I read the other day that OL coach Dave Magazu said the San Diego game featured Ryan Clady’s best run-blocking of the season to date. Although I had Clady set up for a little later in my film study series, I wanted to see why Magazu, who’s got a pretty top reputation as an OL coach, was that excited about what he’d seen. It didn’t take long to get me excited, either. I’ll share with you what I found, and take you through the second half of that game. On some plays, I’ve listed more than just Clady’s performance - you’ll understand why.
A technical note: I wanted to start making my life easier, so I’m using a version of the shorthand that Steve Belichick, Bill’s father, recommended in his book Football Scouting Methods. I list the quarter and the time at the start of the drive and sometimes if a certain play is worth checking, and I also list the down, distance and the location of the ball. To do that, I use the notation ‘-X yards’ if Denver’s on their side of the 50 and +X yards if they’re in their opponent's side of the field (plus territory). If I’ve listed the location of the ball on first down, and the team gained five yards I usually don’t bother listing the ball location - I just assume that everyone can do the math. So far, it’s confusing my voice recognition software, so keeping my keystrokes down helps my hands out. I hope that you can follow the notations when I kept them short.
I’ve been asked this so as far as the run game in general, whatever happens with Tim Tebow will be fine with me - he's unquestionably fun to watch and he's going to get a lot of successful runs in, which will make Willis McGahee even more successful. The play of Spencer Larsen is another reason to smile, and I’ll be looking at him this year as well (he also made several good plays against SD). My biggest concern and focus this season, though, is the offensive line, which has been a problem since at least 2008. Even then, despite their ability to prevent sacks, one thing that they couldn’t be counted on to do was to push the ball in when the team was knocking on the door, inside the five. They did it for Peyton Hillis for a few weeks, but otherwise my memory suggests that it hasn’t happened regularly enough since Tom ‘Nails’ Nalen was the center. Whatever improves that will get my vote.
Based on an attempt to understand John Fox’s general philosophy, despite (and because of) the concerns that have been voiced, I’ve been reading quite a bit from coaches who are well known for their running game; everything I could find from Vince Lombardi’s power sweep to Barry Alvarez’s erudite discussion of why he’d decided to go with a run-dominant offense and a run-stopping defense. Alvarez’s credentials are hard to argue with - he won three Big 10 conference titles and two Rose Bowls in a single decade with his Wisconsin Badgers, and has stayed on as Athletic Director there since stepping down as head coach in 2005. They’re a lot of fun to watch if you like running the football this year, too. I recognize the importance of the changes in the game over the past few decades, but some of the points that they raised are still as valid as when those coaches made them.
After I read Magazu’s comments and watched Clady in the second half of the SD game, it was clear that whatever the reasons are for Denver losing, he wasn't one of them that day. This is the first time I've really seen the old Iron Clady really come back into his own and it's a pleasure to watch. His run blocking was excellent, and his pass blocking was similarly strong. I’ve been a bit concerned with Clady ever since he tore his patellar tendon in 2010 - he just didn’t seem quite the same guy last year, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the knee or some other issue was bothering him, although the new players around him may also have caused problems for him.
As I’ve noted before, communication along the offensive line is absolutely essential to good line play. When Clady started off a little slow this year, I wondered if it was either an injury issue or just the normal process of getting used to a coach, a system and the players around him. What I saw in the last game suggested that it’s the latter, although it’s something to keep an eye on. If this example turns out to be what’s in store from him, he’s going to be back to the Clady that Broncos fans knew from 2008 - but even tougher, more skilled and with a more powerful cast, given the additional experience of the left guard and center, plus the size and power of the new right tackle.
