The final game of Peyton Manning's extraordinary career may be Super Bowl 50, and that storyline is going to dominate Bronco-related headlines all week. You'll also hear a ton about Denver's elite defense and its voracious pass rush. But one major key to the game that is bound to be overlooked is the Broncos' improved and, in my opinion, extremely important rushing attack. Specifically, the run game whose foundation is Gary Kubiak's zone-blocking scheme. You may hear that term -- zone-blocking scheme -- a lot this week, so for a primer on exactly what that means and why it will be a factor, here's what you need to know.
The Broncos have been relatively one-dimensional all season, riding their dominant defense to the No. 1 seed in the AFC despite issues at the quarterback position and, consequently, their offense overall. However, even with the lack of clarity and lack of production from the quarterback position this year, Denver's run game has peaked at the right time. They went from the 29th-ranked rushing offense in the NFL over the season's first 10 weeks (86 yards per game) and finished out the year seventh over the final seven (135.1 yards per game).
Adding in their two playoff wins, in the Broncos' last nine games, they've run the ball 269 times (29.8 rushes per game) for 1,152 yards (128 yards per game) at 4.2 yards per carry. That's not bad, and it points to a better understanding of the system by the offensive linemen, improvement in technique and better play from the running backs. It also has a lot to do with a healthier Peyton Manning, who can now operate more effectively from under center.
This is Kubiak's offense now
Kubiak has always wanted his under-center rushing offense. He's gotten that and more over the last two months. There were always questions about Manning's fit in Kubiak's wide-zone scheme, which operates most effectively when the quarterback receives the snap from under center. Manning, of course, has been mostly known for taking snaps in shotgun and isn't the most mobile guy at age 39 (hell, he has never been mobile). Thus, executing bootlegs and throwing on the run on play action hasn't really been his forte.
However, on the Broncos' path to the Super Bowl, they -- and by "they," I mean Peyton Manning and Gary Kubiak -- seem to have figured out something of a compromise of their respective styles and approaches, snapping the ball out of shotgun roughly equally to the amount they snap it from under center.
As James Palmer pointed out, the Broncos ran 83.7 percent of their plays out of shotgun with Manning at quarterback during the regular season, but then only ran 52.1 percent of their plays from shotgun against the Steelers in the Divisional Round. Against the Patriots in the AFC Championship, they ran out of shotgun just 49 percent of the time. They also ran the hell out of the football in these games -- 33 times against Pittsburgh, then 29 times against New England. The offense didn't look amazing in either of those games, but did enough to get the job done in both.
The Denver run game against Carolina is going to be a huge factor.
Manning has to be careful about turning the ball over after earlier in the year when he was an incredible turnover machine. Manning actually finished second in the NFL in interceptions (17) while making just nine starts, and will be facing a Panthers' defense that led the league in picks (24). The Panthers also had 44 sacks (sixth). All this is to say that I think that it behooves the Broncos to run the ball and run it well. That means we may see Manning line up under center about half the time.
Obviously running against Carolina won't be easy, but Denver's had more success with a balanced attack that uses play action to keep a defense off balance. It all works together. If Denver can run it, it may help their passing game as well. Per Pro Football Focus, Manning's passer rating rises 25 points (62.8 to 87.8) and more than 3 yards per attempt (6.1 to 9.4) on play-action passes. Perhaps Manning's improved play from under center and on play action is due in part to better health. Perhaps it's because he's finally getting into the groove in Kubiak's offense. Perhaps it's because the line has been better. Probably a combination of it all.
Regardless, expect heavy doses of the traditional Kubiak wide zone with Manning under center, and it's a scheme that has descended from the Alex Gibbs/Mike Shanahan version that won the Broncos Super Bowls in 1997 and 1998.
Of course, it makes sense. The Broncos have gotten the old band back together for another run at this thing. Current head coach Kubiak was the offensive coordinator for those '97 and '98 teams, current offensive line consultant Alex Gibbs was the assistant head coach at that time, and of course, John Elway, now the GM, was the quarterback that handed off to Terrell Davis with so much success.
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When you're watching the game, watch for these looks:
The wide zone
The Broncos will run out of different looks and personnel groups, but the main characteristic of the wide zone is the lateral step at the snap. Instead of trying to blow defensive linemen off the ball with brute strength and power, everyone on the line steps laterally first in order to get the defense flowing toward the sideline. The idea is to create cutback lanes as defensive players over pursue or fail to move laterally with gap integrity. It's hard to man a gap as a defender when that gap is moving quickly toward the sideline.
The reason this scheme is called a zone is because instead of blocking the guy in front of them like in a man scheme, offensive linemen are given rules on who to block based on where the defense lines up. The simple version? It comes down to whether or not that offensive lineman is covered up.
