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.
Hopefully, it’s also the end of the attempts to put any disrespect on John Fox and Mike McCoy, who had the guts to reach into the college ranks for the right playbook and to be willing to adapt it to the NFL. There’s a place for the run, and there’s a place for the zone read with the right players. Ted’s discussion of the zone read and my own examination of Barry Alvarez and Wisconsin’s zone run-based program at around the same time had IAOFM's readers clear on what they were seeing. We’ll just smile and move on from the fact that IAOFM was pushing for the zone read weeks ago.
I think that it’s worth taking a moment to take pride and pleasure in the way the offensive line played as a whole on Sunday. That game showed just how far this group has come. Kamerion Wimbley schooled Orlando Franklin when he was in the nickel formations during their first encounter, but while Wimbley got a single sack on Sunday, Franklin held him off far more often than he lost his battles. Wimbley was frequently lined up against Ryan Clady - who himself was moved around several times and even moved outside of Franklin as an eligible TE to his right (Clady had one of his three penalties on such a play). This was a chance to see specifically whether Franklin, who had played against two elite rushers in the past two games, could show that he had developed against a player who had embarrassed him in their first game. What Franklin showed was that in general he was able to play Wimbley - and whomever else was across from him - to a standstill. On several plays, he locked out Wimbley and other defenders to open the door for Tebow and McGahee to get their yards. Franklin is learning - quickly.
It’s premature to say that Franklin cannot be an excellent right tackle in the NFL: you certainly couldn’t prove that by this game. The entire offensive line played its heart out, and there were big blocks given by every one of the starters. Zane Beadles had his best game so far this year and deserves to be complimented on his obvious progress. J.D. Walton spent some of his time owning Oakland’s DL players (and LBs). I’m starting to think that Dave Magazu’s magic is beginning to work its spell, and the players are responding well to it. He’s a heck of a coach. He’s got some good young talent to work with, too.
I can buy that sometimes Beadles hasn’t played to the whistle - I’ve seen him do it, although he played like a stud in Oakland - but he wins the battle too many times to believe that he doesn’t want to play. On McGahee’s 60-yard run, it was Beadles' inside leg that he ran to before breaking it. Since 60% of the OL starters have been in the league (much less the team) for less than two seasons, earning trust and communication on the line may take a little while but it’s not like each player hasn’t had good games or shown their willingness to do whatever it takes to win. Based on that, you could see on Sunday the effects of an OL that’s coming together. All of them have the skill to play in the NFL, and all of them show it, although where each belongs is still potentially in question in a couple of cases.
I’ve heard people legitimately question Beadles’ level of skill as a starter, as well as that of Franklin and Walton. Let’s address each - with Walton, I don’t accept it at all. He’s leading the team in pass blocking efficiency and the team is getting an average of 5.25 YPA up the middle (combining right (3.3) and left (6.4), so while I still want to see him improve his blocking on short-yardage power runs, he’s still a heck of a second-year player. People still see some of those double A-gap blitzes that plagued the interior line last year when they look at him. This isn’t that guy. This guy’s been burned and he’s learned. Walton’s on a good path.
Beadles, I have to admit, still has some questions on him that I think are reasonable - and, I believe, so is giving him the rest of this season before drawing any firm opinions, because starting as a rookie and going through two position changes as he did in 2010 isn’t an easy way to start off in the league. A full season - preferably a full year - under Dave Magazu should tell us a lot on how well he handles coaching and can improve. He looked much improved in Oakland, and has been getting better on a weekly basis.
As for Franklin, he was second on the team behind Kuper’s 7.5 YPA with a 6.1 YPA prior to the Oakland game and right now it’s Kuper with 7.2 YPA and Franklin with 6.4, leading the team together. For each position, these were the totals on average rushing yards through their positions following the Oakland game:
Given that Franklin has never played right tackle before this season, and given the way he’s led the team (along with Kuper) in clearing out defenders for the QB and RBs to rack up rushing yards, I think that giving him at least a year to see if they can get him moving his feet fast enough on speed rushers seems only sensible. Kuper, we can probably agree, has given the team no reasons to doubt him. He’s been a rock, and he was this week.
All in all, I think that Denver’s combination ground-based attack, using the QB and RB/FB with Spencer Larsen also able to add a problem for defenses with his pass catching as well as his typically exuberant blocking - he’s been targeted eight times now and has eight receptions, so kudos to that young man - while increasing the number and variety of passes at a level that Tebow can comfortably absorb and perform can obviously be highly effective. Denver will need to stay a step ahead of their film - if they settle into patterns, they’d better be great at it - but I love the way it’s started.
