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Understanding the Broncos' offense - and why it isn't working (yet)

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With all the debates - both rational and irrational - regarding Peyton Manning and our Broncos offense, it seemed the best way to survive this Bye Week drama would be to take a step back, take a deep breath and then dig in to some analysis that can perhaps enlighten the debate on the state of this offense.

Jason Miller/Getty Images

Any football player who intends to play quarterback learns as early as Pop Warner days that the position can bring all the glory or all the shame  - and both are usually fair to some extent.

After all, "QB1" is the field general and has to make the decisions for the team. So it stands to reason, that if he makes good ones, he gets saluted; bad ones and he gets shunned.

But as with anything, there are multiple people and multiple systems in play that must go right for the person in charge to pull it off.

So now that we've had a chance to let our frustration over the offense's struggles generally and Peyton Manning's interceptions specifically subside a bit  - and have realized that if nothing else, we are 6-0 - we can turn our critical eye toward why the offense is faltering and argue about the best ways for the current offense to overcome it (rather than just telling Manning to stop sucking. Who would say that?)

To do this, I have enlisted shasta77 - a former player and coach who has grown up in a football household, learning to break down film at an early age from his player/coach father - "As both a player and later a coach, I would regularly hear one of my father's favorite phrases in my head, 'teach what you know, listen to what you don't, and let enlightenment happen when the two collide,'" shasta says. "It's a lesson that still teaches me every day."

Great advice. So let's roll up our sleeves and get ready to discuss/debate in the comments (maybe even learn) some strategy and solutions (and then I'll call Kubiak to let him know we've solved all his problems).

MHR- Before we get into the core of this discussion, what exactly is the "Tom Moore Offense" (which we've all been referring to as the "Manning offense")?

Shasta77: First off, as most of you know, I hate the term the "Manning Offense" because it does a huge disservice to what Tom Moore created.  It would be like calling the West Coast Offense the Shanahan, Holmgren, Wyche, Reid offense (since none of them did anything but tweak and adjust what Bill Walsh established while they were under his or one of his disciple's tutelage.)  The "Manning Offense" is at best a shuffle-step variation of what Tom Moore established with Manning at the helm. And a small one at that.

So what is it?  At its core, it is designed to call several plays in the huddle, picking one at the line of scrimmage based on how the defense lined up. Marc Trestman, current offensive coordinator for the Ravens, and Tony Dungy met Moore and this initial philosophy when Dungy was the starting QB and Trestman was the backup for Moore as offensive coordinator for University of Minnesota's Golden Gophers (in the early 70s, for the curious).  This was long before Manning and why it is fundamentally the Moore offense and not the Manning offense.

In Moore's own words this is what his offense is all about (I can't say it any better):

"Simple is best. Do less but do it better. Out execute the defense and break their will. There comes a point in every game where one team breaks the other team's will.  You do this by playing fast. The team that can play fast will break their opponent's will. The only way you can play fast is if you know what you are doing. The way you get to that point is by having a few plays that you rep over and over again. Most teams try and do too much."

So, "Do what your players do best" (sound familiar to what our DC thinks?) is the core of the Moore offense. It's an offense designed to not do a lot of shifts because you are never sure how the defense is going to line up, and you are not going to be able to check into a good play. It uses audibles to keep things simple because you only run certain plays vs. certain defenses so you don't have to practice them against everything. And it allows you to limit your play list and not waste reps in practice on plays you'll never call. Because the smaller the play-sheet, the less wasted "learning" you'll have.

One area that is fundamentally different in how Moore approached his play-sheet relative to many other coaching philosophies was in the red zone.  That means more reps in practice - which means pick routes, fades, crossing routes, shovel passes and roll outs (usually left) - all designed to create confusion in a tight space and create a free release for at least one receiver.  And the running calls in the red zone are built off this chaos because they come out of the same formations.