If they are covered up -- i.e., there's a defensive lineman in front of them, they simply block that guy. If they are "uncovered," their first mandate is to help the man next to them before moving downfield to block on the second level. Watch how that plays out below:
You can see clearly that uncovered offensive linemen Evan Mathis (No. 69 ... nice) and Louis Vasquez (No. 65) move to the second level almost immediately. Mathis gives a quick jab to the nose tackle to help out with center Matt Paradis' block, but they get to the linebackers so quickly that a big lane opens up. Vasquez's block is good enough
C.J. Anderson does a nice job of hitting the seam quickly and decisively -- he's taught to run toward the offensive tackle and that's where his read would normally be -- but when that lane opens up, he's downhill like he's been shot out of a cannon.
Here's another example. Watch how Max Garcia (No. 73) works downfield as an "uncovered" lineman (based on the rules, center Paradis is covered up toward the play side). So does the right guard Vasquez, who first throws a quick stiff arm to the defender to his right to help right tackle Tyler Polumbus (No. 76) get his block. Vasquez gets downfield quickly to take out a linebacker and Anderson's home free.
The other important thing in the zone-blocking game is that receivers and tight ends have to block, too. That helps take away cutback defenders and downfield defenders.
Now, in the old Alex Gibbs zone-blocking scheme, the Broncos would run wide zone and tight zone almost exclusively. Because the ZBS requires almost perfect synchronization between all the linemen and receivers, it takes a ton of practice, and Gibbs didn't believe in wasting time working on other stuff, like traps and power runs.
However, with Manning wanting to run more from the shotgun, where he's more comfortable, Kubiak has evolved to include some of those types of things. It's a theoretical best-of-both-worlds situation.
Former All-Pro center Tom Nalen, one of the main characters in Denver's back-to-back Super Bowl victories in '97/'98 and an expert in the Kubiak zone-blocking scheme, recently explained why those traps and blocks can be great constraint plays to keep a defense honest, but for the ZBS to function at its best, it needs to be the foundation.
"In that zone-style running game," Nalen said, "you always have to go back to it because that's what you practice. You run powers and counters and traps to break the monotony of the play-calling or to give the defense a different look. If it hits, maybe you come back to it, but I don't think a steady diet of it [is good] because I don't think they get the reps at it like they do with the zone blocking."
It's that change up that you might practice a little, but it's not your bread and butter, in other words.
"There were games when I was playing," said Nalen, "when Gary [Kubiak] would call [them], we would run some traps and it would work. We'd run it a few times but then we'd never see it again because I think the defenses see that a lot from other teams. They go ‘Oh crap, they've got a trap put in the game plan this week, this is how they're going to do it.' We always fell back to the zone blocking because it's comfortable. If you're practicing a 10-play period of straight runs, eight of those are going to be zone blocking. You should become proficient at it. What are we? Week 20 of the season? You should be pretty good at it, whereas you're not getting as many reps running the trap or power or counter, some sort of misdirection like that."
Now, that said, with Manning wanting to take some snaps out of shotgun -- upwards of 50 percent or more, which would obviously include some run plays -- Denver needs a few shotgun runs that differ from the typical wide zone in their arsenal. That's where a little bit of Power-O comes into play.
The counter punch
Below, you'll see one run the Broncos like to utilize out of their shotgun looks. They pull right guard Louis Vasquez across the formation from right to left to help lead block for Anderson, and Manning executes an inside handoff. There's a LT/LG combo on one defensive end, and the right tackle cut blocks on the backside. Tight end Owen Daniels' job is to block the outside linebacker here.
Here's another interesting variation. I like this one, because Garcia (No. 73) has come in as a de facto fullback, while Polumbus (No. 76) is a sixth offensive lineman (outside the left tackle). In effect, this is a seven-lineman formation, plus two tight ends. This is about as heavy of a formation as you can get.
Again, the right guard pulls to the left, the right tackle cuts on the backside, and in this case, the pulling guard takes out a linebacker. It springs Anderson for a big gain. Love this look.
How to make it work on Sunday
I think the Broncos have been searching for their offensive identity all season and the poor play/injury situation with Manning early in the year really made finding it difficult. It's unclear if the split between shotgun and under center is a new, effective compromise for Kubiak and Manning or if it was simply a game-planning thing against their last two opponents, but it will be a key variable to keep an eye on once the action starts to unfold on Sunday.
My guess is that they Broncos will continue to try to line up Manning under center so the wide-zone running game can grab its footing early on, and then they can work him into shotgun looks as he gets comfortable around Carolina's excellent defense. You know that Kubiak believes in his system, as does Elway, and now that they've gotten two tough wins under their belts going to it the last two games, it seems likely that will be their gameplan for the Super Bowl as well.
Despite the season-long growing pains, "I like what we're doing offensively," Elway said recently. "I like the system, obviously, having played in it and knowing that you can win world championships with it."
They'll try to do just that on Sunday.