There's 12:37 remaining in the third quarter, with Denver facing 1st and 10 from their own 32-yard line. They’re up by only four points on the scoreboard, despite having dominated play on the field. A couple of errors have kept it close, but that’s about to change.
The Broncos are in 11 personnel, with Manning under center, Willis McGahee directly behind him, two wide receivers out to the offensive left, and WR Eric Decker to the right - the ‘z’ position. TE Jacob Tamme is tight to the line at the offensive right.
Having been picked apart by Peyton Manning in the first half, the Raiders are using a hybrid nickel defense. They have three down linemen up front, plus Lamarr Houston (99) standing at defensive left end; linebacker Rolando McClain (55) is shaded between center Dan Koppen and left guard Zane Beadles, while Philip Wheeler (52) is in a deep MLB position.
CB Pat Lee (26) is lined up seven yards off Demaryius Thomas, and Joselio Hanson (23) is providing Andre Caldwell the same cushion. Safety Tyvon Branch is back, and Matt Giordano (27) is out of the screen, with Michael Huff (24) covering Decker at the top of the screen.
At the snap, Zane Beadles - who’s been playing the best ball of his career - pulls, while Dan Koppen locks up on Desmond Bryant (90). Richard Seymour (92) comes from the far defensive right, and Ryan Clady picks him up. Matt Shaughnessy (77) is taken by Orlando Franklin. Manny Ramirez (who also had his best game to date) comes across to help Koppen while Beadles pulls. Philip Wheeler takes an initial step to the defensive left.
All of these things leave a gap in the middle that’s tailor-made for McGahee, who takes it:
McGahee breaks Shaughnessy's ankle tackle and keeps driving. Beadles takes out Wheeler, who had covered the wrong gap. Eric Decker comes across and blocks Tyvon Branch (33), knocking him to the ground. You might notice that Manny Ramirez has come all the way across and is taking out Rolando McClain. Even Andre Caldwell is in on the act, as is Demaryius Thomas.
That’s what makes this play work - the WRs, TE, and OL are all blocking, and blocking well. It’s an advantage that Denver has over many teams - their WRs aren’t shy about doing the so-called dirty work. Jacob Tamme is sometimes slotted into the ‘receiving, not blocking’ category of tight end. As you can see, that’s not accurate, and is instead a disservice to the player.
McGahee sees that he has a straight opening, but reads the motion of the secondary and cuts to his right and upfield. Good choice. That’s Eric Decker in the center of the picture, taking out the Raiders' best man in the secondary, Tyvon Branch.
Lamarr Houston slows McGahee just enough to allow Michael Huff - who played both corner and safety this game - to come in from the side and finally take Willis down after a gain of eleven and another first down.
Among the things to take away from this:
1. Beadles’s effectiveness in trapping and pulling is excellent. It was so even when he struggled in other phases last year - this year, he’s not struggling. According to PFF, he's allowed no sacks, two hits, and four hurries through four games. Those are impressive numbers.
2. The wide receivers’ blocking is a thing of beauty, but mostly a thing of effort. Everyone on the offense is thinking about their role in the running game, and showing how seriously they take it. It’s not true of a lot of other teams.
3. Kudos to Manny Ramirez, who helped out Koppen and then took out McClain. He came back from a tough week by showing his value - it was his highest graded game according to PFF, and he gave up no penalties, sacks, hits, or hurries. Nice going, Manny.
4. Finally, how do you even count the value of Willis McGahee? He was older when he joined the Broncos, but with low mileage relative to his age. It’s a rare run when he doesn’t break a tackle, two, or three. He also blocks well and can receive if needed. He’s the kind of running back that every team hopes they have and few actually do. A big thank-you to the big RB.
Now to see if they can play nearly that well against a much better opponent, the New England Patriots. With four of their next five games on the road, Denver needs to be at their best. With plays like this, I’m not betting against them.