Turning Point, Or Tipping Point?

Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

I gave myself a small task, I thought.

Sort through the offensive plays from the week 14 Oakland game, compare first half to second half, and find out if there was any semblance of a plan for dealing with #52 of the Raiders, one Khalil Mack. It seemed like wherever there was hope in the waning, wasted moments of that game, Mack was nearby, shutting down the offense almost singlehandedly.

I ended up tagging a lot more things as the game as a whole came into focus for me. Wherefore art thou, running game? What's up with that second half defense? Was Colquitt holding his own in a punting battle? And just how in the hell did the Raiders slink out of Mile High with their dignity, let alone a win?

It all started innocently enough...

There Was a Plan For Mack

...Problem was, it wasn't just our plan. Turned out that JDR had a plan for Mack as well, and it began with isolating him on the weakside. Ryan Harris saw nearly all of 52's early work, and would you be surprised to learn that Harris held his own? There are several elements involved in this.

The first is "the best defense is a good offense" strategy. Kubiak's offense has a distinction between weakside and strongside routes in the passing game, due to the way they mesh with the running game. These are the simple but precise route combos that play off of each other to help set up the holy grail of Kube's offense, the deep post off of naked bootleg. Almost all of the "flat" routes in this offense are run to the weakside, which happily coincides with binding up the overhang linebacker in the 4-3 "under" concept, which just so happens to be Mack, playing the same position that Von Miller occupied under JDR. What this means is that the overhang Sam will often get sucked into pass coverage responsibilities in the flat, especially on RBs. On about 6 of 20 early plays, Mack got roped into flat duties, and then we saw him start to move around, probably a direct reaction to not putting him in coverage when he could be rushing.

The second element in the "Mack Plan" was "throw it where they ain't" school of thought. This was the first play of the game, a WR screen that took advantage of Mack on the first play for a decent gain. Offensive coaches will tell you that against elite pass rushers you need any available solution, and one of them is to affect them psychologically, with rough chips or bait and switch tactics like screen calls. Denver clearly installed a screen package with the intent of backing off the rush before it even got started. They didn't call it a lot, but they dialed it up twice in the first half to good results, including the first play of the game. But as one of the leading indicators of the frustration that had set in by the end of the half, the last two times they called screens in this game they were blown up from the get go, both times by #52.

Finally, they had chipping and "help" options available, but before anyone gets excited, I want to make a quick (but hopefully brief) digression on chipping and help for tackles against the pass rush.

It is easy to say "Just chip em with the TE as he releases on a route!" but much harder to accomplish this in practice. WIthout going into a scholarly diversion on offensive-line/defensive-front meshes, the status of your A-gaps tells you a lot about the potential for chipping tackles. Does the defense have someone down in the A-gaps? If they do, you probably can't chip, or double because numbers dictate the help stays inside. JDR made SURE that he had the A gaps covered to keep his best pass rusher singled up, regardless of the side he lined up on. Additionally, the delay on the routes in Kubes offense when TEs chip is not negligible. The read progression insists that each player come open at an appropriate moment or the QB has to move on. They have worked hard on that timing and it is difficult if not impossible to change at the drop of a hat. Usually when you see chipping, you see it on long developing routes where there is a time margin to work with, routes around 15-20 yards at the NFL level. We chipped with the RB from time to time, and helped with him as well, but not the TEs, because the goal was to get targets out in front of Brock, and get the ball out of Brock's hand.

