What are the Broncos set up to do offensively in 2010?

The Denver offense is already confusing people and the year hasn’t even started yet. What’s going on with this? Posters from sites around the web have been weighing in on just what kind of team the Broncos have. Are they a power running team? They added some weight to the line, certainly, even if some of it comes in the form of rookies, each of whom will learn some lessons this year. Isn’t Denver built for ‘the spread’ (the idea being that there is only one, a belief that gets little support from coaches around the country)? Isn’t Denver a shotgun team? “Denver is looking to develop a power running game to make up for the passing game problems,” said one fan. Another simply wondered, “Denver’s offense is…....What?” It’s a good question.

And there, I think is the greatest misunderstanding that colors how people look at Denver’s offense (this principle goes for the defense, in degree as well). Is this offense built for the vertical game, for the spread, for the short pass, to run the ball, et cetera? Actually, what is this offense built for?

That’s the difficulty and it’s the advantage - it’s an offense built for versatility. It won’t be the same, year to year or even week to week, and that’s how it’s designed. That’s also why they call it the Amoeba Offense - it isn’t one thing. You hear ‘It’s a shotgun offense” and then Orton is under center more than half the time. You say that it’s a short pass offense - it sure looked like one last year - but there’s now, we are told, an emphasis on the longer, more vertical game this year. Which is it? Both - either - and more.

It’s fair to say that Josh McDaniels is disappointed in his own performance last year in terms of the play calling. He’s come right out and pointed the finger at himself, which is what a good coach generally does. He expects this year to be substantially different. Said he,

Offensively, there are some different things we’re doing to throw the ball downfield that we didn’t do last year. We’re going to try to be aggressive. That would be a very big word for us…I think we’ve changed quite a bit on both sides.

McDaniels expects an aggressive defense, much in the mold of Coach Martindale himself, who loves for ‘his guys’ to be very aggressive. “We’ve certainly added a few things that Wink is fond of that I feel very good about that we will see in September and October,” McDaniels said. “We may blitz a little bit more, but that’s his personality and I want him to be himself.”

McDaniels also commented that he expected the offense to be far more aggressive, and to work much more on the vertical game. He didn’t draft Demaryius Thomas to let him languish on the bench, and they aren’t keeping Matt Willis for his personality, pleasing as that’s reputed to be. McD wants speed, he wants to really stretch the field, push the vertical and the horizontal game and open up the field for the running backs to have their chances improved. He’ll be using the TEs for much the same thing - sometimes protecting, other times chipping and then on the next play to be running a route that takes advantage of the fact that he’s now (in theory) uncovered. You’ll even see the TEs run WR-type routes, especially on 4- and 5-receiver sets. The loss of Marquez Branson to a knee injury was a nasty surprise - but that’s why Rob Gronkowski was a good acquisition.  We’ll need someone who can both block and catch, and mostly one who can catch. In theory, that’s what we’ve got, although I haven’t seen him play enough to say anything direct.

Orton is finally healthy, and this year is probably his best chance so far to move up in the rankings and to show the NFL what he can do behind center. Preseason stats are often misleading, but he did manage to have a 139.9 QB rating on third down, and a 95.6 rating overall for the preseason. That’s pretty good, and his consistent scoring in the first half (which was all he got to play) speaks well for the regular season. Orton will need his new, young and very different front line to step up and keep giving him the time to throw. The receivers and coaches alike have commented on the improved accuracy that he’s throwing with this year. Behind him, in no current order, are Brady Quinn and Tim Tebow.

The wide receiving corps for this year has too many bandages and a vast array of players with different body (soma) types, skillsets and personalities. Demaryius Thomas was chosen in the late first round because despite the triple option offense that he played in (which emphasizes the running game in multiple ways), he can run fast, he’s big, he’s strong, and he’s picking up the routes and obligations of a WR in Denver quickly. He’ll need to be monitored to make sure that his foot and ankle remain strong and pain free. Eric Decker dropped his first in-game pass in Denver. Those who have that on tape might want to keep it - he may not drop another for a long time. He’s got remarkable hands. Eddie Royal has taken over the slot, and while he didn’t catch a ton of balls in his limited time there, he did show that the slot fits him and that he can be highly productive off of it. Brandon Lloyd has had a long-term habit of looking great in training camp and poor on game day. What’s different this year? He’s had a lot of long, heart-to-heart talks with Kyle Orton, the team’s quiet leader, and Lloyd has decided that he’s been denying himself by making those kinds of errors. He’s dedicated to changing that and becoming the receiver that he’s always had the skill to become. He’s shown circus catches, speed, elusiveness and talent, but he hasn’t put it to full use, and he’s determined to change that. I hope that he does. Mathew Willis is blazing fast and is showing good hands to go with, while Jabar Gaffney, who spent much of last season teaching those around him, may get a chance to be the player that he’s always been capable of being. In fact, that’s a theme among many of the players this year.

