Wednesday Musings: Studying the O-line’s play on Sunday, more on Ayers

As the incandescence of the Broncos victory fades to a warming glow, I wanted to take some time to talk about the OL’s performance in the Pittsburgh game. Simply put - it was remarkable. You have to keep in mind that by some fairly sophisticated measures, this is the ‘worst’ offensive line in the NFL. If you keep cumulative stats, it’s fair to say that their average ranking in some important categories was fairly poor. They were asked to learn an offense which is different from last year’s, then to throw that out and run an offense that some of the players had never run before. They capped off their season to date by shutting down the pass rush of a very good Pittsburgh team. I’ve said it before and will again here - I wish that Pittsburgh had been healthier, because on that day, I don’t think they could have beaten the Broncos. Denver was too focused, too tired of losing and too tired of hearing that they didn’t have a chance. There are times when being the underdog is the way to find the inner fire that can consume the other team, leaving only the taste of ashes in its wake.

Without the performance of the OL - in both the running and passing games - having picked up both systems, including a right tackle who topped off his rookie newness by taking on a position that he’d never played before, but who stepped into his first playoff game like a seasoned pro - neither the outcome of this game nor that of the season that preceded it. It’s true that there were some rough games for the OL. It’s just as true that there were a lot more good ones - enough to get a somewhat shaky ship into the advanced harbor of the playoffs. The harbor may be mined, but Denver negotiated the first leg of it well. The line played a big role in that.

If you recognize that while Mike McCoy uses the same terminology as he did in Carolina and as New England and Josh McDaniels did, it’s equally true that he ran a somewhat different offensive system and strategy: claiming that this is ‘the same’ as Josh McDaniels' offense isn’t fully accurate. McCoy installed his own version of the offense (which is just that - his own offense) and that included changes, for example, in the way that the TEs and the offensive line have been used. Within months, he’d thrown out his own creation and installed an additional offensive approach, so drummed up on the fly that they had meetings where Adam Gase, McCoy, John Fox and Tim Tebow would sit and agree to establish what they were going to use in the upcoming game (that may interest some of the people who complained about McCoy’s playcalling - a lot of those plays were inserted precisely because Tebow said that he could carry them out effectively). When X play was called was up to McCoy, and since the Broncos have been winning most of the time since Tebow came in, I think that McCoy has shown a lot of talent for getting the best out of his players.

One of the advantages of keeping the OL in much the same shape as it is now - with Orlando Franklin on the right edge - is that Von Miller is daily schooling Franklin in how to play his position and in how to get up after being embarrassed and without diminishment of effort, doing it again. The speed of Franklin’s development can be attributed in part to this. The results have been pretty clear - if you look at the cumulatives for the year, Franklin had your basic rookie year. If you recognize that his level of play is a lot higher now than it was a few months back and chart, you start to see something very different.

The first playoff game was the classic definition of ‘different’. I wanted to note that Russ Hochstein really stepped up - I’ve been honest about my doubts regarding Hochstein, but he played well when it mattered the most. Franklin was tough all game, wouldn’t quit and wouldn’t stop until the whistles blew. Frankly, everyone on that line looked good, and while Pittsburgh had some injuries, Denver has also worked through their share - it’s part of the game. You can only play whoever shows up that night, and Denver played well.

Ryan Clady played a very good game, bum knee and all. J.D. Walton had a ‘gift’ when Casey Hampton went down early - I hope that Hampton is all right. You know, as well as Hochstein played, one of the reasons that the team’s OL improved over the season is that it wasn’t until the final game of the regular season that a starter substitution had to be made, when Chris Kuper was hurt. Over and over, the teams that have more stable lines - both during the season, and from year to year - will tend to have better outcomes. The players end up communicating with nods and grunts, knowing what the other is communicating to them. Moose Johnston talked in his book Watching Football of the line of one of his Dallas teams being in such tune that they used a zone blocking scheme against the pass - and I hadn’t heard of that one, although it turns out that a few teams did for a while, giving up on it because it was just too complex. The players would gently bump the shoulder of the guy next to them if they had to change assignments. You can see where it would get tough - what if both guys next to you bumped you at about the same time? But I understood what he was saying - to get near to that level of communication, you needed to play together for seasons, not weeks or months. The least or simplest change that can still upgrade Denver’s OL in the offseason and still improve the group is likely to be their best option - the OL version of Occam’s Razor.

