When the 2011 season started, I found myself being more and more drawn to the play of the offensive line. Why? First were the conflicting reports on the play of J.D. Walton and Zane Beadles in training camp; second, the fact that three of the five starters are in their first or second NFL seasons; finally, since 2008, the Denver offensive line hasn’t been exactly the gold standard of the league. So, I wanted to get a much clearer picture of the group together. Every offensive play, run or pass, is dependent in degree on that group of men and given their youth, I’m hoping that some development might be visible over the season.
Over the years, at times I’ve talked to people who see the play of the OL in fairly simplistic terms, and in one sense, that’s very understandable. You’ve got a bunch of very large men in the center of the field - they fight with each other, and just how that affects the play might be obvious - the hole that the running back dashes through, the time the quarterback has to make his progressions, choose and make his pass - but exactly how the OL does or doesn’t achieve that may be both complex and obscure. The camera usually follows the ball, as do the eyes of most fans, and it’s not easy to teach oneself to watch certain players instead. Consider a single partial paragraph from Steve Belichick’s Football Scouting Methods, talking about the 3-4 nose guard and his interaction with the offensive line:
Does he use his hands on the offensive center, or does he hit him with a forearm? If he uses a forearm, which one? This is important because he is practically helpless against a double team block from the side that he uses a forearm.
That piece of information, substantially more common in college players, tells me something to look for in both the defenders’ approach and, if one of them commits that ‘sin’ at the NFL level (it’s rare now in the NFL), whether the OL immediately doubles him. If they do, it means that the coaches told them about that habit and they were watching for it on that player, which in turn tells me about the quality of the preparation the OL received the week of the game. I also am focused right now on who plays whistle to whistle, who uses their initial punch, and on what side or sides of the defender. Who locks up tightly, what shoulder are they hitting, and who just shoves? Are they finishing their blocks? Who keeps their feet and their balance, and who seals off the defender when the run goes through their territory? Are they driving their blocks to the outside, keeping the rushers from breaking inside and getting to the QB?
These are very basic issues, but with 60% of the Broncos’ starting OL being in their first (Orlando Franklin) or second year (Beadles, Walton), it’s the kind of thing that I want to know about. You can teach technique. You can work on changing bad habits and OL coach Dave Magazu has a good reputation, but by this point in their careers if they aren’t playing to the whistle, the odds of them picking that kind of attitude up aren’t as good as a fan might hope. I wanted to know exactly what the basics on these five - Ryan Clady, Beadles, Walton, Chris Kuper and Franklin - perhaps with emphasis on the younger trio - because as certain positions have become more clear, such as Rahim Moore at free safety, Eric Decker at receiver, Willis McGahee as the primary RB and Von Miller as a roving Sam, figuring out who’s getting it done and who isn’t on the OL means a lot in a rebuilding team.
Sometimes you’ll see mistakes that look like a poor attitude just because the player did something dumb (such as an error in footwork) and didn’t recover in time. That’s not a big deal unless it turns up in multiple games, so everyone will get looked at during at least four or more games over the course of the season. Sometimes I’ll want to look at exactly what protections are being run on X plays or kinds of plays and what blocking schemes are being used in the run game. I hope to get to some diagramming of basic principles of the OL as well later down the road.
I started my Fattening Up series with Trash Can Walton, because you don’t get any more central to the team’s play than the center. I’ve been keeping an eye on him, and I can honestly see some evidence that he’s already developing over the course of the partial season. I started with the full film of the Oakland game, and also took a half or more over each game since then until I’d had a look at each of them, although I was mostly focused on Walton and Beadles. There’s an increased smoothness to the group’s movement together now as well as a bit more fire than the Broncos started out with. Is there progress? As a group - no doubt. But what about the individual players?
I had to wonder if the move to Dave Magazu’s approach on Mike McCoy’s offense hadn’t created the usual early confusion and if the players haven’t just begun to find their groove. The terminology is the same among the McDaniels/NE system and the Carolina system, but the assignments are somewhat different and any change in plays (or players) requires some communication and practice. That was my theory, anyway, and Magazu was kind enough to answer that very question last week.
I think at this point in time, we’ve done a pretty good job of improving every week. I think we struggled early in grasping concepts and techniques that are new. I think that now we’re starting to understand all the concepts.
The Broncos are running a simplified version of the zone blocking system on most running plays, trying to get back to their former success (which Chris Kuper and Ryan Clady were a solid part of) without confusing the linemen by attempting to create too complex or abrupt a change. As much as anything, Denver needs to hang onto things that have worked, while finding a steady path back to respectability. Things like trapping and pulling are also normal, and when they happen, I want to see who gets there in time and who doesn’t. Given the youth of three-fifths of the group, I expect to find some weaknesses, but overall they should be headed in the right direction by now. Zane Beadles was criticized pretty harshly early on, so today I thought that I’d see how he was doing, and to catch up a little on Walton as well.
