Rick Dennison and Gary Kubiak are disciples of Mike Shanahan.
Shanahan’s on a distant branch of the Bill Walsh coaching tree.
While Walsh’s core philosophy was “pass to set up the run” the Shanahan-Kubiak-Dennison offense first emphasizes the (zone) running game. It features a relatively high frequency of play-action, bootlegs, and the quarterback under center.
Easy, short completions are prioritized, as are yards after the catch. It’s a system predicated on precise timing and more “horizontal” passing than “vertical” passing, although deep shots are built in, typically off a play-action fake.
It’s a West Coast Offense.
Dennison’s first gig as offensive coordinator came in 2006 with the Broncos while Shanahan was the head coach. He held that role until 2008. However, Shanahan called the plays for the entirety of Dennison’s three-year stint as offensive coordinator.
Denver finished 23rd, 9th, and 5th in offensive DVOA those seasons, Football Outsiders’ efficiency metric. The (main) starting quarterbacks were Jake Plummer and Jay Cutler.
In 2010, was hired by Kubiak, his former Broncos teammate, to be the Texans offense coordinator, a position he kept until 2013, but Kubiak called the plays.
During those four years, the Texans finished 2nd, 9th, 16th, and 29th in offensive DVOA. Matt Schaub started the majority of the games at quarterback. T.J. Yates started a playoff game in January of 2012. Case Keenum started eight contests in 2013.
When the Texans fired Kubiak, and he joined the Ravens as offensive coordinator in 2014 and brought Dennison with him as his quarterbacks coach. Baltimore finished 9th in offensive DVOA.
For the past two seasons, Dennison has been the non-play calling offensive coordinator with the Broncos. (He did call a few games when Kubiak missed games due to health issues.) Denver finished 25th and 28th in offensive DVOA.
Now that Dennison’s timeline and (advanced) statistics are out of the way, let’s closely examine what the Bills’ offense will look like with him calling the shots.
These are just a few of the basic formations among the myriad of looks this system can show to a defense before the snap. There will be a fair of I-formation and two-tight end sets.
Over the past decade, shotgun has been incorporated to many of these alignments, but much of what Dennison wants to do from a formation perspective is similar to what Greg Roman and Anthony Lynn did with the Bills in 2015 and 2016.
There are many play-action possibilities because oftentimes more than one player will line up in the backfield with the quarterback.
As is the case with most traditional, “pro-style” offenses, motion will be used a great deal, especially with the fullback and tight ends. It’s utilized to create mismatches and to help the quarterback identify the type of coverage being played by the defense.
The classic “singleback” formation will appear on occasion, but typically, a fullback, H-back or tight end will be somewhere behind the line of scrimmage to either help as a lead-blocker, be a play-action decoy, or run a route.
Zone Running Game
This will be the biggest tweak for the Bills offense — mainly its offensive line, but it won’t be totally foreign.
The zone run game features offensive linemen who block a “zone,” not a particular defender on each run play. When this happens, the offensive line slants in the same direction, providing a plethora of creases for the running back to burst through. It sometimes naturally (and sometimes purposely) opens a cutback lane if no holes form to the play side.
Here’s a quintessential zone or “stretch” run from the Broncos this past season.
Buffalo’s likely (or potential) offensive players have been penciled in at each position.
The offensive line moves in unison to the right, and blocks a zone as it executes the “stretch.”
While there’ll be minimal (if any) pulling action from the offensive linemen, which is a staple of the Jim Harbaugh / Greg Roman offense, the lead-blocking fullback has a prominent presence in Dennison’s system.
LeSean McCoy was good in 2015, running in a power scheme with a ton of lead-blockers and exploded in 2016 in Buffalo’s smash-mouth system. But he did begin his career with Andy Reid, another Walsh disciple, who used a zone blocking system. The blocking gives McCoy plenty of options to utilize his amazing vision to find the best lanes, or he can “freelance” if necessary.
Because of the stretching element of the run plays, it also highlights McCoy’s elite lateral agility. Mike Gillislee is probably best suited to run in a downhill scheme, but his one-cut specialty certainly pairs well with zone blocking, especially when hitting the cutback lane.
