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NPLB End of Season Report: Holding the Lines

The NPLB is going to start in a new direction this offseason, and for the most part this will be a tentative foray.  The analysis (by necessity) must move beyond the drive charts, and I am also going to try incorporating more information regarding Defense and special teams.  To this end, I will be releasing several reports over the next few weeks, dealing with different aspects of the team, analyzing what I feel are some important statistical indicators, and giving an overview of the teams performance last season.  For the most part I won't have much need to comment on the analysis, since the season pretty much speaks for itself, but as always the point behind this analysis is to make sure that blame and praise ends up where it rightly belongs.  Going into the offseason, this is an important tool for evaluating the coming roster and coaching changes.

On to the first report of the offseason!

Holding the Lines:  Our Offensive and Defensive Line Play

When looking at the play of our offensive and defensive lines, I feel we are looking at the true measure of the Broncos' failings this season.  From clutch penalties to failures in short yardage situations, we never seemed to be able to assert ourselves when it mattered most.  On offense we have already lost one player, who stated that he didn't feel he was playing well enough, but wasn't he?  The following analysis looks at what we did well, what we did poorly, and what we did, well...meh.

Offensive Line

The figure above shows the 5 essential directions a rushing attack can take:  off LE, off LT, off RE, Off RT, and off C.  Listed above these lanes are the names of the current starters as well as the names of any other players who manned the position through the year (in parentheses) and any players who were expected to man the position, but never did {in braces}.  Below the lanes are some rankings and stats that we will look at momentarily.

At first glance, one would think that we had a decent amount of stability on the offensive line, with only LG and C seeing any upheaval.  Of course, we all know this is anything but true.  There is no position more important on the line than C, and that saw us using our third stringer.  Holland was in his first year on our line.  Pears was playing opposite his natural position, LT.  Kuper played opposite his regular position as well, RG.  So there was definitely some chaos.

The statistics below the lanes indicate where we ranked league wide in rushing at those points.  We were very strong, ranking 5th and 8th in running behind Kuper and Lepsis, though with Zone Blocking, one must take into account the RG Holland pulling to that side.  It should come as no surprise that we were not among the more successful teams running behind our third string center, or that we were 6th in the league when sending Selvin Young outside behind Daniel Graham.  I am however a bit surprised at our 26th ranking running inside RT.  Below these numbers are the percentage of runs we sent in those directions, followed by the league averages for each direction.  We spread out more than most teams, and ran behind our veteran Lepsis a lot, with more success than elsewhere.  We also ran behind our blocking TE more often than most, mainly because Graham was an every down player, and also because of the speed that Selvin Young brought to the table.

The Good
The Denver Broncos enjoyed one of the more exciting running games that we have seen in years, which can be attributed to Young, our tackles and our outside blocking from TEs and WRs.  We ranked 6th in the league on running plays that reached the second level, and went for more than 10 yards.

The Bad
Overall we ranked 13th with our rushing game, not counting non-designed QB runs.  This could be worse, and had we not lost our center, this could have jumped into the top ten easily.

In pass protection, the only stat that really addresses the O-line is sacks given up, though that statistic can be adjusted to reflect down and distance situations.  In the latter case we rank 14th in the league, and Lepsis was the most frequent contributer, followed closely by penetration off center.  However, of the 32 sacks allowed, 14 came on blitzes, which is the responsibility of RBs, TEs and the QB himself.  This stat could have been much, much worse.

The Ugly
And boy, are these two ever ugly.  First we have the 24th most stuffed rushing attack in the league.  What does that mean?  It means that only eight other teams were stopped on first and second down rushes as much as we were.  This means rushes for zero yards as well as rushes for losses.  This is a terrible statistic, and is an indictment of our rushing attack's consistency.  but wait, there's more...

32nd.  Absolute worst in the league.  We got this ranking in the following, narrowly defined field:  Rushing offense on 3rd and 4th and less than a yard, as well as all goal to go downs where we rushed the ball.  Ugh.  In other words, the only way we get into the end zone or get that critical first down is by trickery, or by passing.  We absolutely could not assert ourselves in short yardage situations where we were expected to run.  Why?  Because these are the off center runs, and when you are on your third string center, you just hope for the best.  Nalen is one of strongest football players the Broncos have ever fielded.  Myers, not so much...

What are we going to do about it?
First thing is we are going to lose probably the best tackle we have.  Lepsis retired so check that one off.  Next is to hope that we don't get a similar result for our best interior lineman.  Nalen and Hamilton must return, or we will be exceptionally thin at o-line, thinner than at any point in Shanahan's tenure (unless you think that PJ Alexander is our next great star.  No?  Didn't think so.)  Let us move forward assuming Hamilton retires, but that Nalen stays.  The reasoning being that Hamilton never indicated he had recovered even an iota from his post-concussion symptoms, while Nalen has spoken since his injury about his plans to return, and since his injury isn't the type that ends careers, even the career of an old center like Tom.  We draft a center and a guard, and we take a look at the usual suspects in training camp, i.e. guys you haven't ever really heard of but seem to turn the coaches heads.  We can't get by next year with less than two young additions, and ideally that number should be three.  Expect Pears and Ryan Harris to battle for the LT spot, with the booby prize of RT going to the loser.  We are on the cusp of a great young line, but we need to protect it now by keeping depth coming into the roster.  This year will be the year we look back and say we got it done in the offseason, and not a second too late, or we will say that we were a day late and a dollar short.  Let's get the former done.