One of the things that fans often considered foolish or inappropriate was that Denver threw a large number of screens in 2009. This was especially true in the first 2/3 of the season, but it happened all year. Something that didn’t come out until much later was the issue of why that was happening - it was driving the fans to drink, (which many of them appreciated) but was otherwise frustrating as all heck. There was a belief that all the screens thrown were bubble screens, and that idea is not entirely accurate, but let’s take things one at a time. What about the issue of the screen pass - why was it thrown so much early on? Don’t you quit when a play doesn’t work?

There was a reason, and I find it to be a fair one. You might disagree or agree with it, but it’s still a fair point to be made. This is from the SI Vault, and to me, it explains a lot:

In every game, a defense will run coverages or rush from places the offense didn’t anticipate, and the quarterback is going to have to make a play in a split second. Last season (Note - 2008) McDaniels installed a misdirection screen that Matt Cassel had completed 29 out of 30 times with the Patriots in ‘08. The play drove McDaniels crazy in Denver. The back would run the wrong way, or the tackle would take a bad angle to the screen point and be late. Not until Week 13, against the Chiefs, did the Broncos run it perfectly; the result was a seven-yard touchdown from Orton to receiver Brandon Marshall.

There is an old saying that you have to walk before you run. I fully understood the feelings of my fellow fans who would explode in fury every time they saw that same old play that never quite worked. I can also understand Coach McDaniels’ perspective - if this team can’t throw a danged screen pass, and if the OL doesn’t hold up long enough for a 3-, much less a 5-step drop, you cannot move to a vertical passing game. It just isn’t going to work: The line isn’t creating enough time, and later we found that Orton was working on two bad wheels, which explained a great deal. There was an irritation with the short yardage play, which Brian over at MHR showed was more effective than it often seemed at the time, yet didn’t seem to work often enough to avoid the fans’ ire, and again - who can blame them? From a fan’s perspective, seeing a play or plays fail over and again is hair-pullingly, scream-at-the-screen tiresome. And yet, there’s a reason.

If Matt Cassel can run this misdirection screen play 29 out of 30 times, Denver has to develop enough communication, organization and developmental effort among the players to get it working somewhere before Week 13. You can point to the coaches, and you might be partly right, but the coaches didn’t false start, take a bad angle or run the wrong way. That’s on the players, and they kept blowing a lot of simple plays. You can’t expect your running back to gain a lot of yards if he’s already wearing two defensive players by the time he gets to the LOS. You can’t expect your QB to create magic and complete a long, accurate pass when he’s looking at the defensive team photo coming at him. It’s a simple play, and Denver just didn’t get it for a long time. The more I’ve watched (shudder) the last half of the 2009 season, the more it was clear that the mistakes that I saw in the first half of the season were constant, even when Denver was winning 6 straight. And, at the time, a certain number of wise fans pointed out that if they kept up those mistakes, those were going to catch up with them. They did.

You often did, as well, hear that all Denver did was bubble screens, and that statement has worn itself out somewhat. There are 4 screen plays, essentially. It might help to designate them, since Denver didn’t just throw bubble screens. There is the misdirection ‘screen’ listed above, and they ran other screens.  You will find that a lot of plays that are called bubble screens by fans and announcers are called that erroneously. A screen pass thrown to a running back is just called a screen, and I didn’t count it as labeled one way or the other (although you could). There are at least 4 types of wide receiver screens though - 5, if you count the two times or ways to run one of them - and again - not all screens to the WRs that Denver ran were bubble screens. The screens might as well be explained:

Slamming the Screen Door

1. The conventional or ‘slow’ screen

The slow screen in today’s football is the least commonly used screen, since it is hard to ‘sell’ the defense on and can often give itself away. This play requires a lot of timing and perfect execution; it involves a lot of deception. It is particularly effective against zone-defending teams and defensive linemen that get up the field causing separation. It is generally not effective against man-to-man as a linebacker immediately zeroes in on the running back. When attacking a zone defense, it has a lot of advantages - if it’s played right.

The quarterback, instead of taking his traditional 3- or 5-step drop, actually drops deeper to allow the defensive linemen to rush up the field farther. This also allows the linebackers to drop deeper into coverage which creates separation.

The offensive tackle to the side of the screen sets as if to pass block and then chops the defensive end—once again so the ball can be thrown over him. The guards and centers hold for a one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two count and then release to form a wall—usually to a landmark on the field.