I’ve seen several chances to develop hybrid systems come and go. Former DC Bob Slowik needed one with his defensive players but seemed clueless; both of the Bates father/son duo had chances but didn’t take them - Jim wanted a rare breed of players, the team wanted them yesterday, settling for the aged, the never-were and the just fat, while Jeremy wanted an offense that didn’t have a running game. After that the team was really too badly off to develop one, although they tried to on defense at times. This time, the better players have been accumulating to a good level, the coaches have used very creative thinking, and I think that it’s great on a lot of levels. It’s fragile - there’s little depth at key roles, but I can’t wait to see how they use it.
What role did the OL players carve out in the Oakland game? I’m going to talk about all of the linemen in some degree, but I’m going to focus on one who’s still an enigma right now - Ryan Clady.
It’s fair to say that Ryan is struggling somewhat this year. I’ve already written on him once this year, after Dave Magazu commented that the second half of Clady’s game against Green Bay was the best run blocking he’d done all year. I enjoyed both watching that film and writing that article - it was a great example of how well Clady can play. Clady also brought a 96.0 Pass Blocking Efficiency into the Raiders game, so it’s not like he can’t handle his business. Unfortunately, though, Clady has not played to that standard every week.
He has an unusually high number of penalties this year - nine so far, mostly for holding, which leads the league. A couple have been phantoms, but the pattern is there. He’s never needed to hold before, and I’ve never seen him commit so many infractions: they usually seem to come when he plays too upright, and there’s a hand placement issue. In addition, he had permitted three sacks, one hit, nine hurries, and 13 total pressures going into the Oakland game but has four sacks, three hits and 11 hurries with 18 total pressures coming out of it. For Iron Clady to have nine penalties and 18 pressures against him this early in the season is uncomfortably surprising. That’s also a big part of the 21 total penalties given up by Denver’s offensive line so far this year. These are almost all holding calls (with a couple of illegal formation problems, one of which was also a phantom), and Clady has never had to hold to overcome his defender. Something is different, and it’s not good to see.
The troubles he’s had are partly offset by his pass blocking efficiency rating of 96.0 prior to the Oakland game, which dropped after that game to a cumulative 94.9. When he gets beaten, it’s a missed assignment or a speed rusher. J.D. Walton was leading the team with a PBE (pass blocking efficiency) of 97.0 before Oakland and left with a PBE of 96.9 - very little change, and he rarely makes mistakes, although he’s not the most physical guy, he’s very good technically. Chris Kuper, all around solid, was only slightly ahead of Clady with a PBE of 96.7, which he maintained, so you would have to say that Clady was close to the top when it came to protecting the quarterback, but lost some ground in Oakland.
Pain won’t stop him. He didn’t miss time in the regular season following that knee surgery last year, a 50% tear of the left patellar tendon, and he had to be playing with pain. That’s the leg that he’s kick-stepping out with, and since the surgery I’ve seen him seem to pull up when he’s run the defender to the outside; sometimes too soon, letting the player cut back inside. He’s often playing too high, which he didn’t have a problem with earlier in his career. Does he have a lingering problem that they can’t tell fans about (since every linebacker and defensive line player in the league would draw a big, red target on his white pants, right at the knee)? It’s a possibility. Not a rumor, not a fact. Just a possibility.
He seems to be struggling slightly to move with the deep knee bend and light feet that categorized his rookie season, especially to his left against speed rushers, and that’s a new problem for Ryan. It doesn’t seem to bother him in ways that are visible when pulling or trapping. He may have had some problems with it last year - I seem to recall that he did. He definitively does this season, and it was his biggest problem this game. That’s one reason that the Raiders placed Wimbley across from Clady on several plays - they were convinced that Clady’s issues this year with speed rushers would bear fruit. Clady is still one tough dude, and the theory didn’t always match the outcome. It was still a good matchup for Oakland, though. Clady is also being troubled by hand placement, which is why he’s being called for holding - when he misses on his defender, he grabs what he can. He’s got to get his hands inside the permitted area again.
I’ve received a lot of comments on the unusual play from Clady. The timing suggests that he's got some kind of lingering issue with his knee following the surgery, but that's just a timing coincidence and I can’t put credence to it without evidence; I just note the pattern, which may or may not hold true. There's one thing that I did notice, though, and it was clear in the OAK game - you can see when he's really focused and when he's going through the motions with less focus. He settles down into his old stance with sand in his pants, as they say; his knees are bent and his feet farther apart. He mirrors well when he does and he's back to his old self. On other plays, for the first time he's a little stiff and much too upright. Why, I can't say, but the pattern is there.
