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Divining the McDaniels Way, Part 3 - The Passing Game

This series is the outcome of a month-long collaboration between nycbroncosfan and broncobear. In general, NYC covered the stats and Doc handled most of the writing and analysis. We hope that it sheds light on some of the questions that have arisen as to just what, exactly, Josh McDaniels has been doing with the New England offense over the past four years. It also looks at Jay Cutler's time as the primary starter in Denver over the past two years to establish where the two Patriots and Broncos do and do not match up. We thoroughly enjoyed working on this project and hope that you will take just as much pleasure in reading it. Hopefully it will answer some  of your questions about what to expect of the 2009 Broncos, and we look forward to your comments and critiques. Many thanks to our esteemed colleagues styg50 and hoosierteacher for their input, and to Zappa for his invaluable aid in managing the code and the templates.

Part 1 featured an overview of the Patriots' and Broncos' offenses, while Part 2 focused on the running game. Today, we look at the Passing Game. Of course, much has changed around here lately; as with the previous sections, Part 3 compares the Jay Cutler-led Broncos with the Josh McDaniels-led Patriots. Naturally, the importation of Kyle Orton may have some effect on what the Broncos' passing game is able to accomplish as compared with a Cutler-led offense. However, many issues continue to be relevant - the Broncos still have many of the same weapons and the O-Line remains intact. The purpose is still to see what has been for us as fans, to understand what McDaniels has been doing and to look to the future for whatever clues may be found. In the future, look for additional articles dealing with Chris Simms' background and tendencies as well as Kyle Orton's and some comparative issues between them.

A Short Analysis of NE Offense

There are certain overall patterns that emerged that we expect to see, in degree, from Josh McDaniels when the Broncos take the field in 2009. We've mentioned before that we consider the New England offensive approach to include "a willingness to use the running backs in committee to maximize production from the team, good tight ends that have a specific role in the scheme, and an attack based in three or more receivers, liberal use of the shotgun and passing first, including but not limited to the use of short running-back passes." Those beliefs were borne out by this experience.

We have also previously noted that New England tends to win because they emphasize preparation, knowledge, excellent execution of specific roles and intellect as well as physical ability. They tend to play smarter, but do not sacrifice the ability to play very physical football at the same time. This combination of scheme, flexibility, role-specific skill and execution as well as the importance of the team over the individual proved itself to effectively maximize the contribution of its players within their football system.

Because of that, it's impossible to get too specific about New England's tendencies without noting that they change greatly from game to game. It's one constant - the application of the unexpected - and I'd have to consider that a strength of their approach.

Continued inside...

Formations and Impressions

Wikipedia suggests that the Patriots run a variation of the classic Erhardt-Perkins offense. They installed it under Charlie Weis, changed it to suit personnel, gained input from Bill Belichick and also from Urban Meyer and adapted it still further under Josh McDaniels. While their offensive stratagem began as an Erhardt-Perkins approach, it is now several generations removed.

Secondly, and this is essential: As Doc has noted before, in one sense there is no single Patriots offense. Their designation of the Amoeba is a just description. Like all NFL teams, they vary formations and plays at need. New England just seems to do so at a very high level with great intention. That's one of the main facets of the Amoeba Offense. The games Doc saw gave him several specific examples.

Doc: For the game against Indy with the Patriots on the road, the general analysis was not surprising. New England used multiple formations and constantly varied them. While Mike Shanahan would run 10 different plays out of 1 formation. In their game, New England is at times the  polar opposite - they never seemed to run the same formation twice in this game and instead frequently ran the same play out of many different formations.

They liked the shotgun in all games, using it anywhere between 45% and 68% of the time: that ratio varied as well. They generally aren't in the same formation on any two plays, and they may not run the same play in a single quarter or half. They use a fullback on about 1 play in 4 or 5, or as little as 1 in 10, depending on down and distance. The running back was most commonly in the I formation or standing next to the quarterback if he was in the shotgun. And, as we will discuss,  how much they used certain formations varied greatly by which half it was and tb he score of the game.