Defensive Line

This figure is much like the first.  We have our front seven, including players that have come and gone, and players who should have been in the lineup from day one.  The statistics are indicative of rushes against.

4 defensive starters cut.  Ouch.  Even Freddy Kreuger is wincing at the thought.  I used to work on a ranch, and even then I never saw that much beef cut in that short amount of time.  The loss of Moss held up the development of the line, but after all the smoke clears, that will have very little impact on next years play.  One thing to note is that Moss will be wearing down faster than the rest of these guys next year, so keep that in mind as the games progress.  What jumps out at me is how much DOOM needs to work on his run game.  I expect a leap forward from him in this category, and I expect Denver's offseason moves to help him look better.  Adams was hammered early and often this season, but the Thomas/Peterson rotation has been effective.  Earlier this year the same statistic was at 27th, so they deserve some credit for shaving it down to 21st, considering that 'ol Sam was like a small planetoid, with his gravitational field seemingly pulling in more than its fair share of runs at 24% of the opponent's efforts.  Surprisingly we were above average between the tackles, until of course you realize that DJ's presence limited the overall rushes he saw, as well as their effectiveness.  Our strongside rush defense was stout outside, with good young guys and Engleberger, backed up by a Webster that could get to the sideline in a hurry.  But anything that bent back off the right offensive side was disaster there, because of spending most of the season in Pancake City (Burton and Gordon), and a Webster that overpursued to the sidelines in a hurry...32nd in the league belongs to our revolving left DT spot and Webster himself.

The Good
Nothing.  I'm serious.  Oh, well, if I have to put something I'll list our above average 12th ranking against our offensive lines weakest point:  goal to go rushing and 3rd and 4th and short.  I'll take it, but Lynch is a BIG part of this statistic, and he should be hanging out with Bly all game.

The Bad
We are a very average team defending the rush on first and second down.  18th in the league in fact.  This is because Engleberger is average.  This is because McKinley is average.  This is because Adams was below average, and his replacements were above average.  Don't act so surprised...

We are a below average pass rushing team, ranking 19th after adjusting for down and distance.  I think this might be because we only have one pass rusher.  I think that might be it BUT I DON"T KNOW.  Ahh, who am I kidding.  Moss needs to get healthy, and we need penetration from our DTs on passing downs.  One thing I would like to mention:  Mallard, who I hope to call the "Duck of Death" in '08, had 3.5 sacks in 6 games.  That's on pace for about 10 for a season.  Not great, but serviceable, and he is young, going into his fourth year.  If we don't ask for too much, he could deliver...

The Ugly
I am going to play a fun game, and limit myself to choosing just one from this category, since I'm sure you haven't got all day:  How about big play rushes allowed?  Like the 10+yds variety.  I remember worrying a lot about our secondary getting burned through the air after we sent Lynch trudging back up to the line.  I don't remember worrying too much about RBs breaking off long ones.  Maybe I was numb.  Maybe I was dumb.  Regardless, except for 5 worse woebegotten teams, we were pitiful against the killer strike from the RB.  27th in the league.  Part of that is attrition, I mean, teams loved to run on us.  It was the official hobby of the AFC West.  But this was one stat that did not go up and down over the course of the year.  This is a defining statistic for our rush defense:  we had to bring extra players to the line to stop the run, but if you could bend a run back against our out of position LBs, the sky was the limit.  I hope we get a safety this offseason, but a safety won't fix this.

What are we going to do?
We are going to sit right where we are at #12 and draft a LB.  A patient madman, a guy with guts and grit and a passion for football.  DJ will hand him the Mike LB, and take his own lessons from his stint at MLB to the weakside after Gold's departure, where he will, ahem, 'rock tits off.'  Two new big boys will filter into the D-line, one of whom will be a FA, the other a rookie.  Strongside competition at LB will be fierce, and shockingly, we will end up with solid depth at the position after the dust settles between Webster, Winborn, Rookie #2, and maybe Holdman.  And we need to look at a few more defensive ends, but we can afford to be patient and look at projects for the position.  More than anything, we need our LB corp to solidify, and we need to give them one more interior guy up front to free them up to attack.  I am ready to ask a lot from our new and improved LB corp, too much even.  And when they attempt to deliver, whether they succeed or not, they will take ownership of the Broncos' defense.

{Statistics compiled from Football Outsiders and PFW.}

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