Assessing the Situation -- Denver Broncos First and Ten Offense

Over the next few weeks I am hoping to post my research into 2009 Denver Broncos situational football.  This means looking at typical "situations" and discussing what the Broncos goals were, how they addressed them, how they executed, and finally how they addressed their performance or lack thereof in any given situation.

To begin with, I wanted to look at the most basic situation in football.  First and Ten.

First and ten can be thought of as an "identity" down.  Every team goes through so many of them throughout the course of the season, that you can get a sense of what makes an individual team tick.  The purpose and goals of a first down situation are pretty simple, and there are as many ways to attack them as there are plays in a game.  But when you look at any individual team, the way they specifically choose to approach first downs really tends to say a lot about them, their strengths, and even what they fear.

Some teams establish a type of offensive strength on first down, such as the Colts passing attack.  Some teams establish trends, only to break them at opportune times, such as a Shanahan offense.  There are limitless ways of describing yourself through first down.

So what did the Broncos think of themselves in 2009?  And what do their offseason moves say about themselves in 2010?

First and Ten:  Priorities

  • The number one goal of any first down is simply to get a 2nd and 6 situation, or less. 
  • Create explosive plays with consistency, going no more than two or three series without an attempt
  • Rushing: Over the course of a game or season, we shouldn't look straight to YPC, since a back could carry a 4.0ypc on first down, but still be failing to help the team get into healthy 2nd downs consistently. Rather, success should be measured in a binary fashion, you either did or didn't get at least 4 yards on first down. How much less or how much more doesn't matter.
  • Rushing:  Almost any type of rushing play goes, but in general, teams want to avoid relying on plays that develop in the backfield. 
  • Passing:  Passing plays should guarantee a completion, and sacks are unacceptable.  Quick drops are preferred.
  • Passing:  Passing out of base run formations should be attempted.  This will pull outside defenders in to the interior of the defense, and open up possible "big strike" throwing lanes on the outside.  Playaction can be very effective.
  • Passing:  Choosing passing plays run out of wide sets will help define coverages and blitzes, as well as help the QB reads
  • This is the best opportunity to run packaged side calls, i.e. a QB and WR recognize a particular defense and alter their route/throw accordingly.  Additionally, being able to flex between run and pass on this down via a QB check is vital.
  • Balance!  Over the course of a game it is important, over the course of a season it is critical. First down is an opportunity down and losing balance means losing opportunity. You will be at 3rd down in no time.

General Overview of First Down

 Throughout I will generally speak in terms of an "x/10" rating, with 10 being perfect.

General Execution: 5/10

The Broncos saw 402 opportunities to execute offensively on 1st down throughout the season, and, as should be expected from an 8-8 team, they executed well about half the time, on 208 total plays.  This held to be universally true pretty much across the board, including 101 of 204 running plays out of a running formation, 39 of 79 passing plays out of a passing formation, 19 of 33 runs out of passing formations, and 46 of 87 passes out of rushing formations.  The overall balance of run/pass on 1st down favored the run by a 3/2 margin.

Staying true to the amoeba form, a lot of the identity results are as we should expect them to be, i.e. generally vague.  However the Broncos were definitely relying on their running game to put them in good positions, and though the playaction certainly wasn't a staple of the offense, especially compared to the recent offenses under Shanahan, using the run to set up the pass was a very common theme in most games, and some of the Broncos best execution came when they passed out of running formations.  In the game by game we'll see this dynamic a bit more clearly.

Rushing Overview of First Down

Rushing Execution: 5/10

Again, nothing to hang our hats on here. About half the time the Broncos were able to get themselves into 2nd and 6 scenarios, and these numbers need to start edging over into 60% territory.  Both Buck and Knowshon had averages over 4.0ypc on first down, but remember the disclaimer above.  They were still only helping the team on first down about half the time.  This "half the time" percentage applied whether they were running inside or outside the tackles. They were slightly more productive running to the left on first down, running effectively a little over half the time, but the right side saw the outliers, with a few longer runs.

Of note was that they were slightly more productive than average when passing to set up the run, and 1st down passing formations yielded a higher percentage of success overall, though they resisted going to that well too often. The stretch of games through Oakland to San Diego made particular use of tricky runs, usually quite effectively.  Later in the season, those opportunities must have dwindled, because attempts dried up quickly.

