B/R EXCLUSIVE: Anemic Broncos Screen Game by the Numbers (Pt. II)

Chaz MattsonAnalyst IMarch 18, 2010

In part two of this article we will explore more deeply the net affect and results that the screen game has had on the Denver Broncos offensive scheme. If you have not yet looked at part one of those statistics I suggest you do that first before reading this article.

Secondly, I wish you all the best of luck on your NCAA March Madness Brackets!

Alright, let’s get down to business.

The Starting Point

So here is the starting point in understanding the role of the Broncos' screen game, especially within the context of Josh McDaniels' offensive scheme. The key is to understand the ideology of the offense prior to dissecting the shortfalls.

Much of the Broncos offense is predicated on the spread offense in the way it works to pressure defenses into playing certain defenses or be forced into certain sets.

The icing on the cake this season was the breakout of the “wild horses” offense, which was used sparingly, but forced defenses into vanilla coverage and kept them honest for the remainder of the game. 

The Broncos' screen game is intended to pressure defenses, primarily on the outside perimeter, and create one-on-one situations and “jail breaks” with the outside bubble packages. Bubble screens in their origin were highly successful, in particular at the Texas high school football level.

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The idea is to put the ball on the outside of the field as quickly as possible, taking the core of the defense out of the play initially. The hope is to create something big.

The Broncos downfield passing game is successful for the most part; however, it is nearly exclusively a short and controlled passing attack. The short passing template has made it easier for defenses to start defending this sort of attack since they know the vast majority of passes will remain in front of the defense and not behind it. 

This makes it much more manageable for a defense to position itself to more or less bend and not break in conceding certain routes. The defensive hope is to cause breakdowns that lead to greater breakdowns and longer yardage situations.

How many times were the Broncos in third and long this season? Quite a bit, if memory serves correctly.

With those thoughts, it’s time to analyze the situation for what it is.

No Where to Run

In a nutshell, when the bubble screen game breaks down, there is literally no where to run to. If the bubble screens remain a staple, instead of complementary, to the offensive scheme it becomes too predictable and easier to defend than most offensive play selections. 

This happens in part because offenses have to get highly creative in their formation sets to not tip off the defense of an impending bubble screen. If the screens are over-used the defense can essentially construct a man-zone coverage scheme that serves as a bubble buster team. 

That is precisely what the Broncos ran into a great deal of the time they chose to run the bubble screens. With that came fewer yards, less first downs, and a look of failed execution. That is exactly where the scheme itself needs to be accountable for the end result.

The accountability of Josh McDaniels' offensive scheme and play calling should be under further review at this point. Not only do defensive bubble buster teams work to stop the offensive bubble packages, they also work against traditional screens.

So when the team fails to stretch the field, defenses can key off of that, and essentially create a solid zone of coverage for 10-15 yards that spans the width of the field. Defenses can then key on the predictability of the offense, and they are then able to put more pressure on the offense, essentially daring them to go down field. 

When the Broncos found themselves in this situation against the Ravens and Steelers in particular, the team failed to stretch the field and chose to force their predictable play calling.

That is fact, not fiction.

That is Josh McDaniels' stern pride driving the undefeated Broncos into the ground, much like an overpaid executive at the helm of a failing corporation.

Maybe you don’t see that yet...or maybe you do, and you want to give Josh time to work out the kinks.

Fair enough.

This article is designed intently to help you, the fans, know with absolute certainty if the Broncos are making the proper adjustments or not next season.

If the Broncos make adjustments across the board with their offensive scheme they will prove themselves to have overcome these deficiencies. If the team fails, however, which at this juncture appears to be more likely, it might be time to turn up the heat on the organization to right the ship.

Some Glaring Numbers

There are some very astounding numbers regarding the Broncos' screen game that really standout on their own.

In looking at the composite screen score, it’s really a grade which is based on a percentage that the plays run netted a minimum of desired yardage to be considered satisfactory. The minimum yards desired is set at five, partially because it’s a change of pace play, and partially because screens are pass plays.

Keep in mind your grade in any class you have ever taken. The Broncos only cleared the Mendoza line of 60 three times. The Broncos had a screen composite of 60 against Dallas, 62 at the Ravens, and 60 against the New York Giants. Two of those games resulted in Broncos victories against the Cowboys and the Giants.

Against the Baltimore Ravens a unique phenomenon in football occurred. Instead of stretching the field through the air the Broncos actually compressed it through the screen game. This was part of the fallout in going up against a desperate Ravens defense that had to have a win. 