Orlando Franklin had a great game for a rookie. The fanfare of a first year playoff game didn’t seem to faze him, and he went after his opponents like a heavyweight going for the crown. He had the best pass-blocking game of his short career and was solid in run-blocking, as usual. Actually, looking back at it, he’s had positive overall rankings in 8 of the last 10 games. His only weaknesses in his first playoff game were that he let in two pressures, but no sacks, hits or penalties.  Franklin made a case to leave him at right tackle - if this is what he looks like with one year at the position under his belt, it may be premature to consider moving him anywhere else. Zane Beadles also had one of his best games, with no QB sacks, hits, hurries or pressures. If they decide that Beadles doesn’t cut it as a starter (Beadles was at 50%, with negative rankings in 5 of his last 10 games), the Broncos should bring in someone who will upgrade the position, and preferably a veteran. If they decide that he’s going to mature into what they want, they will almost certainly leave the group intact, with no changes.

Last column, I started talking about David Bruton and some of the other heroes of the playoff game. Today I’d like to continue talking for a bit about some of them, finishing what I started with Robert Ayers. As you know, the hostility he’s engendered has frequently bemused me, and his role in the defense has changed greatly this past year. After his performance in the wild card game, it’s worth looking at what it is that he’s producing for the team.

I think that one of the reasons that people get so worked up about him is that they don’t really know what his role on the defensive line has been or what rational stats are available beyond the sack totals, and that makes it tough for the casual fan to understand what he’s doing. It's not been his role to rack up sack or tackle numbers, which is what most people who like to yell are yelling for (Around my life, they’re referred to as ‘the fellows who bellows,’ and it isn’t a compliment). Although some claim that he’s weak against the run, neither my film time nor the sites that keep stats on such things can find any evidence for it. Pro Football Focus has him listed as being in positive numbers as a run defender in all but two games in the 2011 season, against the Jets in Week 11 and the following week at San Diego. Certainly, the play I referenced Monday didn’t show it all (no single play can), but more importantly, it didn’t show him being pushed off-balance, off-gap or overrun by the Chiefs, although they tried hard on that play and he was double-teamed by Richardson and Pope - that made a total of 583 lbs of muscle against him. It was like that all year. All year he beat single teams and often double teams. I can only describe plays that I think are representative of what he does for the team.

It's been consistently his role to collapse the pocket so that the real rush DEs - Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil - can sack the QB. It’s his job to stop the run, to control or redirect the QB and/or RB and to be a constant presence on the line. I understand what a lot of fans think when you talk about being a 'constant presence’ - a guy who makes plays that make the score sheet -  but to me it's a guy who consistently impacts the line plays, changing the running lanes, handling his gap, maintaining discipline, forcing the QB into the arms of Miller or Doom, each of whom PFF credited with 13 sacks, or even Ryan McBean, whose four sacks are pretty good for a nose tackle.

With that as a starting point, the fact is that Ayers, frequently playing as an interior lineman, has four sacks according to PFF, along with five QB hits, 20 pressures and 28 tackles with 26 stops. He has committed just two missed tackles and three penalties on 738 snaps;  all while playing 2-3 positions about equally well. If Ayers’ isn’t missing tackles and isn’t being blocked out of plays frequently, then he’s winning his battles at the point of attack. If he’s doing that, committing few penalties and making a good ratio of stops, isn’t he playing well?  Everything that I can find in actual evidence says that he’s doing all of those things. And it’s not just the stats - it’s the film, watching the way that he’s winning his battles on the line and although this is just his first year back at DE and he’s being asked to move around a great deal with his other line responsibilities, he seems to be enjoying the challenge and is apparently rising to it.

When you talk about consistency, one of the thing that you want to see out of a DL player is the ability to make the tackle when you have the chance, not just redirect them. As noted, Ayers has missed exactly two tackles all year - and one came in the first game against Oakland, the next one not until KC in Week 17. Not having a single miss for 14 games is a laudable accomplishment, but from the opinions of some of the fans, you’d think that he can’t make a tackle.

