Word of Muth: Denver's Rough Start
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.