The defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos entered the 2016 season with a revamped offensive line, ready to take on the tough defenders of the AFC West. They enter the season looking to improve and allow fewer pressures and sacks compared to 2015, and will rely on new additions all across the line. Brandon Thorn once again goes Under the Microscope, Denver Broncos offensive line edition.
LeCharles Bentley made a statement at the inaugural Offensive Line Performance clinic this summer that stuck with me. In reference to OL play, he instructed the people in attendance to “Appreciate the craftsmanship” of the position. It resonated with me because it is what I attempt do each time I study tape, and it’s something that frankly isn’t done enough. Too often we look for the “what” rather than taking a step back to appreciate the “why” and “how.”
There is a tremendous amount of nuance that goes into every play for every position that is all too often overlooked. This is the context surrounding each play, and the more of it that we can gather as evaluators the more accurate our assessments become.
- Regarding offensive line play, it is important to factor in whether or not they are home or away. Playing on the road in a hostile environment often affects how quickly offensive linemen come out of their stance due to crowd noise, so they are operating from a deficit as soon as the ball is snapped, giving an advantage to the defensive line.
- Analyzing the stance of a lineman is important as well, because we know when a stance is awkward there is a deficiency somewhere in the player’s body. Is the player’s heel raised on his back foot? If so, chances are his ankle lacks mobility to achieve full flexion, causing him to play on his toes. Nobody is as strong or balanced playing on their toes as they are on the entire foot.
- Drive-catch phase(TM). Once the stance is evaluated, the next step is to take a look at how the player comes out of that stance. Is it purposeful, deliberate, and violent? Or is it a bit lackadaisical and labored? Utilizing deliberate intent to drive out of the stance as opposed to stepping out of the stance sets the offensive lineman up for success. Each snap needs to begin with this violent intent, or else the rest of the play becomes a catch up game, and against the superior athletes who make up defensive lines, it is a recipe for failure.
Each play is a war of the offense vs. the defense, but there are many battles occurring that determine victory or defeat on a given play.
As we move into the 2016 NFL regular season I will be expanding the Under the Microscope series from individual players to an evaluation of position groups and scheme. There will still be plenty of individual analysis done, but it will more often fall under the umbrella of specific position groups. First up is the revamped Denver Broncos offensive line and their Week 1 performance against the Carolina Panthers in a rematch of Super Bowl 50.
Prior to the 2015 season, starting left tackle Ryan Clady went down in the preseason with a torn ACL, prematurely forcing rookie LT Ty Sambrailo into the starting lineup. Despite having to shuffle the offensive line and rely on a rookie to protect QB Peyton Manning’s blindside, the front office signed veteran LG Evan Mathis just prior to the season. This helped stabilize the left side of the line, while providing Sambrailo a veteran presence on his flank.
In Week 3, disaster struck again as Sambrailo went down with a torn labrum. He dressed from Weeks 4-7 but didn’t start, and was placed on injured reserve after Week 7. This forced the Broncos to move starting right tackle Ryan Harris to the left tackle position, and backup right tackle Michael Schofield into the starting lineup. The interior three of Mathis, center Matt Paradis, and right guard Louis Vasquez remained unchanged throughout the season.
Miraculously, with this offensive line, the team was able to overcome injury and inexperience to win Super Bowl 50. Make no mistake, the championship was won because of the Herculean effort of the defense, and in spite of the offensive line. Often in scouting you ask yourself a series of questions about certain players to help put into perspective their worth to your team, “Can I win because of this player? With this player? Or in spite of this player?” The 2015 Denver offensive line was a patchwork unit that was the Achilles’ heel of the offense the entire season, and had to consistently be bailed out by the defense.
Week 1 – 2016
Fast-forward to Week 1 of the 2016 season in a Super Bowl rematch against the Carolina Panthers. The offensive line has four new opening-day starters – LT Russell Okung, LG Max Garcia, RG Schofield, and RT Donald Stephenson, along with a new quarterback in Trevor Siemian. Siemian’s style and skill set presents additional challenges for the offensive line coupled with their unfamiliarity with one another.
Things were fairly predictable with Manning last season in terms of the structure of the pocket, but Siemian moves pockets, uses bootlegs, and play-action which increases the volatility of the blocking scheme. Having to account for a quarterback who can go mobile at any time, and whose mobility is featured into an offense makes things tricky for linemen. Suffice to say there were major challenges for the Broncos’ OL in the opener, but their performance was admirable. Let’s dive into the specifics of what made Week 1 special for the men up front in Denver.
After watching the offensive line live, the most impressive individual performance belonged to Okung, and after watching the game again on the all-22 copy, his performance became even more profound.
Context: 1st quarter with 14:08 on the clock, it’s the first drive of the game and the offense is facing a 3rd down and 12 from its own 36-yard line. Okung (#73) has Carolina DE Mario Addison (#97) lined up across from him in a wide 9 technique with LB Thomas Davis (#58) sugaring the B gap in front of his face.
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Let’s break this down to uncover the high level of coordination, balance, and nuance Okung demonstrates that is often lost at first glance.
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First, we need to establish the three rule of pass protection:
- Get out of stance
- Create space
- Obtain/maintain a half-man relationship
Okung accomplishes all three steps of pass protection on this snap. Everything that happens on a given snap for an offensive lineman is based off of how they get out of their stance. Explosive, deliberate movement is crucial for success. As an offensive lineman how you start is how you finish, and starting with violent intent is key.
Once Okung drives out of his stance, he has space created for himself so that he can react decisively. Without space in pass protection offensive linemen are put in an unwanted predicament; they have to play athlete with a defensive lineman, and usually that’s an uphill battle that should be avoided at all costs.
