Moving Molehills - What’s wrong with Denver’s running game?

When Josh McDaniels ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.

And right now, Belichick’s apprentice is pretty pissed off.

That’s because the Broncos, despite being larger at the buffet line, can’t win at the line of scrimmage.

McDaniels even went so far as to question the Broncos’ mental toughness.

He should.  After watching film of Sunday’s game, I’ve become convinced the Broncos are physically tough.  When they are man-on-man, they can block.  The Ravens didn’t destroy the Broncos physically Sunday when Denver ran the ball.

But one mental error—which is translated physically—can break down an entire play. 

And McDaniels, if he’s willing to admit it or not, would probably tell you that sometimes the defense just brings more guys than you can block.

Let’s take a look at several plays from Sunday so you’ll get a feel for what I mean:


PLAY #1: 1st-Quarter

2-5-DEN 20 (8:50) 26-L.Maroney left guard to DEN 20 for no gain (28-T.Zbikowski).

If you just watched the ball, you saw Maroney smothered by three Ravens defenders at the line of scrimmage.  Perhaps you assumed that Denver’s offensive line got completely destroyed.  Not so.  Here’s a better description:

The Broncos come out in a one-back, three-tight end set with one wide receiver split left.  The Ravens counter with a 5-2 look, putting both outside linebackers at the line of scrimmage.  Demaryius Thomas then motions back towards the strong side of the formation, ending up about 3 yards wide of the tight end.  At the snap of the ball, the strong-side safety crashes into the box, along with the weak-side corner (he’s got no one to cover, after all).  This essentially gives the Ravens nine men in the box.

Maroney runs for the hole off right tackle, but the strong safety is already there, unblocked.  So Maroney tries to cut the play back.  Uh-oh, the weak-side corner is taking away the cutback.  To make matters worse, Dan Gronkowski, who has tried to seal the weak-side outside linebacker from the play, now finds that Maroney is cutting back his way.  It’s too late, his defender now just pushes Gronkowski away with his own momentum to also end up in the cutback lane. 

What you probably didn’t see is the excellent push by JD Walton, Ryan Harris, and Chris Kuper.  They not only took their defenders out of the play, but forced both middle linebackers (including Ray Lewis) completely out of the play.  If the strong safety and the weak-side corner don’t crash the box before this play, it’s a 5-yard gain.  But Demaryius Thomas can’t get to the safety from his WR position because the safety has already read the play and is in the hole.

Who is to blame?  Here, it’s simply a matter of the Ravens effectively putting 9 men in the box.  You can’t blame the offensive line.  They got great push.  You can’t blame Thomas.  He can’t reach the strong safety in time.  You can’t blame Gronkowski.  He’s assuming the run is away from him. 

Sometimes the opponent brings more defenders than you can block.


PLAY #2 : 2nd-Quarter

2-10-DEN 47 (4:26) (Shotgun) 28-C.Buckhalter left end to DEN 44 for -3 yards (92-H.Ngata).

If you just watched the ball on this play, you would have seen Buckhalter take the hand-off and within a split second he was wrapped up and thrown to the ground.  He really didn’t have time to react.  Here’s a better description:

The Broncos come out in a shotgun 113 look (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WRs) with the back to Orton’s right side.  The Ravens counter with 7 men at the line of scrimmage.  They are clearly showing Orton that they plan on blitzing.  You can tell by the soft coverage of the conerback that on the strong side, the Ravens are playing zone coverage.  On the weakside, the cornerback is in press man coverage.  This is going to either be a zone blitz, but more likely, they are showing blitz, but will drop into middle zone.  Both safeties are playing half the field.  It’s clear the Ravens are expecting pass.

This should be a good play for Denver.  At the snap of the ball, Orton hands the ball off to Buckhalter who wants to get to either the left end or left tackle.  We’ll never know however, because at the snap of the ball, Haloti Ngata does a swim move on JD Walton as Walton reaches and lunges for the block.  Ngata.  Even worse, Daniel Graham is blocking across the formation to kick out any trailing defenders on the play (think, OLB) but is too slow and Ngata slips past him as well and into the backfield. 

The rest of the offensive line?  Great push by Ryan Clady and Russ Hochstein.  Also, Eddie Royal gets one hell of a block on his defender.  But Ngata first beats Walton and then slips past a surprised Graham in order to crater Buckhalter for a 3-yard loss.

Sometimes a defender makes great plays and sometimes you beat yourself with a lack of discipline.  Here, on this play, it’s probably a little of both.


PLAY # 3: 3rd-Quarter

1-10-DEN 34 (9:08) 29-A.Brown right tackle to DEN 33 for -1 yards (92-H.Ngata).

Another Ngata massacre. If you only watched the ball here you saw Ngata again in the backfield just destroying Andre Brown.  Here’s a better description of the play:

The Broncos come out in a 122 set (1 RB, 2TE, 2WR).  A good package to go play action off of or run straight up.  The Ravens counter, like usual, with their 5-2 look.  The corners are playing soft cover zone and the safeties are covering their half of the field.  The Ravens are cheating their LILB to the line of scrimmage in what appears to be a blitz. 

Orton takes the snap under center and hands the ball off to Brown, who is supposed to be running off right guard.  Ngata, now playing left end, employs virtually the same exact swim move on Ryan Harris that he used on Walton in the earlier play.  Harris whiffs.  Ngata pounds Brown into the turf.  It probably wouldn’t have mattered anyway, because the LILB was coming free into the hole and Kuper didn’t get a push on the defensive tackle. 

To be honest, Orton could have audibled out of this play when he saw that they were running right into the blitzer.  And given the soft coverage from the corners, he could have had a quick 6- or 7-yard gain.

Whose is to blame?  Ryan Harris got owned on this play by Ngata.  It goes to show that a good swim move even beats great offensive tackles.  Kuper didn’t get a great block.  And Orton probably could have audibled to a better play. 

When I broke down tape from the previous week’s game against the Titans, I saw similar things.  I even wrote about these problems in the Mail Revue from two weeks ago.  On each running play, it’s usually one guy that is breaking down.  It’s not the same person each and every play.

One might be tempted to say that offensive linemen across the board on every team are beaten regularly, but other teams are able to run the ball.  This is true.  But the Broncos simply don’t have the running backs to overcome breakdowns like this.  They are either injured or their skill set doesn’t include breaking tackles.  The Broncos simply don’t posses an open-field escape artist like Chris Johnson.  Thus, in order to establish the run, Denver needs every block to be executed properly—on every run.   

And it starts at the center position—the leader of the offensive line.  When the line isn’t doing its job, they need someone barking at them as Jeff Saturday does for the Colts.  JD Walton is nasty, but he’s still a rookie.  It’s going to take time. If there was only a way Walton could graduate with honors from the School of Absolutely Nasty a little faster.

I’d suggest something else.  Watch this clip from Jeff Saturday and forward to about 1:12 on the clip. Saturday tells Mario Williams he’s both a punk and that he will get knocked out.


Physically tough?  You bet.  Mentally tough?  Ask Mario Williams. 

Perhaps JD Walton is a year or two away from this.  But (unlike Tim Tebow) the Broncos need him to be there right now.

I’m glad we had this talk.  Now, vaya con Dios, Brah.

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