I have been a fan of Rich Scangarello since he was hired. I liked the idea of pairing a young offensive coordinator, groomed under Kyle Shanahan, who had done time in the college ranks with a defensive coach like Vic Fangio.
After seeing the product on the field, I haven’t been disappointed. Well, I haven’t liked the end results on the field very much, but the designs and structure of the offense that Scangarello has implemented here in Denver is the best I have seen since Peyton Manning was at the helm.
Now, that isn’t saying too much, given what we’ve had at offensive coordinator over the last several years, but so far, eight games in, I have really liked what I have seen from him.
I have maintained, and continue to maintain, that Scangarello is not what was or is wrong with this offense. Obviously a coach, and especially a playcaller, bears a fair amount of responsibility when things don’t work out, but the takes blaming Scangarello and calling him a bad hire are just crazy town.
I say that as my opinion, but it’s one formed by studying what he’s been bringing to this offense since week 1. If you’re interested in looking back at some of those, you can find a piece on how he’s helped with Courtland Sutton’s emergence, here; bright spots from the Green Bay game, here; how his offense incorporates the running backs, here; and lastly, how he could deploy Noah Fant based on the 49ers offense last year, here.
A lot of the focus (rightly so) will be on Brandon Allens' first NFL win, but this was an absolute statement game by Rich Scangarello.— Jeffrey Essary (@JeffreyEssary) November 4, 2019
Called a great game, kept the young QB comfortable, involved key playmakers, and kept the defense on their heels with misdirection/play action.
Which brings us to this Sunday. As you can tell from the title, I think this was the best game we have seen from Scangarello so far in his young career. He was coming into this Sunday’s contest with a brand new QB who didn’t go through camp with the team and was taking over for an 11-year veteran. Say what you will about Flacco’s performance this year, but that’s no easy task adjusting to that experience level as an offensive play-caller.
Additionally, Scangarello was coming off of a week in which he got called out by that 11-year veteran QB publicly for not being aggressive enough. I know Rich spoke with the media and said he and Flacco talked and are good, and I don’t have any reason not to believe that, but I don’t think you could be human and not come out the next week with something to prove, especially a guy who is only eight games into his play-calling career.
There are two aspects of being a OC - play design and playcalling. The great ones are great in both areas (Andy Reid, Josh McDaniels, etc.)— Jeffrey Essary (@JeffreyEssary) October 19, 2019
Scangarello has been good so far in play design. Has a ways to go in playcalling, which one would expect from a first time OC. https://t.co/ceMlyxRoua
All this set the stage for an excellent game from the first-year coordinator, not only was it well designed, but the play-calling and rhythm of the plays were the best I have seen all year. The offense still had execution issues that they’ll need to continue to clean up, but the coach could not have put his young offense in a better position to be successful on Sunday.
Let’s get to it!
I talked about this in my tight ends piece, but one of the staples of the Kyle Shanahan/Rich Scangarello offense (Sean McVay’s too) is building variations onto the exact same play so the defense sees the same thing, up until the last minute.
Check this one out. This is the fourth play from scrimmage for the Broncos offense. First down run out of an offset I-formation. We have jet motion from Spencer to the left, and Risner is going to pull around to the right on a power run play. Janovich is also leading the way right behind Risner.
This could easily be dismissed as a worthless play. A first down run up the middle that gained no yardage. Nothing to see here. Except there is plenty to see here if you’re the Cleveland defense. Watch the linebackers crashing towards Risner and Janovich.
I don’t know that Denver is intentionally calling this play as a setup play for later, but that’s just the beauty of Scangarello’s offense. Plays build off each other, and each version of them is a viable play on it’s own, but stacked together and called in the right sequence, they become deadly.
13 plays later
On another first down, check out what Denver comes out in.
Looks pretty identical to the play above, no? First down, offset I, Jet motion left by Spencer, Risner pulls on the power, and Janovich leads behind him, and the linebackers crash down.
Except there’s a slight wrinkle.
Fant sneaks behind the crashing linebackers, and does the rest. Great job by Brandon Allen getting this throw off under pressure, and what a play from Fant after the catch.
But wait there’s more
It doesn’t end there, however. Now the defense has been burned on the play action off of this concept. So on another first down late in the third quarter to cap an excellent drive, Denver runs this.
Not exactly the same, as there’s no jet motion, but it’s essentially the same concept again. Power run, Risner is going to pull around for the kickout block and Janovich paves the way through the hole. Beck (#83) and Spencer get half credit for this touchdown as well for their stellar blocking.
These are the kinds of things I love finding as I dig into the tape, and it’s what really encourages me about this offense. When it’s working well, this is what you expect to see. Keeping the defense on their heels, using similar concepts with slight wrinkles to keep them guessing, and being dangerous with any version of the play you call.
The Drive III
Ok, that’s being way to dramatic, but it was too easy to pass up, especially against the Browns. However, the drive in the 3rd quarter that culminated in the Lindsay touchdown run we just watched earlier, was a thing of beauty in its own right. A 95 yard, 4:03, 7 play drive that mixed in strong running, play action, and a key 3rd down conversion.
