A Second Helping of Denver’s fumble return TD at San Francisco

Denver’s preseason-opening win at San Francisco featured just one touchdown - a fumble forced by Nate Irving and returned to paydirt by Shaun Phillips. Considering that these are the two players that may be most impacted by a possible suspension of Von Miller, I thought this would be a good play to look at.

The play starts at 7:28 of the second quarter; SF has been backed up by a good punt by Britton Colquitt and a penalty on the return, but a missed tackle by Omar Bolden on a pass to Kassim Osgood has them in 2nd and 1.

Many teams will try a long pass in that down and distance, counting on a third down run if needed to convert the first down. Instead, still deep in his own zone, Scott Tolzien hands off to D.J. Harper (36) for a run play around left tackle, and the whole game changes.

Stewart Bradley had started the game at middle linebacker, while Nate Irving played a lot on the outside in the first half before taking over more snaps at Mike in the second half - he’s at Sam for this play. Shaun Phillips is placed wide at left defensive end, where I thought he looked surprisingly at home after being with the team so briefly. The middle is manned by first-rounder Sylvester Williams and free-agent addition Terrance Knighton, with Malik Jackson on the right DE.

You can see that it looks like Sylvester is being targeted by the center and the right guard. The guard is actually going to pull, so he’s angling his body and lifting his hand in preparation. Knighton is also looking at a potential double team - this time with the left guard and tackle. That should usually leave the tight end to handle Malik Jackson, but it doesn’t work out that way.

Below, the the ball is just being snapped. Irving and the right guard are the first guys noticeably moving. The guard is taking a ‘bucket step’ back with his left foot - the beginning of a pull to the left - but Irving has a more explosive first step coming forward. That sets up everything that follows.

The tight end’s assignment ignores Jackson and moves him toward the center, putting three players on Knighton (see below). Essentially, the 49ers choose to clog the middle, with fullback Anthony Dixon leading the blocking path of the runner around left end. Dixon has stepped up near the line to slow the rush from Jackson on the defensive right, but Trevathan and Bradley are right behind Malik.

The right tackle has a decision to make - he can either step inside to handle Irving, or perform a reach block (in which the first step is well to one side) outside to handle Phillips. That’s probably a matter of assignment, but for whatever reason, he tries to slow Irving.  Nate’s first step and footspeed (which is often overlooked) have made that a bad choice, though - Irving’s already gone and this will leave Phillips untouched.

Now, look for Irving in the middle below - he’s already on the ballcarrier. Bradley and Trevathan have attacked the offensive left, clogging the path of the run. Phillips and Duke Ihenacho are moving forward and toward the center in case of a cutback on the run.

According to Coach Lou Tepper, the author of Complete Linebacking, cutback runs account for the majority of run-based ‘explosion’ plays - those that go for over 12-15 yards. Irving’s got Harper cold. Jackson is bearing down on him, and Harper should be feeling Irving’s arms around him, reaching for the ball.

With the middle clogged, the defensive right filled by the linebackers and Phillips (and Duke Ihenacho rushing up to close the backside), there’s nothing for Harper to do but hang onto the ball. About that...four points of contact are essential to safely carrying the ball - the hand cupping one end of the ball, its other end snug in the elbow and the forearm, and ribs cradling its two sides might have prevented the outcome.

The offensive linemen have broken off their double (triple) team on Knighton, leaving a single blocker on each DT defender, and are moving to block the true direction of the run - but it’s too late.

Once he’d made sure the backside of the play is safe, it looks like Shaun Phillips might have been saying, “Hmm - someone seems to have forgotten something useful here.” He scoops up the loose ball and finds no one between him and the goal line. Malik Jackson is first to start the celebration of what will turn out to be the winning TD.

What can we take away from this?

First - Nate Irving may or may not win the starting MLB slot, but despite Von Miller’s permanent stranglehold on the Sam, Irving has some real skills there.

With Phillips to help, I don’t see a big dropoff in play if Von has to sit for a bit. Nate seems very well suited for playing Sam - he’s a little bigger than most of Denver’s LBs at 245 lb., he’s very fast in a straight line, tackles well in the open field, and he handles the run well.

That was underscored when he took out LaMichael James for no gain on the punt return that set up this very series. Irving’s special teams work has been a big advantage for Denver, and I thought he played Mike well in his second-half reps. Steven Johnson put out a big effort as well.

A great deal of the middle linebacker position’s function is a matter of cognitive clarity. Experienced players generally recognize pass, play action, or run a split-second faster - that brief moment can be the difference between a successful defensive play and a failure.

Irving has to show that he’s got that end covered, because it’s Bradley’s strongest point. Nate’s straight-line speed and quickness are unquestionable, and I was impressed with his work at Sam. His mental abilities, his coverage skills, and his lateral quickness are areas that I’d like to see more work on, but he’s improved over last season already.

Also important is that every Bronco on the field covered his assignment perfectly on this play, and that led to the winning TD.

For a preseason opener, that’s an impressive achievement.

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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