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I Ran (So Far Away) -- The Story of the Broncos Running Game in 2009

He just ran....He ran all night and day....

...Knowshon couldn't get away.


Perhaps the most disturbing part of the 2009 Broncos season (aside from knowing that Raiders fans continue breeding) was the lack of a running game. You've heard the storyline, but let's review the major plot points again:

  • The Broncos nab the top running back in the draft.
  • The Broncos struggle in short yardage, but the problems are masked by a 6-0 start and one hell of a defense.
  • A small offensive line begins the painful transition to a power-running game.
  • Denver's best run-blocking lineman is injured.
  • Denver finishes with a 4.2 average yards-per-carry and ends up 18th in rushing.
  • The rookie running back shows flashes of brilliance, but, by most accounts, finishes below expectations.

Unfortunately, the story didn't have a happy ending, and the Broncos finished with a record of 8-8.    In Broncos Nation, .500-football is the equivalent of a Flock-Of-Seagull's haircut.  While you might wear it for a year or two, it better not become your style.  

But what were the realities of the Broncos running game?  Was Ben Hamilton really as bad as advertised?  Was Ryan Harris really as good as everyone made him out to be?   Finally, how well did Knowshown Moreno really do?

As always, the points tell the story.   Run to the other side of jump with your synthesizer and let's get our answers.

As I indicated last week, I've finished charting every offensive play of the 2009 season with an expected points value. This allows us to convert every play to points, and even better, lets us really get to the heart of Denver's running game.  Not only can we tell how valuable the running game was in general, but we'll be able see how the individual running backs and linemen did by down and direction.  If you missed last week's primer on Expected Points Value, check it out here.  

Runs By Direction - Where they Went

Before we detail individuals, let's see how Denver did running the ball by direction.  Again, remember, these values are an average-expected-points-value per play for the 2009 season:

Run  Frequency   Average
Left End  52 0.378
Left Tackle 54 0.072
Left Guard 38 0.219
Middle 131 -0.108
Right Guard 42 0.163
Right Tackle 51 0.077
Right End 55 0.195


Denver was most successful running over the left end, averaging .378 points per play.  This reflects highly of tight end Daniel Graham, who would often seal the edge on running plays, and of Ryan Clady, Denver's All-Pro left tackle.  Denver was poorest running right up the middle, averaging -.108 points per play.  Essentially, running up the middle for the Denver Broncos in 2009 was literally the equivalent of losing.  Graham also did and effective job sealing off Denver's right end as well, although not nearly as well as he did on the left side. 

Ben Hamilton was criticized (and rightly so) for his total lack of pass protection during 2009, but it appears that his run blocking wasn't what got him benched.  When the Broncos ran over left guard they averaged .219 points per play. 

Lineman - The Expected Points Value of Very Large Men

Denver replaced Hamilton with Russ Hochstein, and Tyler Polumbus also saw a ton of action after Ryan Harris went down with a toe injury.  This tended to skew the individual positions and their point values.  However, to solve this problem, I also charted each individual lineman's run blocking points per play.  The results are as follows: 

Play Lineman  Count   Average  Play Lineman  Count   Average 
Run  Ryan Clady  54 0.073 Run  Tyler Polumbus  32 -0.124
Run Ben Hamilton  26 0.209 Run Russ Hochstein 12 0.242
Run Casey Weigmann  131 -0.108 Run Left End  52 0.378
Run  Chris Kuper 42 0.163 Run Right End  55 0.194
Run  Ryan Harris 19 0.415  ---  --------------------  --- ---------


Now the true picture begins to emerge.  Ryan Harris was, as you might have expected, the best run blocker for the Denver Broncos in 2009.  Once he was injured, and Tyler Polumbus replaced him in the game against Baltimore, it severely hampered the Denver running attack.  After the injury, running off the right tackle was a losing proposition, averaging -.124 expected points.

The effect of Hochstein--at least in the running attack--is also evident from this table.  He was somewhat an improvement over Hamilton--a 16% improvement in fact.   The Broncos averaged .242 points when they ran over Hochstein; they averaged .209 when running over Hamilton.

Chris Kuper is rumored to be one of the players that the Broncos would like to keep, but after looking at these numbers, I've lessened my appreciation for his run blocking.  Unless his pass blocking skills are out-of-this-world, which didn't appear on film study,  I wouldn't advise Denver to overspend in the slightest on Kuper.   

