Everyone is excited about the Denver Broncos new offensive potential. The man at the center of much of that excitement is new quarterback Case Keenum.
However, while most fans and analysts agree that the offense should look better, there hasn’t been a lot of clarity on what it actually will or could look like.
So I thought for the next few weeks I would dive in and take a look at some things Case Keenum did well last year, and see how that translates over to the Denver Broncos this year. The goal is that we begin to get a clearer picture of what it means to “tailor a scheme to a player”, as opposed to that just being coach-speak or buzzwords we like to throw around.
With that in mind, I put out a piece a few weeks ago that really focused on Denver’s wide receivers being extremely adept at breaking tackles and generating yards after the catch.
We talked both in that article and in the comments that in order to fully realize that play-making potential, the offense has to be designed around maximizing those play-makers’ opportunities in space.
Fortunately, Case Keenum was pretty good at this last year (we’ll talk about how good in another article). So I want to break down a few of the ways he and the coaching staff got the ball into the hands of their play-makers.
A few overarching principles to keep in mind about the offense Case Keenum ran last year in Minnesota:
Staying on schedule is huge
Minnesota’s offense was all predicated on staying on schedule. They weren’t built to come from behind or convert a lot of 3rd and longs (few teams are built for this). Their run/pass split was one of the most balanced in the league last year as they were near 50% of runs and passes.
Getting small chunks of yards that set up 2nd or 3rd and manageable kept them from getting behind the sticks early in drives.
Low risk plays led to low turnovers
Low risk doesn’t necessarily mean no big plays, as Keenum still had his fair share of big plays. However, the bread and butter of the offense was a short/intermediate passing game that were inherently lower risk passes.
This approach allowed Keenum to finish top 5 in interception rate, along with Drew Brees and Tom Brady (who employ similar offensive strategies).
Get the ball to players in space
We’ll dig into it more in a later post, but Case Keenum and the Minnesota offense was one of the best in the league at generating YAC for the offense. They did this by scheming players into space where they could go make a play.
We’ll keep these in mind as we go through the various concepts each week.
With that, let’s dive in!
As the title indicated, the meat of this will be digging into two concepts Minnesota and Keenum ran with a lot of success last year.
Each of these combos are run by any NFL team, but some utilize them and run variations of them more frequently. The New England Patriots and Kyle Shanahan utilize the Slant/Flat combo pretty extensively within their offense.
Now, I am far from the leading expert on these concepts, so if you want a really deep dive, here are some good pieces to check out:
The goal of both of these concepts is to give the quarterback a quick, easy read, and essentially throw the ball where the defenders aren’t.
If they key the flat, you throw the slant/curl, if they key the slant/curl, you’re flat should be open.
The receiver at the top is going to run the slant and create a natural pick for the running back on the flat route.
The quarterback is reading these two defenders highlighted above. If the corner stays with the receiver, the slant clears him out of the sideline area, and the back should have a lot of room to run.
If the corner stays home, or the linebacker immediately buzzes to the flat, the slant will open up.
The play begins to develop, and Keenum’s first read is to check the slant route. He notices the corner is playing tight man coverage on the slant, and the linebacker is five yards back way inside the numbers.
From here it’s an easy and immediate decision to throw the flat route. The linebacker has to come around the slant route so as to not give up his angle, which gives the running back plenty of space and time.
What may look on first glance as a simple check-down, is actually a #2 read on a concept designed to hit all three of those principles listed at the top of the article.
The running back ends up shaking the tackle and picking up a few extra yards for a nice seven yard gain on first down. Staying on schedule, low risk, letting your play-maker make a play.
The other thing to note here is the way this formation is designed. Three receivers at the bottom to draw the bulk of the coverage that way, so as to keep things clean for this combo to work.
Good design, good execution.
Here is a shot of the curl/flat concept from the Championship game against the Philadelphia Eagles. This is also early on in the game.
The reads here are the corner and slot corner. One nice wrinkle that can be added to this concept, which Minnesota does here, is the tight end or another receiver also running a curl route inside the numbers. This completely occupies the linebackers so we don’t even have to worry about them at this point.
I’m not quite sure why the corner is playing so far off the receiver here. The Eagles are in Cover-3 so he has that third of the field, but is just relying on the slot corner to take anything shallow.
The slot corner now has to make a call to carry the receiver up-field, or stick with his shallow responsibility. He ends up allowing himself to be cleared out by the receiver, so again, it’s an easy decision to hit the running back on the flat.
This time, the running back jukes out the corner and picks up a first down; again, hitting all three of those principles.
What’s great about these concepts is if the slot corner had played his responsibility right and stuck with the running back from the beginning, the curl route would have been open.
That’s the elegant simplicity of it. Force the defense to choose, and throw it where they are not.
Minnesota made a killing on these kinds of plays all year. Jerick McKinnon, their receiving back had over 50 catches and the highest YAC total of any receiver on the team, because of these kinds of plays right here.
Now, they don’t always work out perfectly.
Philadelphia has a talented defense, and they began to recognize these concepts.
Here they are with a slant/flat combo out of a 3x1 formation just like last time. This is on 2nd and 9.
The reads are, again, the corner and the linebacker. The linebacker flares out to the flat with the running back immediately, and the corner is several yards off the line of scrimmage.
This leaves a nice window for the slant route. Now if you notice the corner in the image above, he sees the route developing and knows what they are wanting, so he closes extremely fast on it.
The other thing Keenum has to watch for is that linebacker roaming over the middle. He also is being pressure. So he has to throw it on time and place it almost behind the receiver so he doesn’t lead him into a massive hit over the middle.
This limits the YAC potential because of how well Philly closed on this, plus the linebacker over the middle. However, they were still able to pick up seven yards on a 2nd and 9, and Keenum did a nice job protecting the ball and the receiver, placing it in the right spot.
This one is my favorite. So it is clear that Philly is keying on what Minnesota wants to do with these concepts by now. Thus, they are primed for a little trickery. This one doesn’t fall directly under the two concepts we’re looking at, but they used those to set this up.
The outside wide receiver is going to clear out the corner, and Minnesota is going to run the back out in the flat like they have been doing all game and all season. It’s also 2nd and 8, prime territory for running the slant/flat or curl/flat combo given what we’ve seen so far.
Philly certainly thinks so. The slot corner and linebacker instantaneously key on the running back in the flat.
The slot corner literally swims by Stefon Diggs here in order to get to the running back. Outside receiver is locked up with the outside corner, and everyone’s eyes are on the back.
By the time the slot corner and linebacker notice, it is too late. You can almost see that “oh sh!t” moment in their body language when they see Keenum loading up to throw the wheel route.
This is a great example of how small, simple, well executed plays open up big plays for the offense. This was the right call at the right time, and executed to perfection.
Hopefully Bill Musgrave and Keenum have already been discussing these concepts and how to best incorporate them into Denver’s offense this next year.
I have said throughout the piece how well designed and executed these concepts were last year. It’s going to take both Musgrave scheming them up, and Keenum making the right decisions to make these work in Denver. I think both parties have shown their ability in this area so I am encouraged with what’s to come.
Stay tuned for more of these as we dig into the mesh concept next time around.