New England used the 'spread formation' in which they spread the field both horizontally and vertically, most commonly against St. Louis and NY (Jets)  Their variants on the spread (I am using this term somewhat loosely, although the Pats' tendency to use this formation both vertically and laterally was obvious) included using a tight end and/or a back as receivers and varying between 3 and 5 receivers on any given play. Anyone could be kept as a blocker - wide receiver, tight end or back. I did not count it as a spread formation with less than three wideouts unless the play specifically spread the field both horizontally and laterally. And, any and all receivers (WR, TE and/or RB/FB) could be on a particular route, with lots of routes out of the same formation(s). Again, in the Indy game, they rarely used a single formation with multiple variants, running a dizzying number of formations that stretched the Colts defense to the breaking point. In other games, running different plays out of the same formation was common, although in constantly varying degrees.

The complexity of New England's attack really stood out. Indianapolis, as a different  example, uses a lot of routes that snarl the corners and safeties on one receiver while the other gets open: they employ lots of misdirection routes, and they do them better than anyone I've watched. The Pats, on the other hand, used a wide range of one- and two-tight end sets to counter, with from one to four other receivers, intermingling dominant shotgun formations with the quarterback taking snaps under center and different running-back sets. The tight ends were constantly on the move to create different looks, often with one tight end in motion. Even having a TE dropping back into a running back's stance was frequent.

While they like the 'spread' formations, against Indy they used them less than I expected. They do have a wide array of spread-type formations that they do employ, though, and I saw them most heavily against the Rams, particularly in the first half. When they do use a spread formation, even with an empty backfield, they are as likely to run a draw or an off-tackle run from a handoff as they are to pass. In some plays I watched, the RB can drop back from his 'receivers' position just behind the O line at the snap or Cassel might run, etc.

They also tried several wide-receiver screens and a couple of tight-end screens mixed in, off of spread formations. It's clear that  as frequently as they use it, it's just a tool to them, rather than a dominating preference. It was clear that they wield the tools - the tools don't wield them, which is an important difference. However, since the weakness of their use of the spread - ignoring zone in favor of man coverage and blitzing far more often - has been exposed, I would expect McDaniels and New England separately to begin to change that tendency over 2009. They will probably change tools, in degree.

I saw a play using Welker that interested me against Miami. He started at the LOWR position, in a 2-up, 2-back receiver formation that New England likes to use. Just after the snap, Welker took off at a dead run to his right across the field, moving just above the line of scrimmage. By the time Welker reached the far side, Cassel was out of the pocket, rolling right; and while no one else was free, Welker had time for coffee. Easy throw and catch, 12 yards. Eddie Royal would be very tough to stop with that route, perhaps even impossible.

By the way, that's a common formation for New England. In it, they employ five down O-Linemen. There are two receivers - one a tight end (it varies as to which one), upright in a receiver stance behind the front 5 and on the outer edges of the O-Line. The second of those receivers might be a back, a tight end or a wideout. Two wide receivers are out wide. From this beginning, they run a wide array of routes and options, including bootleg, play action, the above-mentioned route and a nearly-endless set of other options. Miami uses the same formation, with the left inside receiver being a running back, to run one version of their Wildcat, a formation that had some initial success but seemed to sputter as the season went on.

The thing that struck me about the Patriots' style is that they are constantly probing, pushing, and looking for a weakness. You can watch it unfold, attacking one point after another, quickly, but in sequence. It's not as smash-mouth an approach as the original Erhardt-Perkins or, say, Miami or Pittsburgh would use.  It's perhaps more like fencing than boxing.

Playing the Colts is probably a bit like being in a knife fight - they are constantly cutting at you until you are exhausted. New England seems slightly different - you  can watch them constantly looking for the best adjustments. This probing side of the amoeba tendency alone will win its own certain share of close games. Making adjustments is a huge skill, the Broncos has often lacked in over the past years and Josh McDaniels does it very well.

The Patriots obviously like being unpredictable. Most teams do, of course, but in the film I watched, New England took it to the extreme. While there are statistical norms, in any single game there are no specific passing or rushing downs for the Pats. They will pass on short yardage, run (often a draw) on 3rd and long, 2nd and short or any other situation. Overall, it's hard to stop, and I suspect that it's nearly impossible to predict. Obviously, the matchups are a constant series of smaller battles, and those remain individual, but the overall tenor was partly based in avoiding normal responses to the given situations in order to confuse the opposing defense. As NYC's statistics showed, it works far more often that it fails.

