In an effort to learn more about their offensive line, I put on some tape of Jacksonville this week. It didn’t take long to know that I was watching a terrible group, especially when it comes to run blocking. It’s making the work of RB Maurice Jones-Drew much, much harder.
They’re slightly better against the pass, but their quarterbacks - Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne - aren’t playing well. I don’t have any qualms about saying that the Broncos are likely to run roughshod over this OL.
Gabbert played hurt early in the season, but then gave in to a hamstring injury, leaving the team’s leadership to Henne; he isn't the answer either. Both QBs played in the Week 5 loss at St. Louis, with Gabbert leaving after he felt the hamstring ‘pop’. Henne will start tomorrow against the Broncos.
I like the improvement of J.D. Walton from last year, but I don’t see Denver running fourth and inches through his slot at this point, and I’m not sure that he ever will be that guy. He’s just not hitting with enough of a punch to drive people back, ala Tom Nalen. I’m sorry to compare him to one of the best from Denver’s past, but Denver wants to consistently be in the postseason playing for the Lombardi Trophy, and you won’t get there without a very good or elite center. Right now, J.D. doesn’t seem to be that. I like him, and he’s growing, but the lack of power and leverage are too often issues. J.D. snapped to two Heismann winners in college (including the one in Denver) but as important as his position is, they’re going to let him grow into it, or find a guy who can get those last inches. I’ve never heard anyone speak badly of Walton, and my only complaint is with his technical game - he’s tough-minded, he’s willing to mix it up and I like his moves to the second level, but he’s not dominating DTs. In a team that’s made no bones about going with a running attack, one of the three interior linemen have to be able to create that push. Right now, I haven’t seen it. To be clear, I like Walton and Chris Kuper in particular - I also follow Zane Beadles’ tweets and he’s the kind of guy I’d love to have a beer with, but he does have his balance troubles, and that can’t help Walton, either.
Picking up where we left off yesterday, I did a workup on each of the Denver linemen to establish what I’ve seen on film (I added stats when they seemed appropriate). I usually used the Pro Football Focus stats, and linked to the things that seemed to matter the most. After I’ve covered the players, I’m going to talk about the options that Denver has, and which I think might be the most productive.
Rating Orlando Franklin’s value has been somewhat contentious among the fans this year. If you take in the running style and consider the yards per play through Franklin’s slot (6.7 per carry - beating Chris Kuper’s 6.2 for the team lead), Franklin is playing pretty well for a rookie. Most of them get to sit for a year - he was tossed into a position that he’d never played before at right tackle. He’s not a 4th-and-short kind of leader to the team, and that’s just fine - no one does everything and he’s a heck of a run blocker over the course of the game: the Broncos need that. His pass blocking needs work, but a lot of that is technique and he has improved this year, without question. The footspeed issue remains another question with him - he’s generally good at getting downfield to the second level, but not as effective with his kickstep going right and mirroring a speed rusher on the outside. Denver hasn’t mentioned the issues specifically to my knowledge, so we don’t have any straight info on what they’re thinking for his future.
The Chicago and New England games were the third and fourth times this season that the Denver OL has gotten pushed around by a strong defensive front: Buffalo put the icing on the cake. The opening week loss in Oakland could have been put down to being rusty, new coaching and opening nerves, but the pattern since then has been to handle lesser lines well, yet to fall apart against a stronger team. Denver had a run of wounded and problematic teams in terms of the opposing defensive lines, and the Broncos O-linemen moved and attacked well against them. Against the stronger teams, they weren’t worth much. They’ve had better games, but it’s become clear that there’s a talent/experience issue as well. J.D. Walton has made strides but still has weaknesses, Zane Beadles is a matter of some concern, and Orlando Franklin, for a guy who never played right tackle, has improved across the board.
There’s some good news. Mike McCoy agrees:
They’ve gotten better every week. That’s something that is going to take time coming together with the limited practices we had going into the season. Like everybody else in this league, we are going to grow and keep going.
After bearing up through the first two weeks of Tim Tebow struggling as Denver's starting quarterback, Sunday's game was a grand change. It was the first time I've seen the Broncos play like a complete team in a long time. It was good to see, and I can't wait to see how much they can hold up to it consistently - they were able to put all the pieces together and despite Oakland’s protests that they expected it, it clearly caught their players off guard on the field. Stellar performances by the OL, Willis McGahee and Tebow, as well as a couple of nice catches by Eric Decker and an outstanding performance for Eddie Royal (with a tie-breaking punt return TD and a TD reception) rounded off a resounding route of the much-disliked (okay, hated) division rival.
The best part of the entire game was to see each aspect of the team (offense, defense, and special teams - even with that punting mishap near the end zone) contribute greatly to the final outcome. Without any one of them coming through on the right plays, the game goes down as a loss. With all three working together, the Raiders did not seem to know what hit them. It was by far Tebow’s best all-around performance to date and Denver’s best game of the season.
