Thursday Musings: More on the Zone Read; a complete victory

I thought I’d share just a few more thoughts on Sunday’s victory in Oakland. I usually stay with the offensive lines right now, but there were a number of things that really deserved to be looked at after the Broncos took it to the Raiders right in their own home. I'll start with a reference from one of the OL pieces that the plays Denver ran were also part of - the Zone-Read running game of Wisconsin.

Barry Alvarez

Alvarez is the Athletic Director at the University of Wisconsin. I quoted some of his work a few weeks ago and mentioned him again earlier today - he took over as the head coach of the Badgers in 1990 and was trying to figure out his offensive direction when he, much like Denver coach John Fox, decided to put the onus of the team’s offense on the running game. Why? It wasn’t a preference one way or the other for a certain type of attack, although Fox has been rightfully accused of that. It was simply a matter of logic meeting necessity. Alvarez and his coordinators and position coaches met and talked it out. They all came to the same conclusion that Denver did, unusual though it is in the modern game. Alvarez explains:

Reasonable deduction told us that we would not have much finesse.  The model we chose to follow would comprise a combination of zone runs and off-tackle plays common to successful NFL teams. We decided that we were going to run the ball and use...passes based on the prescribed runs to establish our offensive identity, our foundation, and ultimately our success. A result of this approach was the ability to defense runs. Hence, our basic mandate was 'run the ball, stop the run.'

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? As in, the current motto of the Broncos? They’re still working on stopping the run; Tim Tebow isn’t ready to throw the ball as the Broncos’ bread and butter and he’s not currently a finesse passer - he may or may not ever be, but at 6’3” and 236 lb, he still runs like a halfback and hits like a fullback. While I’d like to see him continue to show the smarts that he did in Oakland in terms of getting out of bounds and taking the slide, there’s no question that the rushing combination of Willis McGahee and Tebow is a potent one. But someone has to open the holes for them, and that’s where the OL came in. Given that Denver ran for 298 yards, they seem to have done it well.

As well as he played, Tebow had some help. That’s not meant to take anything away from Tim - as I said, he was put in a great situation for his skillset and he played well. After going 6-for-30 in the previous two games in converting third downs along with 13 sacks, and without a 3rd down conversion in 13 1st quarter tries over his first three games of 2011, he converted the last third down of the 1st quarter for a TD that was a glimpse of things to come, and had to suffer only one sacks with no INTs and two TD passes, which is very good compared to where the team was over the prior two games. At the same time, the game balls for this week were many - one would also have to go to the offensive line. When you block for 298 yards in a single game, you can go home, crack open a cold one and put your feet up, because you did your job that day. Willis McGahee was simply outstanding – the man would not be stopped. Arm tackles were ignored, full wrap-ups often broken, and all 163 yards were accomplished with newly installed hardware protected by a pad on the back of his broken paw. It’s a painful injury, and McGahee just didn’t care. He had a job to do - his 163 yards came on only 20 carries for a remarkable 8.2 YPA.

Tebow (12 carries, 117 yards and an even better 9.8 YPA) did a great job of making Oakland pay for overfocusing on McGahee, and that led to Oakland being afraid to send their full backside pursuit against McGahee due to the danger created by potential runs by Tebow, especially on that final drive. Oakland was also sufficiently concerned with Tebow running that McGahee had the rolling field (look at Ted’s screenshots if you want to see open real estate) of the Coliseum almost to himself at times. And, I would be remiss if I left out the fact that Eddie Royal, who has seemed to disappear again for much of this year, had a punt return for another score as well as a neatly run TD reception from Tebow in the 3rd quarter. Chris Harris’ quick reactions on his tipped interception also put Denver in a perfect position to score. The list of contributors to this victory was long, and that’s just how you like it.

I can’t pretend that the 15 penalties (for 130 yards and four 1st downs), three turnovers, punt return score and nearly 300 rushing yards given up by the Raiders didn’t help a great deal. At the same time, the Broncos stayed in this one for the whole game, fought back from deficits over and over and they earned everything that they eventually got. The defense did give up some points and at times it looked like they were getting shaky. But the play of the entire defensive squad, taken as a whole and powered by the aggressive philosophy of Dennis Allen, was far more than the Raiders were ready to take on.

