Film Room: Denver's Running Game

Film Room: Denver's Running Game
Film Room: Denver's Running Game
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Derrik Klassen

For a majority of the season, DVOA told a different story about the Denver Broncos than their record. The Broncos have been in the top half of total DVOA since September, often finding themselves as high as the top ten. Yet for much of the year, Denver continued to lose despite a 2-0 start and a consistently impressive DVOA rating.

Heading into Week 11, the Broncos sat with a 3-6 record that put the team on fragile ground in the AFC wild-card race despite ranking ninth in total DVOA. The team's 12.6% rating was a stone's throw from the Baltimore Ravens (13.9%) and the Seattle Seahawks (12.9%) at the time, but they had little to show for it. It appeared as though Denver was going to squander a roster capable of making the postseason, and as a result, head coach Vance Joseph's job was put in question. Since that point of doom and gloom, the Broncos have won three straight games, two versus potential playoff teams, and made good on the faith DVOA put in them.

The Broncos are unique in how they are finding success in the modern NFL. They are an homage to a different era of football. Whereas many of 2018's top teams boast high-octane passing offenses at the expense of their run game and defense, it is a dominant rushing attack and a fearsome defense that has propelled Denver back to .500. In fact, among offenses with an overall positive DVOA rating, the Broncos are one of only two teams with a higher rating on the ground than through the air (the other being the Carolina Panthers).

In a story not unfamiliar to Denver, the catalyst for the team's newfound rushing prowess is an undrafted running back. Phillip Lindsay, a two-year feature back just down the road at the University of Colorado, has given the Broncos' ground game life with his blazing speed and crafty between-the-tackles work. Like many undrafted breakout stars, Lindsay does not possess the stature of an NFL mainstay at 5-foot-8 and 190 pounds, but plenty of NFL defenders would tell you that his small frame does not matter if you can not get a hand on him.

Lindsay ran a 4.39-second 40-yard dash at his pro day, and it shows. When Lindsay wiggles outside of the tackle box, he vaporizes defenders' angles and makes them pay for believing they can catch him in the open field.

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Denver is running a zone opposite concept on this play. The offensive line steps one way in union to give the illusion of a zone run in that direction, but the back receives the handoff opposite their movements. In theory, the back should hit through the backside tackle (Garett Bolles, 72), but Pittsburgh's defensive back who follows the motioning wide receiver (DaeSean Hamilton, 17) sniffs out the play. The defensive back shoots inside of Hamilton to gash into the backfield, cutting off Lindsay's rush path. Lindsay reacts to the defender and bounces the play out wide only to find himself one-on-one with another Steelers defender (Coty Sensabaugh, 24). Some backs may get caught here for a minimal gain or try to approach the defender to shake him, but Lindsay books it toward the sideline and dares Sensabaugh to catch him. By trusting himself to work outside and win the foot race, Lindsay picks up a first down and more for the Broncos.

In the previous play, the defense largely held up their assignments and did fine to control the run; Lindsay just had the burners to beat them. When defenses give Lindsay an ounce of wiggle room, however, he does not let them off lightly.

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Remove the helmet stickers and nameplates and you may mistake Lindsay for Todd Gurley on this run. Gurley had a similar run versus the Seahawks last season as he turned the corner around the linebackers and blazed through the secondary like Lindsay did here versus the Bengals. Gurley may be on a team that more frequently enables these types of explosive runs, but when Lindsay gets his chances, he does not blow them.

More impressive, and often more surprising given Lindsay's stature, is how well he can run between the tackles. Lindsay is not a bull the way someone such as Leonard Fournette is, but he flashes the vision and set-up to take linebackers out of the play before they get a chance to tackle him.

via Gfycat

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In both of these examples, Lindsay presses the inside path for as long as possible before dashing the other way. Lindsay does this to force the interior linebackers to play the inside gap aggressively, leaving them with very little chance to redirect over the top and catch Lindsay in time. Both times, Lindsay fools a linebacker into staying in the inside gap and getting stuck in traffic to allow himself to spring free through another opening. It is that type of savvy that allows a small runner such as Lindsay to negate what should be a detriment to his skill set.

