Thursday, January 12, 2012


Because of my allegiance to the Denver Broncos, a lot of non-football fans have curiously asked me about Tim Tebow.  But what's been surprising is that they aren't JUST curious about his religious beliefs and media attention...they are sick of hearing about that, and now want to know about him as a football player.  The conversation generally goes this way:

Curious Person:  So, what's the deal with Tebow?
Brett:  Timothy Richard?  Hell of a guy, tough, good looking (ok, maybe thats just for you, Jenn)
CP: But he sucks right?
B: No, he's raw.  But he hardly sucks.
CP:  But everyone says he sucks, how are the Broncos winning if he sucks?
B: Because he doesn't suck.

In case you live in a cave, Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos won a pretty big football game last week (against all odds!) and now head to New England to play the devil Patriots.  Though much has been made of Tim Tebow's playing style, I want to discuss the issue that all of his success is due to nothing greater than "good defense" and luck.

So let's talk a little football in Layman's terms, and I'll try to partially explain what makes the Broncos unique and effective, and how Tim Tebow is the driving factor behind this.  Let's start with...

The Broncos Rushing Attack (you know, when a team doesn't pass and instead hands the ball off to the running back to run):

The Broncos lead the league in rushing this season with an average of 164 yards a game (a lot of yards!).  Yes, because Tebow isn't a great passer, they rushed more often than other teams, but they did at 4.8 yards a carry (pretty high!), which is well above the league average of 4.0 (see). 

Pre Tebow:

FACT: Tim Tebow didn't start every game this year for the Broncos.  In fact, the first 5 games were started by this guy:

Boooooo...Kyle Orton
And he quarterbacked the Broncos to a 1-4 record in this time.  Also, take note, Kyle Orton is completely immobile (not wheelchair immobile, but on a football field, no one is afraid of him running).

During Kyle's starts, the Broncos rushing offense was putrid, with only a 3.2 per rush average (as was customary for Denver over the past couple of years with Orton at QB).  The Broncos offensive line (the fat dudes who block), according to the respected football site Pro Football, is basically putrid and, if I recall (I can't access the stats as they are hidden behind a paywall, but take my word for it), each one of their lineman graded out negatively for the entire season.  Simply put, they aren't very good.  But when Tim Tebow was inserted into the starting line up, the Broncos rushing offense "magically" skyrocketed to the best in the league, averaging about 5 yards a carry.  When you have a successful running game, your team can eat more clock (allowing your defense to rest more and stay fresh..which has directly lead to a defensive resurgence in Denver), and it helps open up the passing game.

So, the question

OK, I'm assuming if you've gotten this far, you've all watched enough football to gain a basic understanding of the game.  Let's talk about a basic running play engineered by, Patriots Quarterback, Tom Brady (the Broncos opponent this weekend) for example.  Tom, like Kyle is immobile, therefore not a threat as a runner (though unlike Kyle, Tom is an AMAZING passer...but anyway...)

If the Patriots, or any team with a "normal, non running" quarterback runs the ball, he generally takes the snap, turns around, hands it to the running back (the quick black guy who stands behind him) who finishes the play.  The defense immediately recognizes this motion and has to assume one of two things:  1) that Tom will hand the ball off to the running back or 2) that he will fake the handoff and drop back to pass.  Either way, they don't have to account for Tom Brady ever RUNNING the ball, and the defense can concentrate on either the running back or the pass.  Because of this, a defense doesn't need to commit a defender to tackle a running Tom Brady. 

The Broncos do things a little differently because of Tim's unique running ability.  Though the Broncos will run the ball several ways, they often use a concept called the "read option." (any college football fan sees this every week, but its basically unheardof in the pros).  On this play, the Broncos keep their formation tight (ie using several blockers) and line up in a "shotgun formation" (where the Quarterback stands a couple of yards behind the center pre-snap) with a running back directly alongside him.  Each time they run this play, the defense now needs to account for THREE things: 1) Tim handing it off to the running back 2) Tim keeping it and running himself or 3) Tim faking the handoff (or his own run) and throwing a pass. 

For the sake of this conversation, let's just assume the Broncos will run the ball.  Each time Tim takes the snap, he reads the defense and decides, within a second, if he will run the ball himself, or hand it off to the running back.  Now, simply put, if he keeps the ball, he will run to the weakside of the formation (where there are less defensive players and offensive blockers lined up pre snap) , and if he hands it off, the running back will go to the strong side (where there are more defensive players, but also more blockers).  He makes this decision based on what kind of pursuit the defense takes.  If a defense is to "properly" defend this play, they will have to commit one/two defenders to the weakside to discourage Tim from running.  Because of this, it creates a natural mismatch on the strong side (the Broncos will have more blockers than the defense has defenders, usually by one guy, seven against six).  This, naturally, creates more yards.  If the defense overcommits to the strong side, Tim keeps the ball and runs to the weak side (with generally no one touching him for at least 5 yards).  Go to 4:57 of the video for a visual.  You'll see number 96 of the Raiders (black shirts) overcommits to the strong side and Tim take it around the weak for a big gain.  

Because of this constant misdirection, defenses tend to be kept off balance,and it allows an inferior Broncos line to dominate an indecisive defense on running plays.

Now, to defend this, a defense needs to keep more defenders at the line of scrimmage than they would against a normal team, which is why you generally hear that defenses have to play "8 in the box" against the Broncos.  What that means is that teams place one (of two) of their safeties (generally the last line of defense) near the line of scrimmage to help stop the run (against good passing teams, that safety would remain deep to guard against the pass).  Because defenses have to constantly account for this, there are less defenders to cover Denver receivers, creating simpler passing reads for Tim and one-on-one match ups, which are easier to exploit.

Lets take the 80 yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas in last weeks Overtime for example (I'm sure you all saw this).

So, you see the Broncos are in a bunched formation and bring Eddie Royal (the receiver at the bottom of the screen) in motion to the slot (towards the rest of the fat guys) just before the play starts.  This signals to the defense that this will be a RUN play, because 99 percent of the time, the Broncos run out of this formation, and its hard to stop without an adequate number of defenders close to the line of scrimmage.  Knowing this, you'll see the safety at the top of your screen run towards the line of scrimmage to help stop the run.  Because he did this, there is NO one deep to help in pass coverage.  The Broncos fake the run, and pass over the top to exploit the one-on-one mismatch between Demaryius Thomas and Ike Taylor (Pittsburgh cornerback...the guy covering the receiver) for a touchdown.  Broncos win (yay!)

Now, New England will not employ a similar defense (nor will any other team) as Pittsburgh did, but the point of me showing this is that, because teams have to commit extra defenders to the run (due to the presence of Tim Tebow), it creates potential big passing plays for the Broncos (as long as Tim can be accurate to complete them, which has been an issue for him this season, though clearly not last week).

All the above is fairly unique to the Denver Broncos and, if Tim is playing well, it causes headaches for defenses because it becomes a "pick your poison."  Tim is still a raw QB, a young one (only starting his 15th game), so he still has a ways to go, but as he continues to improve, he will continue to be a mystery for opposing defenses.  You might ask, "why doesn't every team do this?"  Simply put, most teams don't have running Quarterbacks big enough to absorb NFL punishment, nor do they want to put their multi-million dollar investments in constant harms way.  The plays described above were once thought of as merely "college" plays that wouldn't "work" in the NFL, but that perception is changing.

Again, this is a very simple explanation...but you'll see, it's not all "luck." 

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