Word of Muth: Rocky Mountain Sigh
by Ben Muth
The 2015 Denver Broncos may have the distinction of being the first team in NFL history to start 4-0 and still be considered disappointing by part of the fan base. That disappointment stems from what people have perceived as a lackluster offense (I don't think anyone would call that defense a disappointment). Peyton Manning's season has been discussed everywhere and obviously his decline is a big part of the offense's woes. But C.J. Anderson has looked mediocre as well, and Denver has struggled to get any production from the tight end or slot positions to replace at least part of what Julius Thomas and Wes Welker gave them last year.
Despite struggles at all those positions, it seems like a lot of Denver fans think the majority of the offense's problems would be solved if they got better play from the offensive line (or if Peyton Manning was 3 years younger, but only one of those things is possible). And I certainly understand where they're coming from to a degree. Manning is on pace to be sacked 40 times this season, which would be a career high (he hasn't been sacked more than 21 times since 2002). And the running backs, Anderson and Ronnie Hillman, are averaging 3.75 yards per carry between the two. It's clear that Denver isn't where they need to be up front, but the question is, can they get there?
There are really only two reasons that offensive lines struggle: lack of talent and lack of chemistry. Usually, when things are really bad, it's both. I'm still undecided on if the Broncos are suffering from lack of talent. I like their guards (Evan Mathis and Louis Vasquez), who have both been getting better as the season has gone along. Right tackle Ryan Harris is a veteran offensive tackle that is really nothing more than a stopgap (there's a reason he's on his third team in four years) but if he's your worst offensive lineman, you can have a decent unit. It's the other two spots that could end up making or breaking Denver's line.
At left tackle, Denver went with a rookie, Ty Sambrailo, who has struggled early on but has shown some things that I find encouraging. The problem is that he's already banged up, and he sat out last Sunday with a shoulder injury. If he's going to be where the Broncos need him to be come January, he needs to be playing. At center, Matt Paradis had a terrible first game but has looked better since. He still gets pushed around by nose tackles in the run game, but looks good at the second level and may develop into an above-average pass-blocker. I think he has a shot to be at least a league-average center, and paired with above-average guard play, that could give Denver a nice interior line.
So, I think the talent can get there, possibly. The issue is that the talent level is probably just OK, and the chemistry is atrocious. One thing Football Outsiders preaches is how important offensive line continuity is to offensive performance. Well, Denver had just one returning starter (Vasquez), and a new offensive playcaller to boot, and they look like a bunch of guys running a new playbook with strangers. Watching Denver play, it's not that individual guys are getting beat a ton, it's that guys are struggling to pass defenders between them in combination blocks in the running game, and handing off stunts in the passing game. Today we're going to focus on the pass-blocking issues.
Here's a play from the second quarter of last week's game. The Broncos are going max protection here (keeping seven in to block), and they still allowed an unblocked rusher. The miss here is by Ryan Harris, who inexplicably stops sliding left to follow a defender inside. The result is a double-team of the defensive lineman and a linebacker with a free run at Manning.
What's disappointing about this is that the whole reason you bring in a veteran with limited ability is to avoid mental missteps like this. There's no reason for Harris to chase the defensive tackle inside; Mathis is sliding right to him. But Harris does, and by the time he tries to get his head back outside, Eric Kendricks is long gone. Really an inexcusable miss on a very basic blitz that Denver was sliding right into.
This is a harder play to make up front (at least for the right side -- we'll hit the left side later) but it's still ugly stuff from the Broncos' line. It's never easy to pass off a twist when you're blocking man-to-man in a two-on-two situation. The right tackle (Michael Schofield) does a lot wrong here. He starts out well, dragging his back hand and feeling for a twist, which he should be aware of with a wide three-technique. But from there, it's all bad.
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First, he starts getting too much width too soon. Before every play you have to know what the protection is, how the defense is aligned, and what the defense can throw at you to compromise that protection. Knowing he's man-to-man with the defensive end and has a three-technique inside, the No. 1 thing he needs to be conscious of is a twist. That means he needs to set vertically, straight back, to try to stay in line with his guard. By sliding out towards the end, he's creating rush lanes that can put him on separate levels from Vasquez.
Then, at the top of his set, Schofield turtle-shells instead of punching with some authority. He ducks his head and puts his hands out and hopes the defender runs into them. That's bracing for impact, not delivering a blow. By the time he realizes the end is twisting inside, it's too late. Vasquez doesn't have a shot at coming off inside.
The left side isn't much better. Again, it's Harris that is the problem. His feet die when he goes to punch, so he ends up lunging at the defender spinning inside and basically completely whiffs. In Harris' defense though, he probably felt he could be overly aggressive because he thought he had inside help. But Mathis is late getting out (partly because of how little contact Harris made) and the defensive end splits the two. It's a bad job by Harris, but Mathis isn't completely blameless either. This kind of leakage -- again, when they have the defense outnumbered three-to-two on the left side -- is bad football.
Once again we see Denver's offensive line having trouble with a defensive twist. This time Manning gets the ball off in time, but only because he gets rid of it quickly. The left side of the line is OK. Mathis gets pushed into the quarterback's lap, but they at least manage to pass off the twist so both defenders have a body on them. It's not great, or even good, but again it's tough to pass off games on the man side. If the slide side is good, you can live with penetration from the man side, because you hope your quarterback can slide around it so long as both blockers are engaged.
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But the slide side is not good. Schofield once again doesn't punch and is on different levels than Vasquez, but the killer here is Paradis at center. He goes off to chase a defensive tackle rushing in a wide B-gap almost immediately once he sees the linebacker drop. That means no one is there in his A-gap when the end comes twisting around. If Manning has to hold onto the ball, that's a defensive end with a 6-yard running head start going completely untouched, because the center wanted to see if he could get a knockdown on a guy who was rushing straight up the field, 3 yards wide of the launch point. At some point a sense of awareness needs to kick in so you don't look like a dog chasing a truck. Leaving unblocked rushers on a twist when you're sliding into it with a three-to-two advantage is inexcusable.
Those kinds of miscommunications have been far too frequent in Denver this year. Like I said at the top of the article, I think there's enough talent to at least be an average offensive line, but they need to straighten out a lot of things that have very little to do with ability.