Too Much To Ask For In the Red Zone

Which brings us to the offensive gameplan, that seemed to be predicated on single-high coverage from Woodson and stymieing the pass rush threat of Mack et al. The game was loaded with short, fast routes, especially crossers and slants. The purpose was for Brock to get the ball out fast and accurate, get him hot, back the LBs up and inside and then get Hillman around the edge. It damn near worked, too. But the Raiders had some pretty cute coverages dialed up in the redzone (and a pretty good "coming out" package as well, and our offense spent a good deal of time in the shadow of their own goal posts this week.) the result was Brock holding the ball too long in the redzone. Looking at our five first half drives, we have five different stories with very similar endings:

Drive 1: This drive opened with nearly 8 plays in a row that netted positive results, while losing the overall beauty pageant. Defense 52 was caught between coverage responsibilities and a very solid Ryan Harris, with little effect on the game. JDR tossed in a number of zone drops from his DL to crowd the underneath middle, and Brock got away with a couple of close calls, ultimately moving the ball for 4 first downs. It wasn't until the nearly fumbled reverse with Lattimer that close calls started to really stand out. Missed blocks here or there by OL started turning into missed blocks here and there. The Broncos were also showing off a TE movement package that had OD and VD all over the formations, a nice changeup that both gave Brock a little more data to work with, but also prevented JDR from moving 52 around too much on the passing downs in the first half. The Broncos blocked one of the few stunts called by JDR in this game, but 3rd and 6 was too much. FG.

Drive 2: Garcia was in for Mathis on this drive (and would sub between 69 and 65 on a drive for drive basis the rest of the game) and got off to a great start with a great wide zone run, with a long patient read working outside in by Hillman (final read was the right one and he hit it hard). the OL looked good getting to the 2nd level as well. If not for losing a block by Davis, the second run, a stretch-toss play, would have been a 10 or 15 yarder. Looking good so far. And just when it looks like the RB checkdowns will be Brock's main play, a double A-gap blitz gets picked up beautifully by 40 and 61, and Brock puts some heat on a little 4 yard out route for the first down. This leads immediately to a good gain on a skinny post in the seam by VD, and it feels like the Broncs have found some rhythm. But the next play, a clumsy stretch-toss, where 11 runs in circles looking for the right guy while a cut down DE jumps right back up in the middle of the run puts a damper on the feeling. Then, inexplicably, Davis catches a first down on the next play only to give it back with a sub-parallel run to the LOS. Now, having seen him do the same thing earlier, I am guessing that he is trying to force the issue. There is no doubt that with so many short throws in the gameplan that the WR corps was coached up on getting any YAC they could, but it really felt like 80 was pressing. And finally on the next play Brock narrowly lucks out from Woodson coming up with a pick, as 24 snuck down from his safety position to a spot barely 5 yards off the line of scrimmage in an attempt to jump an underneath crossing route, watching Brock's eyes all the way. Heads up play from a DB that sees the game as well as anyone. FG.

3rd Drive: Our first 3 and out, Brock misses his first deep opportunity of the game as Sanders gets behind the defense but cant get under the excess air Brock puts beneath the ball. Defense #52 is still fighting to have an impact, but VD has him in check, to the tune of 5 yards on IZ. Now, usually Denver doesn't block a backside player on inside zone, because it hits so fast, but you may remember Mack giving Denver fits in that situation in their first meeting, so call this part of the "Mack Plan" as well. The only time I saw them leave him unblocked was on wide zone away from him, with Brock on the boot action, and he was patient every time on those (which incidentally is why I only remember seeing the bootleg once this game). JDR rolls a cover one into cover two concept at Brock on 3rd and 5, which has Brock tuck it and run, probably because he didn't recognize it. Punt.

