Monday Musings: Denver, Robert Ayers and value

They did it. They shocked me, and I’ve got a lot of company. It might not have been a great passing performance, but it was a very good one with multiple long receptions. The Steelers were down to their starting QB limping and their starting RB out as well as some line problems, and that’s a shame, because I think that on that day, Denver would have beaten them, healthy or not. The whole team talked about it all week long - this isn’t about some QB. This is the Denver Broncos, they were at home in the playoffs, they earned it, and ending the regular season with three losses wasn’t making anyone in that locker room happy. The team came out of the runway and ran straight into history. I can’t imagine anyone complaining about the pass protection - the OL gave Tim Tebow lots of time, and while he didn’t complete for a high percentage, he threw big passes. Sometime I think he likes it that way. Beating Pittsburgh, at home, after the last time Denver faced them in the playoffs, was special. Winning in overtime at home is even more so.

One thing that I really liked (and there were many) was David Bruton’s performance. He kept his gap discipline on the Pittsburgh 17-yard run in the fourth quarter:  the run was not directly inside his gap, but two or three three techniques over. He immediately saw that there was no defender, took off from a full stop and built speed quickly: he took a good angle to make the tackle, downfield or not, and with his speed, he kept it out of the endzone. He had a half-dozen good plays over the course of the day. I’ve always believed that Bruton has what it takes to make it as a starting safety. Yesterday suggested the same thing.

Did you also notice Bruton getting a quick hand in on that three-defender, triple coverage play, where Ben Roethlisberger was under pressure with just three rushers (but they were Von Miller, Ryan McBean and Elvis Dumervil, which is sort of like four), and as the pass came in, Bruton slipped a hand through from behind the receiver’s elbow and into the area of the receiver's ball recovery, a move that I've seen Champ Bailey make several times over the years. It looked like the way that Bruton has mined Champ’s knowledge may have worked. Very slick. Very smooth.

Bruton came in via the 2009 Draft with the label that he'd be hot on special teams right away, but with some coaching and a little playing time - 3-4 years - he'd mature into an excellent safety. I started to see that in him yesterday. Actually, each game in which he's played substantial minutes, he’s looked a little better the next time out. Quinton Carter and he are both guys who are fast, can make quick decisions, like contact, and have some skills (Carter more so) in coverage. Carter’s INT resulted in three points. I’m starting to be comfortable with those two at safety, which even surprises me. We still need quality depth, to be sure, but I’m increasingly happy with Bruton, who I admit that I’ve liked and supported since we took him, and Carter, who I thought was a heck of a fourth-rounder. I think they can mature into a starting pair. I think that as a safety, Rahim Moore may be a pretty good cornerback, so there’s that problem. I don’t know what happened to Kyle McCarthy before he got cut, but I caught a glimpse of him last week and was surprised at how little he looked ripped. I’d expect that with practice squad hours, that he’d be hitting the weight room hard, and be in forged shape, but that didn’t seem to be the case. Odd. Rafael Bush isn’t that ripped either, and we’ve talked about Rahim Moore not being good enough at contact. The depth needs to show some career discipline.

Would the individuals that said that Demaryius Thomas wasn't fast enough, had uncertain hands and couldn't run a route please report to the dining hall? Your order of crow y pommes frites has been prepared for you.

I hope that the Tebow Wars can be shelved for duration of the playoffs. It was good to see him hitting some good throws,  I love the overtime, one-play win (you don’t let Tebow play out of a tie in the fourth quarter. You just don’t. It’s like kicking to Devin Hester - it’s a fact of football life). Was it exciting playoff football? Heck, yes. 

I like what they’re trying to do with TT.  I don’t think that there’s a lot of rational complaint about the playcalling this week - I thought that most of the game was called very well.  My concern is, predictably, that he’s still inconsistent (and I do expect some degree of that - as well as expecting a substantial improvement of that in this offseason), as well as showing a tendency toward missing outlets that would provide anywhere from 6-7 yard gains to first downs, depending on the back’s run after contact. Tim will be even more effective if no one knows whether or not he’s going to hit the shorter stuff or go long. If they have to respect the short pass, even more holes will open for Tim or any of the RBs. One aspect of the play calling that’s been good has been setting up the outlet players, whether Tim’s hitting them right now or not. Like all NFL QBs, he’ll find them to be his best friends.