Passing and the O-Lines

Performance of Pats and Broncos O-Lineman in 2008 and 2009 Season Age
NE Starters '09 Age Starts Sacks Pen Sks+Pen DEN Starters '09 Age Starts Sacks Pen Sks+Pen
LT Light 31 16 7.5 1 8.5 Clady 23 16 0.5 3 3.5
LG Mankins 27 16 5 2 7 Hamilton 32 16 2.5 6 8.5
C Koppen 30 16 4.5 2 6.5 Wiegmann 36 16 1 3 4
RG Neal(Yates) 33(29) 9(7) 2(6.25) 2(1) 4(7.25) Kuper 27 16 0 4 4
RT Kaczur(LeVoir) 30(27) 14(2) 4(2) 3(0) 7(2) Harris 24 16 2.5 2 4.5
30.2 80 31.25 11 42.25
28.4 80 6.5 18 24.5


New England's O-Line was clearly at its weakest when being asked to pass-block. Cassel's sack percentage was 26th in the league, but the Patriots O-Line's pass protection was not merely sub-par. Its players are aging and the line's effectiveness is beginning to break down, although these may be separate issues. Matt Light and Nick Kaczur have been criticized by some writers as having lost a step, and their production as a line is certainly down. Four of their starters will be over age 30 during the upcoming season: Light (31), Dan Koppen (30), Stephen Neal (33) and Kaczur (30). Is it age?

That's one possible explanation, but they aren't doddering geriatrics, either. I wondered at whether the explanation was accurate, and after listening to hoosierteacher and styg50 I don't see it as that simple. The issues of decreased physical flexibility are probably legitimate, the injuries hampered them and the changes of personnel meant that players weren't used to each other. In both zone blocking and in gap blocking, the timing is key. In pass protection, you have to be able to trust the guy next to you, and that didn't always work out for the Pats. There were issues that came down to  simply missing assignments

The injury bug hit the right side of the line, and Billy Yates was guilty of 6.25 sacks in 7 games before Steve Neal returned. Once Neal took over, he was a little better, being responsible for  2 sacks in 9 games. Backup RT Mark LeVoir was guilty of 2 sacks in two starts. 31-year old left tackle Matt Light was dunned with 7.5 over the season. Regardless of your opinion on the source of the problems, they will be looking for help in the draft or FA.

As noted, the Broncos were on the other extreme. Their linemen were charged with only 7.5 sacks over the course of the season, with rookie Kory Lichtensteiger being thrust in at RG for a few plays and giving up one. Rookie left tackle Ryan Clady was charged with but one half-sack and had only 3 penalties. RG Chris Kuper didn't give up a single sack in 16 games, but isn't even mentioned in Pro Bowl or All-Pro discussions. Casey Wiegmann gave up a single sack and made KC wonder why on earth they let him go (so do we). Ben Hamilton was the 'weak link', but while 6 penalties is too high, he give up only 2.5 sacks in 16 starts and seemed completely healed from his concussion.  

What we can hope for...

TD and INT Rates
DEN '07-'08 4.05% 2.91%
NE '05-'08 5.61% 2.13%

Better TD and INT rates - Perhaps these numbers have more to do with the player's decision-making ability than with coaching or scheme - but we can hope, right? Even if it's a decision-making issue, part of that is obviously coaching. The reality is that Cutler was prone to certain mistakes - not looking off the primary target and forcing throws were among them. At times the problems was with the receiver, but not often. Percentages like these tend to look small, but let's put them into perspective:  Over a 500-pass attempt season (a modest number), those rates translate into a 20 TD/14.5 INT season versus a 28 TD/10.7 INT season. These are not small differences.

McDaniels did a remarkable job with Cassel, who hadn't previously started a game since high school. He molded the game to Cassel, increasing the complexity quickly over the season, and taught Cassel to take advantage of the game. The raw material that he will have to work with in Orton and Simms will at least be acceptable (in our opinion) and it could be tremendous, as we'll talk about in those later articles. As many among us have noted, Orton has a lot more potential than we would have believed prior to expanded  analysis (and we have more on that to come), Chris Simms was a very good quarterback prior to his injury and there is no reason to believe that he won't be a very good one now. With either Orton or Simms, we look for the numbers to improve in overall touchdowns and to decrease in interceptions based upon what McDaniels accomplished in New England.

