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The Quest -- Something to Fear

Fear the Running Game

As The Quest nears the halfway mark it has taken what should be considered an expected turn.

All Quests, to be truly worthy of the participants, should be difficult, and should have a mighty foe who at once endangers and inspires the protagonists hopes and dreams of success.  In overcoming this foe, the end of the Quest should be in sight, and inevitable.

For the 2008 Broncos, the Jaguars game makes painfully clear just who and what this foe is:  Fear of the Running Game.

To be very clear here, I am not claiming that they are afraid of other teams rushing attacks, and I am not just referring to the running games of other teams.  This is a unique, fundamentally flawed problem, a razor that cuts two ways.  To understand this fear there are two separate ideas that need to be understood:  our imbalanced offensive attack, and our 30th ranked defense, ahead of only Detroit and St.Louis.

Fear of the Opponents Running Game

I want to reitterate that it is not the actual rushing attacks of our opponents that is the problem here, it is our Fear of that rushing attack, and frankly, it is warranted.

The record of the Broncos plummeted from 13-3 in 2005, while fielding the 2nd ranked rush defense in the league, to 9-7 behind the 12th ranked rushing defense.  The Bates' experiment was conducted the following year specifically to address the rushing defense, and its spectacular collapse was epic, resulting in a 7-9 record and the 30th ranked rushing defense in the league.

Those scars run deep.

The current incarnation of the Broncos defense is built, and is building on a solid foundation, but the execution in games gives away the desperate fear motivating the coaches.  Nowhere is this more clear than the presence of the safety in the box, and everytime he lines up there, it is an admission of a defeat before it even occurs.

Hoosierteacher gives his thoughts:

HT: The default use of safeties is to have two deep.  Some people wrongly call this “cover two”, but as I have explained in MHR University’s article on the “Cover Twos”, cover two is a system and not a formation (though cover three and beyond are formations).  Very few formations feature one safety.  Goal line defenses may feature one safety (who obviously isn’t deep), and the 46 defense (as run by the Eagles for several years) is a safety in the box system, as well as a formation (the 46 system has requirements that allow for only one deep safety).

There are very few justifications for bringing a safety into the box with the LBs.  The best reason is running a 46, which is designed to allow for the move.  But if not playing a 46, the two remaining reasons are a severe lack of run defense from the front seven, or a play related move.

In classical football thought, the defensive backs are primarily responsible for pass defense.  The front seven (defensive line and linebackers) are the primary run stoppers, though they can assist in pass defense with rushes, blitzes, and zones.  It is an axiom of classical football thought that a team unable to stop the run cannot win football games.  If the front seven are incapable of stopping the run to the extent that they need a safety in the box (the area with the LBs), this is seen as an admission of weakness.  A team is knowingly sacrificing the play of the two (or more) cornerbacks by dropping the safety into the box.

This defense has yet to be given the opportunity to try to stop the run with their front seven, and the doubt of the coaches has trickled down to the players.  They have come across in games as a desperate, timid defense filled with fear of their opponents.  They crowd the line of scrimmage with eight defenders out of fear and then, when the get pushed around there they retreat to the apparent security of cover eight.

The fear effect doesn't end there either.

Watch the defense at the ends of games compared to the beginning.  The safeties are timid, the LBs leave their feet when they tackle.  Both are overcommitting, an act of desperation  Believe it or not this all comes back to the safety in the box.  Admitting defeat before you have even tried is psychologically crippling and existentially disastrous.

Psychologically, you see the effect with defensive linemen unable to make the active roster on a consistent basis, the result of too much scheming and not enough playing football.  It also is indicated by the contradiction inherent in advocating the benefits of scheming, as shown in the haphazard activation and deactivation of players, while simultaneously not committing to a scheme, as is shown by the inconsistent variations of 3-4, 4-3 alignments.

Existentially you see results that have cost, or threatened to cost, us games.  Big plays.  In the last 5 games the Broncos have given up 8 barn burners, 3 alone in SD, the rest against KC and Jax, both losses.  Tampa Bay was the lone game where the defense managed to hold both the offensive running game and big plays in check, allowing only a single 38 yard run to Warrick Dunn, which led to the first points for TB in that game.  Against KC LJ tallied 65 yards on his second play, with Manuel stuck behind the backers on the backside of the play, and McCree overcommitting to the tackle as he rushed  up in run support.   When your safeties are out of position, they are not safe at all, and neither is anyone else.