I think a lot of folks were influenced by the major sports blogs and media, and made up their minds on Ayers based on that before the end of his rookie training camp. He wasn’t a common or popular choice for that slot (round 1, pick 18) in the draft and a lot of people didn’t know much about him. What came out early was that he’d had troubles during his first two years in college, and that was used to denigrate him, even though he’d long since taken public responsibility for those actions and cleaned up his act. His coaches from his junior and senior years at Tennessee had nothing but positives to say about the transformation he made. I’d hate to have my life judged on what I did during my first two years in college.

Back then (following the 2009 Draft), there was always a contract signing delay based on where in the 1st round you were and what similar players (if any) had been paid in the past. Because of that, his arrival at training camp was somewhat delayed, which was normal and is something we won’t miss much with the new slotting system. Even missing those practices became a source of hostility among the fans, folks who were already irritated with everything that the FO or Josh McDaniels had done. Although he was being constantly criticized even early in his rookie year, I watched him improve all through that first year and then do well before his injury last season (he came back before he was healthy which impeded his progress, and the coaches have confirmed that). He’s back, and he’s healthy again. He played well all season, but he was a monster in the Pittsburgh playoff game.

Now he's playing top level ball, all over the line. His work against the run is consistently his best:  Denver’s needed talent against the run for years. Now they have it, with Von Miller, Marcus Thomas, Ryan McBean and Brodrick Bunkley joining Ayers on the fun, but many fans still dun his play. Perhaps they did up until the Pittsburgh game. He ‘only’ had three tackles, but he had two sacks and three hits on the impaired mobility of Ben Roethlisberger. He also created a few stops. He influenced numerous plays, and that’s the most important aspect of what he provides for the Denver OL.

He's batted down three balls. He’s played three positions, two of which don’t generally generate much in the way of sacks (DT and NT). At this point, realistically, Von Miller is generally the real left DE who is playing rush lineman. That’s how John Fox and Dennis Allen have the D set up, and the drop in opponents’ scores over last year (and the drop over this season) prove that it works. Miller is a physical freak whose talent is off the charts. You’re lucky if you find one of those in a decade; he can play from several positions as well. Add in Ayers, Doom, Bunkley and Marcus Thomas and you’ve got the best DL that Denver has fielded in quite a long while.

So, when do we get to the part where Ayers is not playing well? Well, there’s the part where Ayers blows through the Pittsburgh line and hammers Big Ben into the dirt on Pittsburgh’s first drive of the first quarter of the playoff game. Ben completes the pass anyway - that’s why he’s got a couple of SB rings - but he pays for it direly. Ayers has his helmet to the side, hits with the shoulder, doesn’t make a technique mistake and comes in up and under Ben’s right arm - you have to give Roethlisberger credit for making the throw at all, and Ayers credit for the accuracy and legality of the hit, not to mention the marks it is likely to have left on Ben’s ribs. It was hard to believe that Ben made that throw accurately, but the zone defense broke down, permitting the WR to be open.

And, it’s not just Ayers, obviously. At 11:58 in the same quarter, on the same drive, Ayers came from the defensive left almost untouched and Roethlisberger had to throw it away in the general area of his receiver as Ayers’ aggression turned second-and-7 into third-and-7. On that next play, Chris Harris wraps up the outlet receiver, Miller has grabbed a leg, and Ayers is just behind Von when the runner goes down - out of the three plays, Ayers is key in one, provides a hit in another, and provides backside pursuit on the third, while two other very talented young guys in Harris and  Miller make their contribution on this series. It’s his first playoff game. Not bad. Pitt walked off with just three points on that drive, and Ayers was a good reason why. Joining him were Bunkley, Thomas, Doom, Quinton Carter, Champ Bailey, Andre' Goodman and David Bruton in addition to D.J. Williams, Miller and Harris.This is a good starting crew that’s close to very good, and has some top-to-elite talent in Miller, Bunkley, Thomas and Doom, and I’d put Ayers up with them - and shows that Denver already has a level of depth in some areas that’s very good.

