View Full Version : FoxSports:Ground game a constant for Broncos

09-18-2007, 04:09 PM
By Alex Marvez
Sept. 18, 2007

Danny Kanell jokes that he can now expect a visit from NFL security

Teams usually reclaim their playbooks when a player is released. But the former Denver quarterback kept his copy and was willing to share the concepts behind head coach Mike Shanahan's ballyhooed offense with FOXSports.com.
The Broncos (2-0) enter Sunday's game against visiting Jacksonville as the NFL's top-ranked offensive unit. New starting running back Travis Henry has a league-high 267 rushing yards and second-year quarterback Jay Cutler ranks fourth among passing leaders with 573 yards.

No team has had more points or total yardage the past 12 seasons than the Broncos. Such consistency doesn't surprise opposing coaches or Kanell, who played seven years in the NFL with three teams (the New York Giants, Atlanta and Denver) until being released by the Broncos during the 2005 preseason.

"Mike has a system," said Dallas Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips, a defensive specialist who has matched wits against Shanahan for more than two decades.

"That's what I admire about what he does. He can put different people in there and do well with all of them."

The foundation of Shanahan's success is his playbook. Kanell's version contains 20 pages of formations and an eight-day installation plan designed for the start of the preseason. The tome is revamped every off-season with new material and terminology.

Kanell, who is now serving as a Miami Dolphins pre-game radio analyst, said some of Shanahan's plays are almost impossible to stop if the Broncos execute properly.

"Ask the best defensive coordinators and they will tell you the same thing: There's always going to be a good play for the quarterback if he makes good decisions no matter what the defense throws at you," Kanell said. "This was one of my favorite offenses to run because it was so quarterback-friendly."

Kanell provides an example by dissecting one of Denver's staple plays: Solo Right 2 Jet X Under Y.

Run out of a three-receiver, single-back set with a tight end aligned beside the left tackle, the quarterback's intent is a long pass to the slot receiver (Y) zipping down the seam on the formation's right side.

The quarterback takes a five-step drop and looks left toward the X receiver, who is running a five-yard slant-in ("under") route popularized by Indianapolis' Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison. The hope is that the free safety will bite and abandon the "Y."

If that safety stays in the middle of the field and/or the cornerbacks are playing press coverage, Kanell said the quarterback should pass to his X receiver or risk getting his Y receiver "lit up big time." If the X receiver also is unavailable, the other throws available are:

A short curl to the tight end.

A deep route to the "Z" receiver streaking down the right sideline.

A flare to the running back, who will release after helping with protection that must provide the quarterback sufficient time to make his reads.
"There's two basic defenses in the NFL," Kanell said. "You're either going to see a single safety or two safeties in the middle of the field. The way all these reads are keyed is if there's one safety, you're going to go with a certain read. If there's two safeties, you go with another."

Routes must be precisely run to make Shanahan's system work, which is why he demands such attention to detail. Receivers are reminded how far their splits should be from the hashmarks and sideline by markers that Shanahan's grounds crew paints on Denver's practice field. Shanahan also runs his offense from the sideline during practice to simulate game conditions.

"Do the little things right and the big things happen," Shanahan told FOXSports.com during a preseason interview. "That's just the way I've operated. Your job is to make sure when a player goes into the game, he doesn't have to think. When he can just react from what he's seeing and reviewed, he's got a chance to be successful."

Under Shanahan, the Broncos are best known for having a dominating rushing attack. The key is the zone-blocking system installed in the mid-1990s by offensive line guru Alex Gibbs. Linemen work in tandems to seal a particular area rather than try to consistently win individual match-ups.

Kanell said Broncos running backs are taught an "aiming point," which is precisely where to hit a hole. Kanell laughs when recalling position coach Bobby Turner's way of reminding runners to quickly read the defense and not dance in the backfield looking for an opening.

"Either one cut or you're cut that's all you would hear," Kanell said.

Shanahan has effectively identified what kind of cut-back runners will flourish in his scheme. The Broncos have fielded six different 1,000-yard rushers since 1995 and only two (Clinton Portis and Tatum Bell) were drafted before the third round. The most prolific back 2007 Hall of Fame semifinalist Terrell Davis was a sixth-round pick.

Henry is an anomaly, as the Broncos usually sign running backs from the college ranks rather than in free agency. But as evidenced by the five-year, $22.5 million contract he signed this off-season, Henry was too tempting for Shanahan to resist after rushing for 1,211 yards last season in Tennessee.

Henry is averaging 133.5 yards a game this season, which is actually eight yards lower than Denver's productivity between 1995 and 2006. The Broncos rushed for an NFL-best 27,174 yards during that stretch.

Yet even with such a gaudy total, Denver is just 1-4 in the playoffs since the 1997 and 1998 Broncos won Super Bowl titles. One contributing factor is Shanahan's inability to find a long-term answer at quarterback since John Elway's retirement in 1999.

Brian Griese and Jake Plummer had their moments but ultimately faded. Shanahan became so frustrated with Plummer's rollercoaster play in 2006 that he started Cutler for the season's final five games even with the Broncos standing at 7-4.

Kanell said Shanahan may be contributing to the problem because of his game-plan implementation.

"That was a little frustrating for Jake, myself and the other quarterbacks," said Kanell, who started two games and appeared in three others for Denver in 2003. "You would learn this three-inch thick playbook. If there's 200 plays in here, you would only pull 50 of them. But coach Shanahan was such an innovator that he would come up with new variations of plays.

"A lot of the basics would carry over but the formations are always going to be different. It's like learning a new playbook every week. There is a huge stress on the quarterback mentally."

So far this season, Cutler has shown he can carry the load. After a 2-3 finish last year that cost Denver a playoff berth, the strong-armed Cutler is clearly more comfortable running Shanahan's system. Cutler already has attempted more passes in each of Denver's first two games than in any of his starts in 2006.

But Cutler and Co. have a long road ahead before meeting Shanahan's high expectations.

"We've slipped a little bit in the last couple of years," Shanahan said. "We haven't been in the top five. We'd like to get back to where we're one of the most dominating offensive teams not only in the running game but point production.

"The Super Bowl teams I've been involved with, that's the standard. You have to be dominant."

Thanks to Shanahan, the Broncos have the blueprint to once again reach those heights.

"If you won a game by 10 points, Mike might come in Monday and say, 'We could have won by 21 but you missed a couple guys out there,'" Kanell said. "That's what separates him and what true greatness is all about.

"He talked about that. Do you want to be good or do you want to be great? He has a passion for being great."


09-18-2007, 05:25 PM
Great read. Concerns me a bit that Kanell is running around with an old playbook still, but otherwise an excellent article with real insight. Thanks skinny.

09-18-2007, 09:15 PM
Great read. Concerns me a bit that Kanell is running around with an old playbook still, but otherwise an excellent article with real insight. Thanks skinny.

thats a really old playbook. you can see most teams playbooks from last year already online. i downloaded the whole playbook for the pats for 2005 on adobe. it does look really intense and a lot for even a veteran to learn.

now add in shanny. kanell said he changes it sometimes from week to week. thats got to be mentally tough on a qb. i just think cutler is smarter than plummer...so shanny can give him more in depth plays.