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.
Note: In light of Denver's trade of Jay Cutler to the Bears, we decided to push back the schedule of our series. Today we present Part 2, with Part 3 now scheduled for Friday, April 10th and Part 4 following on Tuesday, April 14th.
The Broncos Running Attack
In Part 1 of our look at The McDaniels Way, we provided a view of what new Broncos Head Coach Josh McDaniels may look to achieve on offense in 2009. Part 1 covered more of the general goals - higher efficiency of yards and point-scoring, better control of the game clock, and more success in red-zone and goal-to-go situations. Today, we will address the facet so many of us have/had strongly identified with Broncos football, especially with the noted successes of the recently-departed Mike Shanahan - the Denver running game.
As noted in NYC's The Fall of the Denver Rushing Attack, the Broncos' commitment to the run has waned significantly in recent years. After averaging 508 carries per season from 1995 to 2005, the 2008 Broncos only ran the ball 387 times. While they maintained a strong YPA (Yards Per Attempt) of 4.8, their relatively small number of carries led to fewer first downs via the ground game (103 versus an average of 125/year from 1995-2005) and poor clock control (28:43 in '08 versus 32:15 from '95-'08).
In terms of gross yardage, the falloff went from an average of 2,264 yards per season (1995-2005) to just 1,862 in 2008. The rushing attack also failed to produce big individual games, as the '08 Broncos only topped 175 rushing yards once, although that number was padded by a 71-yard carry by WR Eddie Royal on an end-around (in the crushing home loss to Buffalo, incidentally). Compare that to the Broncos of 1995-2005, who topped 175 yards in a game on an average of 4.6 times per season. Without the benefit of a strong running game, one which never even dominated a single game in 2008, the pressure was focused squarely upon Jay Cutler and the passing attack.
At first glance, the hiring of Josh McDaniels seemed only a continuation of Denver's move to a pass-dominant offense. This is certainly a natural and excusable assumption, as Tom Brady's 4,806 yards and 50 touchdown passes of 2007 quickly come to mind. However, it is important to consider that 2007 may have been an anomaly, a remarkable alignment of the stars which allowed for arguably the greatest offensive performance by a team in any one year. Even so, the '07 Pats ranked 9th in the NFL in rushing attempts with 451 and 5th in rushing touchdowns with 17; while not dominant rushing numbers, they certainly evidence a commitment to the run. The Patriots' 2006 and 2008 numbers show an even greater offensive balance, which we will share in a bit.
So, what can we expect of Josh McDaniels' Denver Broncos when it comes to running the football?
|Performance of Pats and Broncos O-Lineman in 2008 and 2009 Season Age
The issue of injuries may explain some things that came up on video. After watching the six games of film, the only real surprise that Doc had was the uneven work of the Patriots' offensive line. He said,
"I was surprised at how poorly they played in certain areas. That made it hard to obtain or understand some of the info on tendencies. Often, the line wasn't effective enough in the run or, especially, in the passing game. And yet, that's hard to see if you look at the numbers - unless you look carefully.
I watched a lot of running plays that were blown up at or behind the line of scrimmage because the O-Line couldn't move the defenders. Often the runners managed to get small yards anyway, and that's more a tribute to the runners than anything else. The passing problems showed up more in the stats.
However, even after saying that I have to point out the other side: according to FootballOutsiders.com, NE had the 5th-best rate of being stuffed, at 21% (Denver was 1st at 17%). Denver had the #1 run-blocking efficiency - but NE was #2. Again - they are very efficient. But for the Pats, one reason that number is so good was that the RBs commonly broke tackles behind the line, fell forward and almost inevitably gained a couple of yards. They had a very tough group, and adding Jordan to the Broncos, knee surgery and all, is a great addition. They also had the best percentage of 1st downs per carry at 28.3% (Denver was second at 26.6%) even though they were fourth in the league for rushing attempts (513).