My biggest complaint with Denver right now makes me feel bad, because I like the player so much - it’s that the combination of D.J. Williams and Joe Mays means too many easy passes up the seam and between the zones, and that Mays, who I think is a heck of a guy, is a major liability in tackling - he’s had time this year, and he’s still missing tackles that have to be made at the LOS. I saw it again yesterday. In the regular season, he had 623 snaps with 13 missed tackles: that’s very high. Some comparisons? D.J. had 930 snaps with nine missed tackles). Wesley Woodyard had 660 snaps and four missed tackles.

While we’re on that subject: Von Miller had 907 snaps with zero missed tackles. That’s zero, folks. Nada. Nyet. Not even the suspicion of one and it’s his first year. I’m not comparing anyone to Miller, but Champ Bailey had 909 snaps and eight missed tackles this year, to give you an idea. This young guy isn’t real. He’s a polite cyborg with killer glasses, a combination Cyclops X-Man and good-guy terminator streak. This is only what he does as he learns the game. Get him healthy and let him continue to learn and develop - he’s going to ensure some insomnia among offensive coordinators. No missed tackles. There could be some regression to the mean, but it’s equally possible that he could improve. To about 1,000 and no missed tackles...he’s a pure monster, club hand and all. At full speed, very few people will ever stop him consistently.

Robert Ayers

Robert Ayers? He had 709 snaps and two whole missed tackles. Despite the other controversial things that go on with the Broncos, Robert Ayers may be one of the most controversial players on the Broncos right now.  Life's full of things I don't understand so there are no worries there, but I was reminded of how odd I found the issue this past week.

I had a strange moment a few weeks back, and I started the background notes on this article about then. I’d been lurking, sitting in and watching a thread for a while, when I realized that I’ve never sat through a full game thread where someone didn’t claim that Robert Ayers was a total bust and that Denver should either cut or trade him for a low round pick because that’s what you do with 1st-round busts. It’s kind of wild, even leaving aside the erratic strangeness of that theory on personnel management. Happily, there’s lots of film and there are some legitimate stats. Since they happen to say the same thing, let’s look at both.

You see, I just happened to see one of those comments during the Chicago game, which started the notes for this article.  Ironically, it was posted moments just after Ayers had been lined up on the left tackle - they like to move him around quite a bit, and he may be in either as LDE, RDE, or either DT slot, depending on the matchup.  He came in, firing off the snap - and he’s always been able to create an advantage with his first step - and gained position on the left tackle (the left guard was pulling to the weakside (9) technique to try and create a lane for the RB); used his hands perfectly and moved almost effortlessly across the tackle’s face to the weakside, just as the running back - Marion Barber, who had one of those games that ensures a few nights of staring at the ceiling - tried to cut up through the gap that had been there a millisecond prior.

Ayers used his continuing movement to the right to grab Barber and wrap him up, rolling Barber over and down, with Ayers spinning his own body, rotating counterclockwise and using his athletic momentum to roll Barber over his body and pounding him down into the turf. It was as athletic a tackle as I recall seeing from a DE, and strikingly similar to a judo throw that my own professor, who had more black belts than I have fingers, had used me as a tackling dummy for many, many times. As the RB slammed into the ground, I was caught by the dichotomy between the comment I’d just read and the reality that had just unfolded in front of me. The truth is often what the opposites have in common. Yet this time, I wasn’t sure that there was a lot of strength to one side of the argument as our news outlets want to feed us. An announcement by one political party that the earth was flat would garner the two sides of the debate on CNN, Authorities Disagree on Earth’s Shape. Sometimes there isn’t an equal second side. It seems that we’re so afraid of offending anyone that the emperor has no clothes - and no one will tell him so. If you’re sure that Robert Ayers is lousy, check with your tailor. You may be light a few garments.

I just don't get the hostility towards Ayers. I mean, I really don't get it. But, that makes it a perfect chance to remember that not only don’t I grasp it, I’m not likely to, either. As Gertrude Stein put it about a very different situation - there was no there there. When you break down the hostility to Ayers, it seems like it’s a bit of a smoke-and-mirrors deal. I know this sounds a bit cold, but I sometimes wonder if the folks who are so sure that he's a bad player ever even watch him individually or understand what his role in the D is, much less look at his film or his stats.