Interestingly enough, McDaniels took notice of the injury to Harris, and it was reflected in his play calling.  Here is how Denver's running attack broke down by percentage before and after the injury:

Pre-Harris Injury        Post-Harris Injury      
Run Count %   Count %
Left End 14 7.95% Left End 38 15.38%
Left Tackle 14 7.95% Left Tackle 40 16.19%
Left Guard 20 11.36% Left Guard 18 7.29%
Middle 59 33.52% Middle 72 29.15%
Right Guard 26 14.77% Right Guard 16 6.48%
Right Tackle 19 10.80% Right Tackle 32 12.96%
Right End 24 13.64% Right End 31 12.55%
TOTAL 176 100.00%   247 100.00%


After the injury to Harris, it appears as if McDaniels decided to rely much more on Ryan Clady and Daniel Graham, more than doubling the plays called to the left tackle and left end.   He also relied less on the middle of the line and both guards.  There is no doubt McDaniels saw the same thing everyone else did (bad interior line play), and during the losing streak, attempted to fix a running game that was running itself into the ground.

Runs by Down - Even Worse Than New Wave Throwbacks

We can also break down Denver's expected points by down:

Play    Down   Count    Average 
Run 1st 250 0.085
Run 2nd 124 0.140
Run 3rd 46 -0.037
Run 4th 3 0.804


We all know how much Denver struggled on 3rd down this year, hovering around the league average of 37%, but the table above suggests just how badly the struggles really were.  It can't be said enough: when Denver ran on 3rd down in 2009, it was the equivalent of losing points.   If we really wanted to show off, we could further peel the layers back on 3rd down and distance, but most of Denver's 3rd down running plays (no matter the distance) were either negative or barely positive.  So there's no need to blind you with another table.  

Running on 1st down wasn't significantly better, it should be noted, barely breaking even in expected points value.

Running Backs -- The Great Buckhalter

Now we are ready to add the last piece to the analysis of the Denver running game for 2009.  Let's put Correll Buckhalter and Knowshon Moreno side-by-side, first according to direction, and second according to down:

Correll Buckhalter       Knowshon Moreno    
Average Points - Direction       Average Points - Direction    
Direction Count Average   Direction Count Average
Left End 15 0.463   Left End 24 0.240
Left Tackle 11 0.267   Left Tackle 40 -0.033
Left Guard 13 0.360   Left Guard 18 0.193
Middle 38 -0.096   Middle 67 -0.074
Right Guard 8 0.051   Right Guard 30 0.205
Right Tackle 16 0.425   Right Tackle 31 -0.045
Right End 16 0.306   Right End 33 0.198
 All  117 .197     All  243 .059 
Average Points - Down       Average Points - Down    
Down Count Average   Down Count Average
1st 72 0.222430556   1st 153 -0.002071895
2nd 37 0.18327027   2nd 65 0.149923077
3rd 8 0.025   3rd 23 -0.009217391
4th 0 0   4th 2 2.543


This table is a lot to take in, even for a stats geek, so here is a summary if you want to skip ahead:

• Buckhalter was more than 3 times more valuable than Moreno in Denver's running game in 2009.

• Buckhalter produced the most value when running over the left end and right tackle.

• Moreno produced the most value when running over the right guard or left end.

• Buckhalter produced a positive expected points value on all downs but 4th, in which he had 0 carries.

• Moreno produced a negative expected points value on both 1st and 3rd downs.

The last point is worth focusing on.   Handing the ball off to Moreno on 1st and 3rd downs was a negative proposition for the Broncos in 2009.  And the Broncos did just that 176 times during the season.  It's no secret then why the offense struggled the way it did (hint: stop blaming Kyle Orton). Perhaps Josh McDaniels should have considered handing off to Buckhalter more often during the season, despite durability concerns.  Or perhaps passing on 1st down more often would have been another strategy.  Denver's expected points value for passing plays on 1st down was .450, so the numbers would have supported this move.  There will be more about this in another piece in a few weeks on optimal play strategy.  

As a side note, I didn't spend any time analyzing Lamont Jordan or Peyton Hillis.  They simply didn't get enough carries on the year to yield valuable data.

Advice in Hindsight - Running Far Away from Nothing

Now that we are armed with all of this data, let's give Josh McDaniels some post-season advice (which, of course, doesn't do him much good now):

1. Denver should have run more often around the ends of the line, especially after Ryan Harris went down.

2. Denver should have involved Eddie Royal and Brandon Marshall in the running game, given Moreno's struggles on 1st and 3rd downs. This would have provided some variety and also taken advantage of Denver's higher expected points values when running around the ends.

3. Correll Buckhalter should have probably been utilized more often.

4. Ryan Harris is as valuable as Ryan Clady. Denver should do everything to get him healthy.

5. Chris Kuper wasn't as monstrous as advertised. Denver shouldn't necessarily be in a rush to overpay him.

6. Denver should have passed more often on 1st down.

I'd like to see what you might pull from this data as well, so please pass along any new wave hits you can gleam from this data in the comments section.   I look forward to seeing what more I can learn from you.

Next week we'll take a look a look at the expected points value of Kyle Orton, the passing game in general, and we'll spend a significant amount of time looking at Eddie Royal--a guy who really can run very far away.  Until then, feel free to comb your hair in a flock of anything you'd like.