What went wrong offensively for the Broncos in 2010?

I was recently asked by a couple of readers to discuss what went wrong with the offense of the 2010 Broncos.  It's too long of a story to be adequately told in a reply comment, so I decided to make a full post out of it.

If you asked Captain Obvious this question, he'd give you a really surface-level description, and end it with some nonsense about what most in the NFL think, with it probably revolving around deficiencies he sees in Kyle Orton and Knowshon Moreno, since everything revolves around the QB and the RB.  The real story is way over Jeff's head, of course, but here at IAOFM, we're dedicated to providing the best analysis you can find anywhere, even if that's not that hard to do.

Let's start with some offensive theory.  Is it better to run or to pass?  A lot of research indicates that passing is a more productive activity than running, and all of us at this website tend to believe in that research.

That doesn't mean that running the ball is a waste of time, not in the least.  It may be second priority, but it's still a priority.  Running the ball effectively makes it easier to throw the ball effectively, after all.  It also makes it easier for an offense to stay on schedule.

The concept of schedule on offense is very undermentioned by television analysts, but it's the most important factor to maximizing points scored and consistently possessing the football.  Staying on schedule simply means going from 1st-and-10 to 2nd-and-6 to 3rd-and-2.  If a team stays on schedule, it maintains a full set of options on every snap, to the extent that it can choose to either run or pass.

Back to that topic, sound offensive theory is very simple.  You should run when the defense thinks you're going to pass, and you should pass when the defense thinks you're going to run.  That sounds straightforward, but when it’s 3rd and 12, it’s hard to make the decision to run the ball, and it makes an offense both predictable and easily defensible.

The 2010 Broncos' offense was very extreme, in that it was very hard to defense them in some situations, while very easy to defense them in others.  This all had to do with not staying on schedule.  In this article, we’ll explore the root causes for this difficulty.

1.  The Offensive Line, as a group, was pretty bad in 2010.

This is where most of the problems stemmed from, and there’s not a great way to sugarcoat it.  LT Ryan Clady showed a lot of toughness in playing so quickly after having torn his patellar tendon, but he wasn’t his normal self.  Rookie C J.D. Walton had his share of struggles, too, particularly in pass protection.  Both Clady and Walton improved as the year progressed, so that portends well for 2011.

RG Chris Kuper had a bit of a down year as well, and  I attribute some of that to the struggles of Walton and whomever was playing RT in a given week.  Plus, for the first eight games LG was a total nightmare, between Stanley Daniels and Russ Hochstein.  Starting in Week 10 when Zane Beadles moved there - his natural NFL position - it was stabilized, and Beadles was an above-average starting guard as a rookie.  (Another good sign for the future, incidentally.)

RT was a problem area throughout the season.  Beadles struggled mightily there for the first eight games of the season, and when Ryan Harris finally returned to the lineup, he was a shell of his 2008 self.  Beadles lacks the feet and the arm length to play outside in the NFL, while Harris looked weak and soft in the running game and slower than he used to be in pass protection.

2. The offense had to max-protect way too frequently.

This relates to the struggles of the offensive line, as well as Kyle Orton’s well-documented struggles against pressure.  The Broncos had to frequently keep Daniel Graham and/or a RB in to help protect, and that limited their ability to hurt defenses with the short passing game.  It also became predictable, and defenses wouldn’t even pay much attention to Graham or the backs entering the pass pattern.  That allowed for more bracket coverage outside, which made it harder to hit the vertical pass routes that were very successful at many times of the season.

On a dedicated deep throw with a seven-step drop, it's okay to protect with six or seven guys, but you don't want to be max-protecting on 3rd and 8, when you're just trying to get eight yards and an inch.  Those fourth and fifth options in the pattern are often the ones to get that eight yards.  Wouldn't you rather see Eric Decker running a hook than Daniel Graham trying to help double a pass rusher?  Too often in 2010 the Broncos kept extra players in to block in questionable situations, and it was largely self-defeating.

3. The offense didn’t change the defense’s eye level effectively.

Again, this clearly relates to the first two issues, and you’re beginning to see how one problem can create another.  The concept of eye level has many applications in sports.  You can relate it to a pitcher throwing a 1-2 pitch high before coming back with a curveball low as an out pitch.  You can also talk about eye level vis-à-vis boxing, where if you hit a guy in his body enough, he’ll start watching that level and leave his chin open.  Even in football, if a QB gets hit a lot, he’ll start to look for the rush and not keep his eyes downfield.  (Both Jay Cutler and Kyle Orton are known for this at times, incidentally.)

