Fattening Up on J.D. Walton

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.

The reading of the day yesterday was Meat Market by Bruce Feldman, an excellent book about the influence of Head Coach Ed Orgeron at Ole Miss and follows a year of his recruiting approach. One comment jumped out at me:

There's a lesson here and it goes something like this: It’s fine to have an ideal in mind when you go out looking for football players - in fact, you should - but always remember that almost always, you’re going to have to settle for something less. The trick is to make the best choices from a flock of less-than-perfect options. (pp 260-261)

I expect this team to improve over the season, and if that doesn’t happen, I’ll be both surprised and concerned. Much as we’d all like a sudden jump to playoff contention, that’s rarely how rebuilding goes. We talk about and hope for the fast rise and the quick turnaround, but most of them either don’t happen or immediately fall back. Rebuilding most often takes time - about three years sounds right. I’d expect that the team improves over the season because they learn each other’s tendencies as they play together in the somewhat new offense and the coaches get a better feel for the players and their best use.

The best stat from Sunday? Denver committed just one penalty all day, a facemask call that was really a horse collar for a 15-yard personal foul which was assessed on Joe Mays. That’s much more disciplined football, and it’s been a long time since I saw disciplined football from the Broncos. There are some changes in the wind, and they looked kind of good. That was in direct comparison to the Titans, who often played very dirty, got away with much of it and still walked away with 11 penalties for 80 yards.

I’m going to be doing a series called Fattening Up which focuses in on some of the Broncos, looking at the film of them all game long, and writing a summary by halves (sometimes quarters) as to how they performed, how many plays they won at the point of attack and any other info that seems pertinent. We’ll revisit the players I chose a few times over the season to make sure these snapshots give us a viable, accurate picture of the way they’re playing. This will be the first in that series - feel free to give feedback on how it works for you. Personally, I find a laundry list of each play and exactly what formation they were in and who did what kind of dry - that’s developed partly in notes and partly in my head. I’m going to try to pick out plays and players that were important or illustrative in some way and talk about them.

Right now, I’m going with what I know. One thing I know is that the middle of your team on both sides of the line of scrimmage keys everything else that happens. There are other key positions, but you can’t ignore the middle. So we won’t.

I see the game from the OL out, and I’ll start these from the middle of the OL out. There will be several of these coming along as different players impact different games, but I like to start at the beginning, and to me, the beginning of a team is the OL. Last year, J.D. Walton was a rookie at center with a rookie LG in Zane Beadles next to him for much of the year. The two of them were murdered by double A-gap blitzes, delayed blitzes and stunts, often confused by NFL speed and tactics and generally overwhelmed. Both showed improvement later in the season, but they were still rookies and looked the part. You always wonder what the sophomore year will bring. As you’d expect with that combination both being rookies, they spent a lot of time getting their heads handed to them. And, there had been some questions.

Has J.D. really improved? Some observers early on, including Cecil Lammey, had told me that he hadn’t - so I spent quite a while grading out Walton’s 1st- and 2nd-half performances from Sunday. Let’s take them one at a time:

1st Half

What I saw in this half overall was very positive, and I came away pleased with it. I took every play, one at a time, and watched only J.D. Overall, Walton wasn’t challenged by a lot of complexity: Tennessee goes right at you with what they’re doing on the middle defensive line; no double A-gap anythings, few stunts or twists. No A-gap anything but an oncoming NT or UT.

For the most part I saw that in this game, Walton’s job was most often going to be the nose tackle, wherever he may be - like all teams, Tennessee at times flips the NT and UT players. There are plays that are called in which Walton’s job is to jostle the defensive player as he moves past him to a second-level target. He moves out well on such plays, is assured in spotting a target and usually didn’t have to engage for long - the plays were usually over fairly quickly, but he was handling his business and assignment well and didn’t leave his new man until the whistle. He is assured in his commands with the line and didn’t make a mistake resulting in a sack, penalty or hit on the QB during the game.

Walton usually had to look for a battle on the line, and he frequently was part of a double team - Tennessee didn’t attack him directly, nor was there linebacker involvement up the middle. He lost one battle per quarter, both near the end. The first was a run block in which Walton was engaged with a defensive tackle who slid off, getting an arm onto Willis McGahee and throwing him off balance before others finished him off. The other came late in the half on a pass block - no one came into Walton’s purview, and when he went hunting he became enmeshed in a scrum in which he lost the first man he engaged instead of powering his into the rest of the scrum. The play was then a near-hurry on Kyle Orton - it would have been, but Orton was hit by a different player first. I haven’t gone back to see just whom yet - I was focused on Walton. Otherwise, I didn’t see a misstep from Trashy. He had a fairly simple, workman-like half and he won the vast majority of his battles. during the 12m50s that Denver had the ball, they attempted 19 passes and 9 runs, in total (if you’re too hung over to add), 28 plays. Walton was successful in 26 of them and was a factor in stopping 27 of them. That’s a pretty good start.