He plays everything from DE to DT and has even held down NT on certain plays (I recognize that the UT and NT flip positions in different formations, but in this case I’m talking more about him lining up specifically to take up a double team so that one of the other lineman is coming in one-on-one or free). Watching him as much I have, what I’ve seen is that he’s played well at all of those slots. Don’t believe me? Watch him again in the Pittsburgh game - by definition, it’s his most recent game, and therefore the most recent example of his play that we have to consider. It’s also how you want a guy to play under pressure - it’s the playoffs, and also by definition, it’s a classic pressure situation. You want your best guys to like pressure, and part of being your best is that they play their best when the stakes are high. And Ayers just ate it up.

With the Broncos’ style of defense - which, at its simplest, uses single gap penetration, mostly man coverage and frequently a ‘robber’ or (Cover 1) or a Cover 2  - a player with Ayers’ size, strength in leverage, and first step can be effective from a variety of positions and angles on both run and pass plays. After the Marion Barber tackle, Ayers had his arms raised in celebration and I noticed a substantial level of muscular development on them over his rookie year - he now sports serious guns, shoulders, powerful hips, and I’m starting to doubt the veracity of his weight figures on the official site. One of the downsides of doing clinic in Oriental medicine is that you’re taught how to diagnose visually as well as how to palpate. The downside is that it’s hard to turn off when you’re not at clinic - I still tend to notice those things. He looks like he’s heavier than he was then and quite likely, much stronger. They say he was about 274 lb this year, but they claimed that last year, and he’s taking snaps in the defensive interior. He always had the frame to go up to 285 lb or even 290 lb. He looks like he’s getting there. If he’s 274, he’s about 4% body fat. Those are some serious guns.

Ayers also was in a similar situation in college - playing outside DE and moving inside on certain passing downs and usually becoming an undertackle. He’s taken on single and double teams, and will do anything that is asked of him. In the Denver base offense, he’s opposite Doom at the LDE. On passing downs, he slides into a DT role. A newer - or, at least, more common - wrinkle is to flip Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil, with both Ayers inside and Jason Hunter on an edge, as well as Brodrick Bunkley or Ryan McBean at nose guard in a run-stopping formation.

A simple example of the value of Ayers' play came in the first game against Kansas City - just take the second play of the Week 10 matchup. The camera work was poor on it so the screenshots are hard to read, but if you just watch the play, what happens is unmistakable. I’m going to walk you through it because when I say that the camera work is poor, I’m not kidding.

KC is in an I-formation, with two RB, one TE and two WR. Denver is in man with a five-man line and two men behind it - which Ted has called a 7-0-4. It’s Denver’s base nickel, and the two players in the middle of the field are usually Chris Harris and either Wesley Woodyard or D.J. Williams. The two cornerbacks are Champ Bailey and Andre’ Goodman, and the safeties are Quinton Carter and Brian Dawkins.

Ayers is at his usual LDE slot - it’s a little tough to find him if you’re reading this, but he’s the second defensive lineman from the bottom of the screen if you’re watching a rewind (Miller is typically on the end, and may be standing or in a three-point stance on different downs - he’s up on this one). Keep your eye on him, because everything important is going to happen around him. and it happens fast. The screen was coming quickly off some computer graphic which was left up too long so it’s hard to tell, but it looks as if KC is in a 113 formation. Denver responds with leaving Ayers over the tackle, but with Miller out to his right.

The Three Factors in Pass Rushing

At the snap, the tackle, Barry Richardson (67) fires into him, and Ayers immediately takes him on, getting position from the initial impact. Keep in mind that there are three major factors in the defensive linemen winning their battles with the OL - Firing out at the snap, Hand Use, and Leverage (There will be more of that as we talk more about Miller). Ayers starts by beating Richardson at the snap. (1. Firing out).  It’s perhaps a quarter of a second in duration but in the right situation, that’s an eternity.