The next thing is first downs and how you "coax" a defense to relax. Obviously first down sets the tone for that series. So you use audibles to get you in the play you want and you plan repeats to coax the defense to be complacent.  For example, you call two screen passes in a row or two play action passes in a row or even two stretch plays in a row. You're daring the defense to prepare for the potential that you won't call it again, and then you do, building more concern about what you might call next. And as a result, after you call the first one, they don't look for the second. The second play usually gains more than the first.  This strategy BBQ'd the Broncos in two consecutive playoff games against the Colts/Moore/Manning.

The last piece in my Moore Offense treatise (apologize for it probably sounding like a sermon) is about technique.  Moore was fanatical about being a teacher and not a lecturer.  And his frequent examples of that were often Bellichick and Coughlin.  They have simple schemes but they can teach the techniques that make those schemes work. Moore's thinking was designer offenses never last or win in the long run. Those offenses are a fad collection of plays that have no connection with one another. You have to give the players connection to the progression/combinations and the thinking, or its hard to teach and even harder to learn.

MHR - For comparison, what is the "Kubiak Offense" we all keep talking about?

Shasta77: Kubiak, by way of Shanahan, is part of the Bill Walsh coaching tree and as such his offensive philosophy is entrenched in the original West Coast offense approach. Walsh's West Coast Offense attempts to open up running and passing lanes for the backs and receivers to exploit, by causing the defense to concentrate on short passes.

Since most down and distance situations can be attacked with a pass or a run, the intent is to make offensive play calling unpredictable and thus keep the defense's play "honest," forcing defenders to be prepared for a multitude of possible offensive plays rather than focusing aggressively on one likely play from the offense.  Another key part of the Walsh implementation was "pass first, run later," which was Walsh's plan to gain an early lead by passing the ball, then run the ball on a tired defense late in the game, wearing it down further and running down the clock.

Another key element in Walsh's attack was the three-step drop-back instead of traditional seven-step drops or shotgun formations. The three-step drop helped the quarterback get the ball out faster resulting in far fewer sacks. "WCO" plays unfold quicker than in traditional offenses and are usually based on timing routes by the receivers.

In this offense the receivers also have reads and change their routes based on the coverage's presented to them. The quarterback makes three reads and if no opportunity is available after three reads, the QB will then check off to a back or tight end. It is not an offense that is historically entrenched in the use of the shotgun, but many from the Walsh family tree have employed it frequently.  Shanahan began doing so with Elway in a game against the Chicago Bears in 1987, and it became a primary part of the offense.  Folks forget that the famous "helicopter play" actually came from shotgun with TD off to the right.  The pistol is a nice compromise that guys like Brady, Rodgers, Rivers and Manning have added to a variety of formations to confound a defensive play-call that assumed shotgun.

MHR - Help us understand in X's and O's why this new offensive scheme is a tough transition for Manning, particularly the route tree combinations you have referred to.

Shasta77: Route combinations within an offense are as specific as your fingerprint.  They are never the same from one offense to the next, particularly when they come from a fundamentally different philosophic influence (i.e. WSC vs. Moore Offense).  So what does that mean?  It means not just where a particular route might go on a specific play call, but all the surrounding routes of eligible receivers on that same particular play-call.  This is probably best explained with a few examples to understand how varied this can really be (and then a lot of hand-waving by me).

And I am going to shamelessly borrow some great work that Matt Bowen diagrammed at Bleacher Report because it's just that good.

First, we always and forever start with the route tree. It looks like this:

route tree

You may have many alternate names for these routes (stick, hitch, streak, etc.), but this is them in their original form.  And on every play in every style of offense, you have different versions of these happening simultaneously across the formation.

But that's just the beginning of the complexity of the NFL (college to some degree, but not to the same extent), because off of these routes are multiple options.  And depending on the coverage or how the defense plays a receiver post-snap, the routes that were called in the huddle can all change. A couple of route changes doesn't sound so difficult, right?

Time for us to go graphic again.

Again borrowing a diagram from Bowen, we have a great example of the options on the route tree waiting for Calvin Johnson on this play.  No they aren't all available, but it's typical that you have two to three outside coverage routes and two to three inside coverage routes for any one play per receiver.