Knowshon Moreno: 5/10

Knowshon split 1st down reps pretty consistently with Buck at the beginning of the season, and it wasn't until the latter half that his numbers pulled away.  He was most productive during the middle stretch, starting vs. Dallas and ending around the Indy game.  Before Dallas, he was hitting less than 50% on 1st down effectiveness, and after Indy he was was hovering around 37%, but during the middle stretch he was very effective, and that level of play would have Denver consistently in good situations on 2nd down, which would mean even better 3rd down situations as well.  And every little bit helps.  Where he stood out, was in creating the occasional explosive play, though even that was not much above average.

Correll Buckhalter: 5/10

Buck ended up with about half as many 1st down rushes as Moreno, despite starting the season pretty much equal with him.  Buck's two injuries over the course of the season limited his overall game, and the contrast to pre-injury is stark.  Before his injury he was hitting over 75% on 1st down, which are solidly dependable numbers through the first 5 games. After the injury his effectiveness dropped to around 30%, and he missed full games in the process.  But a healthy Buck is just what the doctor ordered on first down, especially with several of his season highs (45, 34, 28) coming in the process.  A dangerous, explosive runner on first down is a handy thing to have.

Others:

The only other 3rd down rushing action came from Hillis (1 rep outside of his 4 clean up duty reps, and it was a stumbling 2 yard effort that didn't help much), BMarsh (he was used 3 times throughout the season on reverses and end arounds, all of which were solid gainers, from 5-9 yards), and Jordan who 13 reps of clean up duty and relief after Buck's injury, none of which were impressive.  Denver clearly looks to their workhorse RB rotation for 1st down production, so Buck and Moreno are the biggest factors.

 

Passing Overview of First Down

Execution:  5/10

Again with the nothing special. Like the running game, this is something that has to start creeping up into the 60%+ range before defenses will start respecting the offense. We are only talking about 4 yards here. Unfortunately, over half of these attempts ended with incompletions, and a whopping 11 plays were first down sacks, which is simply unacceptable.  Many of the sacks came early in the game against Denver, and 3 of them came on Denver's first offensive play of the game.  There is no excuse for that, except not being prepared.

Jabar Gaffney: 6/10

Gaffney was targeted 25 times on first down, and managed to execute on just over half of them, hovering around 60%. He didn't show any streakiness in this regards, tending to have a good game, then a poor game, then a good game, etc. As noted below, he was a prime target for when Orton tried to attempt a 1st down explosive play.  Tony Scheffler had very similar numbers and graded out to a 6/10 as well on 4 fewer targets, though he was a little more streaky.  The Philadelphia and 2nd San Diego games in particular were low spots for Scheff.

Correll Buckhalter: 7/10

Buck only saw 12 first down targets, but he was very consistent.  Mostly he was surehanded, catching anything that was near him, and succesffully getting at least four yards a whack. He was primarily targeted out of the backfield, and was almost always wide open.

Knowshon Moreno: 5/10

Knowshon really struggled early in the passing game, flashing once or twice before coming into his own later in the season. He was targeted 14 times on first down, only managed to execute on half that.

Eddie Royal: 5/10

Part of the wholly average theme, Eddie was rarely used as a passing target on 1st down, and saw too many incompletions go his way to really help produce.  Of his 10 successful conversions, less than half got far enough to earn a first down, while the rest of the WRs were all in the 60% range when it came to additional RAC after the 4 yards.

Others:

Stokley, Hillis, Jordan, Quinn and Lloyd all saw very limited targets and reps on first down, with most logging only 1 or 2 opportunities.  Daniel Graham was rarely targeted, but early in the season he was very consistent.  Around the time that Chris Simms took the field, and then took a bow, Graham saw a dive in his productivity, and then struggled late, especially in the final KC game. Overall he graded out at 6/10 with his strong early showing.

Dearly Departed: 5/10

On first down Marshall was at once the most targeted, and the most streaky of all the receivers. He would string together 5 great plays where he was a dependable option and got upfield after the catch, and then there would be 7 series where he would drop the first ball thrown his way, or simply be out of time with Orton. His final two games, Oakland2 and Philadelphia, he was a non-factor on first down, despite being targeted 9 times. For the season he managed to execute on about 23 of 47 1st down opportunities.