Clady didn’t have a big day either way in the Oakland game. He permitted one sack, two hits and two hurries, and his pass blocking was better than his run blocking that day. Generally speaking, Clady’s pass blocking has been better than his run blocking across the board, which is one reason that Denver originally wanted him and has recently been willing to put up with Franklin’s learning curve as a pass blocker. They need Big O’s talent and his fervor as a run blocker, and the results have spoken for themselves.
There are plays - and I saw some in the 3rd quarter of the Oakland game - when Clady looks like he did as a rookie. He bends at the knees, he’s got his balance even, he mirrors their moves and slides them to the outside and his punch is noticeably more effective - from watching its effect, it must be more powerful. You can see how much more focused he is, and no one gets past him. I don’t know what brings it on or what turns it off, but when he’s in that mode, you can’t mistake it. When he goes into that place, he’s the All-Pro that he’s deserved to be, and he was getting into that mode at times in Oakland. Is he coming back from an injury, or does he just need to work on fundamentals? Whatever the case, it was encouraging.
Oakland’s defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan had described their approach to defending against Denver and Tim Tebow as a matter of crowding the line of scrimmage, taking away the pass and keeping an eye on Tebow’s running. Nothing was said about the quality of the OL, nothing about McGahee; Bresnahan also didn’t talk publicly about the zone read, but he did say they practiced against it; he also made his team watch film of last year’s game against Tebow, reinforcing how dangerous he could become.
What Bresnahan hadn’t reckoned on was playing against an NFL line as the first obstacle to beating an unusual college offense that featured a big, fast NFL running back to go with a big, fast QB who’d won championships with that approach (PK’s comment on Monday that Tebow isn’t quick enough was absurd - watch some danged film, Peter) and hadn’t counted on how much the OL had improved since the last time they’d played. It was a lesson that he’d have all day to absorb. I honestly didn’t know that Fox/McCoy had the nerve to do this, but I think that it’s great to try.
Week 9, Denver at Oakland
Denver didn’t have long to wait for Oakland to try and dominate them at the LOS and to try and dominate Tebow, who’d taken 13 sacks over the previous two games. The first strike came on Denver’s first drive, first series, 2nd and 8 from the -25. Oakland was trying to disguise an overload blitz coming from the (Denver) right/weak side. Denver does a nice job of picking up the blitz - Clady is wrapped up with #90, Desmond Bryant, and handles him well, as does Beadles with his assignment. Walton, Kupe and Big O are all able to push their men to the strongside, which leaves enough room for Tebow to gain a few yards up the middle, even though he couldn’t find a receiver.
At 7:04 to go in the 1st quarter, I got a look at a side of Clady that has me concerned. It was 2nd and 9 and Clady was pass blocking Bryant. He did well to take him out of the play, but he had one hand out of position, on the outside of Bryant’s shoulder pad instead of inside. To make it worse, Clady threw him to the ground in full view of a referee, which cost him his seventh penalty of the season and gave him the dubious honor of leading the league in penalties by committing that infraction. Ryan added two more to his score later on. This is something that Clady and the team has to get a handle on, with the pun inevitable. He can’t keep playing like that, and he’s got much better skills.
With 1:16 to go in the 1st quarter, Denver is at 3rd and 10 on Oakland’s 27. Oakland predictably rushes six, but all five linemen pick up their assignments as does Knowshon Moreno, whose blocking is a good as his receiving. The play unfolds quickly, with Eric Decker heading fast to the end zone on a post pattern. Denver gets its first TD of the day and the quarter ends 7-3 in Denver’s favor.
It’s first down, and Denver lines up in a 122 formation with both TEs on the left, and McGahee follows his blockers for six yards. One thing about picking up third downs - if you get six yards on 1st down, it’s suddenly easier to get the next one, if it even occurs. This has been a weakness for Denver - good play on early downs, setting up the next first down. Six yards is a good start.
Two plays later, same personnel package, but the TEs are dropped into ‘wing’ positions and Clady is the TE eligible outside of Franklin on the right with Tebow under center. Tebow follows Beadles for the 1st down, but Clady’s holding calls the play back. This isn’t like him at all, but it’s a problem that Denver will have to deal with. Right now, Clady is leading the league in holding penalties and it’s driving me nuts.
