Word of Muth: Broncos Charge Ahead

Word of Muth: Broncos Charge Ahead
Word of Muth: Broncos Charge Ahead
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Ben Muth

They didn't score a touchdown until the fourth quarter, but the Broncos beat the Steelers to advance to their second AFC Championship Game in three years. Their defense dominated the day, but the offense held its own (despite some horrific drops) and did just enough to eke out a win. They move on to face New England this Sunday in a game that will probably take more than one touchdown to win.

Before we get into the game and Denver's offensive line, I want to touch on something I brought up last week. If you read the column, you may remember me talking about an offensive lineman's catch hand on the outside zone. That's his back hand that he trails behind his frame in case the defensive end slants inside. If the defensive end does make a hard move inside, the hope is that the catch hand grabs him and essentially slingshots the offensive tackle into a hook block. There was a pretty good example of this technique last Sunday.

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Right tackle Michael Schofield (79) does a nice job of demonstrating the concept. His trail hand is too high (you want it lower than shoulder pads so you don't get called for holding), but it shows the effectiveness of the technique. The biggest misconception with zone blocking is that every offensive lineman has an area they block, and they just take whoever is in that area. It's actually a series of predetermined combinations based on the defense's pre-snap alignment with each offensive lineman taking generally the same footwork to block those combos. Since Schofield isn't in combination, he has to follow the defensive end even if he goes inside, thus the need to use his trail hand.

Speaking of Schofield, this was by far the best I've ever seen him play. He had a big holding call that nullified a long run in the fourth quarter, but other than that he was solid all game. It was a remarkable turnaround for a guy that got benched (very deservedly so) for Tyler fricking Polumbus in the regular season finale. If he can give Denver two more games of B-level football, it changes the dynamic of the offense. That may seem like an exaggeration -- usually a right tackle playing better can't effect the offense that much -- but Schofield was so bad for large chunks of this year he was killing two to four drives a game with negative plays (tackles for loss, sacks, and/or penalties). He had just one holding penalty in this game, which is a huge improvement.

Denver's line as a whole actually played well. I thought Ryan Harris at left tackle played about as good as Schofield (so like a B-grade overall) and both guards played better than the tackles. The only guy who I thought had a down game was center Matt Paradis, but even he was OK. The running game may not have been great, but there was decent enough room consistently, and I thought Denver did a real nice job in pass protection.

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That's great protection. Look at how aggressive Schofield is with his hands; he looks like a different guy than the one I watched all year. He takes an aggressive set, gets his hands on the defender quickly, and then bench presses him off to get some distance. Textbook way to block play-action with no help.

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I also like Ryan Harris (68) at left tackle. He steps down to double the defensive tackle with Evan Mathis (69) as they look at the linebacker (94). Once that defensive tackle disappears inside though, Harris immediately puts the brakes on to help his tight end dealing with a pinching defensive end. That's just a real firm pocket so Peyton Manning can step up and deliver a ball down the field (which was dropped).

I mentioned that center Matt Paradis struggled a bit. I don't think he played awful, but I think his biggest weakness as a player popped up a couple of times in this game. That weakness is a tendency to get knocked back into the line of scrimmage on running plays where he doesn't have guard help.

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Paradis (61) is getting it handed to him here. The nose tackle is holding his gap and drives Paradis straight into the running back's cutback lane. This happened a couple of more times, and it just kills the play when your center gets rocked backwards like this. It's something that happened a lot earlier in the season, but was becoming less frequent as the year went along. It was back to being an issue on Sunday.

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Before we move on I do want to point out right guard Louis Vasquez (65) pancaking the linebacker. The linebacker walks up to the line of scrimmage late (which is why Paradis didn't get any help on the defensive tackle), and Vasquez absolutely buries him. I love his hip pop here. Notice how it looks like his whole body tenses up right after contact? That's hip pop, where you throw your hips into the block and use all the power in your legs. That's how you treat linebackers who want to play on the line.

The last thing I want to bring up from the divisional game is that the Broncos need to do something to keep the backside edge defender from running down their outside zones. I don't think that traditional bootlegs are the answer if Manning is playing quarterback, so the Broncos need to do something else. They can run slice schemes (bringing a blocker across the formation to cut off the backside player), keep a tight end in on the backside, or run some reverses/ghost reverses. I don't know what the plan is for New England, but it was an issue on Sunday.

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The Steelers mess up the run fit on the playside and the Broncos do a decent job of blocking it. This could be a big play, but James Harrison made the tackle for a 2-yard gain because there's nothing holding him on the backside. Again, there's stuff they can do aside from running Peyton Manning on bootlegs, but they need to do something if they are going to get the most out of their base run game.


