Word of Muth: Denver's Rough Start

Word of Muth: Denver's Rough Start
Word of Muth: Denver's Rough Start
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Ben Muth

When I discussed the Broncos offensive line in the preview column a few weeks back, the thing I was most looking forward to was seeing how a Gary Kubiak and Peyton Manning offense would combine. In that column I posted a table from Football Outsiders Almanac that showed how great Kubiak's teams have been at running the football, and Manning's teams have been at avoiding sacks. So of course in Week 1, Peyton Manning got sacked four times and Denver's two lead backs couldn't combine for more than 70 yards on 24 carries. It's not fun to watch or write about bad football, and there was a lot of bad football from Denver's offense this week.

Even though I chose the Broncos for this column largely for schematic reasons, I want to focus more on the personnel this week. After all, when things go that bad, I believe in the old saying that goes "It's not about the Xs and the Os, it's about the Freddies and the Joes." So, let's focus on the five guys up front for Denver this week and let the system find itself before we start scrutinizing the scheme too heavily.

For Denver, the problems up front started in the middle. Matt Paradis is a second-year player who made his first career start on Sunday. To say he struggled would be an understatement. It's normal for young guys to get beat early in their career, and it's just one game, but this was a really bad game. If it was any worse, it would be a Fantastic Four film.

Paradis looked overwhelmed physically at the line of scrimmage again and again, to the point where it was difficult to judge much about his game from a technique standpoint. It's hard to worry about a guy's footwork or hand placement when he's 2 yards deep in the backfield on seemingly 25 percent of your running plays.

That play is what Paradis' game looked like for much of the day: him getting bench-pressed into the backfield at the snap, the defensive tackle moving down the line of scrimmage and shedding him to make a tackle in the hole. There are some technical flaws -- he's playing too high (notice his head snapping back at the snap) and his first step doesn't gain enough ground so he's behind the play. But really, the coaching point is "don't get your ass kicked."

You may also notice that left tackle Ty Sambrailo is in the backfield too, and that certainly contributes to the play going nowhere. Sambrailo is a rookie so he was making his first start as well. After one quarter I would have put him in the same boat as Paradis in terms of quality of play. Sambrailo got bull rushed too easily early and looked like he was starting to overcompensate and lunge at guys in pass pro. I thought Terrell Suggs was on his way to a huge game. But Sambrailo settled down starting in the second quarter and finished the game OK. Overall it was a bad game, but not terrible for a rookie left tackle making his first start against a guy like Suggs. I think there are still some concerns about his ability to anchor, but I liked how he competed and he seemed to get better as the game went along.

Unfortunately, Paradis' level of play was consistent throughout the game. Even when it wasn't his man making the tackle, it was his man disrupting the play.

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Paradis is still playing center above, and he's the one getting knocked back into the backfield almost right off the snap. Here, the Broncos are trying to bring a tight end across the formation to lead up into the hole on a designed cutback off an inside zone look. Notice how the tight end has to stop his feet and take a hop-step backwards to avoid tripping over Paradis. Then right behind the tight end, the running back has to stop his feet in the backfield and jump around Paradis' feet too. The end result is a slow-developing play with a lead blocker and running back who have no forward momentum going into the hole. The play has no chance, and I'm not sure the Broncos offense will unless they get better play from their center.

Paradis and Sambrailo were two unknowns coming into the season for Denver's front, so one of them struggling probably isn't a big surprise. I think Denver was expecting more than what they got from free agent guard Evan Mathis. Mathis came over late in camp after a much-publicized split from Philadelphia, but he didn't make a great first impression in Denver.

It was an ugly game from Mathis, but I don't think it's particularly worrying going forward. I thought Mathis did some of the big things well, played with good power in the run and pass game, and moved well at the second level. His mistakes looked like what you see from a guy who hasn't played a lot of football recently. He was a little sloppy and lazy with his hands, and his balance looked off, but other than that he did some good things. Of course, when the timing in your hands is bad and you look off balance, you end up with some dog-ass ugly looking plays.