And Megatron is reading the coverage to decide and signal (sometimes not) what route he's running - and that all can change at the snap of the ball.  If the CB shows an inside technique post-snap, Megatron has only two outside options available (fade or comeback).

image 1

Matt Stafford will have to recognize the same CB technique and "know" that on this play Megatron will be running the comeback.  If either sees it differently, the ball is in the wrong place, maybe even picked off. And this tandem awareness comes from many repetitions for this exact look and play-call.

A last-second CB technique change, giving Megatron an inside release, now means all the other routes are in play.  And for this formation, play-call, down and distance, and overall coverage that might mean Megatron is immediately selecting between a post, dig, or drive route.  Whichever he chooses has to be equally recognized by Stafford, who may or may not have seen the CB move outside prior to the snap.

In all this chaos, route combination repetition is the offense's best friend. And this is where things have changed dramatically this year.   -Shasta77

Now picture this same collection of "choices" for all the other eligible receivers on the field.  You can see how quickly the importance of receivers and QB reading the coverage exactly the same way and knowing what route that means they will be running.  The defense shows a blitz look and the offense must now add hot routes to the mix, that everyone must immediately know to switch to or not.  And this can often change post-snap, as the defense reveals the actual coverage and blitz package.

In all this chaos, route combination repetition is the offense's best friend. And this is where things have changed dramatically this year.  Let's combine two snapshots form Bowen to show the difference in route combinations that Manning was used to versus what Kubiak's combinations typically look like.

Let's pretend this shot of A.J. Green is Emmanuel Sanders, and the mirror image of the route tree is for Demaryius Thomas at the bottom of the screen:

image 2

And then we add in Norwood/Fowler/Caldwell in the slot:

image 3

A route combination that Manning ran 100s of times in this 11-personnel alignment would be: Sanders/Comeback, DT/Dig, and the Slot WR and TE running opposing drive routes across the defense.  But that's a Moore route combo.

For Kubiak, that combo for the exact same play-call, formation, and coverage might be:  Sanders/Fade, DT/Out, Slot/Seam, and TE/Flat.  Now if there is quick pressure Manning is looking for receivers that aren't where his muscle memory says they should be.  And if he read the coverage different than Norwood, he's looking for him to move to an option route to the outside—not the longer developing seam route.

Manning no longer can instantly "know" where all his receivers should be ... and he doesn't trust they will be there either. Welcome to the Broncos' 2015 passing dilemma.   -Shasta77

The result?  The Unholy Trinity -  incomplete pass, sack, or INT - but none of them good.  And if there is a blitz or quick pressure, it could be just as bad - because Manning no longer instantly "knows" where all his receivers should be - and since there have been more than a few route disagreements, he doesn't necessarily trust that they will be there either.  Welcome to the Broncos 2015 passing dilemma.

Switching back to the route combinations of last year would immediately help the entire receiving core, not just Manning, because that's what they practiced all last year - and for those that were here, the year before that as well.  Because Gase simply adopted those combinations into his game-plan to simplify the learning curve.

It would also bring the return of the rub routes, crossing routes, and option routes that allow Manning to find receivers much more easily in open space.  Kubiak's route combinations have often done little to prevent defenses from crowding short interior throws creating congestion inside the numbers.  The Moore route combinations are designed to attack exactly that tendency by a defense.

MHR - There's a lot of talk about Manning's "arm strength," "passing accuracy" and "decision-making." It is hard to defend those when you see passes in the dirt, passes overthrown and 10 interceptions so far. How do you explain those along with the tremendous ones that seem to have the Manning Touch we got used to?

Shasta77: As I described above, much of the unmade bed that has been our passing game is simply lack of familiarity with the route combos, so Manning is throwing to a spot where there is no receiver, or adjusted his throw late because of coverage or the receivers cut wasn't quite where Manning thought it would be (the INT on the throw to Hillman, where Manning originally was looking for DT), or because of a blitz with an incorrect hot route (the pick-6 against the Ravens and the one against SD a few years ago - because of Willis not recognizing the blitz).