A lot of that was the scheme, and some of the rest could be attributed to simple effectiveness at carrying out assignments on the part of the RBs - and to Cassel, who ran often with 73 attempts and a total of 270 yards and a 3.7 average. In his two full seasons, Cutler averaged 50.5 rushes for only 202.5 yards, so the difference there is obvious.
You also have to look at where they run and run well, and where they don't. They weren't productive at left or right end, or at right tackle, although left tackle (except on pass pro) and the middle of the line plays were usually very good."
There are discrepancies between the New England offensive line's certain very good stats and their obvious failures. For example, they were 1st in the league for rushing 1st-downs with 145, but they were only ranked 19th-best in the league converting on 3rd-and-short via the run, a category that is telling for the line. The Patriots' offensive line was quite a mixed bag in 2008, and that showed on the film. We will talk about the passing side of their equation tomorrow but on the rushing side, Doc saw players who were missing assignments and who weren't getting to the second level consistently.
A brief look across the league shows that the Patriots' O-Line is older than the norm, and that the right side in particular saw a lot of injuries over the course of the season, which may be part of the reason that they weren't as good as expected. Their tackles are seven years older than the Broncos', on average. Even factoring in the advanced ages of Casey Wiegmann and Ben Hamilton, the New England line is two years older than the Broncos across the starting five. Their size/weight numbers are roughly comparable to the Broncos.
We asked styg50 about the issue of offensive linemen and aging. Was the gap scheme wearing on the players? Could age, at about 30, be the issue with their poor play, (especially on passing downs)? He said,
"My first thought, is that everybody is different, so some guys might not be affected while other guys are significantly affected. The main trait of the pulling guard(or center) is good footwork, and to a lesser extent the core strength to re-engage quickly on the move, which has "balance" as its primary indicator when watching them. It is reasonable to assume that as a player ages, his footwork might suffer and become "heavier" or slower, but I think this applies more to heavier linemen who stay heavy. O-Linemen are generally no stranger to heavy lifting and maintaining and increasing lean muscle mass, but as they age they need to be open to the idea of increasing flexibility and agility, which should always lean towards playing at lighter and lighter weights.
The plus side of aging as a pulling lineman, is that you have to be able to locate and line up your block, which becomes even more difficult if it is intended to occur at the second level, and that is more about experience than anything. Hamilton and Nalen were good examples of guys who could block out to the third level, which is exceptionally difficult for a lineman, and they could do it because of how quick they were/are and how savvy they are about lining up the block. Rookies and young players didn't stand a chance against them."
Regarding the Broncos, Styg added,
"As to zone-block increasing players' longevity, I think it has more to do with what players have been tapped for zone-block: smarter, lighter, more agile. The smarter could aid them in whole-body health, the lighter reduces Isaac Newton's effect on them, and the agile protects them in the game itself, helping them avoid contortion strains and the like. The zone-block seems as likely to me as any other system to expose players to abuse by virtue of the system itself, but HT can answer that question better than I can. What wears players out more than anything is going to the ground and having to get back up again (barring the occasional 79-yard fumble return, which is more about oxygen than anything) and that occurs a lot in zone-block."