And, what we can expect in protection
Sacks and Yards Lost
Sacks Yds Lost Sack%
DEN '07 32 175 5.85%
DEN '08 12 74 1.90%
DEN Avg 22 124.5 3.73%
NE '05 28 202 4.73%
NE '06 29 190 5.22%
NE '07 21 128 3.46%
NE '08 48 221 8.25%
NE Avg 31.5 185.3 5.39%


The same pass protection - at least we can hope for it. As noted, here's a category where the Broncos were far superior to the Patriots in 2008. As everyone here at MHR knows, Ryan Clady's arrival at left tackle and the ascension of Ryan Harris to the starting lineup at right tackle had quite a bit to do with that. Clady was charged with merely 0.5 sacks, while 2.5 sacks were attributed to Harris. Denver has the bookends for a happy and effective O-Line for many years to come. Of course, Casey Wiegmann's contribution cannot be overlooked - Wiegmann was only charged with 1.0 sack and made the Pro Bowl for the first time in his 13-year career, although as an alternate.

Cutler does have very good mobility, and the Broncos' love of the bootleg was a very effective tool over much of the season. Neither Orton nor Simms is quite as athletic, but with the increased levels of protection, either should be able to take advantage and get the throws off in time. The scheme and coaching of McDaniels' approach should be of benefit.

New England will have to do better than they did last season, but Josh won't be there to worry about it. Brady's faster release was part of the improvement in 2007 (as was a lightened injury bug), but Cassel didn't take sacks exclusively because of his pocket presence and throw mechanics. He was chased, hurried and harassed due to poor O line play. He became quick to pull it down and run or to throw the ball through enlightened self-interest - it kept him off the turf. The lines starters just weren't good in pass protection and their backups didn't play well. A lack of depth is a tough thing to overcome, as the Broncos are no doubt considering as the draft beckons.

Pass-Depth and -Direction Propensity - Broncos '07-'08 and Patriots '06-'08
Short Deep Short Left Short Middle Short Right Deep Left Deep Middle Deep Right
DEN '07-'08 81.0% 19.0% 31.2% 16.8% 33.0% 6.2% 5.4% 7.4%
NE '06-'08* 82.9% 17.1% 31.8% 20.7% 30.4% 6.7% 4.0% 6.4%

*Unfortunately these statistics are unavailable prior to the 2006 season, so in this instance we can only look at New England through a three-year window.

More short passes - These numbers don't exactly jump off the screen, as the differentials between the Broncos' and Patriots' tendencies are not as large as other examples. Not surprisingly, it looks like we can expect a very slightly-heavier reliance upon short passes, especially over the middle of the field. Cutler's accuracy will be a boon here. Over a 500-pass attempt season, the additional 3.9% of short-middle passes only translates to 20 balls going that way, but it's still a difference. The overall scheme is unlikely to change. In '07-'08, Cutler/Bates liked the deep passes on the right and middle substantially more often than did NE over the same period.  That's likely to change.

This is another area where the incoming scheme and the current QB options seem ready-made for each other. Both Simms and Orton seem capable, based on past performance, of taking advantage of a NE-style scheme and staying, for the most part, with shorter, more accurate passes. Cutler's incredible velocity could even be a downside at times, leaving his receivers with bent and injured fingers and hands. A lighter ball, accurately thrown, can lead to better numbers in the short passing game.

The New England tendency has been to stretch the field both vertically and horizontally. Both Simms and Orton are capable of making some of the deep throws. Regarding Orton, TedB, in this week's Shallow Thoughts and Nearsighted Observations noted,

In this highlight package, you can see Orton hit on slants, deep outs, fades and crossing patterns, but what I was really impressed with was his touch on deep throws.  This used to be his weakness, but he's vastly improved his skills in this area.  He shows a lot of skill in dropping the ball over the top of the CB, and outside of the S against Cover-2 looks.  That's something which neither of our last 2 QBs had much skill at.  One of the keys to the McDaniels offense is challenging the deep outside, and I am confident that Orton has the skill set to do it.

That's good news. As we'll talk about in the future, Simms also has some skill in that area.

Pass Distribution 

Pass Production by Position - Broncos '07-'08 and Patriots '05-'08
Pos Rec Yds YPR TD % of Rec Pos Rec Yds YPR TD % of Rec
DEN RB 102 836 8.20 3 14.3% NE RB 316 2,842 8.99 9 22.3%
DEN TE 164 2,009 12.25 16 23.0% NE TE 218 2,539 11.65 31 15.3%
DEN WR 446 5,459 12.24 27 62.6% NE WR 886 11,180 12.62 84 62.4%
DEN Tot 712 8,304 11.66 46 100% NE Tot 1,420 16,561 11.66 124 100%

We took these numbers for the two years that Cutler started for the Broncos and the last 4 years for New England. What are striking are the similarities, if you look at overall averages. 