It started on the Denver 5 yard-line and Freeman picked up six yards on a first down run. On second down Denver ran a classic that everyone in Broncos Country loves to see.
The play action bootleg is another staple of this offense, and is a play that Denver has run pretty regularly this year, but Allen’ athleticism and touch with this throw on the run gives it a little extra juice. The linebackers once again flow with the line towards the run fake, and Fant slips behind them.
Brandon Allen puts a really nice ball just over the linebackers’ heads while on the run. Great throw and catch.
This is a near identical play to one I mentioned when breaking down George Kittle in the 49ers offense last year.
Here’s another example of Flacco running a similar play against Jacksonville.
After another chunk run on first down by Royce Freeman, and a quick hitter to Sutton on an out, Denver was faced with a crucial 3rd and 1.
The Broncos 3rd down struggles have been well documented, and they still sit at 30th in the league on 3rd downs, and are dead last over the last three games with only a 17% conversion rate.
After criticism for being too conservative in the previous game, Scangarello comes out aggressive, in an empty set.
Denver correctly assumes they’ll get man coverage on third down and dial up a nice rub route/man beater concept for Sutton underneath. Hamilton clears out the middle of the field, leaving Sutton and Spencer running a slot fade/slant combo.
Spencer does a great job not initiating contact, as to not get called for offensive pass interference, but sufficiently hinders Denzel Ward from trailing Sutton too closely.
A nice wrinkle to come back to, is the slot fade to Spencer. With his speed, he could easily take advantage, as he was pretty open on this play as well. Be watching for that one.
Denver picks up the first down on the play above, and now they continue the attack with a play they ran earlier this year with great success.
Heuerman and Fant, or any combo of Denver’s tight ends stacked together on the right side of the line have been a great blocking combo for the Broncos. So against the Chargers, they ran a play action off of that formation with a play fake to the right.
Scangarello dips back into that well again with this play.
The Cleveland linebackers again bite up on the run fake, and Fant once again gets behind them. This play setup the Lindsay touchdown run we saw earlier that capped off the drive. Really an excellently called drive by Scangarello with a great mix of play action.
This kind of stuff is not new to the offense, it just felt like it was mixed in more frequently, and with a better rhythm.
It echoes what Vic Fangio said when asked about the playcalling and the offense after the game:
“Obviously 24 points is an area we haven’t been to too many times so that’s good. I thought we called a good game and made some adjustments in the way we called the game, and they paid off.”
“I thought we just mixed the play passing a little bit more one the early downs, went for some shots like you saw the one to Courtland and some other ones. It’s not a major overall just a little tweak here and there.”
Another example of play action from Sunday is this one.
Like we mentioned at the outset, building plays on top of each other and sequencing them is key to keeping the defense off-balance. Building your play action game off your staple run concepts is the recipe for success in this offense.
One of those running concepts that Denver likes to use is a power concept out of shotgun. The play-side guard and tackle double team and the backside guard pulls around.
Here’s another example that Joe Rowles shared with me of the concept.
Typically, Denver likes to run this behind Risner, and have been pretty successful with this concept, especially in taking advantage of light boxes, like you see in the first example.
Knowing that this play was on tape, Scangarello dials up a play action pass built right on top of that look.
They again call this on first down, where they currently run the ball 57% of the time, which is 7th in the league. So it was a great tendency breaker all game.
This is perhaps my favorite run Denver has. It’s a split zone windback play from shotgun where fullback/H-back comes across the formation against the flow to take out the backside edge, and this ends up essentially being the lead block for the RB as he starts towards the flow of the play, and cuts immediately to the other side.
It’s perfect for a guy like Philip Lindsay as it puts his elite change of direction on full display. Denver ran this with great success against Jacksonville as you can see above.
This time, on first down, they call it but have DaeSean Hamilton come across as the H-back to block the backside. He does an excellent job taking on the safety and the linebacker #51 is fooled by Allen’s fake. By this point, Lindsay is off to the races.
Lastly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t highlight the game sealing run by Philip Lindsay in the wildcat.
Needing a first down to put the Browns away, Scangarello reached into his bag of tricks for something we hadn’t seen before and drew up a direct snap to Lindsay, with Fant coming across to lead block.
Not sure if Lindsay is actually reading the end here, or just executing the fake handoff and going, but either way, they caught the defensive end in a bind, and Lindsay’s speed was just too much. An excellent call to ice the game and put a cherry on top of a great offensive performance.
It felt to me like Scangarello went back to the film and simplified the offense down into plays that have worked well in the past, with a few new wrinkles added in here and there.
He also brought out more play action on, especially on first down which is a major tendency breaker that I hope Denver continues to play with to keep defenses off-balance.
As I said above, the majority of what we saw in this game isn’t new. As we saw in the examples, most of these plays and designs have been tested and used before throughout the season, the difference was 1) the execution was cleaner than it has been, and 2) it felt like the sequencing and rhythm of the play-calling was really elevated from what we have seen the last few weeks.
The next two games on the road against stout defenses will be good tests for this offense, but I am encouraged and excited to see what Rich Scangarello has for us next.
Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!