The 2011 Denver Broncos were really bad at protecting the Quarterback, whether it was Kyle Orton or Tim Tebow. Part of that was on the QBs themselves – Orton lacks escapability, and Tebow was extremely conservative about throwing against tight coverage, and often held the ball too long. But most of the issue was the play of the individual protection players, and some questionable scheming.
LT Ryan Clady had a down year, which still put him in the top 10 or so of players at his position. His foot quickness has never gotten back to what he showed in his first two seasons, and sometimes he gets beat with quickness. LG Zane Beadles and C J.D. Walton don’t anchor well enough, and both need to get significantly stronger as their careers progress. RG Chris Kuper was the best of the bunch, but he’s coming off of a broken leg, which is a significant injury. Finally, RT Orlando Franklin buried guys in the run game, but his foot quickness needs a lot of improvement if he’s going to play outside.
The good news is that this is a group of five players who are all still in their 20s and showed a high degree of durability. I’ve said this before, but for an offensive lineman, durability is a skill. Teams tend to carry only eight of them, so if a player gets hurt a lot, he’s a liability. Linemen get hit a lot, but they tend to be lower-impact close area hits, where the guy they’re colliding with doesn’t have much of a running start. You have to be able to take 1,000 or so of those hits and play every snap while managing some aches and pains and avoiding ankle sprains and the like.
I’ve talked about the need for player development, and I think that a significant part of the team’s development upside resides with Beadles, Walton, and Franklin, not to mention a return to form by Clady. Beadles and Walton missed their opportunity to participate in an offseason NFL strength program last year, and I believe that it cost them significantly in terms of normal Year 1 to Year 2 improvement. You can work out on your own, and I’m sure they did, but there’s no substitute for a team-supervised development program. Franklin will get to experience the program for the first time this year too, and with him, I’ll be looking for improved agility.
I didn’t really care for the Broncos’ passing scheme last year, as I’ve mentioned previously. Part of it was that it was way over-reliant on max protection, to the point of being predictable about it. When you’re too predictable, defenses can just rush three or four men and drop seven or eight into coverage to guard your three eligible receivers. That makes it really hard to get open, no matter how good the defender is. That’s when you get into a situation of having all day to throw, and absolutely nowhere to go with the ball.
Pass protection has to get the first attention when scheming a pass play, but there’s more than one way to skin that cat. Today, I propose to discuss some of those approaches that a team can take.
Let’s start out with a simple thought – the personnel department and coaching staff have to be partners in ensuring that the five guys who start up front can handle an above-average four-man pass rush. The front office has to acquire players who are good enough to do it, and the coaches have to drive improvements in them and then scheme them into positions where they can be successful.
The ideal situation on a pass play is that the five guys up front are the only blockers, and that all five eligible receivers are able to free-release, and the QB can make it work regardless of what the defense does. If they bring more than five rushers, the QB can pick up the free runner by making a quick throw to a hot receiver. If they drop seven coverage players, the line can block the four, and the QB has five receivers running a concept and stretching the coverage. When you can do this, you have a high-functioning pass offense, as do the Patriots, Packers, and Saints.
For a team like the Broncos that’s inexperienced at a lot of offensive positions and has a lot of room for improvement, the trick is still getting as many receivers out as possible. I think the right answer is giving Tim Tebow fewer blockers most of the time and forcing him to see a hot guy when he needs to. A lot of times, the Broncos didn’t even have a hot guy, because they were blocking with seven players.
There are a few ways to protect adequately with fewer dedicated blockers, and I want to go over four of them.
Formation/Personnel Grouping – An offense can go to a sub package and spread out the formation, which thins out the tackle box. I continue to think that the Broncos should be in spread out formations almost all the time, because it forces more CBs to be on the field, who will mostly struggle to tackle big guys like Tebow, Willis McGahee, and even Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker.
If you look at this formation, you see four WRs and four CBs. This is something that the Steelers often do, and they run a lot of rub action on the trips side. The benefit is that just about any team’s fourth WR is better than just about any team’s fourth CB. Now, the defense can conceivably blitz a CB, but by removing two LBs from the mix, it makes identifying the rushers a lot easier for the QB at presnap. The Mike is the Mike - who else could it be? Come on and blitz that CB – we’ll just throw hot to the guy he left open.
The four WRs are always going to be free-releasing, and the RB can help with protection, or not. The defense doesn’t know if he’s coming out or staying in, and that’s to the benefit of the offense. It doesn’t even have to be special personnel – even something like flexing a TE away from the offensive line can be effective in messing with the positioning of the defense.
Check-releasing – This is what it sounds like. A player is assigned to see if an extra rusher is coming, or if a lineman gets beat quickly. If not, he’s assigned to release into the pattern. When an offense does this a lot, it prevents what we call green-dogging, which has gotten very popular in recent years. Green-dogging is when a LB or DB in man-to-man reads if their man is blocking, and if so, rushes the passer since they don't have man-to-man responsibility. That means that by keeping an extra guy in to block unnecessarily, the offense is essentially inviting an extra rusher to come in.
Chipping – Chipping is a way of helping on an outside rusher while still releasing a RB or TE into the pattern. It’s gotten very popular in the NFL, and of course, the Broncos almost never do it. The concept is that the OTs are assigned to set inside and force their men to take an outside route to the QB. The DE or OLB gets a quick outside step, and the RB or TE is assigned to body-rock them on the outside of the OT, so that they are sent back into the OT’s blocking radius, and their quick momentum is negated. At that point, the receiver runs a short route and generally serves as a checkdown option for the QB.
The 49ers do this a lot with Delanie Walker as a motion TE to help RT Anthony Davis. Walker hits the frontside rusher and then goes out and catches a short pass. Vernon Davis and the outside receiver clear out the defense running vertical routes and leave Walker able to get open. On the backside, the RB chips too. The offense gets the best of all worlds by helping the OTs and getting all five receivers into the pattern.
Effective use of the Screen Game – The Broncos should be good at screens but didn’t utilize them a whole lot. Part of the issue is that receiving the ball isn’t exactly McGahee’s specialty, and the loss of Knowshon Moreno was particularly felt in this area. The bigger thing is that most teams weren’t rushing the Broncos really aggressively because they feared the Tebow run. It’s hard to screen against a mush rush with Cover-2 behind it.
In general, use of the screen against an aggressive defense is very effective. You can make a bunch of yards with it, but even more than that, it eventually causes pass rushers to hesitate and read. Even giving the offense that split-second of time can be the difference between engaging a rusher successfully and whiffing on a rusher.
That’s what I have for today. We’ll continue to build on this foundation with Fat Camp features to come, dealing with more advanced concepts in the passing game. I hope you’re all having a good week.