4th Drive: This drive opened with runs so inexplicably awful it was hard to get a read on just what was going wrong. Finally I settled on bad reads by both Juwan and Hillman, probably due to some unconventional front stuff that JDR was pulling. When a raiders penalty gives the drive new life, Denver dials up one of their screens, run very well (61, 73 and 69 in particular stood out. This next little section I like to call "Ryan Harris Gets Serious". In it, Harris basically dominates Mack in both the run and the pass, and if not for another bad read by Hillman, Harris probably would have got some high fives for a great 3rd and 1 run on the play after the dud bootleg. Instead he will get congratulated for his excellent job pulling in front of Brock on the 4th and 1 QB keeper on the left end. Also HUGE props to Fowler for gadflying big DE #97 and stonewalling him on the play. That is a lot to ask, but he got it done. After DT snags a batted ball, it is feeling like the chips are finally falling Denver's way again (I'll try and get to the batted ball thing, but if I don't ask me about it in the comments). On Brock's first (I think) play action (non-boot) of the game, #40 steps up in pass pro and annihilates a DE man to man (this isn't a blitz pick-up guys and gals, this is a protection shift that leaves Thompson on an island with a DE. Awesome!) Additionally Denver lined up and forced Mack out into coverage on Fowler of all people. Not coincidentally, this is pretty much the last time that JDR lets that happen). 1st and goal baby! This is it! Wide zone at the goalline, nice call, but it comes up short as Paradis can't hold the NT back on his own. that is usually a hit or miss prop anyways, but man, not pretty. Ahh, now we get Mack on Scho' crime. And honestly, Norwood is about as much help here as he was earlier running around blocking on the stretch-toss. Mack absolutely blows this up. Now we've got 3rd and 15-to-goal... Mack tosses Scho to the side on the next play, but the throw is out too quick (gameplan in action! wooohooo.....oh no. First heartbreaking drop of the game as Sanders lets it slip through his fingers. FG.

5th Drive: I blame this drive for what happened later with the Schofield-Mack Incident(s). 79 actually holds his own on most of the plays on this drive, slowing down Mack, 2 stunts and a safety blitz by Woodson. Brock started getting in rhythm, Denver moved down into the redzone, but on a RB screen, the "Mack Plan" backfired...just when the OL was starting to get him calmed down, Kubes unleashed a dagger to the heart: a RB screen right at 52, an embarrassment of riches on a timely end of half scoring drive to salt away a satisfying victory. I love it. If it had worked, I would love it even more. Instead Mack read it perfectly, blew it up before it even had a chance to get started, and Oz had to spike the ball. At times like this you need to muster a great reaction, because these are the moments where games can slip away from you. I think Brock stepped up big time and 3rd and 15 here. With a 3 man game on the DL and a safety blitz, big 96 blows right by Paradis almost untouched. Brock sidesteps and sends a zinger to DT near the goalline. To me this is the first 'great' play of the game, good execution earlier notwithstanding. And, since one good turn deserves another, Kubes and Co. dial up a beauty on 1st and goal. This play is so neat that I rewound about fifty times just to get it diagrammed. I encourage everyone who can to go rewatch it and just appreciate the design of the play and how it yanks the defense around. Unfortunately, it is best remembered as "that one play where Brock overthrew Green by a mile." Oh, Brock, why do you toy with me so? Not wanting to be left out, DT drops the slant at the goalline on the next play, and then just to be ultra sure that we get the point good and hard, DT and Brock fail to hook up on the same slant pattern on 3rd down. I need a better angle, but it also looks like a drop to me. FG. Halftime. Ugh. But it could be worse.


The Turning Point, or the Tipping Point?

What changed for our defense in the 3rd quarter? The Raiders got heavier and got our nickle package off the field, to be replaced by our suspect safety depth. The result was a not unexpected 29 yard completion when Bush drifted too far from center field, followed by a wholly unexpected 25 yard pass when coverage stalwart Brandon Marshall flipped his hips the wrong way while trailing a TE, and couldn't recover. These two unfortunate plays were surrounded by a miasma of Raider blunders, but one thing stood out to me on that first drive of the 2nd half: the Raiders were chopping wood. Their first first down was an ugly exercise in perseverance: nothing flashy, no amazing blocks or significant individual efforts, just a head down, wood-chopping attitude that told me that they were going to score on that drive. I wish it had been a FG, but I was not surprised when Carr lobbed a tight little toss into a Roberts/Roby scrum and they signaled TD. There was no great defensive blunder or great offensive firework, just small, minute adjustments backed by a delicate, but consistently applied determination. It was such a small spark that, had Denver snuffed it, it probably wouldn't have broached the black hole from whence it came for another decade. As it was, it was just enough.