14 comments, Last at 26 Feb 2016, 6:41am

3 Re: Word of Muth: Broncos Charge Ahead

Just as important, I read that Schofield was tagged for allowing only 1 QB pressure for the game. Definitely something that will vitally be needed Sunday.

4 Re: Word of Muth: Broncos Charge Ahead

I thought Pitt did a better job of controlling the LOS on running plays than I've seen from the Patriots, but was surprised to see NE and the Steelers as having nearly identical defensive DVOAs. I'm sure the numbers diverge when looking at more specific match ups, but it was interesting, nonetheless.

5 Re: Word of Muth: Broncos Charge Ahead

I'd like to know more about the non-bootleg things that could be done to control Harrison in that last gif.

One thing, I guess, is to simply leave Daniels where he was, and let him block Harrison. He ends up on the play side running downfield doing nothing the whole time... I recognize, of course, that if the safety had been there instead of respecting his pass route (which means he was sort of blocking 20 either way), that things would've played out differently, but based on positioning alone, it seems like that would've been a huge play if not for Harrison, and that'd have still been the case had Daniels not motioned at all.

Or maybe not, though, as 94 switched gaps once Daniels moved...

7 Re: Word of Muth: Broncos Charge Ahead

Gase actually tried a fair amount of zone run schemes in 2014, but the unblocked end defender always killed the play then too. Gase finally made an adjustment, though not until halftime of the AZ game.
The adjustment was simple- he had Julius Thomas line up play side, and then as the zone play stretched in that direction JT would run counter to the play down the line and cutblock the backside pursuit (having him cut block was no doubt an indictment of JT's blocking skills). It wasn't pretty, but it had immediate results as Hillman went over 60 yards in the second half alone, and did go on to run for 100+ yards in 2 of the next 3 games.

6 Re: Word of Muth: Broncos Charge Ahead

Manning Bootleg. Make it happen. How much slower can he be now than his second year when he hoofed one in for a 33 yard TD versus the Bills? Even as a 23 year-old that totally surprised everyone. (And he was so stoked that after the game he called his dad to see if he saw it. Apparently it was an Archie thing to do.)

Tho I guess the downside at this point in his career--paralysis, death, the LBs using his scattered vertebrae for dice--weigh pretty heavily on that decision. Of course maybe Chandler Jones will be synthetically stoned (and freaked out) that he can't tackle PM anyway....

And really, even if he gets a 5 yard 1st down and runs OB on one play, will that really keep a backside LB home? Not likely if he can run down the lumbering QB like a greyhound and a mechanical bunny.

So in the end, Ben's right (as usual): Manning bootlegs are not the way to go unless it's one boot only to get a crucial 1st down late in a half. And never go back to it because those monsters will be waiting for fresh meat.

8 Re: Word of Muth: Broncos Charge Ahead

No joke, actually.
Manning ran some pretty nice bootlegs vs. GB and @ Indy before the plantar fascia tear took him out. Kubiak tried in the first two weeks of the season, and Manning threw 2 embarrassing balls directly into the turf. But they kept at it, and by weeks 7-8 it was a viable part of the offense. I recall Clay Mathews in the GB game in particular not only honoring Manning's roll out, but giving him a shot even when he knew Manning didn't have the ball. Actually, come to think of it that kind of makes me want the Broncos to NOT run many bootlegs.

9 Re: Word of Muth: Broncos Charge Ahead

Thanks Ben! I love seeing your commentary on this kind of offensive scheme. Looking forward to next week's (win or lose) - I hope at the end of Denver's season, whenever it is, you might be able to offer some sort of prognosis about Denver's outlook in future seasons, both in terms of personnel but especially Kubiak and Dennison's scheme. Can it still be as effective as it was back during Denver's running back heydays?

10 Re: Word of Muth: Broncos Charge Ahead

That first gif is good news bad news. The bad news is Schofield shouldve got flagged for the bulldog headlock, the bad news is Clark shouldve been flagged for the (failed) chop block on Heyward, who was being engaged by Mathis when Clark tried to take his legs out. The good news is the refs have decided it's lucha libre in the playoffs (with occasional exceptions)

12 Re: Word of Muth: Broncos Charge Ahead

The league has basically given the Shanahan/Kubiak/Gibbs offense a free pass for years. I recall a discussion with an O line coach in NFL Europe, who brought along a couple of Denver blockers, and refused to coach the kind of chop blocks their team wanted. 'It's a development league-I wont coach them to injure guys' he said.

14 Re: Word of Muth: Broncos Charge Ahead

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