Nathaniel Hackett’s Projected Denver Offense: Part 3

Having discussed Denver’s receivers in part 1 of this series and the O-line in part 2, it’s time to take a look at the rest of the offense, and how it will likely function as a whole.

One of the distinguishing features of Shanahan-tree offenses is that they are highly technical in nature. While some offensive styles match man against man in an attempt to overpower or simply out-execute the defense, Shanahan offenses win with misdirection, with confusion. An offensive style that relies heavily on disguise and surprise. As such, precision from the players is far more important than raw power– meaning that anterior development is highly emphasized (anterior muscles are generally the quick-firing ‘control’ muscles). Offensive lineman engage very quickly after the snap so as to un-balance defenders before moving on to the second level. Wide receivers run precise timing routes with the expectation that they will be at an exact spot at a given time.

And running backs are challenged to very quickly and forcefully hit their hole after making decisions at precise step counts. On the base outside zone runs, the decision post-handoff is whether to ‘bounce’ (follow the path all the way to the outside of the defense), ‘bend’ (run between the 1st and 2nd defensive linemen on the playside), or ‘bang’ (cut back against a defense that is over-pursuing). And once the decision is made, the RB must immediately run with full force towards the intended gap/ area (one cut and go).

For posterior dominant running backs such as Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon, this means that they will be challenged to make very sudden cuts without losing their characteristic elite full posterior lumbar efficiency (superlative power and endurance). As such, both runners will likely maximize their quickness via tightened anterior lumbar development. Although in Melvin Gordon’s case, he already built his body into this style of runner last offseason– where he hit the hole very quickly and forcefully, at close to top speed– by slimming down and linking his anterior areas more tightly with his fully efficient lateral posterior lumbar areas, Javonte Williams will now be asked to similarly refine his technique and body to suit a one-cut-and-go running style. Which means learning to make quicker/ more accurate reads, hitting the hole harder and faster, and doing so without sacrificing his full medial posterior lumbar efficiency (which gives him elite power and contact balance).

In addition, if Nathaniel Hackett brings to Denver Green Bay’s tendency towards RPOs out of wide zone looks, these running backs will often be asked to serve as short/ intermediate receivers. In particular, it seems likely that Hackett will scheme Jerry Jeudy to run routes out of RPOs that will either leave Jeudy open in the short/ intermediate areas (out of the slot), or open up space in the defense for Williams/ Gordon to make receptions in the cleared out area (much like how LaFleur would scheme Davante Adams and Aaron Jones to key on the same areas of the field). So these running backs will often be forced to not only make quick decisions and cuts, they will be forced to make compound decisions: before they can even choose which running path to take, they must read whether the QB will hand off the ball or not, and if not then to immediately run their route to the designated area and be ready for a reception.

Further exacerbating the generalized technical demands of this style of offense is the concordant illusion of complexity that underlies its execution. Although the base plays and change-ups appear relatively simple in concept, in execution these offenses deceive defenses by running the same sets of plays from a whole host of different looks, personnel packages, and pre-snap motions. Mike Shanahan himself would often run the exact same play twice in a row from entirely different looks so as to make defenses second guess themselves (consider the famous ending of the Broncos Chargers Cutler 2 point conversion game).

All of these tendencies combine to form one of the most technically demanding (and thus anterior efficiency reinforcing) offenses currently in use. Thankfully, Denver has one particular (posterior dominant) ace up its sleeve. A newly-acquired QB named Russell Wilson.

It was discussed in part one of the Shanahan Scheme Analysis that this style of offense thrives by creating numbers advantages, overloading and overwhelming specific areas of the field/ defense. Which is a challenge for an offense that only has 10 players blocking/ running routes, vs 11 defenders trying to stop them. But what happens when that number shifts? When a mobile QB adds his rushing threat to the equation?

For as much success as Shanahan tree offenses have enjoyed over the past decades, there have been very few mobile quarterbacks running them. Leaving aside John Elway (and to a lesser extent Jake Plummer), there has only been one truly mobile quarterback running this style of offense in recent years, and only for one healthy year. Robert Griffin III in 2012 showed how spectacularly well this offensive style functions when the QB adds his own playmaking runs to the equation: 3200 yards passing, 20 TDs to 5 Ints (8.1 yds per attempt), 815 yards rushing, 7 rushing TDs, the league’s 4th highest scoring offense (5th in yards) and a playoff berth– with a rookie QB.

Because when the defense not only has to account for backside cuts from the running back, but also for the possibility that the QB might hold the ball and find his own gaps on the weakside, suddenly the defense becomes perilously stretched. If, as a linebacker or a safety, you pursue the direction of the wide zone run, there will be gaps for backside RB cuts or for QB runs. If you hold position, the wide zone run will pick up numbers advantages on the playside (team blocking etc). And even if your defense adopts a Fangio-esque 6-1 with all offensive blockers covered, suddenly your 1 set-back LB has to choose between covering the RB or the QB, leaving a single safety free to cover the other. And in Denver’s case, Melvin Gordon, Javonte Williams, and Russell Wilson in space versus practically any NFL safety is a mismatch, almost certainly leading to positive yardage and the possibility of a big play.

This is the extra dimension added by Russell Wilson’s mobility from the QB position– stretching an already horizontally-stretched defense past the breaking point. And he needn’t run the ball terribly frequently for it to affect the defensive strategy. Even just a handful of first down runs will force defenses to start leaving a spy, someone to lurk and defend against Wilson’s running threat. At which point, the numbers advantage shifts even more decisively to the offense.