HT (hoosierteacher) was kind enough to weigh in as well. His comments centered on two things - the abilities of the players in terms of balance and flexibility, and their abilities to work together:
"The Denver OLmen are culled from the masses because they have either the inherent ability or trained ability to use flexibility and agility from early on. Teams with less of a focus on pure zone-blocking will age less gracefully. "Big and strong" diminishes over time. Flexibility and agility, if maintained from an early age, can last much longer on the football field.I hate to keep coming back to martial arts. I know you and Styg are experts in the field, while I'm just an amazed spectator. (lol). But you guys will appreciate the analogy. The old man who is a martial-arts master seems to have the advantage over younger men who are more physically fit. In MMA competitions, we never seem to see these old men. But I know that I've been to studios (dojos) where I've seen old (frankly ancient) guys who have techniques and experience to beat up on the younger guys present.While football is a little different, there is a similarity. While age slows all of us, it is going to slow physical qualities (such as strength) quicker than skills that are harder to quantify (such as balance, agility, footwork). Teams that look for these types of players are going to have players with more longevity. They also get the boost of having players that play together longer, which is a key for any offensive line.The only thing that really keeps too many teams from moving towards zone-blocking is the pool of players to draw from. When too many teams try to move towards zone-blocking, the pool decreases. The teams already established in ZB have enough players who have played together in the system, while newer teams will struggle because they have to get more players from the drafts. If enough teams could establish themselves, colleges (the suppliers) would feed the demand, but it would take several years. In the meantime, teams with successful zone-blocking linemen should hold onto what they have, needing only to pick up a player here and there."
Professor Barber, the master instructor who Doc had the privilege to train under in martial arts used to assure him that "old age and treachery will conquer youth and skill." Given that and the direction of our two resident experts, we suspect that the issues of injury to the lower body, combined with a need to frequently adjust to different combinations of players were at the heart of New England's woes along the offensive line.
On the other end of the offensive-line universe, Josh McDaniels has to salivate at the idea of installing his scheme behind what is arguably the best line in the NFL. They are mostly younger (and Casey Wiegmann still has great skills) with Ryan Clady entering only his second year and Ryan Harris just his third (second as a starter). Chris Kuper is looking at only his fourth season. Ben Hamilton is 31, and Wiegmann is pretty spry for an old man (Casey will turn 36 during training camp). Primary backup Kory Lichtensteiger is getting good early reviews in the middle, and Tyler Polumbus showed promise at tackle, even taking some reps at center..
Small wonder, then, that the Broncos' new coach kept Rick Dennison to coach the line and Bobby Turner to coach the running backs. Josh McDaniels is a very smart young man, and those decisions were probably not very difficult for him. The Broncos may need better depth, but the line is first-rate in its current incarnation. After watching this film, Doc appreciated it even more. So will McDaniels. You may not see another season where every Broncos lineman starts all sixteen games, but these guys are very, very good nevertheless.
Much has been made regarding Josh McDaniels' comments on instituting a higher level of 'gap' blocking as well as the zone-block scheme. It is important for the fan to recognize that Denver ran some solid gap-blocking last year, and that Hamilton and Kuper both excel in pulling; so the change should not be a concern. In fact, the reality is that no major changes are indicated. But McDaniels is sitting on something new in how the line and the running backs will function, and he so far isn't letting much slip. McDaniels only said,
"We did more gap schemes in New England, where we're going to pull a guard. The good thing about Denver is they've done those things, and they've got really good guards to be able to do that."
Watching the Broncos O-Line closely, both Hamilton and Kuper, light-footed as guards go, were pulling on several plays each game. The biggest difference Doc sees is that the Broncos were even better at it than New England was.
As an aside, a recent segment on NFL Total Access suggested that Ryan Clady will be the 'Surprise' player of 2009. We can only suggest that the hosts weren't watching much film, as Clady was arguably the great surprise player of 2008. The only shock that he could provide in 2009 is if he's not elevated from Second-Team to First-Team All-Pro.
Ryan Harris was nearly as good, and Denver's pair of tackles is equal or superior to any other set of bookends in the NFL. Kuper has turned into a fine young guard, and if Ben Hamilton is the Broncos' 'weak link' as some have stated, Denver has but some very small problems to deal with. Wiegmann's contract will likely be renegotiated to keep him in town for a couple of more years, and in that time the Broncos will have settled on their backups and groomed their new center. Lichtensteiger may be best at either center or guard, but Polumbus has taken snaps effectively at center as well as at tackle. The Broncos probably need one more good backup, and they have some options already on the practice squad. they will, if our member's drafts are any indication, take another in the draft.
