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Situational Football -- Denver Broncos "Red Zone +25" Philosophy Part Two

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Yesterday I asked, "Do the Broncos consider themselves to be a running team?"

This isn't primarily about asking whether they are a good running team. The current results speak for themselves. This team has a looong ways to go in the running game. It is more about finding out how far the Broncos are willing to push their luck when it comes to being the type of team they want to be.

To that end we will now enter the week two analysis of the "Redzone +25" statistic, which is the periphery of the redzone, a place where a team's true self starts to be revealed. Week one showed us that the Broncos certainly valued the run, no surprise there, and that despite setbacks on the majority of their "Redzone +25" running plays, they were committed to keeping the ball on the ground. Their use of playaction elsewhere in the game was a testament to one value of the running game, but clearly the Broncos playcalling in the redzone favored the conservative, grind-it-out, low-turnover style. Was it an issue of trust? A belief in an as yet unseen team strength? Or was it simply a strategy call against the Jaguars, a redzone philosophy that would be cast aside going into the next contest?

Week 2 vs. Seahawks

Attempt 1
Context: End of 2nd quarter, Denver leads 14-0 and has been running successfully and had several big pass plays in a row as they march from their own 7 down the field in their 4-minute offense. They have a 1st and 10 from the Seattle 18.

Formation: Shotgun, 4WR 1 Back (Thomas Split-L, Royal Slot-R, Graham Flank-R, Gaffney Split-R, Moreno backfield).

Defensive notes: Seattle using a Cover-2 scheme with a zone drop by the RDT

Result: Each receiver runs a curl at about 7 yards, basically looking for the best place to sit down against their coverage. The Seattle defense has chosen Cover 2 "match" (a mix of zone and man underneath) in order to close up as many passing lanes as possible, but also because it is a decent defense against outside running plays. The key for Denver is getting to their spots quickly and violently, and Thomas, isolated on the left side of the play is the clear target. The zone drop is too slow of a call to be effective against this short curl, and it is an easy completion for 9yards.

Upshot: A good play call, but conservative. Against the defense that Seattle showed there was very little chance of a turnover with these routes. Denver would then run/pass/run/pass their way inside the 5 before they had to take a FG. Denver was playing to maximize their shot at points, ina conservative mindset.

Attempt 2
context: 3rd quarter, Denver leads 17-7, and similar to last drive they have driven the length of the field with steady running and a few big pass plays, including a 14 yard PI call, and a 45 yard screen by Moreno which has set up 1-10 from the Seattle 16.

Formation: 4WR 1 back, Trips left (bunch formation -- Royal, Gaffney, Graham; Thomas Split-R) Buckhalter in backfield.

Defensive notes: Cover one with the safety sitting on the goalline, SS up tight, corners tight with heads up and inside leverage. The SOLB drifts into man coverage over Graham.

Result: Bubble time. At the snap the corners start to drop back immediately, playing very soft, and the RB flares out to the left clearing the SS out of the play. Gaffney and Graham get upfield into their blocks, Royal drops and takes the screen pass. Graham's block fails as the CB spins out of it and makes a solid tackle on Royal, with the SOLB right on top of him.

Upshot: Again, a super conservative playcall. Execution was poor, but even at its best the play isn't likely to draw more than about 5 yards in this circumstance. The congestion around the ball might be designed to sneak the runner through, sort of creating a faux-trenches, but if Royal is responsible for the 3rd defender, he doesn't have enough room to operate. The play isn't a failure, since it reasonably fits into the context of setting up 2nd and 6 or less, which in turn is about keeping in 3rd and 6 or less situations. The Broncos aren't running, but they aren't really airing it out either... On the whole the drive would net a TD after 3 consecutive goalline runs finally pushed the ball in.

Attempt 3
Context: 4th quarter, denver leads 24-7, Denver has methodically moved down the field with very conservative run/pass calls and are set up with 1-10 just outside the "redzone +25" area on the Seattle 27. I'll start the analysis here, despite it not being truly within the "+25" designation.