That looks bad, and in a micro-sense it is terrible, but it's understandable. In both plays you see he misses with his inside hand, gets his outside hand knocked down, and eats some dirt. Again, it's an ugly football play, but it's the kind of ugly football play you see a ton of early in mini-camps, and early in the preseasons. It takes a while to get the timing in your hands back and to get your body used to playing in the uncomfortable positions it takes to play offensive line well. Mathis has been doing it for years, but he still needs to play his way into NFL offensive line shape, and no amount of deadlifts or sled pushes this offseason would hae gotten him there. He just needs to play some snaps, and that's what he's doing now. Mathis did enough good things that I'm not concerned about him regaining his former form, or at least 95 percent of it.

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The rest of the Denver line was fine. I wasn't blown away by the right side of the line, but I think they have some things to build on. Louis Vasquez was pretty good in pass protection (although I think he missed a blitz pickup that resulted in a sack) and was probably Denver's best run blocker on the back side of plays. I thought Ryan Harris played the best of any Denver lineman. He was rock solid in pass pro, and while he didn't get a ton of movement in the running game he always got his proper leverage. I don't think either guy played at an All-Pro level or anything, but both certainly played good enough to be productive parts of an NFL offense.

If you're a Denver fan reading this column, there wasn't a ton on the surface from the offensive line to be encouraged about, but I wouldn't hit the panic button yet either. Your left tackle looked young, but didn't go down the tank mentally after a bad start, made adjustments to help himself throughout the game, and looks like an athlete. Your left guard looks more rusty than washed up. The right side of your line already looks fine. And, well, the only positive I can think of for the center is that it's only one game and it was his first start.

Plus, there's always the biggest positive, which is that despite a poor offensive performance you still won the game.


40 comments, Last at 18 Sep 2015, 10:55pm

2 Re: Word of Muth: Denver's Rough Start


What options are available for an offensive coordinator to "hide" a totally overmatched center?

Or asked another way, if you know going in that your center is going to be physically overmatched in what ways does that constrain your game planning?

24 Re: Word of Muth: Denver's Rough Start

I was dragged by my girlfriend and her younger sister to see that POS. It exhibited every kind of perversion of a comic book concept. It wasn't quite a batman and robin level sell out, but it sucked.

At least I avoided the Transformer series.

6 Re: Word of Muth: Denver's Rough Start

With all the terrible offensive line play I saw this past weekend, it got me thinking about teams that have rarely experienced that in recent history, versus the team I watch the most. The Vikings had excellent line play in the 90s, a very shallow dip in the early aughts, then a few years of excellence again, and now have been subpar to awful for what is likely to be the sixth straight year. In contrast, The Hobo in Foxboro has never fielded a bad 0-line, and likely never even an average one, despite having a qb who became lightning fast in decision making. Then I went and compared the two teams in their drafting for the position. The Hobo, in his time in Foxboro, has drafted 14 o-linemen in the 4th round or higher, 6 in the 2nd round or higher. The Vikings, in all their management turover during that same span, have drafted 9 o-linemen 4th round or higher, 5 in the 2nd round or higher.

This is obviously a tiny sample, and objectively identifying the good, average, and bad o-lines through the years is really, really, hard, but I think it would be interesting to do a in depth study of drafting priorities for o-linemen, and o-line performance. Yeah, I'm too lazy to do it myself.

(edit) The possible philosophical contrast, with regard to o-line drafting, between The Hobo and Bill Polian's tenure with the Colts, might also be very interesting.

7 Re: Word of Muth: Denver's Rough Start

The Patriots also had a long-term o-line coach, Dante Scarnecchia, whom I credit greatly with the Patriots offensive lines.

I can't find the article right now, but there back when the Patriots dynasty began there was discussion of how the Patriots approached offensive line development. There was a special program nicknamed "Offensive Line University" or something like that that focused on coaching linemen and giving them lots of time working on technique.

23 Re: Word of Muth: Denver's Rough Start

Last year NE started its own motley crew of offensive linemen. Eventually it gelled. This year they are against starting several rookies. I've seen New England's offensive line work with waiver wire people back in the early 2000s. It just doesn't seem to matter. Yes Brady compensates, but just on sheer run blocking, Ne has been hyper efficient for an absurd stretch of time. Given how volatile running games are year to year, you would think this statistical outlier would get more press.