In terms of total plays, New England ran the ball 46.8% of the time in 2008. Over the 4-year period of 2005-2008, the Patriots exhibited a 43.1% rush, 56.9% pass balance. Despite their pass-first reputed approach, they like a fairly balanced attack. Meanwhile, the Broncos were the second-most pass-reliant offense in the NFL, behind only Arizona and tied with New Orleans last season. Obviously, Denver's running back injuries and the elevation of Jeremy Bates to play-caller factored in. Bates' preference for passing was quickly obvious to even casual Broncos fans. That reliance on the pass placed a lot on Jay Cutler, but it also led to predictability in the passing game, which we will discuss in Part 3. Few fans will mind the fact that Bates won't be deciding if or when to run the ball in 2009.
However, it should be noted that New England also suffered several injuries to their offensive backfield; top backs Laurence Maroney, LaMont Jordan and Sammy Morris all missing significant time. This forced the Patriots to sign BenJarvus Green-Ellis from their practice squad and give him the bulk of carries for two games. Interestingly, their commitment to the run did not wane - with Green-Ellis as their primary ball carrier in weeks 9 and 10 versus the Colts and Bills, respectively, New England rushed 75 times and Matt Cassel dropped back to pass 70 times. This represents a 51.7% run/pass split. No, the Patriots' and Broncos' backfield situations were not identical, but New England's run commitment with a practice-squad running back may serve to lessen the excuse provided by Denver's injuries.
The acquisitions of running backs with a history of good receiving numbers (and comparatively low miles, despite the issues with Correll Buckhalter's or J.J. Arrington's respective knees) would tend to indicate that Denver will be moving to the New England-style of running back usage. Let's look at what that was last year:
The Patriots' top runner in 2008 was Sammy Morris, with 156 carries for 727 yards, for a 4.7-yard average (he also took some snaps at fullback). LaMont Jordan had 80 carries for 353 yards and a 4.5 average. Kevin Faulk had 507 yards on just 83 carries for an explosive average of 6.0 yards per carry. Meanwhile, 2006 1st-round draft choice Laurence Maroney had only 28 carries for 93 yards, and New England has made it known that they aren't pleased with the young back. Then you have little-known Ben-Jarvus Green-Ellis, who filled in brilliantly with 74 carries and 275 yards. They spread the ball around, and they ran to the tune of 513 carries last season. That's bad news for those Broncos fans that yearn for a 1st-round back pounding and dodging his way into Canton. It seems very unlikely to happen under McDaniels. But it's good news if you like a well-balanced attack.
New England has some great numbers. They are very efficient - They were 6th in the league in big runs (carries of 10 or more yards), with 55 such plays. They were only 10th in the league in yards per carry (4.7), but 4th in rushing touchdowns with 21 in 2008. They know how to score, and the Broncos will benefit from that knowledge. As you'd expect, they don't leave a running back in the game for long. Rotation is common and at times it is a constant. They are into ‘fresh legs'. Some describe an inability of the back to ‘get into a groove' when rotated. That's in opposition to the NE idea of doing a job perfectly in execution each time, regardless. Faulk was at times their first option, or Morris or even Maroney, but they ran a wide variety of plays for all the backs.
We should also look at the scheme that Denver employs. In his article Denver's Unique Running Back System, Doc noted that a Denver running back needs the following qualities:
They have to put the team before their own stats and ego.
They have to block, run routes, chip and receive well, in addition to their running skills and intelligence.
They need excellent field vision, defensive-scheme comprehension and the neuromuscular abilities to see and respond very quickly (advanced proprioception).
They have to put the coaches' knowledge before their own "I've done it this way my whole life" approach.
They have to be able to come in from the bench and do their jobs well immediately without needing to ‘get into a groove'.
