Word of Muth: Denver Peaking

Word of Muth: Denver Peaking
Word of Muth: Denver Peaking
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Ben Muth

Peyton Manning came in for Brock Osweiler in the third quarter of Sunday's Denver-San Diego game. It was much discussed, but I'm going to try to make that the last mention of the Broncos' quarterbacks, because I honestly don't think either had a big effect on what happened last Sunday. This win was about Denver's offensive line, wide receivers, running backs, and tight ends coming together and moving the ball as well as they have all season.

When Gary Kubiak took the head coaching job in the offseason, a lot of Broncos fans were excited about seeing the type of zone running game that turned Terrell Davis into a dominant force (and made Olandis Gary and Mike Anderson into fantasy football stars) in Denver once again. Unfortunately, the Kubiak running game hasn't been exactly as advertised. It has been OK, but a bit underwhelming overall.

There have been two big problems. First, the run blocking on the edge hasn't been very good. None of the Broncos' offensive tackles (and they have played a few) have had good seasons. Ryan Harris has been the best of the bunch, and he's been just OK. Ty Sambrailo was off to a rocky start to his rookie season before he got hurt. Michael Schofield stepped in and has been absolutely abysmal. I think this is my fifth year writing Word of Muth for FO, and I'm comfortable saying that Schofield is the worst player I've ever seen start multiple games. Schofield was finally benched for Tyler Polumbus, who has been a bad player for eight years but was at least an upgrade on Schofield.

It's hard to get the edge when those guys are at the point of attack, so the Broncos' backs have been forced to cut too many outside zones back and to cut them back too quickly. They just haven't been getting enough stretch from their offensive tackles (meaning, the tackles have done a poor job widening defensive ends from their initial alignment). As a result, Denver needs to be really good on the back side of the play, and until this week that has not really been the case.

The tough thing about outside zone is that it requires a ton of practice reps to run it well. It's all combination blocks, and there are a couple of different reads for the running backs to make while they're running at full speed. It's the type of play you can run against the same defensive front five straight plays, and it could hit in five different holes based on how each block goes. So, the key is to get a ton of reps so the center knows exactly how much help he can give the back-side guard and still be able to get to the linebacker, so the back knows exactly how long he can press the 3-technique before sticking his foot in the ground and cutting up inside him, and so on. That timing aspect is why some outside zone gurus say it can take more than a year to really get it going good.

The other problem is that even if you do get a ton of reps in practice, it isn't quite the same as reps in games because no NFL teams let you cut block in practice (and if they do, it's very rarely). If you want to get anything going on the back side of outside zone you need to cut block. This causes two issues. First, when Sunday rolls around, you get guys who are throwing crappy cut blocks, or too nervous to even try. Second, backs aren't comfortable trusting a backside cutback because it's always muddy in practice.

So between mediocre offensive tackle play, poor cut blockers, and backs that weren't used to seeing a lot of daylight, the Broncos' outside zone game has struggled to really get cooking. But that changed this Sunday. I don't know if it's the run game finally gelling late in the season or San Diego being a poor run defense (my guess is a bit of both), but I think the Denver running game looked as good as it had all year, and a lot of it was Denver cutting people down on the back side of the outside zone play. It seemed like after every running play there was a San Diego defender picking himself up off the ground.

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Now to some, this may be a chop block, and it probably technically is if you want to enforce rules to the letter, but to me this is a great combo by the left guard and tackle. Max Garcia (73, the left guard) does a nice job of running through the defensive tackle's shoulder as he's going up to block the linebacker. He's not really trying to block the tackle, he's just trying to get to his man, and the tackle is in the way.

As Garcia is trying to get to the second level, Ryan Harris (68, the left tackle) comes in and cuts the defensive tackle, who is more engaged with Garcia than Garcia is engaged with him. What I love about Harris is how deep he is into the play before he cuts. He's a yard-and-a-half downfield and 5 or 6 yards inside from where he lined up. Too many guys throw the cut too soon and don't get their far shoulder to the defender's play-side thigh pad. Harris makes sure to get all the way across his man before he chops him down.

Virgil Green (85, the tight end) also gets a cut block here, but his is crappy. It's what we call a coffee table cut, because he just kind of lies down in front his opponent and hopes the guy trips over him, like how you might bang your shins on the coffee table in the middle of the night.