The Broncos failed to throw the ball deep, and allowed the attacking Ravens defense to sit in a tight, short zone that seemed to be in tune with the offenses every move.

So, getting back to the composite scores, anything in the range of a 60-70 is universally recognized as a “D” grade. The Broncos had three “D’s” all season long, and they are recognized as their best scores on the season. Here is the full grade report on the Broncos' screen score.

Composite Screen Scores & Grades 

@ Bengals (50), (F)

Browns (50), (F)

@ Raiders (25), (F-)

Cowboys (60), (D)

Patriots (33), (F-)

@ Chargers (50), (F)

@ Ravens (62), (D)

Steelers (33), (F-)      

Washington (57), (F)

NY Giants (60), (D)

@ Chiefs (54), (F)

@Colts (50), (F)

Raiders (33), (F-)

@Eagles (47), (F-)

Chiefs (57), (F)

What these grades reflect is that the combination of a high completion percentage, or even a fair number of yards attained, was not enough to sustain drives. The offensive drives had a number of breakdowns, but having things like screens and bubble screens fail only compounded any other issues with the offense. 

So here are the exact numbers. The Broncos got either a first down or a touchdown from their screen game on exactly 21 of the 116 plays they ran. That works out to 5.52 percent of the time that the Broncos were bailed out by the screen game directly.

Put it this way, if you play Texas Hold ‘Em Poker, in some instances you have a greater shot of hitting the long odds river card than the Broncos offense has at converting a screen for a first down or a touchdown.

That is a very hard stat to look at; it’s a bitter pill to swallow.

It is the very definition of anemic and failure.

Hold on to your chinstrap Bronco fans, it gets worse...much worse.

Remember all those bubble screens that the fans would call into the local radio shows screaming “get rid of them!”? Well, it turns out the fans (the amateurs who aren’t paid a dime, but pay to see this garbage happen, mind you) were exactly right.

In this case, there is no question about it; you are much better hitting the river card than seeing the Broncos get a first down. The Broncos got exactly three first downs and zero touchdowns off of the bubble packages they ran this year, a total of 35 plays. 

That puts the conversion percentage at .086 percent; put your money on the river card and not the Broncos' screen game. That statistic is a long way from the 25 percent chance that each play has on potential alone for a first down to occur on any given down.

Step back for a moment and look at it this way: The Broncos did not get a first down on 95 of their total screen plays run. Over half of those could have been different play selections instead of what they wound up being: wasted plays. That works out to an average of nearly three wasted screen plays per game. 

Now take that thought one step further.

If a quarterback and center have three fumbled exchanges during a game, something is usually done to get one or both players out of the game. So the question that needs to be asked is: why are these plays schemed like they are when they have clearly and repeatedly set the team up for constant failure?

A unique contrasting piece of information is that the Broncos opponents ran 14 bubble screens to the Broncos 35. That does not happen without reason; teams should not over-use those sorts of plays as the Broncos did.

Considering the Bigger Bowl

The stats speak for themselves, but how do these things statistically fit into the larger scheme of things? The Broncos gained 3,627 yards through the air in 2009, from that 706 of those yards were from the screen game, which makes the screen game just under 20 percent of the passing yards gained. 

The Broncos attempted 558 passes, with 116 of them coming directly from the screen game—which is nearly 21 percent of the attempts.

One out of every five plays is not necessarily a bad ratio; the statistics show that there is nothing special coming out of the Broncos' screen production. Yes, there were big screen plays, however, only seven of the screen plays went for gains over twenty yards. 

From that extraction, Correll Buckhalter had five of the seven, with Brandon Marshall having one, and Knowshon Moreno with one as well. That stat alone shows that the bubble package has not being paying off in this offense.

Consider the fact that Brandon Marshall was the third leading receiver in the NFL with 1,120 yards and 10 touchdowns. Marshall alone accounted for nearly one fifth of the team's total yards, and about 31 percent of the Broncos' passing game...all without a single turnover in 2009. 

Certainly he could be perceived as being over-used; imagine what the Broncos production numbers without Marshall would be like. It would put them at the bottom of the league, hands down. 

So, while the concept of team should always be in the locker room, when a team puts that type of pressure on a guy to produce, perhaps it gets a little easier to understand B-Marsh on the field. 