Overcompensation and constant retreat are hallmarks of fear.    This is not to say that the defense will suddenly gel and play great by moving the SS out of the box, but it stands to reason that by not overcompensating in the run game the defensive players will be more responsible than ever for maintaining gaps and form tackling (they will still have to execute).  What they won't have is the trickle down effect of thinking that they have no chance and have to make a leaping diving tackle out of desperation.  And not putting 8 defensive players in a state of constant retreat will help to put the corners in a  position to play the ball, the fundamental ingredient needed for them to get INTs.

There is a reason teams with no running game finally get their ground attack going against us.  By overcompensating against the run we show a weakness and play with a fear which is exploited.  When we overcompensate the other way we show the opposite weakness and the same fear and get exploited.  Even as the defense improves, as certain signs of confidence show up, the big play will still be there, like a 2007 lb albatross, laying in the deep portion of the defensive backfield where the SS should have been.

Fear of Our Own Running Game

109 yards from a back still wasn't enough.

We are still an unbalanced offensive attack, even with a back who showed he could be effective with more than 15 carries a game.  The offense has been checking in lately with a 75%-25% pass-run disparity in recent weeks, and the last game helped even that up but not by much, as we recorded a 70%-30% disparity.

To be clear I love our opening drives, especially against the Jaguars.  I wouldn't care if we threw the ball 20 time to open up the game.  That isn't the problem.

But a 60 minute football game and a 16 game season is going to require you to run eventually.  I am sure no one here thinks that a one dimensional offense will be able to get victories by itself in the playoffs.  Even NE last year showed that they needed a lot of luck to supplement their passing game to advance in the playoffs, only to see that luck run out, with no running gmae in sight and not enough time to desperately establish it.

So if 109 yards on 20 carries isn't enough to convince the playcallers to rely on the run more, what is?  They couldn't have a problem with the 4th and 1 that Pittman failed on, since that was late in the game, after they had gotten away from the run, and besides, one play isn't indicative of anything.  He has been a major short yardage and goalline contributor all year.  I guarantee that he makes that play more often than he misses it.  And the problem certainly wasn't any kind of significant disparity in the score.  No team yet this year has forced us to playcall in a way that we did not want to.  Is it the playcallers?  Watch the cadence of our successful drives and you will recognize the calls as balanced and effective, but obviously favoring the passing game.  Runs get called in many obvious and oftentimes successful situations.

So why in the hell don't we run it more?

That is easy.  We are afraid.

It is not fear of failure, quite the contrary.  I think the coaches have a ton of confidence in this oline and these backs.  Our passing game is such a threat, that even by default, with scrub talent, I think the coaches would love our running game. We can run the ball effectively and the coaches know it.

We are afraid we might lose the running game.

What a terrible circumstance for the Broncos to be in.  To have something of such tremendous power that shatters when you use it, like a sword made of crystal.

We started the Quest with five healthy backs.  Before the first game we were down to three, and so desperate that we kept one injured back on the roster because it was so obvious that we would need him before the season was over.

And having three healthy backs was no great thing, even though many teams would be happy to have that.  In those three backs you have the injury prone Selvin Young, the injury prone Andre Hall and the older veteran in Micheal Pittman.  Not exactly a huge vote of confidence in the ability of the RB corp to persevere.  The Broncos went into the season hoping to survive until the bye week where they would get back Torain,a bruiser back who could take some punishment, but they still have to acknowledge that he has been, and will be a risk for, another injury until he proves that that isn't the case.  They haven't quite made it yet.  Going into our last game before the bye we are down to One RB who has yet to be injured, and another in Hall who was injured already this season but is back.  For now.

There is no answer for this situation, there is no scheme or trick that covers up this deficiency, like using Royal and BMarsh at RB.  We simply need to get to the bye week, and hopefully get some bodies back.

But even then where will we be?

I hope that we will discover a bruiser who can take some punishment, reducing the reps of everyone else and raising their productivity, while saving them some wear and tear.  That brusier could be either Pittman or Torain, but each one comes with their own caveats, and both are far from the sure thing we need to feel good about this teams playoff chances.

I also hope that we will find a way to stop giving up the big play, but if it comes down to a choice between big plays and stopping the run, then we may be damned if we do...

The Quest is just getting started, but it should be obvious that it isn't, and never was, going to be easy.