As you can see, the Broncos and Patriots had very similar passing distributions in two areas - fullback and wide receiver. Fullback is a small consideration for each offense, and that may influence the used of certain players. Evans only received 3 passes his entire year (10 games). Morris subbed as a lead blocker at times.

Although stats showed the fullback passes over the 4 years notched a hefty 3.4% total for NE, that number is heavily skewed by 2005, where Patrick Pass (playing some RB due to injuries) caught 23 balls and Heath Evans 10. The following year, Pass only caught 2 and Evans 7. Over the next two years, with Pass gone, Evans only caught 4 balls in 2007 and then 3 in his 10 games of 2008. Clearly - as McDaniels ran the offense over time, the use of the fullback as a receiver declined to almost nothing.

If McDaniels isn't concerned with the fullback position as a rusher or receiver when he comes to training camp in Denver, he has precedent in his work with New England. Andrew Pinnock would be perfect in McDaniels' offense as it was run with the Pats. Not surprisingly, he survived the purge. For those of us who hope to see Spencer Larsen at linebacker and Hillis at running back/H-back, that's good news.

Both teams chose the WR option about 62.5% of the time, and it's safe to say that the WR pass was the primary approach of both passing attacks. The discrepancy that matters is between the TE and RB. Denver, under Shanahan and his coordinators relied on the tight end pass 23.0% of the time, but only threw to the RB 10.7%. McDaniels while at NE preferred to throw to his running backs 18.9% of the time, but went to the TE on 15.3% of the throws. This fact has been blown out of proportion, in our opinion.

Tight End Receiving Statistics - Broncos '07-'08 & Patriots '05-'08
Team/Year Rec Yds YPR TD Lg RPG YPG
DEN '07 81 891 11.0 8 41 5.1 55.7
DEN '08 83 1,118 13.5 8 72 5.2 69.9
DEN Avg 82 1,004 12.25 8 56.5 5.2 62.8
NE '05 57 738 13.0 13 45 3.6 46.1
NE '06 81 1,037 12.8 6 40 5.1 64.8
NE '07 48 471 9.8 10 35 3.0 29.4
NE '08 31 302 9.7 2 29 1.9 18.9
NE Avg 54.25 637 11.7 7.75 37.25 3.4 39.8


Using the Tight Ends

The issue that many Broncos fans have is that this could mean that tight ends Graham et al (including Scheffler, who is training with the team and who they have said that they value) might be on the receiving end of less passes. In reality, we don't know anything of the sort. McDaniels has noted publicly that he likes the idea of using Scheffler's receiving skills. We only know two things - McDaniels was the offensive coordinator under Belichick, who utilized the running back pass 23% of the time. And, that style was inherited with some changes from Charlie Weis and it worked.

Notice that New England's passes to tight ends dropped from 81 in 2006, (the same number that Scheffler and Graham together caught in 2007), to 48 in 2007, to just 31 in 2008. Why? It might be because Randy Moss and Wes Welker, both far better targets, came to town, combined with the departure of Daniel Graham to Denver. Some have argued that New England isn't happy with tight end Ben Watson, but other than media speculation I haven't found specific evidence of that and there is some evidence to the contrary. The Patriots now have better receivers, so they get them the ball more. It's simple.

The Patriots' tight ends were very active in 2008, running a wide variety of sets with both 1 and 2 tight ends. However, they blocked, spread the field, created mismatches, chips and generally made life miserable for the opposing defense and caught only 8% less passes as a factor of the whole attack than did the ones in Denver, despite the fact that Watson was a disappointment to them in receiving and the other two were even worse in that department. Again, it's likely that McDaniels is just using what he has to best advantage. The second thing we do know is based in that McDaniels has been repeatedly on record as saying that his offense will be different from what he has done in that past. 

If his offense will be so different, why do an extensive analysis? It's because every coach will make certain decisions and preferences based on what he has seen work. He will then make changes based on the things that his imagination tells him will work in the future. We can't know the second, but we can become more cognitive of the things that have been done, what has and hasn't worked, and what areas he might see as needs or options, as well as situation like the fullback receptions where there is a clear direction. That is what we will cover next, in our section on Down/Distance Play Propensities and Conclusions