The reality is that despite being double and triple teamed all season long Brandon Marshall produced those numbers over the course of fifteen games. The cold hard fact on Brandon Marshall is that he has held up his end of the bargain, whereas Josh McDaniels and Pat Bowlen have not. 

Yes there is the off-field drama, and the unfortunate details of what happened the night Darrent Williams was murdered. 

The thing Brandon Marshall’s numbers indicate this season is that he has had to grow up quickly, but he held up his end of the business. The numbers indicate that Marshall is a player in transition on and off the field, and is assuming responsibility. He has taken on the challenge. 

That is the thing the Broncos have unfortunately overlooked, and are unfortunately letting down the fan base in making the former regime the scapegoat. By contrast, Red Miller worked with the pieces he inherited, and reached the Super Bowl in his first season.

The 2009 Broncos might not have been a Super Bowl team, but trashing every player associated with the Shanahan era is highly disrespectful and non-professional—there are far better ways to change the psyche of professional football teams. 

So, if the Broncos do deal Brandon Marshall it’s their prerogative. It will, however, be a much larger gap to fill than they are anticipating.

Additionally, the Broncos are likely to shed Tony Scheffler as well—another productive player who was largely under-utilized in the pass game.

Scheffler is a two-way street. He needs to focus more on blocking, and the team he is with next year will largely benefit from his skill set. He has great hands, and runs great routes for a tight end, all while creating mismatches.

A Failed Screen Game Translates to Pressure

The Denver Broncos finished 13th in offense during the 2009 season, which is respectable. However, their rating slipped to 16th in total first downs. 

Kyle Orton is largely responsible for the Broncos only throwing 13 interceptions, tied with four other teams for seventh in the NFL.  The Broncos were fortunate to finish +7 in the turnover battle.

Denver gave up 34 sacks as well, basically twice what they allowed the year previously with Jay Cutler. This clearly shows how teams were able to scheme against the Broncos and reach Kyle Orton with relative ease.

Additionally, the Broncos only threw 43 deep balls over 20 yards, a full 21 shy of the league leader and AFC West Division rival San Diego Chargers. That failure to stretch the field just a little more proves to be a big difference in scheming against the Broncos.

The Net Result

In the end, the screen game is a phase of the game. It’s essential to execute in this area if a team expects to give itself an opportunity to win.

In the case of the 2009 Denver Broncos, they showed a deficiency in keeping drives going. The number of drives stalling out has direct correlation to play selection, situational calls, a lack of execution, gaining fewer yards than needed, failing scheme implementation against certain defenses, and poor quarterback play. 

Now, having said that much, it’s all part of football, so the Broncos need to better anticipate the situations they will be up against in the future. 

If the Broncos are going to succeed in 2010 and beyond in the screen game, the plays must become less predictable, more timely, have greater execution, and have an output that leads to more first downs to sustain drives. That alone would take pressure off the run and downfield passing game.

In the Bonus  

Those who think Brady Quinn is the answer might need to rethink that position at least a little bit. Part of why the Broncos have failed recently has been because of the failure in short yardage.  Some of that is scheme, some of it is personnel, and all of it is execution... whether real or in theory.

It’s sort of ironic that short yardage issues continued under Josh McDaniels, and he failed to utilize fullback Peyton Hillis to his potential. It's possible Hillis could have been, or may eventually become, a thousand yard Mike Alstott type of fullback. More importantly than that, Hillis was not used in key short yardage situations. 

Even though Josh McDaniels failed to use Hillis outside of garbage time, Peyton proved his worth in Kansas City, as he helped the Broncos drain eight minutes off the clock late in the game, when everyone in the stadium knew the Broncos would be running the ball. All he did was pick up first down after first down and help his team run out the clock.

Yet somehow Josh McDaniels missed the boat and failed the fan base in the process. In trading Peyton Hillis to the Cleveland Browns, Coach McDaniels solidified that he supposedly knows more than everyone else by trading him to get unproven Brady Quinn.  

In all likelihood, unless large gaps in failed execution are covered on the offensive side of the ball, it may wind up being a year too late for Josh’s own good.

So while Peyton Hillis may not be the answer to all of the Broncos' past offensive ills, he will be severely missed by the fans, especially during a few short yardage situations. The problem is Josh may never know by how much, or even why he should have kept Hillis in Denver, but the fans will know. 

So when the Broncos fail in short yardage next season, Josh will have no excuse, and will have by that time exhausted all of his options, along with his welcome in Denver.   

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