The Zone Read

Even if Oakland claimed that they had practices that trained them against it and they were ready for it, their actions spoke louder than Hue Jackson cussing out a referee. Oakland was confused by Denver’s Zone-Read attack, and whether it’s a college scheme or the next big NFL idea just became immaterial - Denver found a way to put Oakland’s back to the wall, and they found a way to play to their strengths. It took them a few games to put it all in place, but they did it, and did it well.

When John Fox told people that he was going to put in a running attack that would work for the Broncos, I doubt if anyone was really thinking about this one - not even Fox. But he and OC Mike McCoy have been working on finding a way to win in this league with the players they have, and in the final analysis - the win, the only stat that counts in the end - it was a rousing success. McCoy has been trying to put this together for a few weeks now, and those who were dunning him deserve to give the man some props for a job remarkably well done.

Here are some earlier notes I had written on Orlando Franklin:

Willis McGahee has had three 100-yard rushing games already this year (Note - now it’s four). Denver also ranks 10th in the NFL with 4.3 yards per carry (now 4.5) so far this season. It’s been a long time since Denver had a running game that opponents had to respect. Since statistics show that mobile, running quarterbacks tend to open additional lanes for the running game, the combination of the line coming together and the rushing skills of McGahee with Tim Tebow’s mobility should increase the production of the running game even further.

And that’s one of the things that the Broncos are looking for. While their original plan for the 2011 season was to have more of a vertical passing game to go with the increased running game, what the team really needed was to be successful at something that they could depend on. If that’s running the football, that’s great. Given the choices at wide receiver, there’s no reason for Denver not to develop an effective passing game as well. Tim Tebow will have no shortage of targets (as he develops that aspect of his skills).

Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a winner - and it’s the Denver Broncos.

Ted was even more prescient than usual with his discussion of the use of the Zone Read. When I was quoting Wisconsin’s Barry Alvarez about zone runs and zone reads for the first article on Clady, Ted had already been explaining the Zone Read (The Football Coaching Bible has both inside and outside zone plays under Alvarez’s Chapter 18, starting on page 213 if you have a copy. They adapt easily to the zone read, and that’s how Wisconsin often uses them). It seems that the Zone Read has been in the wind for a few weeks now. While I expected the numbers on rushing to go up when Denver put Tebow and McGahee’s legs together (metaphorically speaking), I didn’t expect to see Denver putting a 300-yard rushing hurt on the Raiders, especially with the addition of a punt-return TD from Eddie Royal and a TD reception from him as well. With a couple of memorable passes and the defensive front seven breathing down Carson Palmer’s neck, it was a heck of a game. The most impressive thing that wasn’t really emphasized? Tebow’s ball handling, which was excellent. He showed that he’s solid on play fakes and performs the conventional or ‘slow’ screen well, which helps him greatly.

Mike McCoy

I have a suspicion that McCoy is a bit smarter than he tends to let people think. He's been very quietly mapping out an entire system to develop Tebow while playing him, in much the same way that Bill Walsh (and no, I'm not suggesting that they're literally comparable) had to come up with something in Cincy, and that ended up with giving the beginnings of the WCO to Virgil Carter. I do wonder if some aspects of this approach - the use of the OL, RB and the young QB could end up as a template in some degree that could be used to develop this kind of QB. There really are several more with similar skillsets in the college system, and I often hear them being discounted because of the system they play in. They aren't Tebow, but the problems of professional development are similar. I keep hearing from coaches and GMs that the college QBs often don’t have the pro game basics due to the scheme they learn in college ball. So? Why not make that a benefit instead of a negative?

I've never gotten over that professorial aspect of my mind - one of my own professors pounded into me (literally - he had more black belts than most people have socks, but had taught at every level from the military to grade school, through middle school, high school and college, and was a genius at organizing information) how to manage information; I was told to lay it out in my lesson plans (and later curriculums and books) in such a way that each lesson formed a brick, and each set of bricks laid the foundation for the next level of training. At any rate, I could see something of this general form turning into a general pathway on training QBs who come from spread/shotgun backgrounds and who have the running ability that you usually see in them. The Cam Newton's, with his very compact, fast release and smooth, gliding footwork will still work well with the traditional training model, although I’d bet that in the copycat NFL, Carolina is looking at Denver's film this week. But TT is a different animal, so to speak.