Then Ayers bull-rushed LT Max Starks into Roethlisberger and ran them both over like mountain marmots on I-70. Yeah, it was a good week to have written about the OL, Ayers and the defense. You don’t need much film verification if you really watched the game, but if you have to have it, go to the 2nd quarter, the 9:49 mark. You can watch Ayers take a turn at right defensive end and then just watch Max Starks get bull-rushed right through clobbering his own QB. It’s funny in a schadenfreude way to watch him sitting on the turf at the end of the play, looking confused, as if he’s wondering what hit him. It was #91, Max. Get used to it.

Miller and Bunkley lead the team in run defense - which is something that few pundits expected from Miller, much less Bunkley. We hoped that Bunkley would help with the run, but I don’t recall a lot of gushing  about him. At this point, I’d like to see a multi-year contract to eliminate the potential of someone handing him too much money in a year or two.

Ayers has six sacks according to PFF (two against Pitt), even though that’s not really his role. That’s about what I expected from him - picking up the occasional sack, setting the edge, stopping the run, forcing the line to account for him, and freeing up Miller and to an extent, Doom, while sharing some run and line duties with Thomas, Bunkley and Ryan McBean: he’s become the ‘other fourth DT’, splitting duties with Mitch Unrein. I keep looking for this area where he's not playing well, but I can't find it on film, in the stats or from the coaches.

One of the values of the current lineup is that if Denver wants to increase their run protection, they can put in Jason Hunter, who’s had one sack in 2011 along with 18 tackles, 14 stops and one missed tackle in limited play - so he’s been efficient. Over the next two years, finding a top-level undertackle would round out the line, giving them essentially equal pass blocking attack and run stopping ability in this line that would be excellent. For a lot of teams, there are periods where CB and/or Saf are problematic - the Broncos have been lucky dealing with Syd’Quan Thompson and Kyle McCarthy last year and Rafael Bush and Chris Harris - mostly Harris, who stirred up some recognition for himself - this year.

Maybe someone can help me out with this. I’m open to other perspectives, if there’s some evidence provided with it. If it’s just emotions, hey, we all go through that. But, if that’s true, they’re reactions; not opinions and certainly not facts. Given the amount of bitterness aimed at Ayers, I’d like to have a fact or two that does matter to hang my hat on. So far, what I see says that he’s well worth what he gets paid. (From Rotoworld:  On 8/4/2009 he signed a five-year, $18.34 million contract. The deal includes $9.7 million guaranteed. 2011: $880,000, 2012: $965,000, 2013: $1.06 million, 2014: Free Agent). It’s not a king’s ransom for a 1st-round pick. Does he earn it? In the world of very expensive defensive end contracts and given his film proof and his stat numbers, he should have no problem in extending his contract when this one ends if he continues to improve and to play with passion and leverage. In brief - yes.

Some of the hostility has to have revolved around what pick in the draft he was - #18, Round 1, as if those numbers magically changed anything. If that’s it, as Ted has explained several times, that’s an issue of sunken costs - which number his draft pick once was has absolutely nothing to do with his current level of utility and contribution on the team. There’s also a lot of talk about what 1st-round picks ‘should’ do in their careers. That’s remarkable, really, because it’s a perfect straw man argument. If you simply redefine ‘showing 1st-round value’ to suit your own feelings or definitions, you can create a standard out of thin air and then claim that X player - Ayers, in this case - doesn’t meet that standard, and go on from there.

It’s kind of smooth, yet then there are these irritating facts that just don’t follow that theory. I’ve watched the game film, pored over the stats and from everything I see, he’s playing very well. If you can show me where he’s consistently missing, I’m open to looking. Are other players who were drafted at the same position playing ‘better’? Depending on how you define it, almost certainly - it’s pretty rare that you get a Von Miller, and yet that’s one reason that you enjoy them so much. There are very few per draft or even per decade, and often you have no reason to believe that X or Y player will be one. Joe Montana went in the third round. Ayers was a middle 1st-rounder. He’s effective, tough, durable, versatile, powerful and quick. That’s about what I usually expect from middle 1st to late 2nd-round players - in fact, few of them have all of those traits, and Ayers does. He chose the national stage against Pittsburgh to show them off, too.

