Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports
Can the offensive line turn it around?
It’s time we talk at length about the offensive line.
On Monday, ESPN’s Brian Burke revealed the updated win rates for blocking. It was ugly.
Updated offense win rates after Sunday. Horizontal is pass block. Vertical is run block. Up and right are good. ESPN model based on tracking data via NextGen Stats. pic.twitter.com/2AgZ5L5JtN
— Brian Burke (@bburkeESPN) October 12, 2020
After finding the Broncos at the bottom of the chart, I had to dig into the win rate stats. What I found gave me some comfort. There have been issues with the blocking these past four games, but at no point did I think Denver had the worst offensive line in football.
To protect myself from my own bias, I went and looked at both Football Outsiders’ blocking stats and Pro Football Focus’ grades for the Broncos’ offense. Both metrics have their limitations, but they’re also very useful tools when you want to dig into the offensive line play without poring hours into tape study.
FO uses a couple of really interesting metrics for measuring offensive line play. Adjusted Line Yards is something I’ve used to help me in fantasy football for years now. It’s a formula that takes all running back carries and assigns responsibility to the offensive line. They also measure how a run game performs situationally. While the Broncos are 31st in the league in ALY, they’re right around league average in Power situations, and quite good on the second and third level. It’s confirmation Melvin Gordon’s doing his part when he can get free.
Dig a little deeper into the running game, and you can see FO also looks at how the running game performs by direction. It reveals a bit of a peculiarity that I need to dig into: at present, the Broncos are the 4th best team at running around right end in the whole NFL.
Adjusted Sack Rate is how FO looks at pass protection. It looks at sacks (plus intentional grounding penalties) per pass attempt adjusted for down, distance, and opponent. The Broncos have allowed sacks on 8.3% of their attempts this year. The league average is currently 6.6% and only eight teams have allowed sacks on a higher percentage of their dropbacks than the Broncos so far.
Over at PFF, Garett Bolles now ranks as the fourth best tackle in all of football, and he’s especially adept in pass protection. Every other lineman on the Broncos who’s played more than one game ranks lower than 44th at his respective position. Only Cushenberry is last.
So with all that in mind, Jeff Essary, Joe Mahoney and I went back and re-watched the Broncos’ line. Here’s where we’re at on it.
What’s wrong with the Broncos’ line?
It starts with Cushenberry. He’s struggling in every facet across all four games. Hand placement, footwork, body lean, reaction time. It’s too soon to damn a rookie thrown into the fire without a preseason, especially at such a mentally demanding position like center. That said? He’s been so bad it’s negatively impacted every other part of the line.
Take Graham Glasgow, for instance. He spent the first three weeks of the year with Elijah Wilkinson’s slow feet on one side and Cush on the other. It led him to hanging onto his initial assignment too long in part to try and help them. Unfortunately, this also helped Antoine Winfield blow up Jeff Driskel back in week 3.
Keep in mind Antoine Winfield is a 4.4 athlete, which is why Todd Bowles sent him down the pipe here. That said, Glasgow’s caught with his eyes locked on a rusher working away from him and didn’t get them back quick enough. It’s also worth mentioning how the veteran learned from his mistake later in the game.
Watching the Jets’ game I came away optimistic that Demar Dotson will help Glasgow. He isn’t as strong a run blocker as Wilkinson is, but the 6’9 34-year old is more reliable on vertical sets which should help to create a better pocket. There’s also reason to believe he’ll do a better job handling stunts.
On the other side of Cushenberry things aren’t quite so rosy. Dalton Risner’s gotten into some trouble because of his rookie center, but he’s also had issues passing off assignments with Garett Bolles. I expected him to have some problems with quick twitch athletes like Jadeveon Clowney and Bud Dupree, but when he lost to the Jets’ UDFA Bryce Huff, it surprised me.
Coming out of Kansas State, a big knock on Dalton Risner was his footwork in pass protection. That’s shown up quite a bit when the protection slides away from Bolles. When the Broncos’ left tackle has to kick way out to pick up a wide nine rusher or blitzer off the edge, it’s creating ample space for opponents to expose Risner’s feet. Worse yet, teams will continue to attack him until he or Munchack find an answer for it.
That all sounds pretty bleak, can things improve?
There’s a number of reasons to believe things will get better from here. First and foremost: reps together should help with some of the communications issues that crop up on hand offs. It also should help with combo blocks and timing.
It was legitimately painful for me to watch Jeff Driskel read the field both before and after the snap. His issues with processing wound up leading to a perfect storm against two of the strongest defenses the Broncos will face this year. We’ve already seen how even a modest improvement from someone like Brett Rypien makes the entire unit look better. It’s why I always say “sacks are a QB stat.”
While I’ve complained a few times about how Lock will create issues for himself as it relates to his protection, he’s generally done a good job getting rid of the ball when he needs to. It was one unsung reason the Broncos’ protection looked so much better after he became the starter in 2019.
I already alluded to Demar Dotson and how inserting him into the lineup should help the pass protection, even if it does take some punch away from the run game. It’s probably a worthwhile tradeoff when you consider how often Shurmur wants to throw the ball.
A study by PFF’s Timo Riske has made it clear it’s not atypical for offensive lineman to really struggle in their first year, so Cushenberry could just have a tough rookie season. Even still I do expect him to grow from all the experience he’s gaining. Remember, he did not have a preseason and an abbreviated training camp. The game should slow down as he sees more and that will have a trickle down effect on everyone around him.
He has shown flashes, however, like this play below in the run game. So it hasn’t been all bad from him, and plays like these give you an idea of the tools he brings, particularly in a zone running attack.
Looking ahead to the schedule, I believe it could be a bit of a roller coaster. There are some really tough matchups like the Chiefs and Chargers as well as less talented fronts like the Falcons. Zooming out a little bit, I feel more optimistic. Like the rest of the Broncos’ roster, the line will be battle tested by 2020. That should only help them next year.