Nothing like getting millions of viewers sure that your roster is thinner than Karen Carpenter, is there? That was a full team effort on Sunday - nearly everyone played a role in how badly it went. That said, let’s start with a fun fact or two:
Going into the game against the Lions, none of Denver’s TEs had dropped a pass so far this year. Daniel Fells had been targeted 18 times, but only 11 of those were considered catchable, and Fells had caught all 11. That’s being consistent: Fells is looking more and more like a serious find. Add Julius Thomas’ pass catching to the mix (and keeping him healthy, although he had a drop against Detroit to break the TEs' streak) and you’ve got a very good starting two. Virgil Green has gone from a seventh-round afterthought to a key player late in the Miami game and may be that much needed third TE - I hope his injury isn’t severe, because he has been the better blocking TE. The TEs as a group have now caught 19 passes with just the one drop. That says a lot of good things about consistency and the talent of the squad. Denver has some good young talent, of which Fells in just his fourth season out of UC-Davis and Dante Rosario in his fifth year out of Oregon are the 'old men' of the group.
There’s no real question about it - I’ve been looking forward to watching the film on RT Orlando Franklin since the beginning of this series. I loved it when Denver took Franklin with the 14th pick of the second round back in April, and I felt at the time that the issues of his potential problems vs. speed rushers and in pass blocking in general were being overblown. Now I had a chance to find out.
IAOFM reader Chibronx noted that the recent tale of the offensive line’s development is one of the best stories of the Broncos that no one is talking about, and I agree with him. My own experience (and some of you have actually played the position and have commented on this to me), has been that many of the fans have little understanding for the OL positions. I don’t blame anyone - the TV turned us into a nation of watchers rather than a nation of doers back in the 1960s. If the camera follows the ball, you may not hear an OL player’s name unless he whiffs on a block or commits some other infraction. How do you learn? Well, dropping by IAOFM is certainly the first step, but I hope to add some specifics through this series. I’d like to start with the player himself, since the fanbase knows him the least.
When the 2011 season started, I found myself being more and more drawn to the play of the offensive line. Why? First were the conflicting reports on the play of J.D. Walton and Zane Beadles in training camp; second, the fact that three of the five starters are in their first or second NFL seasons; finally, since 2008, the Denver offensive line hasn’t been exactly the gold standard of the league. So, I wanted to get a much clearer picture of the group together. Every offensive play, run or pass, is dependent in degree on that group of men and given their youth, I’m hoping that some development might be visible over the season.
Over the years, at times I’ve talked to people who see the play of the OL in fairly simplistic terms, and in one sense, that’s very understandable. You’ve got a bunch of very large men in the center of the field - they fight with each other, and just how that affects the play might be obvious - the hole that the running back dashes through, the time the quarterback has to make his progressions, choose and make his pass - but exactly how the OL does or doesn’t achieve that may be both complex and obscure. The camera usually follows the ball, as do the eyes of most fans, and it’s not easy to teach oneself to watch certain players instead. Consider a single partial paragraph from Steve Belichick’s Football Scouting Methods, talking about the 3-4 nose guard and his interaction with the offensive line:
I read the other day that OL coach Dave Magazu said the San Diego game featured Ryan Clady’s best run-blocking of the season to date. Although I had Clady set up for a little later in my film study series, I wanted to see why Magazu, who’s got a pretty top reputation as an OL coach, was that excited about what he’d seen. It didn’t take long to get me excited, either. I’ll share with you what I found, and take you through the second half of that game. On some plays, I’ve listed more than just Clady’s performance - you’ll understand why.
A technical note: I wanted to start making my life easier, so I’m using a version of the shorthand that Steve Belichick, Bill’s father, recommended in his book Football Scouting Methods. I list the quarter and the time at the start of the drive and sometimes if a certain play is worth checking, and I also list the down, distance and the location of the ball. To do that, I use the notation ‘-X yards’ if Denver’s on their side of the 50 and +X yards if they’re in their opponent's side of the field (plus territory). If I’ve listed the location of the ball on first down, and the team gained five yards I usually don’t bother listing the ball location - I just assume that everyone can do the math. So far, it’s confusing my voice recognition software, so keeping my keystrokes down helps my hands out. I hope that you can follow the notations when I kept them short.
Like several readers who have commented here, I actually enjoyed most of Denver's game Sunday against the Titans. I prefer winning as much as anyone, but I’d like to remind folks of some old words of wisdom. When the fans talked last year, they said that all they wanted was a team that was competitive every game. The Broncos have been, and whether or not their schedule will be tougher, that’s a good thing to see. Von Miller showed that wisdom doesn’t always require age:
We’re not going to let this stop our work habits or slow us down. We are going to get back in the lab tomorrow and analyze the film and keep taking steps to be the team that we want to be.
Getting better is what Denver has to be focused on. I found some research that indicated that in Great Britain they did a study on soaking in tubs and pools at exactly 100-101 degrees for 1.5 to 3 hours a day. It lets me keep up on my reading, and I have to admit - I’m learning to just let things go and relax more.