Beadles had been a tackle during college at Utah and was considered one of the elite OL players in a somewhat weaker year when he came out. As a rookie last season he was asked first to play left guard, then moved to right tackle when Ryan Harris was injured, and when Harris returned Zane was shunted back to left guard again. Beadles did fairly well as a rookie at the LG position - if you’re playing as a rookie, you’re going to get schooled, and he did. He’s not a right tackle in the NFL; not, at least, from his play at the position in 2010. That was what was expected when he was drafted, so it’s no disrespect to him. He gave up only two penalties in 14 starts in 2010 but he allowed six sacks, which still isn’t terrible. I had to give him a little slack - he was a rookie playing next to a rookie, and playing two very different positions over the course of the season. It’s not the way you hope to start off your players in the NFL. He was much worse as a tackle, but while he obviously had a long way to go as a rookie LG, he showed flashes of promise over the 2010 season.
But Zane had a bad game to start the 2011 season - in fact, it was terrible. PFF's Ben Stockwell bluntly described his first four games this way:
Zane Beadles has moved inside as an offensive guard this season, and while he started his second season poorly, it’s not quite as bad as last year’s performance. To start the season, Beadles struggled as a pass protector, yielding three sacks, two hits and four pressures in the Broncos’ first two games, but now this week (Week 4, Packers) he struggled badly as a run blocker. The Broncos picked up 0 yards on two carries off his outside shoulder, and whether he was blocking BJ Raji or Ryan Pickett at the line or trying to pick up Desmond Bishop and AJ Hawk at the second level, Beadles just couldn’t make a positive impact on the running game. Beadles needs to step up in the coming weeks, or he’ll be on the outside looking in and that’s not an easy position for NFL offensive linemen to recover from.
Green Bay had very tough players to handle, to be fair. Just to get an idea of why Stockwell was so hard on him, here are some of my notes on him from the first half in Denver against Oakland, followed by notes from San Diego, his most recent game:
Oakland at Denver, Week 1
Beadles came out of the gate badly. He showed his worst tendencies, starting with lunging, which (in one case) took out another Broncos lineman and ruined a running play. On another play I saw him leaving his feet to dive forward and lunge at the ankles or shins of a defensive player in the second level. I’d never seen that before in the NFL - it’s probably not legal, since a cut block should impact the defender in the area of the IT band, the outside of the thigh and generally aimed at the area about 5-8 inches above the top of the knee. It’s a borderline thing since the outcome was that he tripped the tackle, which shouldn’t be legal. That technique is something that Kevin Vickerson complained about in the offseason, because it can end a defensive lineman’s career (it’s ironic that Vickerson torn some ligaments in his lower leg on the first play against San Diego and played the rest of the game on it - no ‘wimp’ comments on him). Not only is it bad football, since Beadles is then on the ground and out of the play, it should be high on the list of things to get changed.
Just as bad, by diving like that, if he misses, the rusher will go untouched: It’s sloppy. I understand cutting down the defender, just not the way it was done. The refs didn’t see or call it, but it’s still illegal from everything that I’ve been able to find, and from the folks I spoke to and asked about it (like a certain newspaper writer, I have all the scouts and GMs in the league on speed-dial and if you believe that, I’ve also got a lovely bridge for sale), it’s just bad technique.
The weather was fairly dry when the game started, and that was when Beadles was at his worst. He calmed down for a while, but with 11:04 still on the clock in the 2nd, I was reminded of another tendency I’d seen before. Beadles leaves off his blocks too early -- sometimes to move to the second level prematurely, before his guy on the DL is fully out of the play, leaving him to take out the runner, or when blocking the DT, either NT or UT. Again, his guy has tended to be in on running play tackles as a result.
At 10:30 of the quarter, Beadles badly whiffed on his pass pro block, leading to a ruined play in which McGahee, catching a swing pass, was tackled for a loss. Once again, Beadles was in the way of another OL player (whose number he blocked out, which was at least something he could block), so two guys got to McGahee from that incident alone. It was bad - bad junior college bad. If there weren’t so many bad plays, I wouldn’t be this hard on him - it’s not like I came in with a preconception. I follow his tweets, and I kind of like the guy. But his play on this day....