Mike McCoy has taken quite a load of guff so far this year, but he and John Fox (with the help of RB coach Eric Studesville and QB coach Adam Gase) have put together an approach that may not be easily stopped. The NFL often has reasons why they don’t use certain approaches, but history shows us that sometimes they don’t use them because the league as a whole can be stodgy, bull-headed and slow to accept the possibility of change. Just ask all the folks who belittled Bill Walsh’s West Coast Offense, or the ones who said that Bill Belichick couldn’t coach an offense and couldn’t win without Drew Bledsoe. Sometimes the conventional wisdom is just plain wrong: Denver is going to get a great chance to find out what’s the real case this time. This week, I’m just going to enjoy the outcome of pounding the ball down the Raiders' throats. Rather than defend himself, by the way, McCoy talked about Tebow:

I mean, look at all the young quarterbacks in the league, how many come out right away and start lighting it up from the first game on?" McCoy said. "There aren't many in the history of this game that do that. They all struggle early on -- it's an adjustment to them. We're going to do what we think is the best thing for our football team to win and you're always going to have people that are going to point the finger somewhere. But we're trying to do everything we can to help Tim and the football team be successful.

It’s hard to argue any of the specific points that he made. He’s talking the clichés, no doubt, but they are also good advice on how to develop this one QB to his best advantage. And that’s McCoy’s job. He’s doing it well.

Of the Broncos' next four opponents, the Chiefs are 18th in run defense, the Jets 21st, the Chargers 17th and the Vikings 4th. Kind of gives you a bit of a tingle, doesn't it? Yeah, me too. Wins look more likely: tough, competitive games seem inevitable. The season becomes more interesting with each week.

The Process

“We’ve been in the process of adjusting for the last three weeks,” Broncos coach John Fox said. “It’s a different style, but it can be effective.”

Looking back, no one rationally doubts that it’s a different and effective style, and both Fox and McCoy deserve a lot of credit for putting this together on the fly - necessity truly was the mother of invention.

For Fox to say it could be effective was an understatement. Fox was talking about the zone read. Not only was it something that Tim Tebow often ran in college (and was therefore used to it, increasing his comfort level), but like a lot of winning rushing attacks, it became more effective as the game progressed. The offensive linemen love this kind of game plan. Offensive linemen love to run block;  they love to prove that they can take the opposing defense and shove them backwards, play after play. It’s discouraging as heck to the defense, and it can create the kind of team identity that the Broncos can easily get deeply into. It’s also tailor-made for increasing a team’s positive outlook during a time that’s been tough and challenging.

Defensive linemen hate it when an offensive line has success giving their team a chance to run the ball - it’s a way of getting yourself publicly chased down the field backwards, a chunk at a time, grudgingly  and embarrassingly giving up and losing ground on play after play, drive after drive. It’s disheartening and it’s frustrating, which makes it all the more fun for Denver fans. Part of that was the cumulative effect of the Broncos’ take-no-prisoners running attack - a turnabout from most recent games with the Raiders, where Denver had that experience handed to them.

Willis McGahee

Part of the success was McGahee’s approach to the read-option, which was to relearn Barry Alvarez’s creed when it comes to running the ball:

You speed through the hole, you don’t speed to the hole. To make this work, a running back has to learn to be patient, to choose the right pathway to an open field. Moreno still hasn’t learned that, and it’s a shame, given his natural skills. Correll Buckhalter had made it second nature. Lance Ball is just starting to learn it. John Fox tends to like big, tough running backs. A change of pace back ala Darren Sproles is one good alternate approach. Another big, nasty back who can run as fast as McGahee did on his long TD run is another option. Personally, I like them both.

“At the beginning I was getting three yards, two yards, and I had a couple of times when I got tackled and the hole was opening up slow,” McGahee said. “I just had to change up a couple of things and just be more patient.” His linemen understood that.

“He’s very patient,” right guard Chris Kuper said. “When he sees it, he hits it. He gets through there and you ain’t going to get him down with an arm tackle. He’s going to run through those.” That’s exactly what Alvarez taught his RBs.

