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GIF Horse - The Musgrave Offense, Part 2

A look at the philosophy and formations the Broncos will go to in key moments during the 2018 season.

For last week’s GIF Horse, I took a look at Bill Musgrave’s run offense and what the 2018 Broncos will likely utilize as a foundation for their ground game going forward. This week we’ll touch on the system and get into the formations that Musgrave has favored over the years as an Offensive Coordinator.

The System

While every offense steals and grows over time to include bits and pieces from all over, there are basically three offensive foundations that systems use in the NFL. The first two are the West Coast Offense and Don Coryell system. Less known, but increasingly popular is Ron Erhardt’s system, which is what Musgrave’s is based around. So with reports coming out that the Broncos are pairing down their offense and simplifying it, it’s important to note that the Erhardt system famously does just this: it boils plays down to concepts and uses a verbiage that is more flexible.

If you’re looking to read up more on the Ron Erhardt system, you should check out this post, or this one, or this one.

Anyways, while Musgrave has incorporated many aspects of the West Coast O from his years under Bill Walsh, Shanahan and others, It’s no secret that Erhardt’s system is his foundation. He said so himself. There was recently a story from Mike Klis that the Broncos will be using an offensive system put together by all of the coaches on staff in order to help the players. This is a great thing, but while that will undoubtedly be true, I’d be shocked if the Broncos didn’t use many staples that Musgrave has favored over the years. It is his job to coordinate the offense, after all.

Key Formations

Trips Bunch

Whether it be under center or from the gun, Trips Bunch is a Musgrave staple

There are a number of ways that Musgrave tends to deploy the formation. During his stint with the Oakland Raiders it was routinely deployed out of Singleback formations. Last year Demaryius Thomas was often used as the isolated X receiver in order to draw the focus of the coverage away from him, but pictured above he is on the line of scrimmage to the right of Trevor Siemian. Many times a tight end will play the spot closest to the line, In 2015 when the Raiders lost Lee Smith to injury, Musgrave even deployed this formation with a 6th linemen in that spot at times. The receivers ability to block from the bunch is pretty vital.

Bunch formations create a lot of potential rubs that will aid receivers getting open by design against man coverage. When this happens it creates even more opportunities for the bunch receivers to get open through design. There’s also 3 additional gaps for a defense to be aware of in the run game, which stresses a defense when the offense can run zone or Duo effectively. The solo receiver can also demand additional attention, as Thomas often does. When this happens it creates even more opportunities for the bunch receivers to get open.

Split Gun

There are a number of ways Split Guns can pressure a defense through personnel substitutions.

The Split Gun is often used as a way to ensure additional protection for downfield routes in long yardage situations. One reason I suspect the Broncos emphasized it’s usage down the stretch last year was because of the suspect play up front, but Musgrave has used the formation in a number of ways over the years. With Andy Janovich or one of the young tight ends, the Broncos can run Lead Draw, a play that Adrian Peterson destroyed defenses with under Musgrave’s guidance. By maximizing the run threat out of the gun, it should also slow down the rush a hair which will help open up concepts like Verticals, Sail and Dig that Musgrave favors.

Another wrinkle that Split Gun provides is the potential to bring out a receiver like Emmanuel Sanders next to Keenum, only to motion him out to create confusion for the defense.

2X2 Gun

The tight end can be detached from the line in the slot here, as well.

The spread gun is probably the base formation used throughout the NFL nowadays and for good reason. There are 4 receiving threats that the defense has to account for, while the deployment of the receivers creates a balanced formation that provides the play-caller with any number of potential 2 route combinations to utilize. At the same time, it’s easy to motion a receiver across to create a trips formation and also isolate a strong receiver. Don’t be surprised if the Broncos utilize this often, both through motion and also as the base set up to motion into trips in order to get 1 on 1 coverage against Thomas.

Trips Nub and Trips Wide.

Note how many defenders are devoted to the box left of the center. This aids the passing game.
These two formations are just one reason to keep a close on the receiver group in camp.

There are multiple reasons the Broncos have been meticulous in keeping their receiver numbers up in camp, but just one of them is how often Musgrave utilizes formations like the two above.

Both trips formations stress the defense with an “either or” situation that must be accounted for. With a receiver like Demayrius Thomas to split out solo the defense has to double him yet make an adjustment to the spread out trips formation on the other side of the field. That creates a number of issues and makes the field easier to read for Keenum.

Meanwhile, the Trips Nub formation uses a tight end to create a run threat to one side of the field that a defense has to plan around, but there’s obviously a great deal of stress on the coverage with receivers like Thomas and Sanders on the other side of the field.

The Wing Twin

Much like Trips Nub, Wing Twin creates a huge run/pass threat that defenses have to consider.

The Wing Twin concept is one reason why the competition between Jake Butt and Jeff Heuerman is an intriguing one. If both players can live up to their potential, the Broncos will likely use them both a great deal. Wing Twin and the variations off of the formation were used a ton by Musgrave during his Raider years and it’s sprinkled throughout his tape with the Minnesota Vikings as well.

With both Sanders and Thomas healthy, I expect the Broncos to make the above formation a frequent sight for fans this year.

The I variant is one I’d expect the Broncos to emphasize when there’s a belief they can bludgeon an opposing defense.

This formation was used down the stretch last year as a way to hide bad quarterback play as well as to take advantage of the best players left on the team after Sanders went down with his injury against the Colts. It may not be used as frequently, but with a strong fullback like Andy Janovich it could provide Musgrave an option when Denver needs to ice the clock.

Strong I

Strong-I creates a run/pass threat while isolating a single receiver.

Take note how the Colts came out to defend against the Strong-I formation in the image above. One deep safety means that a clean break from the press creates huge issues for the defense, at the same time a defense will often choose to deploy 8 to the box because of the run threat an I-formation run creates.

The Broncos will likely utilize Strong-I, I and the I form of the Wing Twins in short yardage in 2018.


Case Keenum should open up the Empty package.

After the Buffalo Bills game last year I criticized the Broncos for using Empty too often. It eliminates the run threat entirely which allows the rushers to tee off on the quarterback. At the same time, empty sets make the reads much simpler for a quarterback. Extra pass rushers are easier to identify and it should be easier to find the correct place to go with the ball. Key word is should, which is where Case Keenum factors in. Keenum excelled at making the correct read with Pat Shurmur’s offense on the Vikings.

The Empty formation also provides the offense with an ability to mix and match personnel groups to complicate things even further for a defense. One such way is deploying a running back as one of the receivers when the huddle breaks, only to motion him into the backfield, which will allow the quarterback to read if the defense is in man or zone. Keenum would then be able to adjust the play accordingly.


I wanted to take a quick second to thank Ted Nguyen over at the Athletic. He spent a significant amount of time breaking down every formation the Musgrave Raiders used and it helped a great deal. While he covers the enemy, there are few with such adept minds for strategy and I highly recommend giving him a follow on Twitter @FB_FilmAnalysis.

Lastly, for the sake of brevity this project has grown into three parts, with next weeks final installment I plan to share some statistics I’ve found the last couple weeks as well as a few passing concepts Musgrave has clearly favored over the last few stints as a player-caller. I hope you’re enjoying it as much as I have studying it. Let me know in the comments!