We looked at the starting defense this morning, and I wanted to go back and review formations before I wrote up the offensive starters. Formation, whether it is shotgun, wishbone, pistol, single wing or whatever always comes down to what is the offensive line capable of doing. Based on their capabilities you modify the formation to start utilizing weapons. Last year, with all the upheaval on the OL, the ideals of the Denver offensive philosophy struggled to come to light, and as the blockers up front started to come around and get healthy and shifted into their proper roles on the line, the weapons started going down, in a perfect storm of offensive inequity.
I surmised during the offseason that based on the bits and pieces we were seeing that we would be treated to some concepts from the wing-t offense, most notably the addition of a true wingback role to the offense, and a high level of misdirection plays and handoffs at multiple levels in the running game. I felt that Fox reinforced this idea with his "sophisticated" comment of some infamy.
I didn't bother charting anything from the 1st preseason game, but this 2nd game deserved a closer look, with the starting OL staying in the game throughout the first half. It was worth the second look...
- The Single-Wing, the Wing-T, Split-Backs: Trends and fashion are always about "retract before impact" and offensive schemes and philosophies are not exempt from that idea. We know that Denver has single-wing concepts in their playbook (see wildhorses and the shifting of the tackle to the opposite side to create unbalanced lines), but these types of concepts are just building blocks for an offensive installation, and are most effective when part of a larger scheme. A few more of those building blocks are coming to light everyday. The most significant one is the use of Julius Thomas and Willis McGahee in a wingback role. Thomas saw the most action in the role, including motioning from WR to WB, and from FB to WB, but Willis saw the most effectiveness from the role. An effective wingback is a hard runner, a great catcher, and can make a LB miss. Speed isn't a priority, overwhelming power isn't a priority. It is a great misdirection and confusion weapon, since it forces defenses, especially LBs and SAFs to adjust their game, sometimes significantly. Thomas caught a pass in the seam early from the WB spot, and McGahee got his touchdown reception on a short route from the wingback spot. In the case of the TD, Denver lined up Fells and Thomas as an unbalanced strongside (again, note the singlewing element) with McGahee in the WB spot. The LBs and SAF were forced to position themselves for a running play in the redzone, even though McGahee wasn't lined up behind the QB (the wingback has lots of options for where he can move to from his spot after the snap, and he gets to all of them, including across the formation, quickly). As a result the entire side fo the field got cleared out when Mcgahee ran his route, and the TEs had pulled coverage so far away that Willis made the pylon easily. Also of interest was a play to start out Denver's third drive where Moreno lined up as a offset FB in the I formation, and McGahee lined up behind him. Their depths were slightly different from a standard I-formation. This is the classic "pro-set" or "split-backs", and was the formation that greats like Jim Brown ran out of all throughout the early days of the modern superbowl era, as a FB, rather than a halfback. Bills treated the play as a run, and once again Denver passed out of it finding the TE Fells for good yardage in the seam. No matter how these concepts eventually pan out, I love that Denver is looking to innovate, and that we have an OL capable of running these concepts, since it all comes down to what blocks they can execute.
Chris Kuper and the G-power: When Kuper pulls he is a lethal weapon. Some of Denver's best runs on the day involved Kuper pulling to the left side, and I expect that it is a key component of many of our core running plays. Pulling the guard like that is old hat, and quickly becoming new hat in the NFl, since the Jets built a power run game on the same concept. Again it is great to see Denver taking advantage of the capabilities of a great player. And did I mention that this gets Clady more involved in playside runblocking? Great googly-moogly.
- Starting OL: Franklin has the farthest to go of this group, as is to be expected from a rookie. He had one (kind of bogus) illegal formation call, lining up too far back, that negated a great conversion to Eddie Royal on 3rd and 18. Twice more he missed blocks that limited power runs to his side to only a yard or two. On the first sack of Orton, it was Franklin getting pushed back into the pocket that forced Kyle up into the sack. But Franklin flashed too, including a great one on one effort vs. #90 that bought Kyle time to throw on playaction. Also on the goalline Denver ran a power run over RG twice with McGahee. On the first one Beadles got pushed back by probowl NT Kyle WIlliams, and on the second one, it was Kuper and Franklin dominating the right side to clear the way for Willis. Beadles missed a couple of other blocks, putting him right behind Franklin in terms of mistakes. Kuper and Walton were very solid, I think Kup missed one cut block, and Clady was immaculate. The man is in probowl form already.
- Daniel Fells: Fells is getting lots of different looks in this offense. He is the 2nd back of choice to have in the backfield blocking in pass pro (with Moreno) and he got several looks in the passing game. Denver tended to run away from his side, or towards him on an unbalanced line, but his blocking was effective when they did head his way. I noted that both zone reads that Denver ran were towards Fells side...something to watch for going forward.
- Orton and Lloyd: These two are thick as thieves. Lloyd definitely is living up to our expectations (or hopes), and nearly had a highlight catch that might have gotten the MSM off the Tebow narrative for a few minutes. What was nice about the play, and a couple of others, was that there was a single high safety and the CB wasn't really committed to playing off, and was sort of crouching down at about 4 yards. You can see Orton look over at Lloyd before the snap, then go back to looking at the safeties, and then on the snap, Orton tossed it up to the only place where Lloyd could get to it without the CB or SAF having a chance. If not for getting one of his arms caught up with the DB, I wonder if Lloyd would have reeled that one in? He sure gave it a heck of an effort. Speaking of Orton's field vision and awareness, it would have been pretty cool if the refs hadn't given Buffalo the benefit of the doubt on that timeout where they had 12 men on the field. Orton did a good job of getting the team set at the line and getting a snap off, he should have gotten the free play to top it off.
- Spencer Larsen: Didn't think it would ever really happen, but ol' leatherhead is a pure offensive player. He hangs out and jokes with the RBs on the sidelines, he is in the "Broncos' Offense Rocks" facebook group, but above all he is getting it done as the lead FB. Austin Sylvester blocked well in this game, but Denver will probably only keep one FB going forward, electing instead to carry an extra TE or RB. Larsen has been doing a great job so far this preseason keeping himself on the inside shoulder of his blocks, and the running lanes don't look near as congested as last year. Against Buffalo he had a great block on McGahee's third and short handoff bobble that gave Mcgahee enough time to get it sorted out and trudge forward for the conversion. Another great example this week of how the team can help each other pick up the slack, and alleviate the weight of mistakes.
- Matthew Willis: I can't say I saw this one coming. I figured that Willis was in the lead as the 4th WR in the absence of D.Thomas, but he comes in exclusively as relief for the X receiver, i.e. Brandon Lloyd. His speed is up to par for the premier WR route tree, but I never really thought of him as the "fade guy." It is great that he has earned this opportunity, and I look forward to seeing him make more plays. He caught some good passes, and blocked well on a couple of screens and swings he was in for, and I definitely am not surprised that he is getting it done as a blocker. It is worth noting that on a key 3rd down play, Lloyd was off the field, Willis was in as the X, and Denver had a play in that had Willis isolated in man to man on the outside, with a heavy run formation. I saw Orton look Willis' way, and then call a timeout... One has to wonder if it was a playaction calling for Willis to beat his coverage, and Orton decided he would rather wait until Lloyd was ready to go...
Thanks for reading. Tomorrow I will be posting my notes on the backups, including Ball, Minor, Cox, Irving and Mohammed.