I’m using the term eye level in a more abstract way here, and relating it to width and depth.  At the end of the day, there are only two approaches to offense in football.  There’s a vertical approach, and there’s a horizontal approach.  Mike Shanahan’s Broncos teams were consistently horizontal in their approach, and the current offensive structure, as seen under Josh McDaniels and Mike McCoy is a vertical approach. 

This doesn’t mean what most people think it means.  A vertical offense doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re deep ball crazy.  What it means is that you’re trying to influence the defense to back up vertically, in order to open up the running game and the short passing game.  Once they start sitting on that stuff, you go over the top and back them up again.  The pass routes tend to be offshoots of a 9 route (eg comeback, slant, post-corner, post, dig), because the whole concept is to back the defense up and then get them creeping forward.  Eventually, you’re getting guys in no-man’s land, and that’s when it all gets very interesting.

A horizontal approach is about getting the defense flowing from side to side and then killing them on the backside away from their flow at strategic times.  Inherent in the philosophy is the concept that you’re trying to make CBs be tacklers, and that defenders flowing horizontally will often lose their depth and round off their approaches to where they think the ball is going.  Defenders are again running themselves into no-man’s land.

The Broncos backed defenses up last season by playing vertically but didn’t attack them effectively enough in the short passing game to make them creep forward.  They also didn’t run the ball effectively enough to take advantage of the extra box space, but we’ll come back to that.

I think the main impediments to an effective short passing game were Kyle Orton’s lack of comfort with it, and play-calling that didn’t feature it - probably because the coaches realized that Orton isn’t too great on the short stuff.  The dip in Eddie Royal’s numbers since his rookie year shows it, and Orton hardly ever looks comfortable throwing a screen pass. 

If you want to know the difference between the passing scheme that McDaniels coached in New England and the one he had in Denver, it’s that Royal’s abilities weren’t fully leveraged the way Wes Welker’s are with the Pats, and also that the screen game is a lot less effective under Orton than New England’s is under Tom Brady.  (I discussed awhile back why Tim Tebow is better on screens than Orton - because he has more athletic feet and a better innate sense of timing - but that article was written on my old Wordpress site, which is now down.)

4. The running game was ineffective for the first half of the season, and wasn’t always committed to enough in the second half.

I mentioned the struggles of the offensive line before, but once the best five guys (Clady, Beadles, Walton, Kuper, Harris) were playing, the Broncos ran the ball much better than they had in the first half of the season.  A big part of it was a more-often healthy Knowshon Moreno in the second half, and Tim Tebow certainly helped over the last three games, but the line did a much better job later in the year.

Running helps with eye level, because if you’re good at it, you can force defenses to crowd the box and play either cover-3 or off-man with a single-high safety.  Running also keeps a team on schedule.  It’s a lot easier to make a first down on 2nd and 5 than it is on 2nd and 10.

The Broncos sometimes threw the ball deep even when the defense was clearly giving up the running game and short passing games.  The classic example was the Week 13 game at Kansas City, where Knowshon Moreno had 161 yards in the first 50 minutes of the game but never touched the ball on a handoff again, despite the Broncos trailing only 10-6.  Instead, the Broncos threw a bunch of downfield passes, despite the Chiefs’ insistence on doubling Brandon Lloyd and Jabar Gaffney outside with the two safeties.

Conclusion

You have to stay on schedule, and you have to be unpredictable.  The four factors listed above made it really difficult for the Broncos to do either thing consistently in 2010, and what could have been an excellent offense was rendered an average one at best.

The good news is that if Orlando Franklin can be an upgrade at RT, and Beadles and Walton can continue to improve in their second seasons, there’s real upside to be had on the offensive line.  If that upside is realized, then everything else will fall into place more neatly, vis-à-vis staying on schedule.

The Broncos can run the ball better with improved line play, and especially so if Moreno stays healthy and Tebow starts at QB.  There’s also upside to be had with Tebow at QB in terms of short passing and the screen game.  We’re admittedly talking about some serious “ifs”, but there’s reason to believe that this can all go in a better direction in 2011.

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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