The halfback stays in, fakes pass protection and then slips out to be the receiver. As you can see, it takes much timing and execution, but if you catch the defense in zone coverage, it can be an excellent play. Denver has suffered from it - defensively - and suffered from running it because for whatever reason, they don’t sell it well. That might be because Orton doesn’t 7-step drop that often, and it tips the defense. It could be a lot of things, many of them little things, but Denver isn’t selling it well enough, and their opponents aren’t buying, which has led to little or no gains.

2. The Tunnel Screen

The difference between the tunnel screen and more traditional slow screen to a running back is how quickly the wide receiver screen can get on top of a defense. In the more traditional version of the screen, a quarterback holds onto the ball while backpedaling to try and draw the defense further into the offensive backfield, before dumping it off to a back. One coach said that his linemen must recognize that they are not being blocked and react accordingly, just as in the slow screen.

Defensive players, especially linemen, are taught that if you’re rushing the passer and you’re unblocked, that may happen about once a year. Even if the OL effort is weak, you generally deal with some - you’re the guys taking up O-Linemen to keep your LBs clean. You’re not suddenly The Man. You’re being offered a gift - it’s the same one that the Greeks gave the Trojans, with a similar outcome.

In the tunnel screen, the quarterback takes at most a three-step drop. Other times, he will simply rise up and zip it out to a receiver cutting inside a block (sometimes called a smoke route), often catching the defense off guard. However, caution is required. By leaning toward his inside route in anticipation of the play, the targeted receiver can give it away to the defense. The WR must keep his center until the ball is snapped and then burst in, ready to receive the ball.

3. Jailbreak Screen Pass

The jailbreak screen is a wide receiver screen that involves the wide receiver coming back to the quarterback at the snap of the ball. The reason it’s called a jailbreak is because the offensive line releases automatically downfield to block. The offense uses a tight end or wide receiver to go away from the line of scrimmage to pick the outside receiver’s man. The linemen punch the defensive linemen to stop their initial charge then release downfield to form a wall. The offensive tackle stays in and chops the defensive end to get his hands down so that the ball can be thrown over the top of him. That’s particularly important if the QB, as has been the case with Orton over the years, tends to throw a slightly ‘flat’ ball over the line ‘scrum’. If the hands go up, the ball will potentially be tipped or even intercepted.

4. The Bubble Screens

The infamous and much-hated bubble screen is actually Bubble Screens, plural. What gives? Yes, there are two different situations in which a bubble screen is run, and they face different obstacles and can produce different results. Many thanks to SlowWhiteGuy over at MHR, who contributed greatly to this information.

Bubble screen vs. 3-deep or soft man-to-man

Used against the cover 2, the 3-deep or the soft man-to-man, this bubble screen is a wide receiver screen where the receiver actually ‘bubbles’ away from the line of scrimmage and the quarterback. It’s also very effective against today’s zone blitzes, so when the QB goes to the line and sees a ‘tell’ that the Z blitz is coming, he may audible to this play. The most common form involves the other wideout picking the defensive back and giving the receiver a chance to run after the catch. The wide receiver bubbles back to allow this to time out. This is a great route against a 3-deep zone or soft man-to-man if the outside defender is giving a cushion because the screen is caught so quickly that if done properly, there is little time for the defense to respond.

It’s a simple scheme, but the throw is not as easy as it looks. The quarterback must throw it accurately so the wide receiver can catch the football in full stride on his way toward the line of scrimmage and it’s too far from any defender for them to get their hands on it. A WR can see if the defender can tackle in the open field, if he’s a solid run-after-catch receiver, and turn him loose as you head for and grab the ball. Keep in mind, as a fan - this one has to be a touch pass and it has to be perfectly accurate. It’s heck to catch a full-on fireball when you’re running at the QB, so this pass isn’t for the cannon-armed young QB, but more for the players who have developed a touch pass as well as a faster pass that is still accurate. Denigrated as it has been in Denver, this play takes a lot of practice.

Bubble screen vs. zone blitz

The bubble screen is used to combat today’s zone-blitz schemes, and most teams, at this point, have added zone-blitz plays to their arsenal. The receiver catches the ball, and then turns to run downfield. If the defense blitzes and goes from a 2-deep hide to a 3-deep, it is a great play. Some offenses - really, some QBs who are smart and keep their eyes open and focused on the defense - will abort a running play and throw a bubble screen if the linebacker blitzes (shows any number of tells that he will be coming in fast). Denver, you might recall, had serious OL problems in 2009 and as a result they started to see almost constant blitzes. The only players who make the judgment of whether or not to use this screen are the wide receivers and quarterback. The offensive linemen and running backs actually go ahead and execute a running play, and that can loosen the defensive rush, as they see a running play also developing and can’t tell who to grab.  What the QB has done in the huddle is call two plays. The QB has to call the bubble play at the LOS, once he’s seen the defensive formation.