It’s an eternity because in that small moment, Ayers gets his forward momentum winning that battle without bending forward, and also gets his hands on Richardson. That lets him use Richardson’s own momentum and with a hard hand punch, Ayers moves him to the inside, then moves quickly across his face (2. Hand use) and drives outside of him, with Ayers' legs churning. Richardson was a quarter-tick behind on the initial snap, so he has Ayers gripped high, which isn’t helping his cause because it gives him no leverage at all, but exposes his to Ayers (3. Leverage). Ayers is too strong to be re-directed when he’s grabbed that high, as well as having too much leverage on his side - this comment by Zane Beadles will also appear in the Von Miller: The Shooting Linebacker, Part II:

In the simplest terms, the lower man wins. If a player like Von is able to get down and he's flexible — and it's the same with Elvis (note: and it’s the same with Ayers or any defensive line player, including the linebackers) — he gets underneath guys and is able to separate with his arms. That's difficult for an offensive lineman. You're not going to win many of those no matter the weight difference.

In this case, the weight difference isn’t as big as with Von or Doom, and Ayers chose to turn Richardson and used him to create a blockage - essentially, a scrum - that blocked the path of the oncoming running back, Thomas Jones.

Another KC player, fullback Leonard Pope, at 6’8” and 264 lb (I’ve actually checked that height in multiple sources, and it’s apparently universal - he’s the tallest TE I think I’ve ever run into who goes for below 275 lb.) hits Ayers from the inside, trying to push him outside to create a cutback running lane for Thomas Jones, but Ayers has his leverage, balance low, his power anchored through his core musculature and he doesn’t give ground - all that happens is that a bigger scrum ensues, which works well for Ayers.

By putting his strength into driving forward and via his lack of response to the oncoming players, Ayers has cut off the route of the running back Jones to the outside; and although three KC players (and a couple of Broncos) ram into him, Ayers holds his position, driving backward and towards Jones' point of intersection, forcing him to run farther behind the collapsing line, where Miller gets eventual credit for the tackle. He should, too - he’s the guy who wrapped up Jones’ legs. But Ayers is the guy who created the possibility of this specific defensive play. When I watch the game film, it’s littered with examples of those kinds of things. They’re things that don’t turn up in stats.

If this is seen as something of a rejoinder to both those who believe that stats can prove all things in football, as well as those who believe that Ayers isn’t making plays, it wasn’t intentional. He just makes them constantly. They are rarely noted. There are no stats for them. That’s not an attack on stats, which in their right place I find very useful (some of the more advanced have been explained to me, and i think they make sense. I don’t necessarily use them since they aren’t a part of my training, but I’d hate to give the wrong idea - they do matter, and they’re often helpful when they’re used right). This isn’t an attack on the media commentators, who are too busy figuring out what to do for the next blurb to go over a more complex issue such as the roots and effects of Ayers’ play. It’s just a fact - football is a game of a lot of people - 22, on each play - and every one of them is important in every play, in some matter of degree.

But the guy who blocked the play route that would have let Thomas Jones come around the edge and who created the opportunity for the tackle was Robert Ayers, although you don’t find his name on the play-by-play. This is the weakness of judging players solely by stats. It’s also, I suspect, the exact reason that some fans don’t like Ayers - what he usually does is essential, makes the playmaking of those around him possible, and won’t get a word in from a broadcaster nor a mention in the recap. But the result was minus-two yards, and without Ayers it doesn’t happen.

That’s why those of us who appreciate his play via watching film do so - when you start to really see it, you see the outcomes that are created as well as the effort that goes into the way that he plays the game and if you’re watching some film, you know who’s doing what needs doing and who isn’t. There’s no doubt that you can only watch film to the best of your own skill, but so what? if you do it over time, you’ll get pretty good. Everyone does, in their own degree. There are books that help.

If you only listen to the broadcasters, you’re waiting for Ayers' name to be called and you’re often at the mercy of their interpretation. If you hear it called in a negative situation, you’ll tend to remember that.  If you watch the film, you’re admiring his technique and you’re not even listening to the announcers. In many cases, you’re not missing much. Unless you watched or listened to the Pittsburgh Denver game: if you did, from the second play of the game to the final play of regulation, you might have noticed that Ayers was all over the place.

Let’s hope we can say the same after next weekend. Denver has its hands full with the Patriots in a night game on the road. It’s a good chance to get some payback for getting hammered a few weeks ago. Go Broncos!

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

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