and sitting down in their areas.
Result: The receivers get good push upfield against the coverage and all of the WRs have their heads turned back to the QB after 5 yards or so. Buck stays in to block vs. the 4 man rush which tells you that there are no deep developing plays on the call (thus no need for an outlet or checkdown). Royal and gaffney run the same route package that the Colts picked off earlier in the game but this time Gaffney breaks to the sideline, pulling his defender out of the throwing lane. Orton has to put some zip on it due to the nickle back being in zone coverage over Eddie, and he barely threads it in. Royal makes the diving grab for the 1st down.
Upshot: Again, still no indication that Denver is willing to take a shot at the endzone from this distance, but the context of the play is such that Denver wouldn't have gained much from going deep anyways. They need to continue to chew up time, but move inexorably downfield, or else Manning will get the ball back before the half. While the play call fits the pattern Denver has established in this area, it likely isn't relative, being trumped by being both a 2nd and short, as well as being inside of 2minutes.
context: 3rd quarter, IND leads 20-10 after answering Denver's long bomb Orton to Lloyd TD with an 80 yard 5minute TD drive of their own. Denver has capitalized on anotehr huge pass play to Lloyd, gaining 61 yards and setting them up with a 1st and 10 from the IND 17.
Formation: 3WR, 1TE, 1 Back (Gaffney Split-L, Graham Flank-L, Royal Slot-R, Thomas Split-R, Maroney backfield)
Defensive notes: Cover 1 with soft corners playing outside leverage. Royal motions to Slot-L pulling the SS over. The 3 LBs drop into underneath zones.
Result: The play is designed to go to Thomas. Royal's motion clears out the right side, and Thomas runs a nice safe hitch route and is wide open for about 5 yards. On the other side, Gaffney, Royal and Graham barely even bother to run routes. Maroney stays in to block, but overcommits to helping Clady when it is Walton that is having trouble. The DT manages to blow by Walton and get a hand in Orton's face, forcing him to throw it away before Thomas gets turned around.
Upshot: Again, none of the routes pressure the endzone, and the throw itself is a high percentage toss. the broncos are down by two scores here, but obviously feel like they still have enough time to grind away on the Colts. With 2 safeties deep, and the corners playing 9 yards off this undeneath catch was only going to be good for the 5 yards that the route gained, and maybe a yard or two if Thomas can get leaned upfield. Still not taking any chances with the ball in the redzone.
context: 2nd 10, follows play above
Formation: Shotgun 2WR, 2TE, 1back (Thomas Split-R, Royal slot-R, Graham TE-L, Gronkowski TE-L, buckhalter backfield)
Defensive notes: Cover 2, man coverage soft, nickle package. Royal motions to Flank-L pulling nickle defender over.
Result: Similar to the next play, Gronkowski is sent through the seam to the endzone, Thomas runs a short hitch, Graham clears out the underneath flat, and Royal runs a hitch. Gronk actually get's clear int eh endzone, but Orton has already tried to connect with Royal, who runs his route and then steps left to settle into the zone just when Orton throws it to his right shoulder. Result is an incompletion.
Upshot: Finally, a shot at the endzone is built into the playcall, and Gronkowski does a good job getting upfield. The 4-man rush is getting just enough pressure that Orton rushes the throw, otherwise he might have had a chance to target Gronk in the endzone. As it was he wasslightly off target underneath.
Context: 3rd and 10, Follows the play above
Formation: shotgun, 3WR, 1TE, 1Back (Gaffney Split-L, Royal Slot-L, Graham Flank-L, Lloyd Split-R, Buckhalter backfield)
Defensive Notes: Cover 2, nickle package soft corners, man coverage underneath, with one LB in a blitz/zone drop role.
Result: Yet again the WRs run short routes against the soft coverage, with Lloyd running a curl, Gaffney crossing the flat, royal running a hitch and Graham running down the seam. The defensive package makes it highly unlikely that Graham is the target in the seam, but he does head for the endzone. The clearing action in the middle of the field is presumably to get him open, but the DB just sort of hangs out in the middle, knowing he can accelerate if Orton tries to drop it in over his head. A slow TE is not the best option in the seam. Buck stays in to block but releases into a route when the defender drops into zone. Orton finally takes Royal for a short 4 yard gain and immediate tackle.
Upshot: A second shot at the endzone was present in the playcall, even if it wasn't a very likely possibility vs. Cover 2 and soft man coverage. More likely, Graham was meant to pull the defenders upfield so that an underneath reception had room to RAC. Unfotunately, great coverage on Royal prevented him from ever getting turned upfield. This play still has that "grinding" feel to it...
context: 4th quarter, IND leads 20-13, Denver has cut the lead to one score and is driving downfield. Despite a couple of mistakes on the drive, a couple of big plays have helped keep the ball moving, including a 28 yard catch and run on a checkdown by Maroney that has set the broncso up with 1st and 10 from the IND 19.
