Denver Broncos' Use of 12 Personnel Opening Up Holes for RB Ronnie Hillman

Cecil Lammey@@cecillammeyContributor IOctober 15, 2014

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - OCTOBER 12: Sheldon Richardson #91 and Dawan Landry #26 of the New York Jets attempt to tackle Ronnie Hillman #23 of the Denver Broncos in the third quarter at MetLife Stadium on October 12, 2014 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.  (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

The Denver Broncos have an offense that has accomplished a lot over the last few years with quarterback Peyton Manning under center. They are one of the most pass-happy teams in the NFL because of their elite quarterback. However, the Broncos have tried multiple times this year to have a balanced offensive attack.

They’ve tried to run the ball better this year, but had not yet had a 100-yard rusher in 2014 entering the Week 6 game against the New York Jets.

In 2012, the Broncos had five 100-yard rushers. In 2013, they had only two 100-yard rushers as Manning passed for single-season records with 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns.

Broncos 100-yard Rushers in Manning Era
PlayerYearWeekOpponentRushing Stats
Willis McGahee20122Atlanta Falcons22 carries, 113 yards
Willis McGahee20124Oakland Raiders19 carries, 112 yards
Willis McGahee20128New Orleans Saints23 carries, 123 yards
Knowshon Moreno201214Oakland Raiders32 carries, 119 yards
Knowshon Moreno201215Baltimore Ravens22 carries, 118 yards
Knowshon Moreno201312New England Patriots37 carries, 224 yards
Montee Ball201313Kansas City Chiefs13 carries, 117 yards
Ronnie Hillman20146New York Jets24 carries, 100 yards
ESPN Stats & Inc.

Third-year running back Ronnie Hillman became the team’s first 100-yard rusher of this season. It was the first start of his pro career, and Hillman responded with a 24-carry, 100-yard performance.

On Monday, Broncos head coach John Fox was complimentary of Hillman’s big day.

“I think he prepared very hard. One thing from a long time of doing this is they go hand in hand—how you prepare in practice is usually how you perform, so he had an excellent week. He was the next man up so to speak when [RB] Montee [Ball] went down, and I thought he responded well.” Fox continued, “A lot of moving parts go into that, but I think he worked and did his part and had a good day.”

Ronnie Hillman Rushing Stats vs. New York Jets
Play DirectionCarriesYardsYards by Play
Middle9511,11,4,2,26,4,0,3,0
Right End2131,12
Right Tackle52710,3,8,2,4
Right Guard323,2,-3
Left Tackle252,3
Left End320,0,2
ESPN Stats & Inc.

Hillman has largely been a disappointment during his time with the Broncos, so how did he produce at such a high level in Week 6? Let’s take a look at the way the Broncos are helping to jump-start the ground game with Hillman as the lead back.

Shotgun Formation

The Broncos spend a lot of time in “11” (one running back, one tight end, five skill position players assumed) out of the shotgun formation. They like to spread the field with the passing game, and this spreads out the defense charged with slowing them down.

Below we see the Broncos' first running play against the Jets. As Hillman gets the ball, you can see he has three rushing lanes in front of him.

NFL.com - Game Rewind

This picture shows that rushing lane No. 2 is the best lane for Hillman. His body is even leaning toward lane No. 2 in this screen shot. For some reason, Hillman decides to bounce to his left for rushing lane No. 1. The play goes for a meager gain of two yards.

NFL.com - Game Rewind

The highlighted play wasn’t the only time that Hillman showed a lack of vision. The team is likely showing Hillman the same thing in their film study. Early in the game, Hillman wanted to dance too much behind the line of scrimmage instead of committing and hitting the hole as fast as possible.

12 Personnel With a Twist

Denver has a nice trio of tight ends they can turn to. Julius Thomas is leading the NFL with nine receiving touchdowns this year. He’s arguably the best tight end in the game today, and he’s a playmaker who creates mismatches every time he’s on the field.

Virgil Green is one of the most versatile players on the roster. Originally known as a receiving weapon in college for Colin Kaepernick at Nevada, Green has developed into a quality blocker and all-around tight end. He can also receive a few carries out of the backfield from time to time.

Jacob Tamme has the longest established chemistry with Manning from their playing days together with the Indianapolis Colts. The team can ask Tamme to do pretty much anything ranging from playing tight end, blocking, lining up at slot receiver or playing on special teams.

The Broncos will sometimes use “12” (one running back, two tight ends) personnel in an effort to boost the ground game. In recent weeks, they are now using a unique twist on the formation.

Veteran offensive tackle Paul Cornick is now lining up as a tackle-eligible player. He’s a tackle, and the Broncos are using him in a power formation rather than using two actual tight ends. The addition of Cornick opened up the biggest runs for the Broncos in the game against the Jets.

This picture shows a fairly frequent formation with Cornick lined up next to Julius Thomas. His job on this play is to get to the second level to block linebacker David Harris. Cornick does on this play, and there is a nice hole opened up behind him. Again, Hillman shows a lack of vision and runs to the middle of the formation for a gain of three yards.

NFL.com - Game Rewind

Here again is Cornick and Thomas lined up side by side. At the snap, Cornick is going to kick outside while Thomas moves across the field to clean up the back side of the play.

NFL.com - Game Rewind

Again, three lanes open up in front of Hillman. He chooses lane No. 2, but he fails to see the linebacker crashing in and only picks up a yard. Hillman should have noticed Cornick pushing his man out of the way to create a huge hole on the left side of the formation.

NFL.com - Game Rewind

Here we see Hillman’s longest carry in the game against the Jets. Before Hillman gets the rock, we see Thomas moving to his left as Cornick kicks out to the right. It’s a counter play essentially, and Hillman is meant to follow Thomas.

NFL.com - Game Rewind

This picture shows Hillman running to the left/middle for a gain of 26 yards. He fumbled at the end of this run, but wide receiver Andre “Bubba” Caldwell fortunately recovered. Hillman’s success on this play had to do with the defensive front, but it also had to do with his decisiveness as he took the handoff.

NFL.com - Game Rewind

In this final screen shot, we see the biggest run of the day for Juwan Thompson. The rookie is more decisive than Hillman as he can’t afford to dance in the backfield. Here we see him follow the block of Cornick for a 16-yard gain.

NFL.com - Game Rewind

The extra tackle as an eligible receiver (12 personnel with a twist) is something the Broncos experimented with in 2012 with Chris Clark lining up as that extra player. That wrinkle in the formation has returned this year with Cornick playing as that extra man on the line.

Summary

Hillman outperformed the expectations of most fans and analysts with his performance in Week 6. Based on the film breakdown, there were more yards there for Hillman on the ground. With better vision and determination, Hillman could produce even better numbers.

After the Jets game, Manning had a great explanation for the team’s production on the ground.

“The way the Jets played us, my guess was, they didn’t think much of our running game coming into the game. When you take your two linebackers and walk them both out on your two receivers, they’re basically kind of laughing at your running game. Based on what we’ve been doing, it was probably a valid philosophy.”

Manning also gave his insight into Hillman’s (and Thompson’s) performance. “It was good to get the running game kind of going today. I thought Ronnie (Hillman) ran the ball well. I thought Juwan (Thompson) had a couple of good runs. Like I said, if we can just eliminate those negative plays and those penalty plays where the run is a threat, then I think it’s important to have that balance.”

Balance is the name of the game for the Broncos this year—for better or worse. Even though they seemed to abandon balance against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 5, the balanced attack they’ve been striving for returned against the Jets.

So long as they can succeed on the ground, their balanced attack is here to stay.

All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/statistical information provided via email from the Denver Broncos unless otherwise noted.

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