On 3rd and 10 of the same series, the pass blocking was good enough that all the defenders wound up in a scrum on the weakside, allowing Kyle Orton to actually run 10 yards for a first down. People fainting in the stands were revived shortly afterward. Despite that, Beadles was actually blown off the ball by his guy on that play who just took a bad angle to the QB, going out weakside as Orton went center/strongside on his run. At this point, it was raining hard and the field was doubtless slippery, but Beadles lost his balance in his encounter and stumbled away with his back to the play. If it was just one or two plays, I could count it up to footing, but his opponents usually had less trouble. On the next play of the series, Beadles got his man on the ground, but the Raider had just lunged forward and lost his balance - Beadles had the sense to lay on top of him, effectively taking him out of the play, but that was about it. It wasn’t a knockdown. Both Beadles and his man lost their footing on the next play - it became too slick, I thought, to get a good idea of anything but the most general impressions.
But he quickly made a liar out of me - on the next play an INC was due to Beadles losing contact with his man, being easily pushed back and out of the way. Slipping is one thing - his man got him on skates and then shoved him away with his back to the defender. If he just slipped, I wouldn’t have expected the defender to move so easily through the same area. Frankly, he was having a terrible game with mistakes in pass and run blocking. I can see why there was a lot of consternation about his work. He’d go on to let up on other blocks, and stood exchanging two-handed chest punches with a defender at one juncture - it kept both of them out of the play, but the defender could have just as easily walked off. Beadles let up two sacks and had a couple of penalties - one holding, one illegal formation. That second one was unforgivable - he should be lining up with his hand near the level of Walton’s foot, and Clady has to take his cue from Beadles and place his own hand on an even line with Beadles.
Okay, so to keep this semi-short, Beadles didn’t have a great week against Cincinnati either. Let’s just leave it at that - there wasn’t anything new to learn, and he hadn’t changed his habits, either. I chose a series here and there over the Titans and Packers games as well, just to see what he’s doing. Overall, he looked a bit better. I was hopeful, his media dunning following the Packers game notwithstanding.
Prior to adding the SD numbers, Beadles was listed in Pro Football Focus at -11.1 overall with -6.5 in pass blocking and -3.8 in run blocking, as well as -1.8 in penalties. From what I’ve seen so far, his footwork has been poor at times, he’s had a habit of not finishing blocks, and his hand use has been lacking. I’ve had to wonder about his balance, and why he’s gotten his feet entangled with his own O-linemen. My biggest concern early on in the season was his pass blocking, but that’s not the case right now.
What I saw of his work from the Titans game wasn’t bad. I also watched him for a half in the Packers game, and he played better against the pass. His run blocking wasn’t very good, though - mostly the same issues as before. There was subsequently that report in PFF that he’d really had a bad game as far as his run blocking against the Packers, and I had to agree.
Since his problems have come in different areas on different days, I wasn't sure what to expect from this game's film. San Diego had some defensive linemen out, so I was interested to see who Beadles drew and how he handled his business.
San Diego at Denver, Week 5
One change that’s obvious is that Beadles is getting down into his stance a little more. He looked good in early play - moved his man efficiently; he held on the play at 1:38 but wasn’t caught. Overall, he looks better than he has.
12:56 Beadles falls on his face during his zone block, and takes out some other players from both teams who didn’t see him on the ground. He partly makes up for that with a good knockdown block later on in the quarter. He also was asked on Denver’s last drive to pull to the strongside; he showed good feet and movement, but the tackle came from the backside.
Denver takes the ball and on 1st and 10 Beadles tries to fire through to the second level, but falls down again, face first. This seems to be a habit with him. He came back to make a nice block on Donald Butler again on the next series, but Butler is a LB - Beadles has to nullify more D-tackles to prove his skills. He makes a nice block on NT Cam Thomas, though, on 1st and 10 of the next possession. He followed that in pass pro - SD was in a 4-3 under look, but no one came to Beadles so he helped Clady on a double-team. His technique wasn’t much, and Clady probably did better on his own but Beadles did follow his assignment.
Beadles and Walton had a nice double team on 94, first-round draft pick Corey Liuget, to start the series. On 2nd and 10, Beadles makes a nice block on #90, former Bear Tommie Harris, but again falls on his face as Harris disengages strongly: happily, McGahee is already well past them. Still, balance and locking up aren’t what Beadles is doing best. Harris really just tossed him down, even if it was too late to slow McGahee.
On three consecutive plays, starting on 1st and 10, Beadles fired through to the second level to block for McGahee, but there was no one there. The same was true on the next play - he didn’t acquire anyone on 3rd and 4 either, but his responsibility might have been to prevent a delayed stunt or blitz. Punt.
On the next series at about 4:38 to go, Beadles pulled nicely on a keeper for Tebow that gets eight yards. On 2nd and 2, he hit both #71 (Antonio Garay) and then #51, Takeo Spikes, but the play went away from them. It picked up the first down, though, and during the screen pass that Moreno scored on, Beadles was one of his escorts, even though there was no one to block downfield, which isn’t a bad thing. Denver went for two points without scoring, but the protection was good.
