Fat Camp: Understanding the Manning offense - Part 3

Hello, friends, and welcome to Part 3 of our series about the Manning offense that we can expect to see in Denver.  Today, we’ll focus on the running game, which I think will schematically have a lot of similarity to the base running game we’ve seen in Denver the past three seasons.  The philosophy will be very different, though, and it’s on that aspect which I will dedicate most of my focus.

If you missed Parts 1 or 2, and want to catch up, please see these links:

Part 1 – Basics – Formations, Personnel Groupings, and Fit of Existing Personnel

Part 2 – Presnap Recognition Concepts

Let’s begin by asking a simple question – why do football teams run the ball?  The main answer that I would give is that it’s tradition.  American football was invented in 1869, and the forward pass wasn’t introduced to the game until 1906.  It actually was introduced as a safety measure, because a bunch of people got killed or seriously hurt playing the game in 1905, and President Teddy Roosevelt demanded rules changes.  (The horror of government overreach!)  The rules committee that was formed was the precursor of today’s NCAA.

For those first 37 years, running the ball was the only way that offense was conducted.  What that produced was a bunch of “knowers” (coaches, etc.) who only knew the run game.  Some coaches, notably Eddie Cochems of St. Louis University, adopted the forward pass aggressively, but most still wanted to run the ball.  Generationally, the theory has persisted among coaches that running the ball is the conservative and risk-averse (and therefore smart) approach to playing the game.  When you throw the ball, only one out of three outcomes is good, and all that horse manure.  In their minds, that often means a 66% chance of a bad outcome, and 33% for good.  Nobody ever said you had to be very smart to be a football coach.

Sports culture is one of stodginess and conservatism, and football is right there with baseball as the leaders in that category.  This is going to cause some bitching, no doubt, (which I plan to ignore), but it’s important to what I am getting at, vis-a-vis football.  Conservatism is many things, but to me, the fundamental feature of it as a mindset is an unwillingness to accept and incorporate new information as it becomes available, and change your attitudes and actions based upon that information.  Conservative people believe what they believe, and it’s been working for them up to now, so they don’t even want to hear about your new information, unless it reinforces their pre-existing beliefs.  This is why Rush Limbaugh exists - to tell people with conservative mindsets that they're right about everything, and that since they have "common sense", there's nothing more to learn.  You could discover the greatest new information ever, which should change everything, but people with a conservative mindset tend to be uncomfortable with change for most any reason.

Anyway, conservatism is certainly the mindset of the average football coach - they know what works, and they’re sticking with what they know.  This is why you see coach after coach say that they’re playing the percentages by punting on 4th and 1 in plus territory.  They’re absolutely not playing the percentages, though; they’re actually choosing to take the short money in a commonly accepted way, which will prevent the morons in the media from criticizing them.  (And that feels solid.)

John Fox is a conservative, old-school football coach.  He punts too often, and he likes the run game too much.  There’s a lot of scholarly information out there that strongly indicates that his instincts on both scores are dead wrong, but he goes with them anyway, because he is who he is.  He’s about to be cured of some of that, though.  The medicine’s name is Peyton Manning.  Just wait until Manning waves off the punt team running onto the field.  I guarantee it will happen at least five times this year.

When you have Manning at QB, your preference on every snap should be the throw the football.  Actually, basic math says that all things being equal, you should prefer the pass to the run on every play, practically no matter who your QB is.  For each of the last three seasons, the average NFL team has gained exactly two more yards per play (using PFR’s NY/A metric) throwing the ball than running the ball.  In 2011, they got 6.3 yards per play throwing, and 4.3 rushing.  In both 2010 and 2009, they got 6.2 and 4.2.  The only team that has run the ball as well as they’ve passed it was John Fox’s 2010 (woefully under-talented, by design) Carolina Panthers, who achieved 4.2 yards per attempt both running and passing.

Running the ball is basically choosing to leave two yards per play on the table, so why the hell do it?  The smart answer is that you should run the ball to help make the pass available and successful, because all things aren’t equal.  If you wanted to be the first team ever to completely ignore the run, and pass on every snap, defenses would adjust and play coverage on every snap.