Formation: 2WR, 2TE, 1 back. (Lloyd Split-R, Gaffney Flank-R, Graham TE-R, Gronkowski TE-R)
Defensive notes: Cover 2, tight man coverage, IND has gone with a nickle package but have the nickleback and LBs up close in run support.
Result: Gronkowski edges into the backfield before the snap, and it is a Buckhalter zone run (NOT a cutback run). Overall the blocking is good, but Gronk is responsible for finding and sealing off the weakside LB. As Gronk rounds the corner, he spots him too late and misses the block, allowing the WLB to tackle Buck for only a 3 yard gain.
Upshot: With the game sitting at a one score lead for the Colts, Denver is quickly back to being its ball control self. This is actually a really nice run play design, and if not for Gronk's missed block, it would ahve been 8 yards on momentum of the pile alone. Bottom line for this analysis, though, is that the offense still is favoring ball control, turnover averse offense on the periphery.
context: 2nd and 7, Follows above play
Formation: Offset I, 2WR, 1TE (Gronk FB, Buckhalter RB, Thomas Split-L, Royal Slot-L, Graham TE)
Defensive notes: Cover one, strongside blitz. Orton call Royal over in motion.
Result: Royal motions in in order to block the DE on this interesting playcall. It starts as a playaction to the right, which then develops into a fake screen pass, while Thomas runs a mid-level hitch alone on the opposite side of the field. Unfortunately Royal is no match for Freeney, who gets good pressure on Orton before the play can develop on either side, so Orton wings it up towards Thomas who isn't turned around yet. Result is a nearly incomplete pass.
Upshot: I think we might be able to categorize this play as "risky", since the misdirection (on two levels) requires extra time to develop, and allows any disciplined defenders to put immense pressure on the backside. If Royal's block cuts down Freeney, Orton is all alone in the backfield, with time to zero in on Thomas who is one on one along the left sideline. Very interesting play design revolving around a Royal vs. Freeney matchup...what do you think MHR? Is that overrating Royal's abilities?
context: 3rd and 7, follows play above
Formation: Shotgun, 4WR, 1 back (Thomas Split-L, Royal Slot-L, Graham Flank-R, Gaffney Split-R, Buckhalter backfield)
Defensive notes: Cover 2, man coverage(tight vs. Thomas, soft vs. Gaffney), nickle defense.
Result: Thomas runs a route to the endzone, while the rest run short routes. Gaffney runs a hitch that Orton hits as soon as Gaffney is out of his break. It gains 4 yards setting up fourth and short.
Upshot: Orton makes this decision very quickly, indicating that going for it on 4th down was probably the plan all along. Gaffney is well covered and clearly short of the first down, but the soft coverage meant that the completion would be an easy one.
Week Three Overview and Conclusion
The Broncos would technically have 4 more attempts in "Redzone +25" territory in the final minute of the game, but down 14 points, the context of the plays overrides the situational categorization of them. All three sent multiple players deep to the endzone, and the Colts were allowing underneath plays with 5DBs hovering near the endzone. It is my opinion that these extra 4 attempts don't add anyting to this analysis, which focuses on how the Broncos behave in competitive situations.
With 14 total "redzone +25" attempts analyzed, the overwhelming majority focused on ball security at the expense of deep endzone shots. Of these 14 attempts, 7 were runs from I-set and heavy run formations, while 3 of the passing calls did not even have a deep route built into them.
Of the Four calls that could be considered deep calls, two had the WRs all running short, while the TEs attempted to get down the seam in to the endzone. In both plays the ball was out of Orton's hand well before they had even reached the goalline.
Clearly, the playcalling indicates that this team is going to rely on a grind it out style when they get into the redzone versus most opponents. In a way, this makes sense. Above all, the mistakes this team has been making have been killing them. Most of the runs I have analyzed in this series didn't fail because someone was overmatched or overpowered, but because they didn't get to their block, or didn't maintain the block long enough, or blocked the wrong guy. These are all fixable. The choice to have Royal block Freeney could be seen as a coaching error, again something that can be fixed. When you look at the style of play that is called on the periphery of the redzone, you see an attempt to prevent one type of mistake, specifically turnovers, via playcalling. Keeping the ball on the ground will limit those critical turnovers, as will the short routes that insist on isolating WRs on sides of the field. Hitches might be the safest route in football, not counting screen plays, in terms of percentage chance of being caught.
Through three games, Denver has zero redzone turnovers, which has to count for something. Imagine compounding the difficulties of our developing offensive line and running game with redzone turnovers that create early deficits requiring us to abandon the running game entirely... We might be better off insisting on the style we have been geting.