What followed was ugly for both offenses, as neither team could find its footing, or wrest control away from the other team. the third quarter featured a field position battle. And while I saw Colquitt catching heat for the "punt-off" with King, I think he held his own. The fault lay elsewhere.

It started where the Broncos figured the game would start: with Mack. He was definitely the motivator on oakland's first defensive stand of the first half, blowing up another stretch play and leading the charge (through 79) to romp over Oz. Colquitt booted a 45 yarder sending the raiders back to their 40.

Denver defense slaps Carr and co. around, force a punt. King kicks a 50 yarder that Sanders returns to the Denver 24. After another batted pass at the LOS, Kubes dials up the WR screen that Denver started the game with, in a clear effort to back Mack off. It couldn't have failed worse. Mack rallies back to DT after bringing him down by the ankles, allowing 51 time to close in for the swipe at the ball that knocked it loose. Raiders ball at the Denver 38.

Denver defense holds, pushing the raiders out of FG range. King punts a 33 yarder, out on the Denver 11. Now, all season long our "coming out" offense (the situational plays and execution inside your own 15 yard line) has been something special, whether it was Manning or Brock at the helm. The Kubes offense has some great plays for this area of the field IMO, and our players have the confidence to execute them. Erm. Had. Had the confidence to execute them. Anyways, we get treated to Brocks first audible of the game, Sanders hot on a crossing route, wide opne, but Brock's throw is off target, with only phantom pressure (Green handles Mack). But when OD is back in the game, blocking 52, Mack blows through him for a TFL on an IZ play. Follow that up with not only another batted pass at the LOS but the second in a row by #96. Colquitt booms a 50 yarder, sending the Raiders back to their 40 yard line. Again.

Denver defense steps up. Yet. Again. Oakland is looking just awful enough to be the first one to lose this game.

But this King punt makes it all the way to the 2 yard line... It is time to get the mojo back for our coming out offense. Brock's second audible of the game, probably just a decoy, since its just a standard IZ play, Juwan barely makes it past the LOS. Next Oz drops back , Juwan trickles out and is wide open....but Oz misses him, trying to throw around another set of big mitts up in the air blocking his passing lane. 3rd down and you would like to see a nice short, safe completion. It'll calm Brock down, it'll help the punter. Best for everyone.

Guys and gals, I hate to say this, especially with such a ready made excuse as Schofield just sitting their waiting to be tagged, but the safety is on Brock.

Half credit to the raiders for getting cute with their coverage again, but Brock goes through his progression too quickly. the design of the play is to get someone open NOW, and you would hope that his presnap read would tell him who that is, but regardless, his first read will be open. He needs to give it just a half of a beat more time before moving on, because as soon as he looked away, the corner finished his turn and Davis was open. Hell, he was open the whole time, but Brock didn't understand what the corner was doing, and he moved on, but by then it was too late. It was only a 4 man rush, but they were coming hot. At the end, when he is trying to get the ball flipped out, that is Davis, still wide open that he sees. He just needed to see it the first time. Safety.

Yet another Defensive stand, this time followed by a fumbled punt. That doesn't help. On the mercifully short drive to follow, Carr pump fakes, and pulls Denver's 6-day man Keo off of coverage, then drops an easy one over the top. Freaking TD.

The Raiders are now officially in control.

Its a good thing they still suck.

Fighting Back

Defense gets the ball. Back. Again.

And from there it is a mix of bad and good, with Denver just needing to come through in the clutch and make a play. they keep dialing up screens to slow down the rush, they keep getting blown up. Taking advantage of Mack taking a breather on the sideline, Brock finds an extra second or two lying around and finds a deep seam route to OD for 32 yards. And then Mack comes back in, squishes Scho and we miss a critical FG. And of course, Davis gets a critical holding call. And then DT drops a 3rd down ball. And Scho gets squished by 52 again.