Having some success running the ball opens up the play action game and forces defenses to commit an eighth defender to the box.  You run the ball as a complement to your passing game, which is superior in importance.  Forget about the stupid question of whether you run to set up the pass, or pass to set up the run.  Just recognize that synergies are created in both activities if you can do both with some degree of effectiveness, and if the defense doesn’t know which one you plan to do now. 

Personally, I thought the Broncos’ first 2011 game against the Chiefs was kind of cool, in a trivia sense, and in the sense of seeing how frustrated the Chiefs looked by getting the ball run down their throats play after play.  I felt the demoralization for them, and it hurt (so good!).  I don’t want to see many/any more Broncos games like that, though.

I expect this year’s Broncos team will prioritize throwing the ball highly, and will run primarily when defenses are hell-bent on covering the pass, and have thus left themselves vulnerable.  That’s why I spent Part 2 talking about presnap recognition, because it’s mostly going to determine whether a given play will be a pass or a run.

You’ll remember from Part 1 that I expect the Broncos to use only two personnel groupings, which I designate as 11 and 12.  I expect them to be in 2-by-2 alignment 95% of the time, and I expect the same players to play in the same specific spots, snap after snap.  Why is this so important to reiterate?  I really want to drive home the concept that while the Broncos will have very few plays, they will all be available on any given snap, and a formation or personnel grouping won’t ever prevent an advantageous play from being called.  That’s how you can have an offense that is entirely callable from the line of scrimmage, yet is versatile enough to attack any weakness of the defense.

I expect the Broncos to continue to use both zone and angle blocking concepts in the running game, and to use a total of about six running plays.  I’m now going to draw and explain those plays, starting with the most basic one:

Outside Zone

The Colts ran this play all the time with Manning as the QB, and it’s familiar to anybody who was a Broncos fan while Mike Shanahan coached the team.  The offensive line moves right, the handoff is made wide of the Guard, and the QB has bootleg action back to the left, setting up eventual play action.  The RB is looking for a crease to the outside or a cutback lane inside, and is going to take one cut and go. 

The Manning offense favors this play because given the even 2-by-2 alignment, the defense is most often going to be evenly spread with two safeties deep.  If you run this outside zone play quickly and efficiently, the offense can almost always get a hat on every hat, and open up big running lanes.  The backside CB, OLB, and Safety probably can’t get into the play, so the offense has a numbers advantage.  It’s all about hitting quickly, though.

Inside Zone

This is the complementary run play to the Outside Zone, and its main function is that the defense can’t just read the initial movement of the offensive linemen, and run outside.  By running Inside Zone, the offense forces the defense to have to read the QB/RB action and mesh point as well.  It slows them down a step, making the Outside Zone play work better.  Again, this is a quick hitter.  It’s also the primary play construct from which Manning runs the vertical play action game.

Outside Power

The Colts didn’t do much with angle blocking, but this Broncos team has been doing it for three years, and I expect from John Fox’s comments that they’ll continue to mix approaches.  LG Zane Beadles is a very good puller, and the design of this play calls for him to be the cleanup man / lead blocker.  The key blocks are as follows:

  1. LT – Absolutely must get his face across the backside DT’s waist, which is difficult.  He’s cutting that DT off from being able to flow to the playside.
     
  2. C – Has to get out on the Mike LB in space quickly, while preferably giving the playside DT a shove on his way there, to help the RG square up fully on the guy.
     
  3. Playside TE (Y) – The best block possible on the playside OLB is preferred.  That will leave the pulling Guard free to hit the unblocked SS and open up a strong possibility for a big play.

Trap

This is an old-school play that is angle blocked, also with a puller from the backside.  It’s quite different than the Outside Power, though:

  1. Backside TE – Has to cut the backside DE.
     
  2. LT – Has to locate the backside OLB, and get out on him in space.
     
  3. C – Cuts off the backside pursuing DT, who wants to follow the pulling LG.
     
  4. RG – Has to get out on the MLB quickly, and is assigned to ignore the 3T DT on his outside shoulder, who is being invited into the backfield.
     