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This one has even less of a case to be called a chop block. In fact, if anything, Kendall Reyes (91 for San Diego) should get called for defensive holding. Again, Max Garcia (this time at right guard) is trying to block a linebacker. There is no way for him to get there without making some contact with the defensive tackle. So, he sticks an arm out to keep Reyes from grabbing him (it didn't work). Garcia ended up being a little late to the linebacker, but got just enough of him to knock him off balance.

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At right tackle, Schofield (79) isn't as good as Harris was on the previous play, but because Reyes is holding Garcia instead of playing the guy trying to block him, Schofield gets the job done. With both interior back-side defenders on the ground, Ronnie Hillman is able to cut it up inside for a big gain.

Before we move on, I do want to point out Ryan Harris on this play doing a good job of getting some stretch from the play-side defensive end. If you go back to the first play, you can see that Schofield really doesn't widen the edge defender at all (maybe a yard outside the defender's alignment). Here, Harris takes the defensive end from just outside the hash to just inside of the numbers. That allows a play that seems like a big back-side cutback to actually hit outside the hash on the play side despite the ball being in the middle of the field at the snap.

When announcers talk about running games being more effective as the game goes along, they're usually trying to imply defenses are wearing down or quitting or some other hard-to-quantify metric. I've certainly seen that happen, but far more often, when a team has more success running the ball in the second half and into the fourth quarter it's because of random variance or the defense adjusting how they're playing to take something else away (like playing more nickel to slow down a passing game).

The Broncos' running game looked good in the first half but really took off in the second half. Now, people have theories on changes Denver made that might have improved the running game, but I think it had a lot more to due with Denver's success hitting back-side cutbacks in the first half than any personnel changes they made in the second half.

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The key here is how the linebackers are playing. Let's start with 52 on the play side (Denzel Perryman. He has the B gap (the gap between the guard and tackle), and every key he has is screaming at him to get up there and fill that B gap right away. It's full blown outside zone your way, the guard is too far upfield for this to be a boot, everything he's taught should be telling him to get into that guard as soon as possible and knock him back into the hole. But he doesn't, he slow-plays it, hedging against a back-side cut because he had seen a bunch up to this point. As a result he gets reached by Garcia, and the back gains 20-plus yards right through his hole.

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As bad as that is, the back-side linebacker (50, Manti Te'o) is even worse. If Perryman had plugged the play-side B gap, the back-side A gap (Te'o's gap) would have been wide open too. Te'o decides to go back-side instead of filling his gap, probably because he had seen too many plays cut behind him. Maybe these guys are tired, but I think it's more likely that if you get hurt by a similar play too many times, you start cheating on your responsibilities to take it away and end up giving up huge chunks of yards right where you should have been. Classic case of guys trying to do too much.

One thing I pointed out a lot with the Cowboys and Browns this year is that running the ball successfully takes all 11 guys on offense. The quarterback needs to get you in the right play (and scare the defense enough to threaten them throwing the ball). The ballcarrier has to hit the right hole, run hard, and occasionally make someone miss. Everyone else, and I mean everyone else, needs to block. So many plays look like crap because tight ends can't block or wide receivers don't look interested in trying. That's why I want to highlight this play.

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Do you see it? No, it's not Schofield getting good movement on the double-team (maybe his best block of the game). It's not Evan Mathis (69) pulling and covering up the linebacker. Look at San Diego's safety on the play side. He's aggressive in run support, and he looks like he's about to make the play in the hole for a 2-yard gain, when Emmanuel Sanders comes from out of nowhere and cleans his clock. Let's look at it from the wide angle.

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I LOVE this. Sanders is lined up outside the numbers, and the safety is coming up in run support very aggressively, but Sanders still gets the block because he wants too. He busts his ass, flattens down the line, and gets a hat on the guy. It's rare that you see a wide receiver get there to make this block on a safety playing that aggressively (unless they really cut down their split, which Sanders didn't do). It only turned a 2-yard gain into a 6-yard gain, so it wasn't a game-changer, but it's indicative of the type of blocking effort Denver got from its wide receivers all night long, and it made a big difference. I LOVE this play.

That does it for this week. I'll be back next week writing about one of the wild-card games (to be determined); after that, it will be the Broncos until they get bounced or win it all.