Furthermore, for an offense predicated on putting the ball where the defense isn’t, Wilson’s superlative touch and accuracy will allow for many yards-after-catch opportunities (again, especially against a horizontally-diffused defense). Although in the biomechanical review of Russell Wilson it was pointed out that Wilson profiles more like John Elway than any other recent Shanahan-tree QB, there is one large difference between these two players. Both Elway and Wilson show three areas of full thoracic efficiency (truly rarified arm talent), but despite both being lateral oriented posterior dominant players, they don’t show the same areas of full efficiency. Elway’s three full areas of efficiency include both posterior thoracic areas (medial and lateral), giving him rare power/ throwing velocity. But only one of Elway’s anterior thoracic areas (medial) shows full efficiency– meaning that for all of Elway’s rocket-powered arm strength, he didn’t show elite touch on his throws. Wilson on the other hand shows only one area of full posterior thoracic efficiency (lateral), but instead shows full efficiency in both his anterior thoracic areas. So while Wilson doesn’t show quite the same raw throwing power/ arm strength as Elway, he instead throws with much greater touch– a much softer, more catchable ball.

For players like Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler, who show greater lumbar efficiency than thoracic (meaning that they are better at getting open than at making forceful grabs), this is particularly important. Likewise for running backs Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams. All of Denver’s skill position players will be catching gently arriving balls, making it far easier to make the initial grab. And critically in turn, making it much more seamless for receivers to quickly pivot upfield and gain additional yards after the catch.

Putting all of these pieces together– a mobile highly accurate QB, a deep versatile skill position group, and a technical hard-charging offensive style– starts to paint a particular picture. Of an offense that flows in waves, with consistent substitutions, changing packages, and a constant pre-snap and post-snap tendency towards horizontal motion. Almost every skill position player on Denver’s roster has a skill-type doppelganger: both Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler run elusive routes with superlative speed, both Courtland Sutton and Tim Patrick make tough contested downfield catches, both Albert Okwuegbunam and newly drafted Greg Dulcich run with alacrity and catch in a wide area, and both Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon rush with power and balance. Meaning that there is tremendous depth and redundancy to Denver’s roster, allowing for players to constantly swap in and out to keep each other fresh. Which in turn will allow this offense to use horizontal motion (both pre and post snap) at the highest possible rates

This lends itself to one major, often overlooked advantage. Because horizontal motion is the most fatiguing type of motion an offense can run– for both the offense and the defense– running this style of offense in Denver’s rarified air gives the Broncos their secret extra edge: Denver’s players will be acclimated to the mile high altitude, where their opponents won’t.

Why is horizontal motion the most fatiguing motion an offense can run? Because it doesn’t affect down and distance. A first down is always 10 vertical yards. But if, for each first down, you run an additional 20 yards sideways, suddenly that 10 yard first down can become a 30 yard proposition. Meaning that in running an offensive scheme predicated on horizontal motion, Denver will be wearing their defensive opponents out by forcing them to run maximal distances per yardage gained. This has always been Denver’s secret advantage in running wide zone based schemes: by forcing defenses to run 10 yards sideways on every play, players become gassed over time. And in Denver’s rarified air (to which Broncos players will be acclimated, and their opponents will not), this advantage in endurance becomes multiplied greatly. Add in Denver’s skill position redundancy and ability to make substitutions without losing key skill sets, and this advantage in endurance becomes overwhelming.

So even though Denver will be running a scheme that favors and reinforces anterior efficiency (which generally equates to quickness and control over power and endurance), their roster depth, scheme type, and location at Mile High will likely provide them with a decisive advantage in game-long endurance.

So in total, what will Nathaniel Hackett’s Denver offense look like?

A fast-paced, wide zone based attack. Many motions, many different formations, and many substitutions. The likely addition of RPOs to further slow down and confuse defenses. A whole lot of receptions in space to players such as Jeudy, Hamler, and the TEs/ RBs (horizontally displaced closer to the line of scrimmage, and more towards the middle of the field in the intermediate/ deep areas) . Courtland Sutton and Tim Patrick running deep in-breaking and sideline routes, while Okwuegbunam and Dulcich stretch defenses up the seams. All four of Sutton, Patrick, Okwuegbunam, and Dulcich providing wide-area targets in the red zone. Both Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon wearing down defenses in the middle and the edges of the field (while Mike Boone, who is a perfect fit for his offensive style, offers a handful of quality reps off the bench). And an offensive line that slowly finds its chemistry as a mobile hard-hitting unit.

But all this complexity, specificity, and finesse will require a learning period. This sort of variegated offense doesn’t come together overnight. Although it’s true that each of Tampa Bay and LA imported QBs and immediately won Super Bowls, in both cases the QBs arrived to already established offenses and coaching staffs. Denver is starting from scratch in every meaningful way. So an offensive style that requires this level of technical precision and speed/ pacing will take time to reach its potential. Nevertheless, between Russell Wilson’s natural fit in this sort of scheme (very similar to the one he ran in previous Super Bowls), a deep, redundant, and talented skill position group, an offensive line that shows tremendous long-term potential, and Denver’s rare air adding extra advantage to a horizontally-geared scheme, the future is looking very promising for the Broncos. If not in year one, then almost certainly in year two and beyond.