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Diagnosing the real problem: The run game

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

One of the greatest NFL minds once said the solution to a problem isn't always the obvious cure to the sickness but rather for the symptom, especially if you misread the symptom. (Mike Holmgren). So often as fans when we watch the game and something seems wrong we only see the symptom because of how fast the game moves. The play starts, the running back gets the ball and bam! He's taken down for a loss. "The run game sucks!" We say. But we do this without understanding WHY this happens. The purpose of this article is to look at the symptoms we see and diagnose the real problem. Let's be doctors for a bit.

I'll be basing my problem solving off of the formula designed by Mike Holmgren, Andy Reid and Bill Walsh. Let me shortly sum up how they created this problem solving method that I discussed in the linked post:

The Theory

Some years ago an NFL front office wanted balance on offense but couldn't run. They tried everything: Inside, outside, but it just didn't work. The team struggled and soon many free agents wanted to leave.

The front office looked for solutions, they knew their line wasn't very good, could they upgrade it? No, there were not enough draft picks to fix that in one year and the players would take years to develop. How about a back who can play without a great line, like Barry Sanders? No, players like that don't become free agents often. There was no real economical solution without altering the teams identity. This looked like a long term problem.

The coaching staff called a team meeting to discuss ideas. A young assistant coach raised his hand. This coach wasn't focused on how to improve the run game, but on the fact that because they couldn't run the ball opposing defenses didn't respect the run. Why, he asked himself, was this a problem? He concluded that because the opposing teams didn't respect the run game they could send extra blitzers or drop more players into coverage. This made the quarterbacks life very hard. So this coach decided the real problem wasn't the lack of run game, it's that opposing defenses could dictate the game. To solve this the coach suggested using running backs in the screen game or on short slant routes to supplement the run game. By doing this opposing teams couldn't blitz 5, 6 or 7 men since the quarterback had a quick release target and they also couldn't drop their corners and safeties in deep zones otherwise the shorter routes would eat them up. The team did this, opposing teams were forced to adjust, and the team's desired goal was achieved.

This is the story of a real team and a real assistant coach, or coaches to be more specific. Mike Holmgren and Andy Reid took the basis of the West Coast offense they learned from Bill Walsh but after examining a theoretical team and problem in the NFL one off-season, they sat down and tried to find solutions. After spending nearly the whole off-season looking at this, they came up with this solution. They broke their thoughts down to these laddering questions:

Complaint: We can't run the ball.
Question: Why is that a problem?
Answer: It makes it hard to pass the ball
Question: Why is that a problem?
Answer: We lose control the field of play
Question: Why is that a problem?
Answer: The defense can blitz and drop into coverage whenever they want

Holmgren and Reid had found the real problem, it wasn't that they couldn't run the ball (though that was true) it was that defenses could do what they wanted without fear. These two had seen running backs and fullbacks used as receivers before, but it had never been a key part of an offense.

Application to the Broncos

So today I want to apply this logic test to some of the bigger symptoms fans seem to have an issue with the run game. Lets work through this process:

Complaint: The Broncos struggled to run the ball.

We heard this a lot last season so before we solve a problem we need to ask a key question.

Question: Did it really?

Answer: This is the obvious question, was the complaint a logical one or based on a misconception. So let's look at the Broncos run game in 2013. The basic stat line says the Broncos as a team ranked 20th with 4.1 yards per carry. From this vantage point it doesn't look very good but lets dive in deeper, this metric factors in the impressive run skills of Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler, to truly gauge a teams running ability you don't judge them based on quarterbacks and other factors. Let's look instead at the top 2 backs from each team since they occupy about 80% of a teams rushing attempts, by doing so we eliminate outliers and factor in the players who were the key part of the teams rushing attack. When we look at it from this vantage point the Broncos had two backs in the top 20 in the NFL in yards per attempt and when you rank the NFL based on their top two backs per team the Broncos rank 7th in the NFL. The Broncos had a very successful rushing attack last year.

But why did some see a symptom if there really was none, were the fans confused? Well let's listen to another complaint.

Complaint: The Broncos were inconsistent when they ran the ball last year.

Now we are getting more specific, that is good.

Question: Were they really inconsistent (I'm starting to sound like my 2 year old son)?

Answer: Let's dig a bit deeper. Overall the Broncos were a fairly consistent run team over the course of the season. They had 14 of their 19 regular and post-season games succeed and only had one truly bad game, against San Diego in week 15 where the Broncos rushed for only 18 yards (well Moreno had 19 but Montee lost one yard on his three attempts). Though the Super Bowl applies but the Broncos gave up running the ball early in that game. But once we dig a bit deeper than purely the season, we begin to see what could be another symptom.

The Broncos running backs ranked 7th in the NFL in negative runs. So now we have a new complaint.