Manning has also been fooled by some great coverage disguises a few times as well. The Vikings and Browns both gave him a late movement look that revealed the coverage was different than he thought it was.  Happens to every QB.  But when you see Manning clearly indicating to a receiver that he expected a different route, and it's game 6, that's a problem with the scheme - not the talent.

MHR - Was it even realistic for Manning to be able to adapt to this new way of reading a defense/calling the play in one offseason (particularly one where his top two receivers weren't even really involved)? Is it realistic to think there is still time to get it down in time for playoffs?

Shasta77: I believe it was realistic.  But the biggest missing piece during OTAs was play-speed.  In shorts and shells, it looks different than it does in a real game.  And pressure changes your internal clock and reaction in a whole different way.  When you cross the street in London all the crosswalks have a sign that tells you to look to the right.  Why?  Because the tourists are so used to looking to the left that they do and then step right in front of oncoming traffic.  But if they move there, over time it becomes second nature to look to the right first.

With Sanders missing the preseason games for his hamstring injury, and DT missing the OTAs and still getting in football shape during training camp and preseason, even they didn't get the kind of reps that you need to commit it all to memory.

And you could tell in the first regular season games that the game-speed reps were sorely missing. Too many guys, Manning included, looked lost. The fact that the blocking was a shambles only made it worse because now you had a passing game that was often lost and hurrying to find the first open option - which leads to guessing and/or more pressure to make the right read.

But reps build trust and with that the game slows back down again - particularly if the pass protection continues to improve.

MHR - There's a lot of discussion about Manning staying where he's seemingly most comfortable in the "shotgun" versus "under center" and whether a running game can really work well from the shotgun. Do you think this offense can have both - a QB at shotgun most of the time + a good running game? What will be the best way to keep improving the running game?

Shasta77: So many around MHR forget how often Elway was in shotgun from 1987 on.  And that mostly worked pretty well.  Even during the TD era, we ran a solid mix of shotgun and under-center.  As I said before, the helicopter (that really clinched that we were going to win the Super Bowl) happened from the shotgun with TD decoying run to the GB defense on Elway's right.  To run from any formation you need enough attack balance across the whole field to make the defense either play honest or dare you to beat them to the edges if they stay inside.  That's why the stretch play (or lead toss) is so important for any running attack.  You don't attack outside, the defense will pack the middle, and then you likely can't run in the middle.

Whether the ball is being handed off from the pistol, shotgun, or under center only matters if you are doing nothing else to make the defense respect threats to the outside.  Pete Carroll's success with calls like the Jet Sweep is predicated on taking advantage of backside over-pursuit and force the defense to spread out - and it is often run from the shotgun or pistol.

By using a slot receiver you aren't tipping your hand that it's coming from what looks like a passing formation.  The TE screen we frequently ran with Sharpe would similarly qualify.  It forced teams that were stacking the box to spread out even if Elway was in the shotgun, even when it wasn't an obvious passing formation.  We simply need more of that deliberate play-calling that attacks the edges, and the formation won't matter - including where Manning is lined up.

MHR - if you were Kubiak and Dennison and Knapp this week, what would you be doing to "fix" these problems in the middle of the season?

Shasta77: Go back to the route combinations that Manning and the receivers repped countless times last year (and the year before).  And call more "rhythm routes" that are easy throws to get the playmakers in space for YAC plays - much like New England does weekly for Tom Brady, and Phillip Rivers did over 60 times against Green Bay last week.

And lastly, give Manning more time to survey the defense at the line of scrimmage.  It doesn't matter if he's in the pistol, shotgun, or under center.  Give him some no huddle series' to not just get in a rhythm but allow him to use that big brain to attack a personnel group that can't get off the field.  That's how you start playing fast and force your will on the opposition.

As Brian Billick wrote yesterday, "Don't give up on Peyton Manning just yet."