Running Backs

Most fans - about all - know that Knowshon Moreno is the primary ball carrier for Denver, even though he’s been fighting a bad hamstring since the first few days of camp. Correll Buckhalter also dealt with an injury - a ‘stinger’, in which a shooting pain comes from the neck down the arm, generally from a problem with the brachial plexus. He seems to be fine, and Denver hopes that he stays that way. Lance Ball showed his ability to step up in preseason, and will be a third option for Denver. In addition, they brought in Andre Brown, a promising 4th-round pick (Giants, 2009) who was kept off the field by recurrent injury problems. He’s healing up now, and may be able to help out the running game. At 6’0” and 225 lb, he’s a big load that hits hard. He tends to run too upright, and that will continue to exacerbate his injury problem until it’s fixed, but he’s a very good player who has worked on his blocking and receiving over the past two years, things that McDaniels prizes. Spencer Larsen is still listed as a LB/FB, but didn’t take any defensive snaps during the first three weeks of training camp (and i didn’t see a report after that). He’s now a FB who is also a ST ace. He’s been working on carrying the ball and on receiving, too. At 248 lb, he’s a lot to stop.

Tight Ends

The leader of this group continues to be Daniel Graham, a player who catches the ball well and blocks well. He’s followed by Richard Quinn, the player who came to Denver with the last pick of the 2nd round in 2009. He’s had trouble following the complexities of the playbook, but he’s a solid blocker in a league that needs more of them. Behind him is Dan Gronkowski, the 255th pick of the 2009 Draft. Gronkowski has had some injury issues, but he can block, is very strong, and he can also catch. He’ll be expected to improve his route running and technical skills, but for a 7th-round player, he may turn out quite well.

The Offensive Line

One of the biggest areas of concern for Denver has to be its offensive line. Oddly, this may not be a problem for long - the level of talent is very good. The issues are twofold - one is that Denver has two of the best bookend offensive tackles in the league, but Ryan Clady is coming off a knee surgery and Ryan Harris is recovering from multiple toe injuries including turf toe, and now has to deal with a sprained ankle. It’s not uncommon for that condition to take over a full season to heal, and he’s already having problems with it. Denver is weak at right tackle, too, making this a tough situation for all concerned. Denver has utility man Russ Hochstein, but rookie Zane Beadles (most of his experience was at LT) is most likely to take over for Harris. Clady says that he feels fine for the opener against Jacksonville, which is very good news. The LG slot has finally been taken over by 320 lb Stanley Daniels, while rookie JD Walton will be handling things at center. The word so far on him is that he’s doing very well.

The Offense in 2009

In Denver’s case, a second year with the same playbooks, systems and schemes are calculated to show substantial improvement. At the end of the first season, you go back, look at the errors and problems, talk to and show the assistants, position coaches, and coordinators exactly what the problems were or are and you have the time to fix them. It is that luxury of time that is perhaps the key: During the season, you have a short period of time - from Wednesday to Saturday - to install a scheme that is specific for a particular game. You can work on certain plays that you need, want or prefer, but as far as having the time to run a simple misdirection screen over and over and over, with the RB moving the wrong way, or the tackle takes a bad angle to the screen point or the guard defends the wrong gap and leaves one open marked “Highlight Reel Tackle”, with a linebacker or defensive end pounding his way on through. The point isn’t so much the number of ways to foul up the play - impressive as they were - but the importance of recognizing that even plays that fans consider ‘simple’, misdirection or not, are often, in fact, very hard to carry off properly. Until the team can walk, they can’t run, and until they can run, they can’t run anyone over. All of the screams, boos, arguments or fury that a fan base can raise won’t get the team to put together better plays until they have come together as a group. Call it chemistry - that’s in there. Call it basic - those are a part of it too. Call it essential, though, because until they can put together the things that become the team’s bread and butter, adding hollandaise won’t do anything but gum up the works. That was the essence of the Broncos’ problem last year. Time after time, they put themselves in position to win the game, and made the mistakes that made sure that didn’t happen. It’s common among teams making major changes (changing head coach, GM, coordinators, most of the coaching staff and most of the players pretty much qualifies) that major mistakes also come with the package. The younger the starters - or just the more young starters - the more this will happen as well.

The Offense in 2010:

From Josh McDaniels:

“I think we’ve changed quite a bit on both sides.” (Suggestion: He’s not kidding).

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

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