"I would add one quality that is essential for backs in the Turner/Dennison system. They must trust the system, more than their ability. There actually is nothing that unique about Denver’s zone-blocking system; lots of teams use ZB. What is unique is the way they combine it with the 1-cut system. Denver stresses that the back must wait to make his cut until the backside pursuit has been sealed off. Most backs want to cut into the hole as soon as it opens, but that’s not Denver’s way. In fact you will often hear complaints about runners being too slow to the hole.
One of the reasons that Denver selects back lower in the draft is that backs who are selected more highly tend to have depended on their athletic/physical skill set. They are reluctant to abandon what got them to the pros. Lower round backs tend to be less physically gifted and have made it through hard work honing their technique. They are used to succeeding through study and hard work. For them, trusting the system comes more naturally; it’s an extension of what got them to the pros."
Can the two systems mesh? Absolutely. Denver has gone out in the offseason and added running backs who they feel can integrate into the zone-block scheme, catch passes out of the backfield and block well. They may be running the draw, running up the middle, some to the sides, although less. They will be catching passes, blocking for the pass and creating mismatches. McDaniels said as much the day after the Cutler trade and we were predicting the same before he did. By the way, he was also praising Hillis. Doc feels better now.
|Rushing TDs, First Downs, Fumbles
More Rushing First Downs - The 2008 numbers jump off the screen - The Patriots moved the chains 145 times via the ground game, while the Broncos only did so on 103 occasions. As NYC mentioned in his earlier piece, every Broncos team which made the playoffs under Mike Shanahan had at least 124 rushing first downs. Granted, that is a correlative statistic, but we can probably all agree that the Broncos need better balance on offense.
Given the number of yards that the Broncos rolled up in '08, you would expect at least an average number of rushing TDs. The lack of that, in our opinion, shows something other than the oft-mentioned 'injuries' excuse. The Broncos were rushing for 4.8 yards per carry. Failing to use the rushing attack was, in our opinion, more of a factor of the play-calling of Bates than any deficiency in the rushing game.
Making a more balanced use of the rushing attack will have the added benefits of eating more of the clock and resting the defense. We believe that McDaniels' greater experience as an offensive coordinator will benefit the Broncos in this area.
Fewer Fumbles - Even more so than interceptions, this statistic may be more about personnel than coaching, but New England has put the ball on the ground less than Denver, and hopefully things will change there as well.
|Rush-Direction Propensity Broken Down by Gap - Broncos '07-'08 and Patriots '05-'08
More inside running - Certainly this may be somewhat attributable to personnel, but scheme was the final determinant of where each team ran. Denver has run for the most part around and behind Ryan Clady, Tom Nalen/Casey Wiegmann and Ryan Harris/Daniel Graham. Meanwhile, New England has run behind their guards almost twice as often as the Broncos have. Of course the retention of offensive-line coach Rick Dennison and running-backs coach Bobby Turner will have a lot to say about the Broncos' running game, but look for McDaniels' single-back sets to get more use out of the 1- and 2-gaps than the Broncos have under Mike Shanahan's tutelage.
From the game films, the Patriots preferred in 2008 to use the draw play heavily and keep their running backs between the tackles. If a back went to the outside, they were usually going to receive, and when they ran there they weren't very productive. The screen pass was an effective weapon for NE and that's inline with their overall preference to keep passes shorter and completions high.
Using the Fullback
If McDaniels goes with the same ideas of a fullback in Denver that he used in New England, it is potentially a good role for Spencer Larsen, who noted that he was uncomfortable handling the ball: in this offense, he wouldn't need to worry. The Pats' fullback, Heath Evans, only had 11 carries for 23 yards over 16 games in 2008, or 0.7 carries per game. The rest of the time when Evans was used (about 1 play in 7), he blocked. The use of Evans in 2008 was basic and for the most part unoriginal, which struck Doc as odd given the range with which they used other weapons. For the most part, he was a blocker - period. While we would like to watch Larsen on the field more and would prefer him at LILB, we could see him being very effective in a Heath Evans-type of role.
