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Re-analyzing Broncos' vastly improved play-calling Monday night

When Shasta and I went about our Q & A on the Broncos offense, our resident expert was quite frustrated with staples to the Kubiak play-sheet that were inexplicably absent. He was much happier Monday night.

Denver Broncos v San Diego Chargers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The Monday night matchup between the Broncos and Texans revealed a return to Gary Kubiak's staple plays for an offense, and it was eerily coincidental that shasta77 had just mentioned in this original post (only hours before the game) that some of these desperately needed to be present for the Broncos' offense to do well.

(*editor's note: if you're thinking what I'm thinking - GET SHASTA ON THE BRONCOS STAFF RIGHT NOW - then get in line...I've already called Kubiak).

Many of the plays shasta highlighted were last seen during the 2015 season - until Monday.  Due to shasta's crazy schedule, we were not able to complete his rant until a few hours before kickoff. But after seeing those plays show up - and a huge win to go with it - shasta wanted to revisit why he was so irritated they were missing - and mostly why it was so much fun to watch them back in use on Monday night.

Note: the bold comments with the snazzy orange line are Shasta's additional thoughts following Monday night's game. You're welcome!  -Editor

MHR - Both Atlanta and San Diego had beat-up defensive units, yet they both made our offense look pitiful. How was the play-calling contributing to this? 
shasta77 -€” The play-calling has often been static, forgetting entire areas of the field (which defenses really appreciate). If you want to count all the toss sweeps or crack sweeps (the play that won the Patriots game last year) that the Broncos have run this year, let me help -€” two in six games, and both went for more than 12 yards.

Inside zone has been run ad nauseum with nearly as much enjoyable success. Where is the inside trap to let your guards pick up a head of steam and drill someone in the mouth, and thereby slow the defensive interior on the next running play? It’s as if the line doesn’t know the playbook, so they can’t run a certain play (which I don’t believe), or someone tore pages out of Kubiak’s playbook.

Neither, of course, is true. And yet, the Kubiak running offense has become intractably packed even tighter between the hashes every week. And as a result, consistently predictable.

Now I’m terrible about putting together electronic breakdowns of formations (chalkboard/whiteboard, yes), so I will shamelessly borrow from the fantastic play diagrams that Matt Bowen has created in the past. If you haven’t checked out his stuff folks, please do – it’s always excellent.

We saw a few different variations on the inside trap last night, with both guards pulling (as is captured here), and with just the offside guard (on Booker's touchdown, for example) pulling. This should be a regular part of our running attack because we have two backs who both have excellent power after contact, but they both have the balance to "get skinny and keep their feet in traffic." It's a great play to keep the defensive line and inside linebacker honest in how they protect their gaps.

Here’s an example of what the Inside Trap can do to both attack an overly aggressive defense, but also get your O-Line rolling. Now Matt Bowen was describing this as an oft-forgotten play to attack the D in the 2-Minute Drill – and he’s right. But it’s equally effective at any time during the game, particularly when you’ve got a defense trying to attack Wide-9 (look at both the DE on the left and Matthews on the right, and how wide they are).

Atlanta ran a lot of Wide-9 to rattle Lynch and squeeze the pocket (smart strategy when facing a rookie). This play is a great way to beat that, and we didn’t run it even once:

And what this play also allows you to do (as you can see it’s a 2 RB set), is to create an easy QB read for a quick swing pass to either RB. Based on the matchup, targeting the unblocked DE in coverage is probably the best way to calm a rookie QB with an easy throw--and a way to slow down the rush.

And the passing game play-calling has been an equal opportunity barren wasteland for entire sections of the field. Running zone or man-coverage? Doesn’t matter if I use a bunch formations that allow the chaos to "pick" a defender or flood that zone to create open space.

Screens and short crossers are tremendous friends to help young QBs beat zone defenses, as Sadaraine mentioned in his recent "No Bull." They are easy throws that create visible pockets where the receiver will be open at some point, either as they pass from one zone to another or because you have run the defense off with the formation in front of the running back (how screens are supposed to be run).

Here’s a staple of the WCO that we’ve hardly seen at all this year – the Hi-Lo. This play-call is a young quarterback’s best friend due to all the options it creates across the entire field.

Welcome back old friend!!! The Hi-Lo was finally in regular usage in this game.  We haven't seen it with any consistency since 2015. And the impact it had was immediate, as it quickly stretched the defense for both running and passing options (as it is supposed to do).