20 comments, Last at 08 Feb 2016, 9:55pm

#1 by theslothook // Jan 07, 2016 - 4:44pm

" I think this is my fifth year writing Word of Muth for FO, and I'm comfortable saying that Schofield is the worst player I've ever seen start multiple games." I don't deny Schofield has been awful beyond words, but I find this claim surprising since you've see and charted multiple games involving the immortal Jeff Linkenbach.

Points: 0

#7 by turbohappy // Jan 07, 2016 - 8:53pm

Linkenbach was fine honestly. Not someone you want to start for your team, but being able to somewhat competently back up at 4 positions is pretty damn useful.

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#2 by PerlStalker // Jan 07, 2016 - 4:51pm

Image links are breaking. It looks like they have an extra space in the URL.

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#3 by solarjetman // Jan 07, 2016 - 5:15pm

Small correction: #85 for the Broncos is Virgil Green; Vernon Davis wears #80. Other than that, great stuff as always. Regarding Schofield, scroll down for the poll to see just how much the readers of the SBNation Broncos blog agree with your assessment of Schofield: http://www.milehighreport.com/2016/1/6/10722304/tyler-polumbus-not-michael-schofield-should-be-the-broncos-starting

Points: 0

#4 by Vincent Verhei // Jan 07, 2016 - 5:37pm

Errors fixed. Thank you.

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#11 by Jerry // Jan 08, 2016 - 3:35am

"(Denzel Perryman" needs a right paren.
"Sanders still gets the block because he wants too." (I wonder if playing with Hines Ward affected Sanders' blocking.)

Not to take anything away from the usual excellent analysis of line play.

Points: 0

#5 by wrbrooks // Jan 07, 2016 - 8:19pm

Regading the final play: I thought the NFL came up with a new rule this year that outlawed blocks against the flow of the play being made beyond a yard downfield? Do I have it wrong? If I remember correctly, it was in response to the highly GIFable blocks that decleated linemen running downfield in pursuit of a play...

Maybe they only outlawed blocks from players running back toward the line of scrimmage?

Points: 0

#16 by jtr // Jan 08, 2016 - 12:08pm

I think you're talking about a crackback block. That's where a player lined up wide comes in and blocks a defender to seal him inside. It's only illegal in the pros if you hit the guy below the waist.

Points: 0

#6 by TomC // Jan 07, 2016 - 8:51pm

Ben, I love your work on this site, and I know you're an O-lineman, but I could not disagree more about the legality (morality? humanity?) of some of those blocks. Watching those gifs made me actively angry. Cutting guys who are engaged, diving at guys' knees from behind...stuff that is definitely illegal by the letter of the law and clearly dangerous.

I always found it interesting that Paul Zimmerman, himself a former O-lineman, was one of the most outspoken advocates against this type of blocking. ("Simple rule, no cutting unless you're face up...simple rule, no cutting unless you're face up...simple rule...")

Points: 0

#8 by theslothook // Jan 07, 2016 - 9:01pm

Rod Woodson said he forever will hate Shanny and Alex Gibbs for apparenty indifference to the dangers of cut blocking.

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#14 by billprudden // Jan 08, 2016 - 8:46am

Ben -

I think many of us would love, perhaps this spring when you aren't writing about each week's games, an analysis of the whole cut blocking issue. For instance:

1) Essential for zone-stretch runs, but not needed (as needed) for power schemes?

2) When DLs get injured by it, why? Does it actually result in higher rates of injury than other play types?

3) DLs who have managed to stay healthy despite playing cut blocking teams, do they play against that technique differently? Are they simply superior athletes?

4) Could offenses zone-stretch without it if they went higher (initial contact at waist or above)?

5) Do you believe it allows less-talented blockers to be effective against more-talented defenders?

6) If defenders defeat the cut block, does that often result in a blown-up play? Is this a high-leverage block/defeat for the defense?



Points: 0

#20 by atworkforu // Feb 08, 2016 - 9:55pm

I guess I'll give it a try, though I was a 1-AA lineman who bounced between O and D.

1) Power really needs to go where the play is designed to go, or the D totally overreacts and loses all gap discipline and it's going to be wide open anyway. Tough to say in a couple of sentences, but in power schemes you are just as good with a half assed block and trying to get to the third level then you are really trying to block the back side hard. It's just much less likely to go backside... unless you are running a counter, which is an integral part of any power scheme. But then you are blocking straight up instead of cutting.

