Far beyond the brutal collisions, sheer athleticism, and excitement of it all, the strategic part of football has always been the part that has fascinated me most. It’s a game of inches, sure, but moving one O millimeters on the whiteboard could be the difference in the separation he needs for that catch or an incompletion, a sealed backside or a tackle for a loss. With this in mind, I’m happy to share my observations on the Bill Musgrave’s offense, a coach who comes full circle as he begins his first full season as the Denver Broncos’ offensive coordinator.
It doesn’t get talked about often, but Musgrave played professionally right around the time I was born. After leaving Oregon, he found himself cut from the Dallas Cowboys and eventually wound up with the San Francisco 49ers after Joe Montana was placed on injured reserve in late August, 1991. During his stint in San Francisco, he was coached by Mike Holmgren and then Mike Shanahan.
This is why it should shock no one that Musgrave’s core offensive philosophies have a lot in common with the Shanny Broncos teams, though they’ve been influenced by his travels and experiences since, obviously.
The zone running game
One area where Broncos Country may experience déjà vu is when they watch Royce Freeman or any of the other backs carry the ball. Musgrave’s rush offense uses a heavy dose of zone running designs, such as the outside zone. The goal of outside zone is to stretch the defensive front horizontally, which will create creases. It’s the running back’s job to find the hole and press it for a positive gain, even if it means cutting back against the grain to take advantage of a defense that over-pursued. This is just one reason why I’m so high on Freeman going forward, as he routinely displayed exceptional vision at Oregon.
On the snap, the entire line takes a step towards the left as C.J. Anderson (22) begins his run, his initial aiming point is off Garett Boles’ (72) outside foot or even directly at Donald Stephenson (71). The one lineman who didn’t step towards the play is Connor McGovern (60) who instead cut the backside defensive tackle to kill any pursuit. Andy Janovich (32) also is aiming towards the backside to seal off pursuit.
See the crease? It isn’t necessarily where Anderson was aiming at the beginning of the play, but such is the reality when a team runs a zone concept. This is also why the Shanahan Broncos used to be known as the “one-cut and go” style offense.
Musgrave is also a big believer in inside zone, although to be honest most NFL teams run some version of inside zone occasionally. The overarching idea behind inside zone is for the offensive line to block areas instead of men, which helps to combat stunts, twists, and blitz designs, as there will be a linemen blocking whoever enters their area.
Both the philosophy and resulting play will look similar to outside zone, with the key difference being the aiming point for the running back. While the initial route for outside zone is off the outside of the offensive tackle, inside zone will initially aim to make a positive gain inside, hence the name.
Take note once again of the line’s steps. Everyone is stepping in the same direction but for Andy Janovich, who’s moving to seal off the backside pursuit.
If there is no obvious hole, a key coaching point on zone running plays is to take positive yardage.
There’s little to be done but take every inch you can here, which is exactly what Anderson does. Boring, but effective.
The Duo Concept
Many casual fans will confuse the next running concept with inside zone, but the Broncos are actually utilizing the “Duo” concept. Look at the offensive linemen’s feet and you’ll notice they aren’t actually stepping in the same direction. The goal of “Duo” is to push the initial blocks vertically, while the goal of Inside Zone is to move the defensive front horizontally and create a crease for the back.
It doesn’t take a microscope to notice that McGovern’s stepping in a different direction than Max Garcia (76) here. That is a key sign the play is utilizing a DUO concept.
While Anderson may well know that McGovern and Austin Traylor (86) are working towards the same defender, neither of them do. It’s up to the back to make the correct read.
During his time with the Oakland Raiders, Duo was Musgrave’s most effective rushing concept. The play design took full advantage of the size and strength of the Oakland front five, a unit second in the league to only the Dallas Cowboys’ monstrous line.
I would expect the 2018 Broncos to feature a healthy dose of it, but to mix in a good deal of the zone concepts, as players like Matt Paradis and Bolles are stronger blockers when they can utilize their athleticism to outflank an opponent.
Shotgun runs, counters, and traps
Up until this point, I’ve used nothing but snaps under center to show the core concepts of the 2018 Broncos rushing offense. This isn’t because Inside Zone, Duo or Outside Zone can’t be used under shotgun, quite the contrary.
The Broncos will certainly run the ball out of rushing sets, as this will break tendency and keep defenders off balance, which can only aid Case Keenum and the passing game. Musgrave’s scheme has always looked to create a run-pass balance that features both sides of the offense aiding the other.
Trap blocks. They’re making a comeback in the NFL and they were heavily featured by the Musgrave Broncos down the stretch last year. Why? Well, it’s one way to counter overly aggressive penetration by a defensive front. This can be a useful way to help an over-matched offensive line, as well as to potentially create big plays.
One underrated Bronco who will help determine the emphasis Musgrave places on these kinds of concepts? Andy Janovich. The Broncos fullback provides Musgrave with a swiss-army knife tool-set that provides a great deal of diversity when designing a rushing attack. Look no further than last years Washington game for clues.
Washington was among the best defensive teams in football a year ago, but they were noticeably better against the pass than run. One reason for this is an overaggressive linebacker corps. A great way to take advantage of that? Counters.
Upon the snap both backers follow the running backs steps, which is great if the Broncos were running one of their 3 standard rushing concepts. Musgrave had something else in mind, and it worked out beautifully.
Now imagine for a second that Donald Stephenson (71) didn’t block his man right into Anderson’s legs on the play. The Broncos back would have had a full head of steam as he hit the third level of the defense. Or imagine that instead of Anderson, the runner is a hair younger, more agile and renowned for his light feet and quality footwork... someone like Royce Freeman.
One of the exciting parts of Janovich’s game that Musgrave can implement is positional flexibility. The Broncos fullback is equally capable of playing an H-back role closer to the line of scrimmage, which opens up the playbook. Throughout Musgrave’s past tape he has favored multiple tight end sets.
There are a number of ways these kinds of sets can attack an opposing defense, which is why the Kyle Shanahan offenses and Philadelphia Eagles have utilized them with increasing frequency in recent years.
The obvious dilemma? With more blockers along the line of scrimmage, there are more gaps for the defense to try and defend. What makes this even harder is when one of the players is capable of serving as a lead blocker on a counter trap.
Janovich comes all the way down the line of scrimmage to lead the way for Anderson here, who used a false step to slow down the pursuit.
At first glance, the play looks like it could be a huge success so long as the trap block is made. But. Donald Stephenson.
Jared Veldheer doesn’t even have to be an All-Pro for me to consider buying his jersey in 2018.
The more I watch Musgrave’s offenses through the years, the more excited I get about the possibilities for this upcoming season. This is the same coordinator who helped Adrian Peterson break the 2,000 yard mark featuring the Lead Draw. He’s capable of both fitting the offense to his personnel as well as masking weaknesses where they crop up.
For next week’s GIF Horse I’ll look at formations and passing concepts that Musgrave has routinely favored in recent seasons, as well as a few other tidbits I’ve noticed. As always, I appreciate any and all feedback. Let me know what you think!