Explosive Plays Overview of First Down

Explosive Plays Execution: 7/10

Explosive plays, usually generated in the passing game, are an important concept on 1st downs (and 2nd) because defenses have to defend so much more at that point, and are generally spread thin.  It is very important to use these opportunities to put the pressure on and swing the game in your favor. For the most part, these plays come from a handful of sources.  The best source is the planned opportunity.  This is when the playcall comes in specifically because an opportunity should present itself.  It is up to the QB and usually the WR to recognize the opportunity and take it.  Another source is from the shorter play that becomes explosive due to the skills of the player, such as Brandon Marshall breaking tackles or Buckhalter juking a LB out of his jock and dashing down the sideline. These are nice when you can get them. A third source is the tacking on of yards with a penalty that makes a good gain into a great one.

When it came to executing the big play, Denver was very effective, and it came down to primarily two guys, Jabar Gaffney and Brandon Marshall.  They both were targeted 10 times on the season, and additionally BMarsh created his own explosive play from scratch 3 times, while Gaffney "created" twice.  Gaffney was slightly more reliable on the targeted plays, and as a result he edged out BM for the team lead, with 9 successful executions, while BM had 8.  the next best contributors were Moreno, with 5 explosive runs that were self-created, Buck, with 4 self-created explosive plays, and then Scheffler, who was targeted 7 times for the explosive play and converted 4 of them.  Stokes was targeted once, no conversion, and Lloyd was targeted four times in the final game of the year, only converting one. Other "creators" were Royal with 2 short receptions that he turned up the field and Graham who managed to do that once.

Explosive Play Opportunities:  3/10

The Broncos weren't even close to tapping their potential in this area, with created plays tied with  successful planned ones 17-17. Total called shots were 32, which averages out to 2 per game.  Take the final KC game out of the equation, when Denver really let their hair down, after it was too late, and there were only 21 called shots for the entire season on first down, when opportunity is highest.  These are calls that need to be made 5-6 times per game, at least.  The Broncos could barely bring themselves to call one.  If it wasn't for some of the talented athletes like Moreno and BM making something out of nothing, the numbers would look even worse.

 

2010 Overview of First Down Offense

On pretty much every facet the Broncos simply need to get more consistent, but a few things stand out in particular.

  1. Better Run/Pass Balance on 1st down.  The Broncos were skewed to 69%+ run plays vs pass, and that needs to come down to 60-40 at least. This will primarily be influenced by playcalling from the sidelines, so this one is on Josh.
  2. Take more planned explosive plays on 1st down. Usually, teams can't get enough explosive plays because their run isn't effective enough.  That would also be true of Denver as well.  Hitting 50% in the 1st down running game doesn't force defenders to move inside, and as a result there are fewer opportunities available in the passing game on the outside. Denver did stick with the running game, but that only resulted in becoming imbalanced. Another big part of this is whether or not the QB and WR recognize the opportunity.  With a second year in the system, Orton will likely be that much better at identifying them, but with two new rookie WRs, some opportunities can be expected to be missed.  However Gaffney, Royal and the RBs should be in tune with Orton, and Moreno has drawn McD's praise for his work in the passing game in OTAs.
  3. Get more production on first down running. Every team needs this, but it is seriously cramping Denver's style right now. The quick passing game simply has little room to maneuver when a defense sits right on top of the routes and receivers.  Without a running game drawing them in, explosive plays become rare.  Without those special plays, every game becomes a grindfest that is emotionally and physically draining, win or lose. A few more yards on first down could make a world of difference.  To this end, with the two main backs having a full year of the system under their belts, that has to help. In addition, there looks to be some really good RB competition for camp, which should help the depth immensely.

One thing became clear to me with this analysis of 1st down, and it was that 1st down was neither a strength nor a weakness of this team.  While it was holding them back in certain areas, it wasn't so consistently bad that the errors shouldn't have been overcome. However, some moves Denver has made, particularly addressing the OL and RB depth should have fringe benefits for the first down package.  Denver will likely stick with much the same formula as last year, hoping for better execution to open more opportunities.  In passing camp a lot of emphasis was being given to getting the ball further downfield, which is a statement about the lack of explosive plays from early reps in each offensive series.  Likely the opportunities were there in 2009, but Orton simply didn't take them often enough.  When he did, the performance was there on the receivers end for the most part, although the addition of Thomas at WR as a player who has the size and ability to attack the ball downfield adds a component that was missing from 2009.

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