This play creates a two-level read for the QB in the middle of the field (TE and Slot WR), an opportunity for single coverage deep on the outside, a quick safety-valve flat route to the RB, and a secondary crossing route behind the Slot WR that may be open in the "wash" cleared by the Slot WR.

All of this in just one play, with quick reads/outlets immediately available to the QB.

It was fantastic to see the return of overload routes to both sides of the field, pre-snap motion (particularly the use of Andy Janovich out wide, then motioning into the backfield), and formation shifts. And the benefit these provided in revealing the defensive coverage/blitz allowed Siemian to check to better plays and to have a clearer understanding of who was likely to be open in the passing game.  He's too smart of a QB to not give him that pre-snap advantage throughout the game. So I expect to see this once again be a regular part of the offense.

We've seen even less of the overload routes with motion (so either into or out of overload). These help the quarterback see the coverage based on the defense's response, but it can also directly pull the defense out of a blitz call by creating a mismatch on the outside.

MHR – Specifically in the Falcons game in which Paxton Lynch started, what were Kubiak's glaring misses that could have helped the rookie be more successful?
shasta77 – Let's remember the Falcons had ZERO of their starting linebackers playing in this game. So the focus should have been there, early and often. In both the passing game and running game. This means make these linebackers do the last thing they want to, be it run or pass, which is think. They are not the starters for a reason, so the more that you force them to think about how you are about to attack, them the slower those second-tier (or lower) skills are going to be. That's just reality.

So how do you do that consistently with out bailing out on the running/passing plays?

First off, the running plays have to attack both the play-awareness of those linebackers, and put them in isolation against your running backs in space - either on the outside or inside. And when you’re running inside, mix it up with looks like this "Delayed Draw," a Kubiak favorite, that uses the fullback as the escort for the running back to the interior second-level of the defense.

It’s a great call against replacement linebackers, and it gives the interior O-Line a quick-hitter that can get them in a rhythm as well.

CJ and Booker both had big runs on this play and it highlights something that was implied by my selection of "missing plays" - the presence of a fullback. It was no accident that I have a fullback present in most of these plays.  Kubiak's offense is at its best with regular use of a fullback or H-Back, particularly with an O-Line trying to find consistency together. I think Jano firmly established his importance last night.

The Counter Lead (which torched our D early against the Bengals) is another great "attacking" play call that can target overly-aggressive or under-prepared linebackers.

Just like the Inside Trap, the Counter Lead is another way to attack the linebackers/safeties at the second level in the running game.  And it worked to perfection for both Booker and Anderson.  It also provides another play-call that allows the running back's vision to help him "run to daylight."

Last night both running backs did a great job of seeing and then attacking the running lane in this formation/play-call. Run correctly, it leads to easy 5- to 7-yard gains, with the chance for big runs as well. Think of how many tackles Cushing or a safety made more than 5 yards from the line of scrimmage.  This was just one of the plays that helped make that so frequent last night.

The initial counter-action can create confusion for the linebackers in filling the correct gap. But even when it doesn’t, it should again have the fullback escorting the running back to the second level, creating a one-on-one situation for C.J. or Booker against a safety or cornerback in space. Victory Broncos.

Now against Pagano and the Chargers (who run a base 3-4, instead of the base 4-3 that Atlanta uses), you have to take advantage of different "isolation and space" strategies to expose the linebackers. So another oldie-but-goodie in Kubiak’s playbook is the Weakside Lead. Terrell Davis got a lot of yards running this play, and last year so did Ronnie Hillman.

We finally started running outside again!!  And this play was just one of the deliberate attempts to get, first Booker then later C.j., out in space on the outside. We need to see this play run multiple times every week because it can neutralize the "push" by the backside DE/OLB in both the running game and on play-action pass attempt. I see one of our running backs taking this play to the house in the near future.

There are three things to immediate love about this play-call. First, it lets your guards fire off to the second love to bully someone smaller than they are (guards love this!). Second, it gives your running back a read-option on the lane to attack, based on how the blocking develops (running backs love this!), and it allows Russell Okung to demonstrate why he is a master at the LT blocking on this play – because he destroys guys on weak-side running plays.