On Denver’s final drive of three plays, Beadles had no rusher in pass pro on the first play, had none again on the three-man rush, but went to help out Clady on a double-team and then, on 2nd and 10, SD rushed four and Beadles and Walton double-teamed Vaughn Martin. The game ended.
Beadles is a strong guy with good size, at 6’4 and 305. He generally seems as if he matches up well in the functional strength department, although he was rag-dolled by Tommie Harris after McGahee had gone past. Beadles went up against Corey Liuget, Harris, Antonio Garay, Harris, of course, and Vaughn Martin as well as a few of the LBs - he had better success with LBs, but had some good moments against the bigger guys. Beadles is showing that he lunges and that he doesn’t have the best of balance. He needs to bend his knees more. His pulling is very good, though - light-footed and fairly quick, he seems to thrive on that assignment.
I won’t say that his pass or his run blocking is the better of the two because I’ve seen games where each has been true. I think that it’s important to recognize that he’s still very young - this is still early in his second season and a lot of second-year OL players are just getting their first starts after a year of maturing on the scout team. He certainly has the tendencies of a young player. He didn’t let go of his man very much this game, which is a nice improvement. Harris tossing him to the ground wasn’t a good sign - Harris is a very good player, even though he’s older, but Beadles had just beaten him on the block and should have been in a better stance.
Some general thoughts - Denver is currently ranked at 14th in the league with 4.3 yards per attempt on 509 total rushing yards. Consider that last year, Denver was circling the drain on its run game. That’s a continued improvement for them, and also tells us that the line, overall, is starting to get it done (Willis McGahee’s 4.52 YPA and his 82 yards per game are a big help. He’s also contributed three TDs and innumerable broken tackles). Beadles has had some good blocks to break a player free, but he needs to become a great deal more consistent.
Denver ranks 17th with 16 carries of over 10 yards, and that’s also a big improvement over last year. A lot of that is McGahee and his penchant for running through arm tackles, but the OL is clearly making progress. They’re also in the middle of the league on rushing 1st down percentage - 22%, good for 14th. What’s just as important right now is that they’re not losing ground (figuratively), but are improving, statistically and on film. Just as John Fox predicted, the Broncos are developing a running game, with McGahee as the primary runner, carrying the majority of the load, and Moreno as a good blocking, receiving and change of pace back. It will be interesting to see if they bring Jeremiah Johnson onto the field or give Spencer Larsen some additional carries and/or receptions. Larsen is quietly having a very good year.
All in all - Zane’s a second-year player who probably didn’t get the time and coaching to get past his bad habits during his rookie year or during the lockout. I didn’t see any real signs of conditioning issues - no bending over, blowing, putting the hands on his knees - which is all for the good. Beadles has given up eight pressures, which is close to Clady’s seven and better than the rookie, Orlando Franklin’s 11 (I thought that to be expected, with Franklin coming in to start immediately at RT. At the end of this year and the start of next, we’ll get a better idea of Big O’s development).
It’s much too early (although some folks have started) to even talk about bringing in a new player for LG or RT, with a new RT perhaps moving Franklin inside to Beadles’ slot. That might eventually happen, granted, but Franklin looks just fine at RT right now, Beadles has made some progress and I’ll give him credit for that. He’s got to step up another level, but with Coach Magazu’s help, he’s still in a place where I’d more or less expect him to be. What he does with the rest of the season will tell a more important story - a lot of his problems as a rookie were not entirely of his own making, given the situation last year and the coaching changes, which often take some getting used to.
As far as Walton - after five games, he still hasn’t give up a sack, has allowed only four QB pressures, no penalties and a total of three QB hits. His tape shows about what shows up in his stats. Using the PFF approach, I found that runs up the middle right and middle left have an average gain of 5.4 to the middle left and 3.5 to the middle right. Walton’s (and Beadles’) numbers on the center-left runs (5.4) are better than Clady’s, Kuper’s or Beadles on his own. However, Beadles has a total Cumulative Rushing number of 2.5, the worst on the team.
The best on the team? Franklin, with an average run of 7.8 yards, outpacing Kuper’s 6.6 YPA. Franklin also had a Pass Blocking Efficiency grade of 95.4, matching that of Clady’s, but Walton led the group with a 97.0 and Chris Kuper scored a 96.3. Beadles scores a 93.1, lagging the group. Right now, he’s clearly the weakest link. Which, in turn, makes Franklin the most interesting guy that I haven’t spent a lot of film time on, so he’s going to be next.
One final note - do you recall all the consternation regarding the Broncos emphasizing the run, the sense that they were playing a style that didn’t match the modern game? Total plays as of today are 122 run and 196 pass, for 318 plays and a 62.24% pass percentage. Part of that, of course, is just playing from behind, but there’s also been a good tendency to try and create a balanced attack. Defending the run? That may take a little longer...