Between the proven effects of increased QB mobility on the running game, Tebow’s feet and McGahee’s own skill and determination, McGahee put a new kind of hurt on his new division rival. It was his fourth 100-yard game of the year and it keeps him on track for a 1,000-yard season, as well as possibly making him a growing candidate as the Comeback Player of the Year. Since Willis accomplished this with a padded incision on the back of his hand from a surgery to repair the fourth metacarpal bone, the achievement was all the more impressive for how it was accomplished. The 298 yards Denver gained on the ground is the fourth-highest total for a single game in the history of the organization. Meanwhile, McGahee is averaging 103.4 yards over his past six games. The last time Denver had a rushing attack like this, ‘Nails’ Nalen was the center and Mike Anderson and Tatum Bell were the running backs:  It was 2005. Half a dozen year is much, much too long between solid rushing attacks, so it’s great to see one back again.

McGahee is also currently 6th in the league in rushing yards gained on 1st and 10. It’s hard to overstate how important this is - Denver has been struggling with 3rd down conversions for a long time now, and the best way to make those is to always place yourself in a position to have short yardage on 3rd down by being able to establish good yardage on first down. McGahee, along with his offensive line, has been able to keep Denver well up on the league’s list, even through Denver’s record may not be what they want it to be. One way to improve is to make a lot more 3rd down conversions, and gaining seven or eight yards on 1st down is a good way to get there.

Last, and perhaps most important, McGahee ranks eighth in the NFL in yards per carry, with an average of 5.1. If you’re going to decide on a running offense in this day and age, you’d better do so with a very good average run to offset the additional yardage of the average pass. McGahee seems to have that one handled.

Conclusions

You cannot draw too many conclusions from a single game. At the same time, this was not just one game: it was the third in a series of games for Tim Tebow, and in each one of them there were aspects of the Broncos' potential schemes that had been filled in. In this game, however, the pieces came together in a unified whole that it was clear the Raiders were unprepared to deal with. They may have been more physical than the Broncos during the first game of the season, but I think it’s fair to say that they got that returned to them on Sunday.

One of the things that caught my eye was the way that backup players came onto the field and played very much like starters. Quinton Carter deserves a lot of praise for coming in and playing well after having suffered a concussion against Detroit when Rahim Moore left with a head injury of his own. On different plays, Joe Mays, D.J. Williams and Wesley Woodyard were all pointed out as the Mike by Carson Palmer and the Oakland Raiders front line. Oakland was not always sure whom they were stopping or blocking, and each time they either stopped Denver or scored again they found themselves looking at scoring drives, punt returns for touchdowns or a defense that shut down Oakland when it was necessary.

I know that I’ve seen a lot of comments about who Denver needs to draft in 2012. I can understand that too – I enjoy college football, I enjoy the draft and it’s natural to start looking at those options about this time of year. It’s also fair to say that it’s very premature to start talking about who Denver needs or doesn’t need with this much time left to go in the season. People have talked about getting a new middle linebacker, but Nate Irving hasn’t even had his chance yet. Sure, he could move to Will, and he could develop into a Mike, but at this point we, the fans, don’t really have a clue. It’s fair to say that Denver needs to continue developing depth and bringing in as much elite talent as possible. Certainly, a top defensive tackle would not go amiss and neither would a top-rated cornerback. McGahee has relatively low miles on him but he is 30 years old: I’m sure Denver is looking at a potential replacement for him down the road. Those aren’t the only positions in play, but they are near the top.

As far as the offensive line goes, the next two months will tell us whether we are looking for a starting right tackle, or just improved depth on the offensive line. Chris Clark has been playing surprisingly well as Mike McCoy has been playing musical tackles with his players. Clark has been a pleasant surprise. There may be others that we don’t know about because they’re not playing yet.

But one thing is certain: Denver has brought back the Zone Read in a way that no one was looking for. It’s possible that other teams will find ways to stop it – in fact, it’s inevitable. The National Football League is a copycat organization. They will borrow anything that works, and they will find new ways of stopping anything that has worked in the past. But putting the hurt on an old and much disliked division rival is all I really need to think about this week. It was a heck of a game, and on the road and all, I’m looking forward to a visit to Arrowhead Stadium. Denver will find out there just how effective their new offense can be.

Go Broncos!

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

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