The Osweiler Effect

With the Broncos turning to Brock Osweiler for his first NFL start on Sunday at Chicago (on his 25th birthday, no less), let’s take a look at what effect he will have on a struggling offense. 

1. Defenses have been crowding the line of scrimmage (LOS) and the middle of the field with their coverages, scheming to take away the short passing game, throws to the middle of the field, and the running game.

With Manning having to depend more and more on an ever-decreasing number of throws he could make consistently, the Broncos have increased their reliance on short and mid-range in-breaking routes (slants, digs and crossers). Defenses have reacted by bringing defensive backs, especially safeties, closer to the line of scrimmage. In addition to scheming via pre-snap alignments, they’ve also adjusted their post-snap assignments. Rather than playing common, traditional defenses that have to account for deep throws, defenses are often leaving only a single high safety over the top. In some cases, they have no deep help at all. This is important, because reads and throws that have worked for Manning for most of his career are no longer connecting. For many, many years Manning could count on certain reads and routes being open, because he knew as well as the DBs themselves where their help assignments were coming from.

Beginning in 2014, those help assignments started to change dramatically. No longer could Manning count on a TE or slot WR coming open in the seam because the S was forced to help on a go route outside the numbers. No longer could Manning count on dig routes coming open time after time because the CB had to be careful not to get beat deep. In effect, the inability to consistently convert intermediate and deep balls outside the hash marks has almost eliminated his ability to convert short and intermediate throws over the middle. Complicating matters further, Manning has not had a lot of time to throw because of a young, struggling offensive line. That means DBs not only could count on Manning’s troubles pushing the ball downfield, but they also knew he would need to release the ball very quickly, further enabling them to squat on shorter routes. What’s more, with more players in the vicinity of the LOS and between the hash marks, the chances of success for the running game were greatly reduced as well. We’ve now seen the effects of these defensive schemes on the Denver offense, and the results haven’t been pretty.

With Osweiler, defenses will not be able to afford to run those schemes as frequently. Unless the Broncos are closing in on the end zone, coordinators and DBs alike will have to be aware of Osweiler’s ability to air it out. Teams will be forced into Cover 2, Cover 3 and even Cover 4 shells in an attempt to defend the deep ball. This will open up the underneath routes, forcing single coverage underneath and resulting in more open receivers. Not only will defenses be forced to respect the deep ball, but they’ll also have to defend outside the hash marks on all levels as well, further opening up the middle of the field. DBs can no longer assume the breaks will be to the inside; they’ll have to defend breaks both inside and out. They’ll also have to beware double moves, but that will require improved protection by the offensive line. Bottom line, not only will the coverages be more favorable for Denver, but the Broncos can also now utilize the exceptional speed they have at the skill positions, namely Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, and Vernon Davis, to get behind defenses and wreak havoc. The running game, by virtue of gaining an advantage in numbers, will benefit from the shifts in defensive scheme as well.

2. Kubiak has greatly modified his offensive approach to better fit Manning’s skill set, significantly reducing his play calling options.

We know Manning prefers, even needs, to be in the shotgun to feel comfortable. It increases his ability to read coverages and identify pass rushers and blitzers. We also know Manning requires a high number of in-breaking routes to be successful. As a result, Kubiak has been calling far more shotgun formations, and also many more 3-wide and 4-wide sets, than what he would prefer. This has had several negative effects on the offense.

For starters, Kubiak has either had to modify or eliminate nearly all plays that begin with the QB under center. While this might not appear to be a huge problem at first glance, it causes multiple issues. First, defenses can more easily identify the difference between run and pass plays as the Ts often have to tip their hand pre-snap. With no help to the outside from a TE, the offensive T often plays in a 2 point stance, and drops his outside leg a half-yard in order to set himself up to defend against a speed rush to the outside. When the defense knows whether they’re defending against a pass or run before the ball is snapped, they gain an obvious advantage. Second, in a traditional shotgun formation, RBs are not afforded the same running start as they get in an I formation with the QB under center. Rather than a 5-yard running start, they’re lucky to get a yard or two to get up to speed before receiving the handoff. The same problem arises from the pistol formation, which also possesses another disadvantage. In the pistol, the RB’s vision is impeded, rendering him less able to survey the defense pre-snap in an attempt to identify potential running lanes. This point was reinforced by Jake Plummer on a local radio show last week, as he said old friends Reuben Droughns and Tatum Bell were adamant that the pistol is not conducive to success for RBs.

Next, an increase in the number of wide formations has created other problems for the offense.  For WRs to run in-breaking routes, they generally must line up farther outside the tackle box. Wide formations have greatly reduced the number of multiple TE sets, which would be a big help in the running game. But in order to run from multiple TE sets, the offense must also be able to pass from those formations, and with defenses crowding the middle of the field and Manning’s inability to effectively deliver out-breaking routes, that is nearly impossible.

