By Nick Shook
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The winless New York Giants traveled to Denver last week to take on the Broncos in what set up to be a blowout in favor of the Broncos. Well, that was at least the prevailing logic entering Sunday, seeing as the Giants were without their top three receivers, all lost to injury. There’s no way New York wins this one, right?
Wrong. While those who consider themselves clever whispered “trap game,” it was actually more than such a simple concept. This game wouldn’t come down to whether New York could score, but if Denver could keep the Giants‘ pass rush off Trevor Siemian.
Four sacks and 10 points scored later, the Broncoswent home a loser as Sunday turned to Monday, wondering how they lost what seemed like such a winnable game.
A look at the tape shows inconsistency along the offensive line that has made matters difficult for Siemian, who still managed to throw for 376 yards (on 29-of-50 passing) and one touchdown (with two interceptions). Let’s dive into the film.
Denver’s coaching staff knew from the outset that Siemian would be facing one of the league’s more ferocious pass rushes, and adjusted accordingly. Of the Broncos‘ 58 pass plays, 49 (84.48 percent) came out of the shotgun. On these plays, Siemian was able to use a quick drop, shortening his release time, which was an average of 2.55 seconds for the game and naturally kept the Giants‘ rushers at bay. You can’t sack a quarterback if he’s already thrown the ball, right?
The other nine came out of either singleback (seven plays, 12.07 percent) or I-formation (two plays, 3.45 percent). Denver used play action fakes generously, which also forced the Giants‘ pass rush to stay home, limiting their ability to cut loose and hunt the quarterback. These formations saw plenty of iso and power fakes and the occasional play action boot, though that was intentionally rare to avoid leaving Siemian exposed to opposing contact.
They might not admit it publicly, but the Broncos know where their biggest weakness lies along their offensive line. Denver often provided a running back to help chip edge rushers who were battling right tackle Menelik Watson. Sometimes, that helped. Other times, running backs vacated without chipping, leaving Watson on an island to get exposed.
Even blatant holding couldn’t help Watson keep Siemian from ending up on the ground on this first-quarter strip sack by Jason Pierre-Paul.
Watson wasn’t the only lineman to struggle against New York — to his credit, on the shorter drops, he wasn’t much of an issue by virtue of a lack of time to become an issue — and in what should be encouraging for Siemian’s health going forward, Denver’s staff has shown it has no problem using a quick hook on faltering linemen. Enter Allen Barbre, who had a rough first half on longer pass drops.
In the second quarter, Barbre was matched up against Pierre-Paul, who was lined up as a stand-up three technique. Pierre-Paul clubbed Barbre’s outside shoulder, and though he never followed through with the complementary rip move, he’d done enough to knock Barbre off course. Pierre-Paul rushed around Barbre and dove at Siemian, who was feeling the pressure and forced a throw into coverage. It was intercepted by Landon Collins.
To Siemian’s credit, he did a good job of completing throws despite pressure in his face — just not on this play, with pressure converging on him from all sides. The pressure was affecting him by the latter half of the second quarter, forcing a couple of quick throws from inside New York’s 15 as the pass rush approached the doorstep of a sack. These decisions turned potential touchdown-scoring possessions into field goal attempts, and Brandon McManus‘ 1-for-3 night didn’t help Denver’s cause.
Barbre returned later in the second quarter and did a good job picking up a stunt on third-and-3, but with New York’s defense letting it rip on an obvious passing down inside two minutes, Watson became the latest unlucky soul to get dominated by Pierre-Paul. The edge rusher didn’t even use an actual rush move, but just had quicker feet and after a quick fake inside, rushed around Watson’s outside shoulder, forcing Siemian to step up and escape the pocket for a nine-yard scramble.
An overload blitz got to Siemian as he released two plays later, resulting in an incompletion, but the repeated pressure showed its effects on the ensuing down. On Siemian’s first elongated drop from the shotgun — every pass drop of his had been three steps or less prior to this play — Siemian’s internal clock started going off, even with pressure not near him, and he telegraphed a pass intended for Bennie Fowler in the flats, which was read and intercepted by Jenkins who took it back for six points.
A quick Brock Osweiler insertion brought a little intrigue to the end of the first half, but not much else.
Short runs from a nonexistent rushing attack, incompletions, holding penalties and sacks short-circuited Denver’s offense in the second half. Ah yes, the sacks. Let’s look at those quickly.
First-and-10, 5:42 in the third. Siemian runs a simple play-action fake and drops to pass with a seemingly clean pocket. Garett Bolles starts to lose his control of defensive end Kerry Wynn but recovers as Barbre stumbles into the block as a result of center Matt Paradis stepping on his foot. As a result, Barbre disengages from his block on Damon “Snacks” Harrison, freeing him to sprint around the slightly crumbling left side and sack Siemian, who scrambled directly into him. If we had to assign blame here — wait, we do? — it’s a wash.
On this next sack, anticipation ruins the blocking scheme.
Garcia, reinserted at left guard in place of Barbre, sees linebacker Devon Kennard lined up in the B gap, showing blitz and serving as a standing three technique (much like Pierre-Paul did earlier in the game). Off the snap, Garcia takes four quick, choppy steps in anticipation of a blitz from Kennard, who insteads drops into coverage as defensive end Avery Moss slants inside into the gap. By then, Garcia is too far upfield to be able to double back in time to keep Moss from pressuring Siemian, and though Moss ultimately whiffs on the sack, he forces the quarterback to run into the pressure ahead of him, resulting in a Pierre-Paul sack.
Blame is pretty easy to assign there.
We move to the fourth now, where Watson has been replaced by Billy Turner due to injury. Turner, a guard, shows rather quickly how much of a difference there is in pass protecting the two positions. When playing guard, the blocker can engage a shoulder and expect occasional help from a tackle, meaning he doesn’t need to shield off the entire defender. Being surrounded by blocking teammates makes things a little easier.
But at tackle, you’re all alone. The same approach fails for Turner, as he engages just Pierre-Paul’s inside half and allows his outer half to remain free, a point of leverage Pierre-Paul uses to beat him around the edge and directly to Siemian for a sack and loss of 11 yards for Denver.
To make matters worse, Turner was lost for the season to a broken hand suffered in this game. And this week, Watson and Stephenson are sidelined with injuries, forcing the veteran Barbre to kick out to right tackle, with Garcia and Leary playing the left and right guards. No rest or reprieve for the weary in today’s NFL.
Denver won’t face a front seven like New York’s every week. But if the Broncos truly want to contend, they need to find consistency along their offensive line, which is better than last season’s abomination, but far from a championship-caliber group.
Follow Nick Shook on Twitter @TheNickShook.