Of course, if Coach McDaniels chooses to stay with the idea of a fullback who is essentially there to block, Andrew Pinnock may be the perfect choice, and that would free Larsen to do what we believe he does best - blow people up on special teams and play inside linebacker. Doc has been especially interested in watching this aspect, and he thinks that keeping Pinnock but letting some other backs go (Anthony Alridge, Alex Haynes and P.J. Pope) spoke volumes on McDaniels' part.
The use of Heath Evans is a good illustration of how the Patriots adapted their offense to the players available. Prior to picking up Evans in 2005 (one week after Evans was cut by Miami), the Pats were making use of a 5'10", 217-lb player, Patrick Pass, at fullback. Because of his size and skill set, Pass was greatly used as a receiver and had hauled in 23 receptions prior to being injured in November of 2005. Late in October, Pass was even used as a halfback due to multiple injuries to his backfield mates. However, the switch from the lighter Pass to the 250-pound, hard-blocking Evans eventually brought about a change of scheme.
Injuries to Corey Dillon, Kevin Faulk and Pass pushed Evans into an immediate starting role at halfback, and he excelled with 158 rushing yards on 33 carries in two games. He also was used effectively as a pass-catcher, very much as the Patriots had used Pass. Over the next three seasons, however, Evans got fewer and fewer touches, culminating in just 11 carries and 3 catches in 2008. From Patriots.com following the 2006 season,
"The 6-foot, 250-pounder has spent the majority of the season lining up as the fullback in the I-formation, where he has served as a lead blocker and short-yardage specialist, but has also expanded his role as a pass catcher, even lining up as a split end at times. He has been a big contributor on special teams and is also known as one of the friendliest players in the locker room."
McDaniels may not have liked him receiving, and may not have used him as a running back very much, but Evans was a versatile and effective contributor nonetheless. However, the limits of his use as a runner and receiver show a possible prejudice on McDaniels part, since Evans was a star running back in college, has run very well for New England and showed himself to be a good receiver in 2005. However, as time passed McDaniels' preference for using the fullback became clear - short yardage and lead blocking.
Many Broncos fans were disappointed that Hillis, when at fullback, was not used more as a receiver and in a Howard Griffith-type role before first becoming their star runner and then being injured. That was indicative of the change to Bates' system, such as it was. The modern fullback is being used less and less, both in NE and during this time frame in Denver. Eventually, we may see the change to a FB/H-back (for Denver, the pieces are there), but it isn't happening often or quickly, despite frequent comments about 'H-backs' in the media, a phrase that usually seems to simply mean a tight end who receives. That's not an H-back at all, but we understand what they are saying.
Still, change is the only constant. This year's draft is relatively deep in fullbacks. Andrew Pinnock, if he sticks, could get some competition in Denver, but it's not a priority. In 2008, the fullback slot went to Michael Pittman, then Hillis, then to Spencer Larsen, and to heck in a handcart by the time the season mercifully closed. Let's hope for greener pastures this year. Pinnock is just what McDaniels usually wants at the position - a strong blocker who is team oriented.
Balancing the Run and the Pass
When watching film on the Pats, the issue of run/pass balance came out in the difference between halves. New England was 26th league-wide in first-half runs called, 14th in the second half. These run/pass ratios are exactly the theories that went into building the West-Coast Offense, but despite a common misperception, the Patriots run a modern variant on the Erhardt-Perkins system. Their approach is less smash-mouth. It uses the pass more. However, since Erhardt is reputed to have said, "Pass to score, run to win", the McDaniels version of this approach (which was originally installed by Charlie Weis and has morphed and adapted to changes in personnel often since) uses the pass more in the first half and runs more in the second. A glance at their record also confirms that teams which have the lead in the second half will tend to run more.
But running the ball is often only half the battle on offense. Passing is the dominant attack for most teams, and both Denver and New England have exhibited that. On Friday, we will examine the passing game in Part 3 of our series.