Formation: Heavy, 3TE 1WR 1Back, Gaffney Split-L, Buckhalter backfield, 3TE right side (Graham, Gronkowski, Larsen)

Defensive Notes: Corners playing soft and FS deep, LBs backed off LOS.

Result: The nice thing about a lead is you force defenses to play scared, and Seattle is very much respecting the Broncos ability to go over the top, even with only one actual WR split out on the play. But in this case if it looks like run and walks like run, it must be run. In addition to the TEs clearing a path, Daniels pulls from the LG spot and gets in on the rightside blocking action as well. Overall the blocking is good, with everyone making good contact, but Walton struggles to hook the defensive tackle (which is something he is normally very good at, according to McDaniels press conference yesterday) and allows the DT to wrap up Buckhalter after 4 yards.

Upshot: As soon as Denver got the game into unquestionable territory they went right back to plugging themselves as a running team, including the heavy formation, 3TE set that marked each of their attempts vs. JAX. Four yards on first down is fine, and the play was one block away from being at least 8 yards if not more.

Attempt 4
context: this play follows Buck's 4 yard run above.

Formation: I-backs, 1TE 2WR, strongside right. Larsen FB, Buckhalter HB, Gaffney Split-R, Lloyd Split-L

Defensive notes: Cover 2, Corners in tight man coverage.

Result: Seattle still is not committing to the run, preferring to protect themselves against a deep shot. The play itself is a weakside run off the guard, and is a bruiser type of play. The lanes are really congested, Larsen glances off of the LOLB, Daniel's block doesn't turn the DT out of the play, but the beginning of the end was Clady not getting his guy pushed out of the play, who gets a hand on Buckhalter first. Buck also needs to run stronger, since he started going down after the hand tackle, and in garbage like that you need to keep the feet churning, not fall forward ahead of yourself. He was essentially hand tackled, though it was two hands on two separate linemen...

Upshot: Looks like Denver is committed to grinding the ball into the endzone and Seattle is forced to use a timeout

Attempt 5
context: this play follows Buck's 2 yard run above.

Formation: shotgun 1 back, 4WR (Thomas Split-L, Gaffney Slot-L, Lloyd Split-R, Royal Flank-R) Royal motions into slot right.

Defensive notes: Cover 2, corners are up tight in press coverage, man to man. FS cheats towards right side before snap.

Result: The safety cheats over because the Seahwks bring a corner blitz off the right side and the LB up the middle. Beadles picks up the blitzer (mostly) and Buckhalter picks up the LB, leaving Orton to wing it into the endzone to Thomas on the left edge. Gaffney's route, which complemented Thomas', pressed hard downfield before biting in on the hitch, which pulled the safety downfield and let Thomas slip behind the coverage and reel in the easy grab.

Upshot: While this particular call isn't directly set up by the run, between the blitz call and the previous underneath calls, the safeties were just dying to bite on something underneath, and Gaffney sold it well. So much for grinding it out...for now anyways.

Week Two Overview

Last week the Broncos were behind in a close game, and conservative to a fault near the redzone, running out of heavy formations in all but a lone 2nd and long situation. This week the conservatism remained, but the methodology changed, with multiple short routes and no long options on many of them.

But does their one shot at the endzone at the end mean they would be willing to change their stripes and start taking chances? For now, I would say no. When there was even a shred of doubt about the outcome of the game, McDaniels made the conservative call every time. He seems to believe that the team is simply too young/injured/incohesive. i.e., too mistake prone, to take any chances near the redzone.

So now the test becomes, what if the team you're playing is so good that you are obliged to take chances near the redzone? Do you still insist on being a running team and are you willing to take a chance on grinding it out in the redzone? We all know that McDaniels called a riskier game near the goalline against Indianapolis, but how were those situations set up? Tomorrow will conclude the series with Part 3.