One thing that I’ve heard often are the complaints on Mike McCoy. Not this game, my friends - at least, not as a whole. This was serious fun. Among other things, McCoy has begun to move his tackles around - Chris Clark at LT, with Clady TE eligible outside Franklin, Franklin on the LT, Clark outside of Franklin on the right, TE eligible, etc. It made it much harder for Oakland to set up mismatches - they didn’t even know who’d play in a certain position. On a couple of plays, Denver had Kupe and Franklin on the right with Clady, Clark and another TE with a slot WR and another on the edge, a formation similar to something from the mists of last century, called the Lonesome Polecat. I don’t think that Oakland even knew what to do with it.
They were visibly confused on the field, no matter what their protests. They also just plain got beat - Denver’s blocking schemes were superb, the addition of Chris Clark on multiple formations maximizes a slightly less than All-Pro skillset and the play mix kept the offense on the field and got some points on the board. On top of that, the icing on the cake was the way that the Broncos decided to out-physical a team that had beaten them down last game.
One huge difference was that Denver got positive yardage on 1st down consistently, and that’s been an issue for years now. If you want to see that third-down conversion rate improve, getting 5-8 yards on 1st down is a very good way to start. The penalties have to be controlled - the holding on Clady that leads the league is unacceptable, and there was also a personal foul on Franklin, who may have gotten caught up in the moment, with all the cheap shots around him. He didn’t repeat his mistake, and it’s not a habit with him of late as it once was. Penalties destroy drives - the Broncos have got to develop the right discipline.
But it was a chippy game, as all with Oakland’s dirty team become. Richard Seymour was up to his old tricks. First he tried to tear Moreno’s head off with a facemask twist that got him a penalty, and then he knelt briefly on KM’s head as they got up from the same play - stay classy, there, Seymour. Couldn’t get to Quinton Carter’s hair, eh? The best answer to such cheap play is to beat the daylights out of them legally, and there was some of that, too. Kuper had a particularly nice play when safety Matt Giordano tried a safety blitz from the backfield and as he dashed in with a clear path, Chris Kuper drove his assignment sharply backwards, right into Giordano’s charge. Nice play, Kupe. It turned into a completion to Decker, but it would have been a sack if the safety had been unencumbered. The more I watch Kupe, the more often I see him using his defender like a ram to take out other players. That’s leverage at its best.
Denver used the formation of Clark at LT, Franklin at RT with Clady as TE eligible to clear the way on a 1st-and-10 for McGahee, who gave the Broncos another 1st-and-10 for their efforts. That was in the opening drive of the second half, and Denver would go on to open holes for an impromptu QB draw good for five yards, following a pass to TE Dante Rosario with clean coverage for 8 yards on 1st and 10. Franklin opened a hole for McGahee to gain another 1st down, and Eddie Royal had a coverage breakdown, letting Tebow find him at about the Oakland 5 with nothing between him and the goal line but chalk and turf. Seven more points for Denver.
I have a note here that for those of you who are moderately fanatical enough to go back and watch the play at 12:01 of the 3rd quarter. This play itself is worth watching, mostly because every single Bronco on the field blocked for Tebow on the play, who ran for 19 yards. It was on 1st and 10 from the Denver 43, and I’m talking TEs, WRs, RBs as well as the usual Fat Men OL suspects. By then, everyone on that team that could find a cheater Raider to hit was making sure that Tebow got a 1st down and a couple more.
Any coach will tell you that one of the key signs of a good running team is that everyone on the team wants to block, very much like this play demonstrated. When your WRs are hitting linebackers and thinking payback, you’ve got the team to where you want it. When you have to instruct your quarterback not to block people, well, to be truthful, I’ve seen more that liked to block occasionally than those who would back away. It’s probably all of those hits, sacks and blitzes that they’ve had to take.
There was a lot to love, and there’s a great question in whether they can keep confusing teams with it and beating them physically to keep them on their heels. It’s an exciting way to go.
Clady is unquestionably struggling in areas that have not bothered him in the past, and with his contract coming up to be renewed, this could make negotiations somewhat more difficult. The good news on Ryan’s side is that based on this game’s film, he’s starting to stand, move and play like his old self at times. The next few games should tell us if he’s coming back or just staying at the level that he’s been playing.
Given the Broncos' success with their new offensive approach, it’s worth looking at the schedule. Of the Broncos' next four opponents, the Kansas City Chiefs are 18th in run defense, the New York Jets 21st, the Chargers 17th and the Minnesota Vikings 4th. Seeing if they can run it against the Vikings may be the biggest challenge, but they have the most time to add to the approach by then. If they can keep their new toy of an offense pounding out yardage, that’s the kind of schedule that should warm the hearts of the coaching staff at the holidays.
It sure warms mine. Go Broncos!