The Toss Play was back!! Both the Crack Toss diagramed here, and Lead Toss (run to the strong side of the formation, with or without a fullback lead) plays were successful every time the Broncos ran them  Both C.J. and Booker's longest runs were on toss plays.  Again, this needs to be run multiple times every week, even if it's for minor gains, because it stretches the defense to defend the entire field width. This not only opens things up in the middle for the running game, but it creates one-on-one opportunities for the running backs in space against a CB/Safety/LB.  C.J. and Booker won many of those battles Monday night.

Speaking of Okung, let’s talk about the Crack Toss (or Crack Toss Sweep) that I mentioned earlier. As I said, this is the play that C.J. took to the house to beat New England last year and has been a staple in Kubiak’s playbook since the beginning. Why?

Let’s take a look at another great breakdown from Matt Bowen with the Seahawks (and that Okung guy at LT) running it to perfection.

This play is one of the most difficult run concepts to defend because it asks the cornerback to "set the edge" with a Tackle barreling down on him. And as that play-side tackle (Okung, in this example) pulls, the cornerback often will give ground creating a significant running lane for the running back. It also presents a passing formation that takes advantage of the excellent blockers that we have in DT, Sanders, and Latimer (or Green in more of an H-Back role). It’s no accident that this went for a TD for both CJ and Hillman against NE last year. This kind of attacking running play has been missing so far this year.

MHR – Five days after the lost to the Falcons, the Broncos played the Chargers with Trevor Siemian back in the line-up, yet the play-calling was very similar - draw play, draw play, draw play. What should the coaches have been calling instead?
shasta77 – Those were horrible play calls. Right out of the gate we were screaming to the Charger defense that we had no desire to stretch the field vertically or horizontally, killing the running game and the rhythm of a passing game actively taking what was there and forcing the defense to not miss a tackle or an assignment – something good offenses do in every game, win or lose.

MHR – In theory, we finally have "the Kubiak offense" with play-action, bootlegs, and legit fullback usage. Where are these plays?
shasta77 – It's not at all because of the quarterbacks. Both these kids are tailor-made for this offense. They have quick feet, above-average arms and look good playing under center. And one thing that hasn't been discussed enough as a positive about them both is their desire to take care of the football. And when the offense doesn't take care of them, that tends to lead to lots of balls in the dirt or unnecessary sacks.

One of the big plays to Emmanuel Sanders was on this play, as was a completion to DT. Just like the standard Hi-Lo, this needs to be a regular part of the arsenal because it can be run against any defense and creates great "levels" for Trevor Siemian to read vertically (and quickly) to find the open receiver.

We talked about the Hi-Lo as a basic staple of the WCO, and not surprisingly there are important variations of it that have been equally absent for the Broncos so far this season. The first (again, Sadaraine and others have questioned its absence) is the Hi-Lo Crosser:

The two drive routes across the field are what distinguish this play from the standard Hi-Lo. If you’ve ever watched a single Patriots game, you have often seen this play run three to four times in a row because of how easy it is to run and how difficult it is to stop. It is probably one of the easiest man-coverage "beaters" there is because of the pick plays it can create in the middle. A very easy read and throw for any quarterback, particularly because it still maintains the two-level read (deep receiver and shallow in the same horizontal spacing of the field).

Demaryius Thomas' touchdown was on this play-call (Kubiak likes to run this in more of a Trips bunch formation) and it worked to perfection. Trevor Siemian liked the matchup on DT and was going for the one-on-one right at the snap, but he actually has the underneath WR open as well.  He made the right read - easy pitch and catch.  With our talent at WR, this play can be a nightmare for defenses to stop, particularly in the Red Zone.  Need to see this one every week and not just in the Red Zone.

The next variation is the Hi-Lo Triple Flood, again a staple of the WCO (Shanny loved this play, and in this screen grab you can see so does Andy Reid):

There are three keys to this play that make it so difficult to defend – four receiver overload to one side, natural pick/wash that leaves the running back alone in the flat, and the angle route widens the defense, allowing you to attack a zone defense just as easily as man-coverage. Again this is a great, easy-read play for a QB. And an athletic one can often follow the running back (who becomes a lead blocker) running the ball if no one is open.

And you can’t talk Shanny/Kubiak WCO without talking about the Bootleg plays. Again, there are multiple variations, but one we have not seen enough of this year is the Swap Boot.

John Elway had to be grinning ear-to-ear when Siemian ran this play absolutely textbook and Jano took the pass for a first down.  I'm sure Howard Griffith was smiling somewhere as well.  Now we just need to see it used to the tight end and the backside wide receiver like Kubiak used to call it for Elway.