2nd Half

Walton had an excellent third quarter, not losing a single battle at the point of attack. That was of particular importance, since he was handling both run and pass blocking during Denver’s long drive, which ended in a Willis McGahee single-yard run for a touchdown. Walton was able to handle whoever was rushing, and Tennessee did something that they’re famous for - they replaced the entire defensive line to hit the Broncos with all fresh legs. It didn’t matter - Walton handled them as easily and directly as he did the group that started against Denver on the drive. Walton had several battles with Shaun Smith and a few with Sen’Derrick Marks. On one play during the drive, Smith tore off Walton’s helmet by the facemask in his frustration, but Walton neither responded nor missed a beat on the next play. He held his ground in every sense, and the penalty cost the Titans 15 more yards. Walton also handled rookie DT Casey Jurrell from USC on the drive with the same lack of results on the defender’s part. Whether following normal zone blocking, in moving to the second level to block, or in walling off a rusher on Orton, Walton seemed cool, unaffected and professional, and without him losing a single battle on the drive, I was impressed.

The Broncos had recovered a fumble by Titans QB Matt Hasselbeck to start the 4th quarter. Walton opened the initial 4th-quarter drive with a totally non-rookie move - throughout the game he’d been taking a quick peek between his legs just before snapping the ball. He varied his motion slightly, raising his head as if to check the defense just before the snap and rookie Akeem Ayers flew through the A gap in anticipation of the snap, drawing an offsides penalty and moving the ball to the Titans’ 3.5-yard 'line'. On the very next snap, Sen'Derrick Marks was drawn to an encroachment penalty - the ball was then placed at the 2-yard line.

Denver then spent four plays fruitlessly trying to push the ball into the end zone with no success. On the final snap of the drive, Chris Kuper asked that the play go right behind him - but both he (and perhaps Walton) had a chance to push the pile. Both they and FB Spencer Larsen pushed their way into the end zone, but they didn’t clear the path enough for Willis McGahee to follow them, and he was held up just short of the goal line.

After several viewings in full zoom on Walton and Kuper and a dozen repetitions of the play, it really looked like Kuper and Walton (and Larsen behind them) all kind of dove into the line, and their bodies crossed the end zone, but they didn’t push the Titans enough before hitting the turf. It was Kuper’s play and his call, but Walton could have done better on that one. I’m not sure of his ability or functional strength in that situation. It may develop over time, but it just didn’t seem to be his best function. That’s really my only concern with him so far.

I’ll say this - we can talk for hours about all kinds of issues of players, positions, systems and coaches, but since Tom Nalen retired in 2007, I haven’t seen Denver know that they can push that one yard over the goal line like clockwork. When they lined up, your stomach tightened with anticipation rather than concern, and it was a rare day when they didn’t knock together seven points every time that came up. That’s something that I eventually hope to see in Walton - the knowledge that he’s got the guy in front of him, and he can out-shove and out-mean him every time there’s a big white line behind him. A lot of football is attitude, aggression, one-on-one battles and winning the war. Tenacity is important, and so is leverage. Add the amount of power the player can expend and you’ve got a pretty good picture of how they’ll do in that situation. The Broncos won lots of battles, but they ended with it still unfinished. That’s going to stick in the line’s craw until the next chance they get.

Walton had one more drive with the Broncos before the game ended, but the outcome was the same - he didn’t lose a battle, and the Broncos didn’t score. On different plays, his responsibility was Shaun Smith, Sen’Derrick Marks or Casey Jurrell. He took Jurrell to the ground with a nifty leverage move on the final drive and left him on the ground, on his hands and knees.

Without developing a full grading system, in all the Broncos threw 39 passes (plus one sack) and ran the ball 23 times. Walton missed on one play, and his man might have had a shot at Orton on one other, but other events ended the play before that happened, so you’d have to say that Walton won, if not dominatingly so. He could have done better on the goal line. He did have a great pancake in the third quarter and knocked Jurrell to the ground as well on that final drive. Otherwise, he showed a veteran’s move with his head, drawing off the rookie who had been dancing around near the A gap looking for the snap. He walled off well in pass protection and fought well at both the LOS and in moving to the second level when moving out in run blocking.

In short - I’m glad to know that wherever the Broncos' issues are coming from, it isn’t the center of the offensive line. Trashcan Walton was a brick against a very good Titans front line. It wasn’t technically challenging as other games will be, and I’ll regrade him over time; but he had a very good game. The goal line will always be a concern until they start winning it, convincingly and consistently.

In brief summary - I’m going to do a series of these this season, taking snapshots of certain players, looking at both guys in the spotlight and guys like Walton who just handle their business and go home - few microphones, no spotlights, just a day at the office for one of the least recognized positions in the game. Unless, of course, that position makes a crucial error. Suddenly, if that happens, the camera will find you. No one had much to say to Walton after this game. Centers don’t draw much attention when they win nearly all of their battles. I’ll revisit the players I chose so that we get a more accurate picture of them as the season wears on.

Go Broncos!

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

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