It may be the least talked about aspect of the Pats run.

34 Re: Word of Muth: Denver's Rough Start

I don't think the Pats offensive line really became good until they drafted Logan Mankins in 2005. Matt Light was decent, and their center was ok, but other than Light none of those guys were drafted that high back then, and Brady made them look a lot better than they were. Still there would be games against the AFC East where Brady took a beating; I remember a 2003 game where Brady got sacked 4 times in a half...

38 Re: Word of Muth: Denver's Rough Start

Interesting thought, let's check it out. I thought the Pats O-line was consistently very good starting in 2004. Here are the FO O-line rankings for the Pats, from 2001, first year Belichick had time to really have an effect on personnel:

Year Rush (ALY) Pass
2001 10 26
2002 9 7
2003 23 13
2004 5 5
2005 27 6
2006 12 8
2007 1 4
2008 3 26
2009 5 2
2010 1 6
2011 2 8
2012 3 5
2013 1 9
2014 5 2

A couple of stinkers in there (note the pass protection affect of replacing Brady with Cassel in 2008) but otherwise damn good. All without a Hall of Fame lineman and this included time before Mankins and after Mankins' prime. Mankins was important but not critical. I think that's what slothook is kind of pointing to.

I'd describe their approach as allocating cap space so that they have an O-line consisting of a couple of guys that could make the Hall of Very Good (e.g. Light, Mankins, Vollmer, Solder too, although he's a little inconsistent) and some average to slightly above average guys, then try to keep them together as long as reasonably possible, so continuity of the key players is more important that rather than a single Hall of Fame left tackle.

All of this assumes that they can scout/draft/sign the average-to-above guys in such a way that they perform well and don't cost much cap space. Which it seems they can do. I never worry about a Pats O-line signing. As opposed to DB or WR, where I hold my breath. :-)

Also, most of they key players stick around long enough to make this work (e.g. Light, Vollmer, Solder). Maybe it's just lucky that nobody offers them huge money to leave, or maybe the rest of the league thinks they're not worth big contracts as individuals.

9 Re: Word of Muth: Denver's Rough Start

The Vikings had one offensive line coach from 1967 through 1991, John Michels. In that period, the Vikings had 4 Hall of Fame o-linemen, another guy, Ed White, who should be in the Hall of Fame, and a lot of other guys who made Pro Bowl teams. I don't think these facts are unrelated.

18 Re: Word of Muth: Denver's Rough Start

The Redskins run of success from the '80s on pretty much aligns to the time period in which Joe Bugel handled the offensive line. Yeah they were good after he left in 1989, but they deteriorated as the veterans retired. He couldn't recapture the success his second stint although the Skins did make the playoffs twice and finished 8-8 in one of his 5 seasons.

I don't think that's a coincidence either.

29 Re: Word of Muth: Denver's Rough Start

Nitpick: Not quite "never" - In Belichick's 1st year in NE the OL came apart, and that plus a statue at QB was a large part of why the team was 5-11. What was amazing back then was how fast things improved after a couple games the next season. (Pats started 0-2, and after the 2nd week and Bledsoe's injury Dr. Z's power rankings had them 32nd.)

8 Re: Word of Muth: Denver's Rough Start

Another interesting contrast to observe was what the Eagles could do in their run game, because their center play was outstanding. Having a center who can pull and lead , then pick off a linebacker at the 2nd level, really makes running to the outside a lot easier.

19 Re: Word of Muth: Denver's Rough Start

The first time I noticed Kelce was him blocking downfield on a Shady McCoy TD a couple years back. The replay showed McCoy running downfield and another Eagle catching up and blocking the defender - in front of Shady!. I figured it was a receiver. when they said it was the center, I started paying attention.

22 Re: Word of Muth: Denver's Rough Start

When Matt Birk was in his prime, prior to needing hip and hernia surgery, he could pull like that, and was a monster. Afterwords, he was still excellent, but was never quite as mobile, which is what really sets apart the HOF caliber center performance, along with being quite stout against nose tackles, and managing the line calls. As it is, I think Birk is worthy of at least serious consideration for the ugly yellow blazer.