As a group, it was the best run-blocking that I've seen since before 2008, and that ain't hay, as they used to say. RT Orlando Franklin is next on the hit parade for me after the analysis of LG Zane Beadles’ work (which is coming on Wednesday), but Magazu was pretty glowing about that half, so I had to peek. I’m glad I did, too - I'm learning more about the scheme and the positions daily, reading old coaching manuals and articles on the OL in both the run and the passing games as well as Steve Belichick's scouting manual, which is a great (if very dense) read. I've been using that to improve the film breakdown, and like anyone, I’m finding more and more to appreciate as that goes along.
One run was literally textbook stuff, and you may enjoy it - it was a long run in the fourth quarter by McGahee; it came with 8:54 left in the game, if you're interested in watching it. The same run was used as a classic example of an inside zone run in a chapter of The Football Coaching Bible, collected by the American Football Coaches Association. The chapter, as noted, was written by Barry Alvarez: he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame just last year. I explained the play below in the notes.
But, getting back to the Broncos: While I’ll talk about Clady’s performance in a moment, I think that after watching McGahee, seeing the various things that Knowshon Moreno can do in the blocking and receiving game (including running nice fake routes) and with Tebow running the ball, if the line plays up to anything near what they did last half, Denver is going to be a lot of fun to watch this season, and they’re going to put up a lot of rushing yards. It’s also true, as one of our readers mentioned this week, that there are some statisticians that claim that a mobile QB will increase the overall rushing yardage of a football team. There is usually a tradeoff with passing yardage and at times with injuries, but from the view of the rushing game alone, this will be an interesting experiment at the very least. It certainly fits John Fox’s philosophy.
Denver may still need a better LG - or else Zane Beadles must continue to develop better, which is quite possible considering that you have a player as young as him who was thrust into a bad situation as he was last year. But after seeing Franklin in his first preseason game, flopping around like a trout but still grabbing, whacking at, hitting and generally impeding anyone anyway he could with his pass blocking, combined with the fact that he developed to what I saw from him during that half against SD has me convinced that Franklin is the real deal at the right tackle slot. He's got the best run blocking numbers of any of the starters so far according to PFF and yet he's a rookie: he's also the only starter without a sack against him. He’s got the highest number of hurries (11) on the line, though - hopefully, Tebow's mobility and Franklin’s increasing experience will diminish that problem. Either way, zero sacks and top rushing numbers speak well for his future.
But Clady was the cream of the crop last Sunday, and showed everyone what he can do when he’s on his game. He had one partial missed play, on the initial play of the first drive of the 3rd quarter, and one whiff on the first drive of the 4th quarter, but was otherwise rock solid. I thought that his efforts more than made up for those minor slips. I hope that you enjoy the summary:
Q3 8:54: starting at -31
1-10 Clady pancakes 71 (A. Garay) as the run flows outside him - TE Fells (#86) along with (#75) Chris Clark who also lined up on the left of Clady (an unusual formation, making the left the strongside very effectively) also blocked well on that play.
2-5 -36 I formation, Fells in motion, L-R. Clady drives back Garay out of the play on skates
3-3 - Penalty - Walton double clutched and the play was lost.
3-8 -33 Pass, Clady shuts down Garay, but INC
3:56 starting at -7
1-10 -7 122 formation, TEs split in max protect, Run is behind Clady, McGahee gets 3 yards before Garay slips Clady’s block and is in on the tackle. Garay is having a very good year: Clady drove him back before Garay moved into the runner’s lane.
2-7 -10 113; Fells left, long pas, Fells and Clady are solid in pass pro
3-7 212 strong side right, pass, Clady and Beadles easily double teamed 52, L. English, who eventually helps flush Tebow left, only since that’s where TT’s already going. The pass is hurried by Moreno’s cover guy who eventually leaves Moreno - who is then standing open, waving arms beyond the 1st down when either Tim misses or ignores him (same side of the field as Decker) and tries the long pass to Decker: pass is overthrown, INC
Tebow’s just nervous, trying to do too much. If he takes what they give him, he’ll have success.
13:35, starting at -20
1-10 -20 212 strong side right: Clady and Beadles easily defeat their 1-on-1 matchups in pass pro.