Kubiak created a career for Owen Daniels catching passes out of this one play. Howard Griffith made more than a few great plays out of this play call as well (Super Bowl 32 come to mind?) And this is another multiple levels read for the QB to 3 (and potentially 4) different receivers. So it doesn’t matter if it’s man or zone, someone should be open. Perfect for a young QB to quickly scan the same side of the field for the open route, while still keeping his feet alive to scramble if nothing is open.

MHR - Is this just Kubiak being too conservative with his offensive unit - especially when we have DT and Emmanuel Sanders on the team?
shasta77 – Yes!! Too many of the easy, rhythm-building plays that Kubiak is known for have been missing. Few screen plays (particularly run at the right time), short crosses, flood routes, and designed throws to the running backs (swing passes, delayed leak routes, etc.) that helped make Kubiak head-coaching material.

And it's as if the tight end is routinely forgotten for huge stretches. Shannon Sharpe, Byron Chamberlain, Owen Daniels and Joel Dressen made their living running routes out of the Hi-Lo and Bootleg combinations I’ve already shown.

MHR – How much is the offensive line contributing to the problems this season - and how much of that is injuries?
shasta77 – Yes, it's contributing mostly due to stretches of completely blown assignments, and again a lack of rhythm plays to help build that rhythm. Sadaraine mentioned it in his "No Bull" this week, and Stink practically screamed it - it's not about five guys playing their individual position, but all of them playing together. "Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much." Dropping a Helen Keller quote right there just seemed appropriate, so there it is. I use what gets the point across.

The loss of Donald Stephenson and Virgil Green for a few weeks did nothing to help this cohesion. But as I have said, and will continue to do so, no rhythm plays were run early and often to really help get this group rolling to the degree that it could start to trust each other.

MHR – You've mentioned running more plays to the outside, especially with Devontae Booker's speed. The Broncos seem to continually try to find holes in the middle that aren't there. Explain why run plays to the outside will help this offense?
shasta77 – The No. 1 way to stop any running game is to have the offense fail to attack the entire field. Yep, something that the defense has no control over can be the death of a running offense.

The more you stretch the defense sideline to sideline, the more opportunity there is for a slip by a defender, a missed tackle, or missed assignment by the defense. And as we've seen again and again, those all can lead to big plays for the offense.

Instead what we've seen is a steady diet of inside zone, as if the area outside the hashes are a live minefield for our running game. For my last example (thanks again, Matt!) I want to highlight how to take better advantage of the "quicks" that we’ve seen from Booker so far. It’s called the Stretch "G" a play that TD’s vision made him a master at as it has built in options based on how the blocking develops and the defense reacts.

The Stretch play was yet another of the "missing plays" that made a welcome return on Monday night.  Booker was eating the defense alive on this play early, with and without a fullback lead.  C.J. also had some nice runs out of this play. Giving talented running backs the ability to read multiple options and "run to daylight" is how good running attacks are built.  Both backs showed last night that this play should be at the top of the running play-sheet for them.

This play can be equally effective against either a 3-4 or 4-3 defensive alignment because aside from pulling the front-side guard, it is a straight-up ZBS approach.

But the real beauty of the play is the multiple options it provides for the running back to "run to daylight." This is exactly the kind of play we need to see with Booker carrying the ball. It allows him to cut back if the defense over-pursues, or break immediately to the outside if the play-side DE/OLB fails to set the edge.

MHR - Last year a lot of fans wanted to harp on Manning's INTs, but it seems clear we are missing his experience and football IQ. With two young QBs, how can we make up for that?
shasta77 – The biggest thing that we miss from Manning is getting out of a bad play and into a better one, and the ability to make pre-snap reads that helped him put pressure on the defense quickly to make a play.

With the young guys, they are going to let plays over-develop if something isn’t immediately obvious. Or worse, they are going to run a play right into the teeth of the defense because they didn’t recognize the coverage.

That’s why the play-calling becomes so important. That play has to have fail-safes built into it that allow them to react quicker and think less. Plus, it should give them some easy plays to get their confidence going.

We shall soon see if any of these "oldies but goodies" I mentioned find their way back onto the play-sheet. Let’s hope so, because any one of them could help re-invigorate an offense that needs to start attacking defenses again.

And that was the key last night - this offense was back in attack mode (minus a bit of a slow start).

These plays, and others that I haven't captured here, will only help Kubiak's offense give the opposition something other than our defense to worry about.