Denver Broncos | News

Mason's Mailbag: On the offensive line, time to 'man up'

As always, you can tweet questions to me with the hashtag #AskMase, use the submission form or scroll to the bottom of this page.

Let's start with the area that drew the most questions this week ... the offensive line:

What is going on with the offensive line? Seems like the run blocking has been better of late and the pass blocking has been worse than last year -- in light of rumors that the offensive line will be changed up quite a bit for Sunday's game. -- Chance Jackson

First, start with the fact that change may be unavoidable, given that right tackle Paul Cornick missed two days of practice because of a shoulder injury. He is listed as questionable, but if he can't go, that would be one unavoidable change from last week's lineup.

On the positive side, some indicators for the offensive line are positive. The rate at which opponents hit Peyton Manning has dropped, from one every 12.87 pass plays in 2013 to one every 15.19 this year. The sack rate has improved slightly, from one every 34.75 pass plays to one every 35.44 pass plays.

But the number of runs for negative yardage has increased, from 7.4 percent to 8.3 percent, dropping the Broncos from seventh to 14th in the league. And last week's performance joined Week 3 at Seattle as the most inefficient ground games of the season.

"Any time your two best runs were the last two runs of the game, that's probably more than a disappointment," said Offensive Coordinator Adam Gase.

"We have to find a way to get these guys covered up, get our backs back to the line of the scrimmage and see what they can do. It's hard to make any ground when you're getting hit behind the line of scrimmage. That's where it starts."

And the pass blocking benefits from having the a quarterback who is the league's quickest on the draw, as Peyton Manning takes 2.32 seconds to throw, according to ProFootballFocus.com, the least time in the league. The low sack and hit ratios are a function of Manning's quad-core-quick reads.

And when Manning is sacked, it happens quicker to him than all but one quarterback (Atlanta's Matt Ryan) -- in an average of 2.82 seconds, per ProFootballFocus.com.

Bumps in the personnel transition were inevitable; between Ryan Clady's return, Chris Clark's move to right tackle and Orlando Franklin's shift to left guard, 60 percent of the unit changed from Super Bowl XLVIII, and that transition continued when Cornick replaced Clark in Week 7. But that doesn't explain some of the mistakes -- perhaps most damaging of all, the sacks on three-man rushes in recent weeks.

Three sacks in the last four games happened when the opponent sent just three pass rushers. That will drive any coach mad.

The sack allowed in that scenario last Sunday was the most damaging of the season to date, given the game situation: down 20-7, driving for a potential touchdown to narrow the gap back to one score before halftime. New England's Akeem Ayers cut to his left in front of Ryan Clady, stunted past Vince Wilfork, and ran past center Manny Ramirez, whose head was turned in the opposite direction.

"Clady didn't execute it the way he wanted to," said Gase. "That was a bad sack to have at that time. We'll keep working on correcting these things.

"The good thing is they're going to allow us to play eight more games, so we're allowed to get better. That's what we'll do. We'll keep coming out here and figure out a way to win the next one."

But in winning, Gase knows the offensive line must show progress. If Cornick can't play Sunday, that means a forced change to the status quo whether it's re-inserting Clark for Cornick or shuffling other pieces to get the best possible quintet on the field.

Head Coach John Fox would not tip his hand regarding any potential changes.

"I'm not going to get in to who's playing, how much, when and where -- just purely from a competitive standpoint," he said Friday.

But no matter what the Broncos do -- or who lines up -- there's no room for excuses anymore.

"We've got to man up and start blocking better," Gase said.

Two-part answer:

First, remember that Miller is a strong-side linebacker in the base package. Coverage is part of his job (but it was unusual to see him split out against Rob Gronkowski at the goal line). No player whose primary position is a 4-3 linebacker rushes the passer as much as Miller, and it's not even close -- although most of those rushes come either as a down end or in a stand-up position with two or three down linemen.