The things that he’s doing, he’s doing effectively. He gets his assignments from Dennis Allen and he carries them out. He makes very few mistakes; he’s frequently around the ball and his technique has been highly effective in both the pass and run defense. He’s one of the reasons that Denver has recently held team after team to very few points, which permits the late game heroics that appear to have become a consistent reality for the moment. He’s also one of the people who make sure that Miller and Doom’s jobs are that much easier each weekend.

Wherever he was drafted, that’s what I want to see out of any player on the team. He’s also a hard worker who doesn’t get in trouble, despite a rough pre-NFL background that he’s also turned around. I give him credit for that one, too. Maybe it’s time to accept that this man’s a player. Back in 2009 he caught a lot of the usual post-draft ‘He’s a one-year wonder bum and he’ll never amount to anything.’ It might be time for those folks to snack on a little roasted crow, because Ayers is exactly the kind of player that Coach D’s defense requires, and he’s fulfilling his role well. Knowing how to use your players is a talent that not every coach has.

By the way, there’s no question that I choose examples to show what I think is going on, so if someone accuses me of cherry-picking, they’re right - and if someone sees it differently, they can find and point out plays that demonstrate what they see. It’s worth considering that I choose them because they demonstrate things that I’ve seen often enough to have them stick in my head. The fact is, I’m seeing a lot more good examples than bad from Ayers, and that has a lot to do with my choices in these examples, too.

I became attached to David Bruton’s performance from the start because he had a 4.37 40 when he was at Notre Dame (that was 4.46 at Combine) and because of the obvious connection between him and his young son, Jared. When he came out, people talked about how raw he was, and how much talent (they always use the term ‘upside’ nowadays) he had. It’s showing. Oddly, there were a lot of folks who disliked the Rahim Moore pick, but not that many who disliked the Quinton Carter choice, although both put the nail in the coffin of Denver’s connection to Darcel McBath. Carter and Bruton remind me of each other - both are very tough, enjoy contact, are highly conditioned, extremely physical, both fast and quick, and both are capable of man coverage. Chris Harris has saved the Broncos' bacon at nickelback. Depth becomes a major issue, as Goodman and Bailey age.

By the way, every year players get a shot in training camp. I don’t disagree with those who right now feel that the Broncos need a powerful, motivating physical presence at MLB and it’s not Joe Mays. That’s so, but John Fox has a reputation for not playing rookies if he can help it and Nate Irving has needed to get used to NFL speed and contact on special teams. Neither D.J. nor Mays has shown that they’re up to the requirements of Denver’s scheme, which includes a speed-oriented role for the Mike in coverage that neither can handle. Irving has shown that skill at the top of the college level - whether or not he can take on the starting role is unknown right now, but given the issues with D.J. and Joe, Irving may get his shot as early as next year. To round out LB, Mike Mohamed isn’t likely to start in the next few years, but I wonder if he’ll work out down the road much as Bruton has - STs for a few years, then a shot at starting. He’s more of an effort guy, but he has some skills, too. He’s the kind of guy who finds a role for himself that maximize those skills or he doesn’t make it. Pretty much your basic 6th-round pick.

The Player You May Not Know Is a Bronco: Brian Iwuh, a 6’0” 235 lb LB. He grew up in Texas but was stolen by Colorado University. He spent his college years at Colorado and was awarded All-Big-12 Conference recognition his senior year. Iwuh was a UDFA with Jacksonville who stuck on for four years before being released following the 2010 Draft, and then was with the Chicago Bears from a month after that until November 29, 2011. Denver signed him on January 3.

Denver has a big mountain to overcome this coming weekend. I didn’t think that they’d do as well against Pittsburgh as they did. Willis McGahee has to have a better game - again, Fox is unlikely to play Jeremiah Johnson, who is a rookie in all practical ways, if he can avoid it. Maybe it’s time for some New England payback. Such a lovely thought....

Go Broncos!

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

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