As one of the resident offense guys, I decided that I would write something about the offense. There are many ways, in my opinion, to be too specific in assessing the offense of this team, and to kind of get bogged down at a level of detail which is too focused, or what I would call a tactical level. The discussion which I hope to get to is the distinction between offensive strategy and tactics.
There are certain coaches who are far ahead of everybody else in terms of football strategy. In my opinion, the NFL has only two of those coaches in Mike Shanahan and Bill Belichick. I see some subtle genius in Sean Payton's offensive schemes, and I also like what Jason Garrett does in terms of play design with the Dallas passing offense. Guys like Jeff Fisher and Tony Dungy are great coaches from more of a people management perspective, and not so much strategically. When it comes down to overall football strategy, though, there are just the two masters.
I bring up Belichick, because he had some comments before the Denver game in October which added significantly to how I understand the Broncos offense. That's saying something, since I have been watching it very closely for all 14 years of the Shanahan Era. To paraphrase, (I couldn't find the quote anywhere) Belichick asserted that the Broncos offense is the most game-planned in all of the NFL. He said one week you'll see a lot of screens, and the next week there will be none. One week there will be 10 naked bootlegs, and the next week the passing game will be all drop-back. He alluded to the use of different personnel groupings to create matchup problems. I just thought this was a really smart way to view the big picture of our offense.
The implication of Belichick's thinking is that in order to have a good expectation of what's coming from the Broncos, you have to think about the weaknesses of your own team's defense, and then imagine how a smart coach like Shanahan would attack those weaknesses. That's a very difficult thing to do, with just a standard week of preparation.
As I talk about the distinction between tactics and strategy, let me first establish a framework, as I see it. First, and obviously, the Broncos use zone blocking concepts in both the passing and running games. Second, all running backs are coached to take one cut, and go north and south. A key to the success of these approaches is coaching continuity. The O-Line had Alex Gibbs and then Rick Dennison for the last 14 years, and our RBs have had the outstanding Bobby Turner for that whole period.
Playing into this consistency, there is a sameness concept which is really important at a strategic level. In the running game, there are only a few plays, and they are run repeatedly. The play-action game looks exactly like those running plays, and tends to incorporate a misdirection element, which slows down backside pursuit. This is key to a running game which works horizontally to spread the field, and create vertical lanes.
That stuff is constant over the last 14 years. In my estimation, players who fit the defined run-game concepts are sought and acquired. The passing game has been more adaptable, which I think owes to the recognition that QBs have different skill sets. There has been a great deal of variability year-over-year during the Shanahan era, particularly around the transitions between QBs. This flexibility indicates a larger commitment to understand the strengths and weaknesses of your own passing game personnel. I would say that the running game personnel are considered to be more commoditized, where the system is first, and personnel are required to fit it. The passing game is conversely designed to suit the personnel, who may have a broader range of skills. This is very, very different from most of the League's approach, but it's really smart in my opinion.
For an illustration of what I mean, consider the protection schemes. Last season, the Broncos max-protected on 25% of their dropback passing attempts, which was the highest number in the League. This was due to the presence of the underwhelming Matt Lepsis and Erik Pears at Tackle, and a first-year starting QB. This season, with the outstanding Ryan Clady and Ryan Harris outside, and Jay Cutler a year more experienced, there are more guys in the pattern on every play, and Daniel Graham can catch a few passes, rather than pass-block all the time. This puts a great deal more pressure on a defense, and it is possible due to the capabilities of the personnel.
Another important strategic element is that Mike Shanahan has always been willing to run on passing downs, and I don't mean draw plays. There are a lot of times where a run has been called on 3rd and 5, and it's important to do that, whether it works or not on a given play. It's sort of like what they call a purpose pitch in baseball, where you throw way inside at a guy, and maybe knock him down, and then he can't get to a ball on the outside corner the next pitch. Every defensive coach knows that a run is a possibility in that down-and-distance situation with the Broncos, and it forces a more conservative defensive approach than they'd usually employ.
The last major strategic point I want to hit on is the very creative use of personnel groupings, which may be the most important point of all. With this year's full-strength roster, you have a pool of skill-position players which includes Selvin Young, Andre Hall, Michael Pittman, Ryan Torain, Peyton Hillis, Spencer Larsen, Brandon Marshall, Eddie Royal, Brandon Stokley, Darrell Jackson, Chad Jackson, Tony Scheffler, Daniel Graham, and Nate Jackson. From that group of 14 players, you can, and the Broncos do, liberally mix and match any five at a time to create personnel matchup problems for the defense. If you remember the Colts game last season, they consistently ran the ball with 3 TEs, because they determined that the Colts could be overpowered in that grouping. This past week against the Jets, there was a consistent commitment to using 3 WRs (sometimes with Scheffler in the slot.) I don't recall seeing a FB used at all. This, I am positive, is because a determination was made that having Hank Poteat on the field was a better deal than having either David Bowens or Eric Barton on the field. Most of Peyton Hillis's better runs came out of a spread-out nickel look. Also, Stokley, Graham, and Scheffler had big days against the Poteats and Abram Elams of the world. This was a strategic decision, made to exploit the lack of quality secondary depth for the Jets.
When you think about strategy, and you understand what is going on in that context, it ceases to matter which specific tactics being employed. It doesn't matter how much screening, or outside running, or bootlegging is happening. We can expect the tactics to change every week, but the underlying strategies to remain the same. These strategies extend into the personnel and financial operations of the team, and that's when you have a program. Discuss among yourselves.