Second, among the 34 4-3 defensive ends with enough snaps for a sample size, ProFootballFocus.com rates DeMarcus Ware about average for pass-rush rate, going after the quarterback on 97.4 percent of the pass plays on which he lines up (16th of the 34 DEs). Prominent 4-3 pass rushers like Chicago's Willie Young, Buffalo's Jerry Hughes, Detroit's Ziggy Ansah and Miami's Cameron Wake all rush the passer less often than Ware, and no 4-3 end with six or more sacks has rushed the passer more often than 97.9 percent of his snaps on pass plays.

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What are the chances of the Broncos looking for a new offensive coordinator & defensive coordinator at the end of the season?**
-- Robert Smith

That depends on other coaching changes around the league, and whether there is interest in Jack Del Rio and Gase. It would be a surprise if both don't draw inquiries, for different reasons.

In addition to the performance of Del Rio's defense (fourth in yardage allowed per game, fifth in yardage allowed per play, and third in yardage allowed per pass play since 2012), his experience as a head coach with Jacksonville will help (and the Jaguars' collapse after dismissing him, with a league-worst 9-37 record since then, illuminates Del Rio's 68-71 record there in a new light). And Del Rio and John Fox get results together; in yards per play allowed in the years they worked on the same staff, their defenses ranked second (2002, in Carolina), first (2012), 16th (the injury-riddled 2013) and second this season.

Gase's attributes are his experience with a variety of offensive minds, the record-breaking numbers of the Broncos' offense on his watch and tactical creativity and flexibility evidenced by his work on the midseason overhaul of the offense in 2011, and the re-design of it again months later after Peyton Manning's arrival.

Both will be choosy, and they can afford to be. The units they guide sit among the league's leaders in per-game and per-play efficiency. They have enough success banked to give them patience to wait for the right situation.

That's not a Broncos problem, that's a problem for almost everyone. It's been nearly eight years since an AFC team won a regular-season game at Gillette Stadium when Tom Brady started at quarterback. Give the Patriots credit: they defend their home turf, their fans are raucous and the team is just damn good. This will be their 14th consecutive winning season. It didn't happen by accident. They do this to everyone in the AFC.

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Walt Anderson will be the referee for the Broncos-Patriots game in Foxborough (Week 9), and apparently, it was confirmed nearly two weeks in advance from a user on a site called football-refs.com who has a mutual connection to one of his crew members. From that same site, I read a rumor that Carl Cheffers' crew will be in Oakland for the Broncos-Raiders game the following Sunday (Week 10). How far in advance are referee assignments determined, and do you know what rules are implemented regarding how the NFL assigns referee crews to games and certain teams each week?**
-- David Herrera

Multiple weeks in advance, for logistical reasons. Travel must be arranged, and NFL referees are a widespread group. The league makes the assignments public the week of the game.

Certain requests can be made in private. NFL referee and current CBS Sports analyst Mike Carey revealed to The Washington Post this summer that, in 2006, he asked the league to not be assigned to any more Washington games; his final game involving that team was its wild-card playoff win over Tampa Bay in January of that year.

Any familial connections also come into account. Longtime NFL official Byron Boston never worked a game involving his son, David, a wide receiver for the Cardinals, Chargers, Dolphins and Buccaneers.

And for years, the NFL consciously tried to avoid having officials call games of their hometown teams, to avoid a hint of impropriety. But this didn't cover every potential connection. In one 1989 game between the Packers and Buccaneers, an umpire who graduated from Marquette University -- located just three miles from Milwaukee County Stadium, where the Packers played three home games a year in those days -- threw a controversial flag against Tampa Bay nose tackle Shawn Lee, nullifying a fourth-and-16 stop with 47 seconds left in a game the Bucs led, 16-14. The resuscitated Packers drove to a game-winning Chris Jacke field goal as the clock expired. Buccaneers fans claimed bias and conspiracy, including your humble correspondent, then 13 years old and crushed.

In 2017 Peyton Manning will become a free agent do you think the Broncos will re-sign him maybe for another four or five years given the fact he's playing so well at the late stage of his career? Would Peyton even consider re-signing?
-- Kashif Chaudhry

I think there's way too much time, games, passes and hits between now and then to even think about that.

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