10 Re: Word of Muth: Denver's Rough Start

As a Broncos fan, I was excited about you covering my favorite team's offensive line this year.

Following this game, I kind of wish you had been covering the Ravens. :)

12 Re: Word of Muth: Denver's Rough Start

Why didn't the coaches notice the center getting killed and give him some help? Is this difficult to do in a zone blocking concept?

20 Re: Word of Muth: Denver's Rough Start

Right. That leaves you one-on-one everywhere else, presuming 4 are coming and you aren't keeping a TE/back in to help. Given the issues some other linemen had that doesn't seem like a longterm viable strategy either.

Lucky for me I took CJ Anderson as my RB1. Yay!

21 Re: Word of Muth: Denver's Rough Start

To what extent would Paradis have to learn new techniques in Kubiak's system compared to those he was taught under the Fox/Gase regime? It wouldn't surprise me to find out that he's been asked to make several adjustments, in addition to making new sorts of line calls. That's a lot to dump on a second-year guy in his first year starting.

26 Re: Word of Muth: Denver's Rough Start

What the initial O-line play analysis has failed to realize is that getting tossed in the dirt is Mathis' strategy for blocking at least 2 guys on every play. it's fantastic if you think it through --- check out that last gif, notice that he slows his guy up just enough to protect manning, and as he's tossed aside like wrapping paper on Christmas morning it turns into an "accidental" cut block on the defensive end.


31 Re: Word of Muth: Denver's Rough Start

Absolutely fantastic article. Succinct, uncomplicated and entertaining.

For a long time in Houston, Gary Kubiak had pro-bowl level Center play from Chris Myers to help out his scheme. Might be tougher for him with this personnel.

32 Re: Word of Muth: Denver's Rough Start

After the Thursday night game, I want the same analysis based on that game. I saw some terrible play from the Denver OL early, but things picked up a lot later. I saw Manning get to step up in the pocket and make some better throws and there's definitely some issues with Manning *needing* to be in position to make a throw or it's off target.

That OL coming together is going to make or break that team; the rest of the team looks all-star.

33 Re: Word of Muth: Denver's Rough Start

That was one of the worst total offensive line performances I've ever seen and that's saying something given I watched a good amount of the 2009 bears. They just can't handle unpredictable rushes and they can't handle point of attack blocks. Even Evan Mathis, a perennial pff love child, looked godawful. Ryan harris and tyler sambrilo were terrible. I made a point to watch the line and it just failed repeatedly.

In a vacuum, this was probably one of manning's worst games, but for me, it was one of the most memorable. I watched a player sapped of almost all of his physical prowess. And yet, he squeezed every last drop of his others skills to overcome it. Yes he played an up and down game. Yes it paled in comparison to his other masterpieces. But this was special to me.

It also drove home the point. A manning offense will fail against a great defense because it is inflexible. But here's the benefit - its probably the best offense at simultaneously hiding all of your weaknesses. You got a bad offensive line? A manning offense will hide it. Your receivers suck against press man? Manning's offense will help it. YOu're blitz pick up sucks? A Manning offense will dial the right play.

Such an offense won't consistently win you a sb cuz its inflexible, but it will solve your immediate problems and get you through the regular season. I think we need to appreciate that aspect of PM.
On a night he was charitably a c +, this was one I'll fondly remember forever.

35 Re: Word of Muth: Denver's Rough Start

Yeah, that was disheartening. Mathis still looked bad, and looked bad in the exact same way he did last week. Both offensive tackles played worse. I think Paradis played better watching it live, but that is a combination of how bad he was in week one and being distracted by the tackles. Houston and Hali are studs, but you'd hope to see some improvement from week 1 to week 2 even if it was a short week.

37 Re: Word of Muth: Denver's Rough Start

I'm going to wear orange glasses and hope it was the short week and painful transition.

And then assume the transition will continue at least until game 6. If they can't show some serious improvement by game 6, the it's time to panic.