2) I haven't personally or watching professionally seen a lot of "oh that's his ligament, he's gone for the year" type injuries from cut blocks. It's just a beating that can wear on you. It's the 4th quarter and you just can't bend the pocket enough to get a QB who shuffle steps forward just a bit. Or it's 3/4 of the way through the season and you just can't practice fully because things still ache on Wednesday. Or presumably, you are 32 and you just can't deal with this it any more and hang them up.

3) Yes, some athletes are better at dealing with cuts then others. Better peripheral vision, quicker reactions. The reaction should be the same for everybody (though it's tough when dealing with dirty dirty shit like what you see in this article)... kick your feet back a bit and slam him to the ground with both hands.

4) Yes, though it wouldn't be as effective. If it wasn't effective, teams wouldn't do it. Stretch wouldn't be dead, just less good.

5) God yes. It's much much easier to cut someone who is a better stronger faster athlete then you then it is to get in good position to drive them out. Especially if they start out closer to the ball, as in the case in the back side stretch cuts. This technique started so tiny tiny Denver Olinemen could go toe to toe with massive Greenbay Dline in the mid 90's, and wear them down by the end of the game.

6) Not really. Even if you don't cut good, you are still in their way. For a minimum competent cut block, there's a minimum time it's going to take for the Dline to deal with it. Unless you totally whiff, there's not going to be a chance for the Dline to get into the backfield against a stretch play, which emphasizes getting the RB downhill quickly and one cut and gone. In that scenario, a bad cut just looks like a defender still on their feet around the line of scrimmage on the back side, and a place for the RB not to cut to. They would just press the front side for hopefully a 3-4 yard gain.

The calculus is a bit different on pass plays. A cut will probably buy a QB 2.0s, enough time for a 3 step drop and maybe a 2nd read. However a cut block is highly unlikely to buy you 5s, unless you know it's JJ and you have the guard cut him and the tackle ready to pick him up after because... it's JJ and you should be doubling him no matter what.

Points: 0

#19 by atworkforu // Feb 08, 2016 - 3:07am

I agree with your sentiment so much that I actually tried to look up the rule, and to me it looks legal according to rule on RUN plays as long as it's two adjacent linemen - T and G or G and C.

I agree those are actively shitty blocks. When I played, I had an active policy of literally kicking and/or stomping any lineman at my ankles. I did it in practice with my own team IDGAF. Never got called.

All of this depends on a solo cut, not the super dirty stuff above.

You have three good chances, take as many as you can. As they go down, their head is going to go to one side, and your upper body will naturally be on that side. For run plays, that's play side, for pass plays, usually the inside. So as you keep your hands on their pads, their back side kidney/short rib area becomes exposed. You can knee in this area as you go down, if you are fast.

As you come up, you can kick them in the helmet or neck area with the foot on that side.

Last good chance to make it look like a football play... as you go over them, you can step on their lower back. There's not a chance this has enough force to break a back or permanently injure someone, but a couple cleat marks will make them think twice about being a terrible human being on the next play.

Rugby has a couple of great rules that would be awesome if they were in football. First off, if you try to tackle without trying to wrap, it's a major penalty. Second, if you do anything while off your feet, or deliberately going to ground, it's a normal penalty.

Also, the idea that offensive linemen should be able to engage and disengage with defensive linemen and somehow pick up holding calls like they were wide receivers is pretty laughable.

Points: 0

#12 by abloch1 // Jan 08, 2016 - 7:10am

This article is so well done. Thank you. The breakdown on the poor reactions by the San Diego linebackers on that running play was awesome.

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#13 by rageon // Jan 08, 2016 - 8:32am

Excellent analysis, thanks.

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#17 by tunesmith // Jan 09, 2016 - 1:20pm

I'm thrilled to see an in-depth analysis on Denver in particular - I believe that Denver's OLine has been their limiting factor for years, and a key explanation as to why they were beaten so soundly by Seattle in the Super Bowl. This seems like the first year they've taken steps to really focus on it, and they did it by adopting a scheme that takes a long time to master, and with several new players.

Points: 0

#18 by jackiel // Jan 10, 2016 - 11:43pm

Sorry, Denver lost the Super Bowl because the defense couldn't get off the field. Seattle didn't punt until midway through the 3rd quarter. It's tough to win games like that.

Points: 0

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