Complaint: The Broncos running backs got caught in the backfield far to often.

Question: Was this due to opponent scheming by the coaches, poor decision making by the backs and quarterback, or the offensive line?

Answer: With this question we are narrowing our field of vision and getting deeper into the real issue. So there are three possibilities we mentioned above, let's break down each one. It's one of the more documented topics of the off-season was how little the Broncos faced heavy lines of scrimmage and while it's partly true the Broncos still faced more than four defenders rushing the quarterback the 13th most in the NFL. So slightly higher than average but not in line with the number of tackles made behind the line of scrimmage. Let's move on then to poor decision making and the offensive line.

To study at these two topics I looked at every run that went for zero or negative yards. By doing this I could take each run and decide who was to blame:

- The running back for being indecisive, slow or missing an open running lane
- A specific offensive lineman who let a defender come by too easily or untouched
- The quarterback and/or offensive coordinator for not assigning enough blockers or adjusting to the defensive front

Now sometimes it's a combination but after a few plays it became clear that there was an issue, the offensive line was allowing too many defenders by within the first second, either due to poor blocking or just missing the defender. Just under 88.2% of runs for zero or negative yardage came when an offensive lineman failed their job, this was the 3rd highest percentage in the NFL. Having found this trend I delved deeper into the problem

- The Broncos running backs were hit an average of 2.21 yards past the line of scrimmage, 6th worst in the NFL
- The Broncos running backs averaged 2.17 yards after contact or about 49.6% of their total yards came after the first hit, 7th highest in the NFL

It becomes clear the Broncos backs were actually much better than their overall numbers showed. Now they were not all blameless. Now Knowshon Moreno was only tackled for no or negative yards on 14.1% of his runs compared to 21.9% for Montee Ball despite both getting hit in the backfield nearly as often (1.1% difference in how often they were hit at or behind the line of scrimmage). But neither caused more than 10% of their negative or zero yard runs.

So now that we know to look more deeply at the offensive line, let's voice our complaint and ask our question.

Complaint: The Broncos offensive line allowed to many defenders past them.

Question: Which blockers were the best and worst?

Answer: Looking at each rushing attempt we had created a list of which offensive lineman allowed defenders by too easily so this next task is already done. Let's take a look shall we at each of the 60 runs for zero or negative yards that fell on the shoulders of the offensive line.

- LT Chris Clark: 17 runs for no gain or a loss, 28.3% of the total net loss runs
- LG Zane Beadles: 6 runs, 10%
- C Manny Ramirez: 15 runs, 25%
- RG Louis Vasquez: 3 runs, 5%
- RT Orlando Franklin: 7 runs, 11.7%

The biggest offenders are clearly Clark and Ramirez while Beadles, Vasquez and Franklin all were stout, especially Vasquez. Now that we've identified the true problem, the real issue, with the Broncos run game, let's voice the correct complaint.

Final Complaint: Chris Clark and Manny Ramirez were liabilities as run blocker.

Final Question: What can be done to address this?

Final Answer: Now that we have the main source of the issues with the Broncos run game (and I use issues loosely, Moreno and Montee both had an exceptional season, ranking in the top 20 in yards per attempt, as noted earlier), what have the Broncos done to address this issue.

Well sadly not much, obviously the return of Ryan Clady improves the left side of the offensive line but the Broncos run left of center only about 45% of the time since Peyton's arrival so it's an upgrade but not to the power side of the line. Ramirez is the expected starter at center so no change there. Beadles was a fantastic run blocker, especially pulling, last year but Franklin potentially can fill that void just fine, but again, this is the left side of the offensive line.

The biggest shock to me is knowing the Broncos weakest run defender is now at right tackle. Now for those that don't know the right tackle is expected to be the anchor on run downs since teams generally run to the right and even when they run to the left, the right tackle is vital in protecting the running back from being tackled from behind. By installing a weak right tackle on a team that runs to the right as often as the Broncos do, this isn't a solution.

Wrapping Up

This isn't a forecast of failure or doom, rather it's a mental exercise to study problems relating to the Broncos. I do have concerns about the Broncos offensive line but that doesn't mean I think the run game will flop but rather if Broncos fans want to see their run game improve they need to dig deeper. I encourage this type of thought game for any area of concern you may have for the Broncos.

There is hope, the Broncos rookies and the potential maturation of the already mature players along the offensive line. The Broncos did draft two offensive lineman who could look to shake things up at center and right tackle, and I hope they do, but only time will tell if the problem has been remedied or not. But until pre-season starts we cannot truly say one way or another, we can only give educated guesses, after that all we can do is wait and see. I have hope the Broncos' coaches and players can step up and make the improvements that needed to be made, GO BRONCOS!