*In the run game space is not an offensive lineman’s friend, you want to eliminate it using the same idea of driving forcefully out of your stance. Notice how the technique is the same for run and pass? You use the drive-catch phase to start all movement as an offensive lineman.
While space is not your friend in the run game, in pass protection, at least initially, it is your best friend, especially as an offensive tackle. Once space is obtained, there is room to ensure the half-man relationship is secured, and from there it becomes much easier to maintain it throughout the snap.
Okung displays outstanding feel on this snap, namely right before contact is initiated by an inside strike with his right hand. You can only coach up a player to an extent before instinct takes over and he has to get the job done by any means necessary. A good coach provides the correct movements and knowledge, but at the end of the day the player must execute.
Purposeful practice to develop a robust understanding of the way your body moves in different planes and angles must take place to master one’s own body. When players are put in uncomfortable positions on the football field – an unavoidable occurrence – they will fall back on ingrained movement patterns that are instinctual. These programs are inputted into the mind and body through perfect practice reps. Once a player is stressed on the offensive line, that is when you can decipher how truly skilled they are. Okung is stressed once the pass-rusher uses a straight/long arm technique, but because of the snap-to-finish efficiency on display, his reaction is smooth. This sort of thing is art, and a product of years of diligent work, and should be appreciated by football fans more.
Context: 2nd quarter with 14:30 on the clock. It’s 1st and 10 with the offense on its own 35-yard line. Carolina is up 7-0. The offense is in 20 personnel, and runs ISO to the short side of the field.
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This is an excellent display of team blocking, stemming from the ACE block executed by Paradis (#61) at center and LG Garcia (#76). Garcia does an excellent job of generating force on the shaded nose tackle Star Lotulelei (#98) prior to releasing to the second level, which effectively allows Paradis to overtake. Once Garcia releases he takes care of LB Luke Kuechly (#59).
Rookie FB Andy Janovich (#32) is tasked with sealing whoever shows up in the B gap, which ends up being Davis, who is scraping over the top to fill. Janovich wins at the point of attack by out-leveraging Davis, and working his hips around to wall Davis off from the runner’s path.
Okung explosively drives out of his stance and has good flexion at the ankle/hip, obtaining superior leverage at the point of attack on DE Kony Ealy (#94). This allows Okung to uncoil his hips, extend, and drive Ealy outside, solidifying a massive hole for RB C.J. Anderson (#22) to run through. The play design called for a wide receiver crack block on the safety, which WR Demaryius Thomas (#88) carries out beautifully. The result is a 28-yard gain for the offense and a superb demonstration of team blocking.
Context: 1st and 10 in the 2nd quarter, Denver has the ball with 3:01 on the clock on its own 25-yard line. Carolina is up 14-7.
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Let’s focus on the left side of the offensive line, which does a brilliant job with its individual assignments. A missed cut block spoils the outcome, but despite just a 2-yard gain from the runner, this sort of overall execution is the lifeblood of head coach Gary Kubiak’s scheme – outside zone – which is very promising.
LG Garcia’s play strength is his most defining trait, and it’s on full display here vs. a good player in Lotulelei. Garcia gets minimal help from Paradis, and uses very good square power while moving laterally to move Lotulelei off of his spot by nearly five yards. Good inside hand placement, and a great drive-catch phase off the ball leads to a really impressive block for the second-year pro out of Florida.
Paradis is one of the most savvy run blockers in the NFL. Even though his play strength is below average, his quickness and dexterity often overcomes any deficiencies he may have strength wise. Here he is working laterally down the line of scrimmage assisting Garcia, but carefully peeking inside to pick off any backside pursuit. Paradis peels back just in time to get excellent placement with his outside hand on Kuechly (#59), and showcases very good balance and to regain his footing and stunt the star linebacker’s pursuit. Most centers aren’t recovering as fluidly as Paradis does here.
In last year’s Super Bowl, Ealy had the best game of his career going against then-Broncos LT Ryan Harris. In this game he was manhandled several times by a healthy Okung. After dealing with a nagging shoulder injury throughout the 2015 season, and having surgery after dislocating it late in the year, Okung’s health has returned in a big way.
When fully healthy, Okung is an elite talent at the left tackle position. He is turning just 28 this season, and if he can remain relatively healthy he could provide Denver with a true steal in free agency.
On this snap, Okung performs a perfect display of hit, lift, and drive. At the point of attack Okung is much lower than Ealy, getting underneath his pads and unlocking his ankles and hips to drive him off the spot with ease. Ealy actually goes airborne before attempting to spin inside toward the ball. Okung, being in total control, uses Ealy’s momentum against himself for the pancake.
Okung’s skill set is extremely well-rounded, capable of excelling in a gap or zone scheme, as well as in pass protection. It is a far cry from what the Broncos had last season and is a real weapon for this offense moving forward.
Here is a clip of the right side of the offensive line executing two combo blocks to near perfection:
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Here are bonus examples of Okung’s athleticism, competitive toughness, smarts, and play strength in two separate clips:
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The level of upgrade at left tackle for the Broncos this season compared to last cannot be overstated. Now it’s just a matter of keeping the unit intact and healthy so that they can build chemistry as the season goes on. For their first performance together, against an elite NFL front seven, you really couldn’t ask for more than they put out.
Follow Brandon on Twitter @VeteranScout. Read more of his work here, including his look at the wonder that is Joe Thomas, an explanation of why Doug Free is underrated, and his piece on Denver Broncos defensive end Shaq Barrett here.
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Film courtesy of NFL Game Pass