Note: Each Wednesday, we take a look at a critical coaching decision from the prior week’s game that had an impact on the final score—from a statistical point.
Josh McDaniels is known for having a playbook a mile high, each week throwing multiple formations, personnel packages, and looks at the defense.
Against the Titans, he thinned the playbook out real fast. Unable to run for much (all) of the game, the Broncos were forced into an aerial attack.
McDaniels himself is quoted as saying that at about the midway point of the 4th quarter, he essentially abandoned the running attack:
“We’re not going to go into any game and try to be one dimensional. I think, though, at some point in a game, and for today it was 9:27 to go in the fourth quarter, we were, ‘That’s it. That’s enough.’”
Certainly, the Broncos never intended to throw the ball as many times as they did last Sunday, but I do believe that the Broncos were heavily skewed towards the pass from the kickoff. In fact, I think it was the focus of their game plan. And that choice to attack the Titans, who came into the league as a highly-ranked passing defense—is our huge decision of the week.
You probably expected an analysis of both of McDaniels’ 4th down calls. But by now, if you are a regular reader and follower of Expected Points Value (EPV), you’ve come to understand that most of the time, deep in your opponent’s territory, going for it on 4th-and-short is the right call. So this week, we won’t bore you with yet another 4th-down analysis. Suffice to say that if you were to crunch the numbers from both of McDaniels’ calls, the numbers would have again been in his favor.
Instead, we’re going to look at McDaniels’ personnel packages through the 1st half and compare it with the 2nd half. As you’ll see, the Broncos were already attacking the Titans voraciously through the air even before it was determined to everyone’s satisfaction that the Broncos could not run the ball.
Before I get into the numbers, a few words about terminology. You are going to see a series of three digits in each personnel package. The first digit represents the number of running backs in the package. The second digit represents the number of tight ends in the package. The third digit represents the number of wide receivers in the package. Thus, if the Broncos sent out their 122 personnel package, it would mean they came out with 1 RB, 2 TEs, and 2 WRs.
Almost all personnel packages fall into groups of 5 players like this because if you do the simple math (not you, Raiders fans!), you can quickly figure out that you have 11 players, and 1 of these players is the QB, while 5 are linemen. That leaves (generally) 5 skilled players in a personnel package.
Now that we’ve got this out of the way, let’s look at the play calling in the 1st half of the game:
Again, when, you are looking at these personnel groupings, think RB, TE, WR. So the first grouping 005 means 0 RBs, 0 TEs, and 5 WRs. In other words, an empty backfield. The last grouping, 230 means 2 RBs, 3 TEs, and 0 WRs. In other words, a goal-line jumbo package.
After looking at this table, an interesting pattern emerges. It’s quite clear that McDaniels’ game plan for the Titans included a significant number of formations out of a 113 personnel grouping. This included Laurence Maroney, Daniel Graham, Brandon Lloyd, Eddie Royal, and Jabar Gaffney. Sometimes Buckhalter would sub for Maroney, and Demaryius Thomas for Lloyd or Gaffney, but for the most part, McDaniels kept this 113 package on the field.
And notice that even in the 1st half, the Broncos didn’t go out of their way to “establish the run.” And why would they? As the Football Outsiders are fond of saying, and I’m paraphrasing here, good teams in this decade often use the pass to set up the run. I believe this is exactly what McDaniels had in mind.
Also notice that the Broncos did dabble in some 4-wide receiver sets. But for the most part, this personnel package was going to be it for the day - you could already see this in the 1st half 60% of the time.
How McDaniels used this package is worth a brief mention as well. He used a lot of tight bunch formations and allowed Daniel Graham to stand up instead of put a hand on the ground. Often a 113 set will allow the tight end to be on the line of scrimmage in a 3-point stance, like a Dallas Clark. On this day, however, Graham stood up, which often gave the appearance of a 4WR packages, even though the Broncos were working from a technical 113. This allowed McDaniels to utilize Graham in a variety of ways. On some plays, he would clear out the bunch formation, which would allow Royal to work underneath in space. Other times, Graham would stay in and block like a tackle. The tight bunch formations out of the 113 also did not allow the Titans to play their zone coverage effectively. Defending the bunch formation generally requires box or man coverage. Either coverage is difficult when you have someone the size of Daniel Graham leading the way. When he runs a clear route, he tends to clear the defenders in both a box zone and a man cover scheme. In short, he’s a beast, and even more so when he’s standing up.
Now let’s turn our attention to the 2nd half. An even more interesting trend emerges:
In the 1st half, McDaniels ran his 113 package 60% of the time. In the 2nd half, this went up to 86%. Clearly, as he alluded, the Broncos believed they simply weren’t going to run the ball successfully against the Titans. But also, when McDaniels gave this quote, it actually gave you as a fan much more insight than you may have realized.
Here’s why. Now that you have the personnel packages in front of you, you can see how McDaniels was game planning the Titans in the 1st half. Usually a game plan in the 1st half is a setup for adjustments in the 2nd. This was certainly the case in the previous week against the Colts when McDaniels ran early out of running sets and then passed out of these same running sets in the 2nd half. Although I am speculating, I believe that McDaniels was passing early out of these 113 sets, in order to set up runs out of these same sets in the 2nd half. This was another reason to have Graham standing up. It’s difficult to determine if he would run a route or suddenly block on the edge out of these bunch formations.
Unfortunately, the Broncos never established much of a running game in the 2nd half, and given the scoring needs (being behind), McDaniels had to maximize his results, which meant more passing.
As an interesting aside, those 221 personnel packages at the end of the Broncos were running were with Demaryius Thomas putting his hand on the ground like a tight end. I’m beginning to get the impression that we’ll see this set again, and that Thomas is both big enough to block in these sets, but also will find his way into the secondary for some huge gains. Remember, you heard it here first.
The main takeaway from all of these numbers is that the huge decision by Josh McDaniels last week was made before the game even started. His decision to attack the Titans through the air, and attack them with these 113 personnel packages in bunch sets was critical to the Broncos’ success.
Feel free to talk about what you think was a huge decision in last week’s game. And, of course, you are free to mention the 4th-down calls.
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