We come back to this: chipping is easier said than done. In the end, Denver needed targets for Brock, and they needed Brock to find them and pull the trigger. But he is a young, inexperienced player and that is asking for a lot. But he will also get a lot better at it. The bottom line, is that we needed some young guys to grow in this game to pull it out, and to get some big plays from our stars, but that wasn't in the cards. But it shouldn't change the long term outlook, only focus it more.

Back to the game, anyone else notice the pushoff by the TE on the long completion the following drive? I couldn't get too upset by it since SeaBass shanked the FG, which ended up working out better than a punt would have, yet another unusual, unlikely bounce putting the outcome for one team in jeopardy.

And then, finally, Denver adjusted. With no pretense at running the ball anymore, Denver completely shifts the line protection to schofield, abandoning the gaps, intent on stopping Mack and protecting Brock. Vazquez and Scho tag team 52, and keep him out of trouble. And immediately, JDR shifts Mack back to weakside over Harris, who thought he had done his time with Mad Macks already. Hillman stepped up to help (THIS is where CJ was missed most today), and after 52 steamrolls Harris into oblivion, surely giving Ryan some kind of flashbacks, Hillman makes sure to give Mack a good shove in the back, helping him accelerate into Brock for a 9 yard loss. Lordy. And for good measure, Vernon Davis drops the next pass. Just gotta look it in. Basic playmaking. Not today I guess.

But wait.

Is that a false start penalty on Oakland? Did our (insert appropriate adjective here) Defense just force a 3 and out and get the ball back? AGAIN?


Ok, Broncos. Breathe now. Repeat to yourself: "Its just pitch and catch. Its just pitch and catch." Needing about 50 yards for a long FG to tie the game, no timeouts, they get the opportunity of a life-time.

A 3 man rush and a backpedaling secondary that is more than happy to give Denver all the rope it needs to hang itself, but well aware that there are some great receiving threats on the Broncos just aching for one last shot for a big play behind them..



Dink. 3 easy plays, 3 easy completions. No hurry, no pressure, the 3 DL aren't even really trying, just keeping contain. The underneath throw to the RB will be there all day (what little of it is left anyways.)

And then they poke the bear.

For reasons I can only vaguely comprehend, Hillman stays in to help. Why? Vazquez and Scho have been double teaming Mack just fine. But when Mack sees a triple team... See, you've got to understand the type of competitors some people are. Some guys go for the throat when they smell weakness, some people back off when you are down. i think a guy like Mack feeds off of the havoc he creates, and I applaud the effort of the staff to get in his head early. Now, I suspect they changed the playcall in order to try and sneak a route behind the corners (the ensuing Sanders double move, in fact), and the change in playcall happened to leave 23 in to block (the play would typically need plenty of time to develop). Perhaps Brock should have told him to run a route anyways. Maybe that would have messed up the other routes. i don't know. I just know 23 shouldn't have been back there.

Mack screams off the line, dipping his shoulder, probably expecting to be picked up by Hillman on the outside, with plans to embarrass the young RB, only to have Hillman set up in between 65 and 79. Vazquez looks around like Fudd looking for a Wabbit. Hillman lunges at the quickly receding shadow of Mack. Scho...well, Scho schos.. Brock eats dirt.

Penultimately, Sanders actually gets behind the defense, a beautiful double move, drop-it-in-the-basket type of chair route that we have seen so many times the past 3 years. he is on the sideline, there will be room to run, no reason the clock won't be last gasp....

But again, it is not quite on target, out of bounds, Sanders takes a hit for his efforts.

And finally, mercifully, the offense has its final play, a forgettable, hopeless fubar, allowing the defense the ignominy of sharing the field for the victory formation.

The End

I wish I could tell you how it ends. But I don't know, and I don't trust those who say they do.

What a glorious mess we've got.

Go Broncos.

This is a Fan-Created Comment on The opinion here is not necessarily shared by the editorial staff of MHR.