2-10 113 shotgun handoff to McGahee up middle, all OL blocked like monsters. Tackle by safety, 1st down. Walton, Beadles and Clady took on Liuget and Shaun Phillips. Liuget stepped on Phillips' ankle while being pushed around by the Broncos OL players.
1.10 -32 113 gun, Clady misses LB who slips behind him and gets McGahee with backside pursuit after gain of 1.
2-9 -38 113 gun, Clady seals off Garay, Tebow run goes strong side right (Franklin sees LB doing something inappropriate while on TT after he’s down and runs over to knock hm off).
3-4, 12:11 left, 113 gun (which seems to be one base offense, for now), pass, good protection everywhere, INC
8:54, starting at -49
1-10 -49 212 Run, middle. Clady cannily lets his guy run far past him on the outside as McGahee runs up through the B gap. Beadles and Walton sealed their guys, Franklin destroyed his and Kuper had his man turned and controlled - that’s the textbook inside zone run. Barry Alvarez wrote that basic play up for The Football Coaching Bible’s chapter on the running game, and it still works just as well as it did for him at Wisconsin. This is also what a team that plays well as a unit can do.
1-10 +23 113: QB run. Clady’s on Liuget, who disengages from Clady after Tebow runs past. Liuget did a nice job of pursuit, but Tebow runs out of bounds at the 12
1-10 +12 113, Virgil Green in motion left to right. Tebow bobbles snap, Garay is through right A gap instantly, Green misses him with Tebow in the way, play over.
2-10 113 gun transitions to an empty backfield, 5-receiver set (Moreno and a TE - looks like Fells - + 3 WR). Tebow on a keeper draw, great blocking by Broncos, TD. Clady kept English locked down, Beadles and Walton blocked well downfield and Tebow was never touched: a textbook play. The move to a 5-wideout set confused SD - they obviously weren’t considering the draw, and the safeties were locked on receivers. Everyone else got a dose of Bronco blockers. Great play.
Try for 2 - 113, McGahee behind Clady and Beadles, good.
Robert Ayers knocks the ball off of Rivers’ hand before the arm comes forward - Denver ball on the +41.
4:30 starting at +41
1-10 122 gun: Tebow keeps the ball, off the RT. Clady hands his man off to Walton and runs downfield looking for someone to block - Tebow is tackled by Butler on the 33.
2-8 +33 212 Larsen behind Clady. Handoff to McGahee up right A gap - Walton chips and lets his guy through to block at the second level, Larsen hits big Cam Thomas (and gets clobbered for it, but stopped him anyway), McGahee thru big hole to +28.
1-10 +28 113 gun: conventional screen to Moreno, Tebow takes the hit to complete the pass, great downfield blocking, excellent timing by all players, TD.
Extra point - try for 2. Clady blocks well but pass is INC.
0:24 seconds, 4-receiver set, gun, 1 RB, Tebow to Lloyd, circus catch. Clady and Beadles held blocks well.
1-10 0:19 -40 113 gun: Pass, excellent blocking on 3-man rush, Tebow jump-pass complete to 29, spiked w/ 1 second left.
2-10 0:01 113 gun, INC, end game
It’s tough to have a comeback fall short by just that much, but Clady’s work - and that of the OL in general - was the best I’ve seen of them all year - or last year, either. It was an impressive half in which Denver showed that they can play ball control offense, and the defense, although they let in the final scores, played much better than they had in the first half. All in all - from the viewpoint of the OL play, this was Denver’s game as they want it to be.
Down the road, I’d like to talk about Alvarez’s philosophy and how it intersects with Fox’s; how he and his staff came to it, why, and why it worked, even though it was at the college level. There are lessons there that deal with the specifics of what Denver’s team looks like moving forward and why the philosophy makes a lot of sense for the team right now. In the meantime, it’s back to the film, with Zane Beadles next up on the list. I’ll see you then.