It would be disingenuous to lump all of Denver's rushing success onto Lindsay, however. Fantastic as he may be, Lindsay is afforded plenty of help from his offensive line, no different than any other potent running back. Despite being down to a handful of second-stringers and getting poor pass protection out of their bookends, Denver's offensive line has been a force in the run game.

Through Week 13, Denver's offensive line ranks fourth in adjusted line yards, a measure of how effectively the offensive line is generating push in the run game. The Broncos also rank 12th in short-yardage scenarios and 13th in stuff rate. Neither of those two marks are anything spectacular, but serve to highlight that Lindsay and the rest of Denver's stable of runners are getting a fair amount of assistance.

Backups Billy Turner (left guard) and Connor McGovern (center) in particular have risen to the challenge. Turner is a nasty downhill guard who works best when grinding linemen down the field in duo and inside zone concepts, while McGovern has shown the mobility and awareness to keep Denver's interior offensive line intact in the absence of starter Matt Paradis.

Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave has also done well to enable his running backs. For example, Lindsay often gets more of the zone opposite, pulling plays, and toss plays that better allow the runner to bounce to the outside, because that is where Lindsay can deal the most damage. Royce Freeman, however, gets the bulk of the inside zone carries and is more of a grind-it-out style of runner for the team.

Musgrave has even taken to exposing defensive tendencies to enable the backs. Three weeks ago, Musgrave made the Los Angeles Chargers pay for keeping linebacker Jatavis Brown to the passing strength of the formation, and flipping him around the defense if necessary.

Denver starts in a tight bunch, then motions their outermost player across the formation to join a wide receiver on the opposite side of the field. The motion creates a 2x2 formation with a wide receiver and slot receiver to their right, with two players tight to the formation on the left. In seeing the motion, Brown (57, blue circle) flips from the bunch side of the formation to the wide receiver side. Safety Derwin James (33, yellow circle) switches places with him by moving to the tight side of the formation, acting as a pseudo-edge player.

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Denver then runs a duo concept away from the misplaced Brown. Lindsay takes a few shuffle steps as he sifts through the chaos, building up to the perfect moment to strike for a long touchdown. This play was the most successful example, but Denver turned to this trick to get Brown and the rest of the defense out of position on a number of occasions that day.

The looming concern with Denver's run-oriented success is that today's NFL is not geared for that style of team. Exceptions such as the 2013 Seattle Seahawks exist, in theory, but that squad also got highly efficient quarterback play out of a young Russell Wilson and they would not have hoisted the Lombardi without supreme passing production. The Broncos do not have Dange-Russ and instead have to resort to hoping journeyman Case Keenum can play mistake-free football like he has the past three games.

How far Lindsay can carry this team is uncertain. With passing juggernauts littered across the league, especially in the AFC, Denver is playing at a massive disadvantage in using their run game as the heart of the offense. (As for the passing game, things got worse on Wednesday with a torn Achilles for No. 1 receiver Emmanuel Sanders.) Nontheless, for Denver to even make the postseason this year would be quite the feat considering how far they have come from 3-6. If this Broncos team were to get to the postseason and make a dent in the AFC, they could serve as a small vestige of hope for franchises that want to play run-first football.


4 comments, Last at 08 Dec 2018, 2:00pm

1 Re: Film Room: Denver's Running Game

Thanks for that. Lindsay's willingness to stutter step or otherwise wait for the blocks to set up seems to be really helping. His shorter TD vs the Bengals showed a nice combination of patience, vision and decisiveness.

A couple of week ago I said in comments I was unsure about Bill Musgrave, the last few weeks I've seen a lot more to like from the plays called and would like to take back my uncertainty. Although they are not passing particularly well they have been scheming people open more and using more combination routes and other things than I saw early in the season. I'd guess that more emphasis opponents put on taking away the run the more chance there is to get people open with nicely designed plays, now there just needs to be someone fit to catch the ball.

Of course there is the question of how much Lindsay is going to get paid next year - he did sign a 3 year contract (and not a bad one for a rookie UDFA), but it might be useful goodwill act to offer him a bit of a raise, perhaps to at least raise him a little above Freeman's pay scale?

3 Re: Film Room: Denver's Running Game

"Broncos are one of only two teams with a higher rating on the ground than through the air (the other being the Carolina Panthers)."

How close are the current Seattle Seahawks in that regard? They want to be a *run first* team and are the only team with more run plays than pass plays.