With Osweiler, all of Kubiak’s formations will be in play. As I’ve already discussed, the running game will be the biggest beneficiary of this luxury. I expect to see a large increase in the number of snaps taken from under center, but I also expect to see a number of tight formations, many with multiple TEs. That will likely provide a boost to the running game, but it should also open up possibilities in the passing game. For instance, don’t be surprised to see a 3 TE set, including Vernon Davis, Owen Daniels and Virgil Green. The extra blockers will obviously be helpful on running plays, but with the defense likely countering a 3 TE set with “big” personnel packages on their side of the ball, the formation could be used to create a speed mismatch with Vernon Davis beating the defense downfield.

3. The Zone Blocking Scheme (ZBS) has been largely ineffective in opening running lanes.

The zone blocking scheme is dependent on three things: a. The offensive line operating as a cohesive unit, with its individual pieces flowing to a zone and wiping out whichever defenders get in their way; b. Cut blocking defensive lineman on the non-play side; and c. Freezing the backside defender with outside contain responsibility (usually the DE or OLB).

With so many plays being run from the shotgun or pistol, the line is forced into more man blocking assignments, particularly when they’re spread out. Zone blocking works in part due to an advantage in numbers, with the QB taking responsibility for freezing the backside, outside contain defender with boot action, thereby freeing up offensive linemen to flow toward the play side. Without the ability to run plays from under center, and no boot action holding the backside end, the Broncos are giving up the numbers advantage and reducing the effectiveness of the ZBS. The reduced effectiveness of the zone scheme has forced them to use more man scheme. That creates yet another problem, as linemen like Ryan Harris, Matt Paradis and Michael Schofield are better equipped for the ZBS. Further, with no threat of misdirection or bootlegs, the backside DE has been crashing down hard, eliminating cut back lanes for the run game.

Osweiler brings a very real play action, bootleg threat that will effectively freeze that backside DE and allow the Broncos to play to the theoretical strength of their offensive line, which is the ZBS. He also allows them to help the offensive line in creating more time to pass by moving the pocket on rollouts and sprint right or sprint left passes.

I’m referring to the sum total of these new possibilities as “The Osweiler Effect,” and I expect every player on the offense to benefit from the change at QB. Now, and this is important to note, I do not expect all of these changes will be immediate, nor do I expect Osweiler will execute Kubiak’s offense perfectly from his first snap. But understanding the offense has greatly underperformed in 2015, it’s not unrealistic at all to assume significant offensive improvement is on the horizon for these Broncos. It’s no doubt a controversial position, especially in Broncos’ Country, but Brock Osweiler gives the Broncos the best chance to win right now.

I suspect coach Kubiak will be faced with the most difficult decision of his coaching career in the coming weeks, and that will be whether or not to reinstate Manning as the starting QB once he feels healthier. Of course, if Osweiler struggles badly, the decision will be an easy one. But if Osweiler performs even a little bit, and he does a good job taking care of the ball and not putting the defense in a position to fail, Kubes will be forced to consider sticking with Osweiler. If the offense starts to click with Osweiler, replacing him with Peyton Manning and all the limitations that brings to the offense would be catastophic. My feeling is that, barring an injury to Osweiler, we may have seen Manning take his last snap.

One last note: I’m sharing this article with the intent of reaching the readers of this site that have real interest in what goes into the game of football on a technical level. It’s not always easy to include explanations like this in the comment section, so I’m often forced to abbreviate my responses in that format. In doing so, and really just in general, I do not spend much (any?) time with fluffy language. I don’t always preface my thoughts with compliments of the players I’m evaluating, whether I’m a fan or not. Peyton Manning and Von Miller get the same treatment as Ryan Fitzpatrick and Tamba Hali when I break down their game. I also don’t waste your time and mine with statements like “Well, maybe it could go this way, but it could also go that way.” I try to be concise, direct, and honest. I think opinions are more interesting when they firmly take a position and then back it up with facts. It’s okay to change that position with further evaluation of data, or in light of new information, but if the original opinion is wishy washy, of what value is it? We all know multiple different things could happen, so why do I need to tell you that? So I take the approach of “This is what I think, and here’s why,” and I’m not afraid to be wrong.

As a result of this approach, or my general writing style, I’m the target of repeated vitriol in the comments section. That’s discouraging, as I guess I’m a little thin-skinned. I quickly lower to the level of discourse that’s coming at me, especially when I take the time to lay out a strong opinion, backed by objective evidence, and then a commenter responds to my argument by telling me I’m an idiot or making contrary claims to my position without presenting any data whatsoever to support their position.

I enjoy evaluating the Broncos with other fans that are interested in learning about the game. I don’t enjoy squabbling with people that are unable to bring objectivity to the discussion because they are offended by my evaluation of a player they respect. So, In-Thin Air, here’s your chance. If you don’t like what I have to say, let me know (many of you already have), and I’ll find a new arena in which to share my thoughts, leaving you to rah-rah-sis-boom-bah your way through the season, unimpeded by any suggestion of a potentially negative reality.