  5. RT – Will hook the playside DT and block him to the outside.
     
  6. Playside TE (Y) – Must block the playside OLB in space.

The offense wants the playside DT to come straight forward into the backfield, where he’ll be crushed by the backside pulling G from the side.  That is designed to open up an inside hole for a quick-hitting running play.  Every offensive lineman has a good angle, and the most difficult block is actually that of the backside TE, which is also the least important one.

I wanted to take the opportunity now to note the formation, and the implications of it.  If Andre Caldwell were in the slot left instead of the backside TE, the backside OLB would most probably be a CB lined up across from him.  That would change the LT’s assignment to hooking the backside DE.  Again, these plays can be run from any formation the Broncos will use.

Counter

I expect the Counter to be used pretty rarely, because it’s a play that has a delayed timing component to it, and Manning tends not to favor that a lot.  You can run the counter action off of any other run play you use, but I am showing off the Trap action here.

Basically, the RB takes the handoff, goes one step to the frontside, and then cuts back to the backside.  The idea is that the misdirection on the play slows down pursuit by backside defenders.  This isn’t a bread-and-butter play, obviously, but it’s good for setting those plays up.

Draw

The primary misdirection element of the Manning offense over the past five or six years has actually been a fake draw out of the shotgun, followed by a quick WR smoke screen to the backside.  When the draw is actually on, though, Manning normally does run it from the Shotgun.  I’m showing it here from under center for consistency's sake, but in terms of tendencies , look for the gun.

This is supposed to look like a pass: from the way the receivers release, to the way the offensive linemen step backwards like they’re pass protection, to how the QB has his eyes downfield, and how the RB hesistates like he’s looking for somebody to block.  From under center, the handoff is delayed and comes deep in the backfield.  From the Shotgun, it’s quicker, but also happens deep in the backfield.

The key is that everybody plays it like it’s a pass.  Most crucial is that the line gives their pass rushers outside releases and rides them out of the run lane that the RB is going to take.  This works best against man-to-man defenses in passing situations like 2nd and 10.

A Note About RB Personnel

I wanted to take a minute to talk about personnel.  RB is a somewhat devalued position in this Manning offense, because  the team doesn’t plan to run the ball all that much.  He’d actually rather have a guy who can block and catch as well as he can run, rather than a guy like Adrian Peterson who can’t block or catch worth a damn.

I mentioned this in the last couple weeks, but to reiterate, I think a healthy Knowshon Moreno is an ideal RB for this kind of scheme.  Playing in a pass-heavy scheme is what he was drafted for, and his most notable strength as a player is his versatility. 

To read the comments on this site and others, you’d think that Knowshon has been a bad player.  I have no faith in him.  Why don’t we just cut him?  To me, when he’s been healthy and played, he’s been a pretty solid player.  Maybe not a twelfth-overall player in the Draft, but that’s no reason to throw away a talented player who can contribute.  The Draft pick is a sunk cost; the player is an asset who can help the team.

That’s not even mentioning Willis McGahee, who had an outstanding season in 2011.  He’s less accomplished as a blocker and receiver than Moreno, but more accomplished as a runner.  He can do some big damage running that Outside Zone with six blockers on five defenders, trust me on that. 

The point I am getting to is that I see everybody and their brother pining for Doug Martin or David Wilson or whatever other RB in the first or second round.  I suspect that that’s the skill-position bias that happens because the success or failure of those players is easily measurable.  I wanted Martin, he ran for 1,000 yards as a rookie, therefore I am the smartest man alive!  That kind of thing.

I would say that the Broncos have much bigger needs at all three levels of their defense than they do at RB, and that they’d be wise to avoid playing fantasy football.  I’d be pretty locked into taking the best DT available, and maybe even repeating that in Round 2.  It’s hard to measure immediate impact there, but the Broncos have a giant need at that position.

That’s all I have for today, friends.  I’ll be back with Part 4 on Tuesday, where we’ll start working through a couple of key passing concepts.  Have a nice weekend.

1.  I’m not in the arguing business, I’m in the saying what I think business.
2.  I get my information from my eyes.

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