Fullback Blocking Backside
Where the fullback aligns pre-snap is not always a dead giveaway as to the direction of the run. With the tight end next to the right tackle on this play, and the fullback nearly in line with the left tackle, the run direction is disguised.
Even if the defense guesses the run to the side with the bigger tight end as an extra blocker — which was the case on this play — the fullback acts as a backside blocker, which helps eliminate defenders chasing down the running back unimpeded.
It’s essentially a normal stretch run to the right, but the right tackle has combo-block duties, and it’s the fullbacks job to make sure the middle linebacker doesn’t make a play pursuing from the backside.
The same goes for the left tackle dealing with the outside linebacker.
About a second after the snap, these lanes were opened for C.J. Anderson.
The stretch run is the root of the entire offense. It asks for athleticism over sheer power from its offensive linemen. It also asks for a running back who’s not afraid to “press” the intended running lane... to either take it or make the second-level defenders over-commit, thereby creating a huge cutback lane. Arian Foster flourished doing just that in this system.
From the stretch run comes a variety of play-action fakes and bootlegs to the other side of the field.
Play-Action Bootleg With Crosser
The stretch run will be called out of variety of pre-snap formations and personnel but will look almost identical each time after the snap. It’s a smart way to lull the defense to sleep, especially with the capability of using play-action off of it.
With the offensive line stretching to the right, creating the defense to flow in that direction, here’s the pass play the Broncos set up for Trevor Siemian after a play-action fake was used to sell the run.
Siemian showed the football, and the line stretched to the short side of the field. The slot receiver ran a clearing route almost directly down the hash, and the outside receiver ran a deep comeback route, which also was essentially a route to clear coverage.
After the play fake, Siemian bootlegged to his left, whipped his head around and saw this. You will notice eight defenders on the opposite side of the field as the quarterback and where the ball is intended to be thrown.
Easy pitch and catch. That play-action bootleg can and will be run from anywhere on the field, in any direction -- to the quarterback’s strong or weak side — to any target.
Because of the amount of traffic the linebackers and, in some cases the defensive backs, have to sift through to get to the ball-carrier on the stretch run, they all have to respect to the run to that side which leaves the majority of one half of the field vacant.
But this offense isn’t just a combination of stretch runs and bootlegs. Over the years, Kubiak (and likely Dennison) have adopted “new” spread conceptions and featured much more shotgun.
This offense has evolved to deploy plenty of “trips” looks before the snap. Utilizing three receivers on one side of the formation — their alignment is irrelevant — creates mismatches and, occasionally, confusion in coverage.
In Denver, the Broncos utilized trips to open throwing lanes for Siemian.
(The orange circle is where the ball was thrown.)
The West Coast Offense is meant to stretch a defense horizontally, so most plays consist of at least one dig, drag / shallow cross, or slant.
Here’s another example of trips manufacturing a big passing lane for Siemian.
(The orange circle is where the ball was thrown.)
Deep Shot From Trips
This offense likes to be opportunistic down the field when receivers in it are facing clear, one-on-one coverage on the outside, which isn’t anything groundbreaking.
But many vintage deep-shot wrinkles are rooted in the stretch run and using play-action to manipulate the defense.
Against the Raiders, the Broncos lineup in a tight trips formation — the modern twist on this offense.
Pre-snap, this appears to be a blatant passing set.
At the snap though, the Broncos sell the stretch to the left, and Siemian does a good job to show the football for a relatively long time.
While the entire Raiders defense didn’t flow toward what looked like a run to the left, it’s certainly leaning in that direction.
As is typically the case with these play-action fakes, the throw is intended to be made to the opposite site of the field.
Here are the routes run.
The tight end initially part of the trips to the right simply flowed into the offensive line and became another pass-protector.
One receiver — here, Emmanuel Sanders — ran a jerk route. He sits down between the linebackers to keep them from sinking into deeper coverage then breaks back toward the sideline so the backside cornerback will notice him.
Jordan Norwood angled toward the middle of the field before running straight toward the front pylon of the end zone.
Demaryius Thomas ran the drag route across the field. The three-receiver combination of Sanders’ jerk route, Thomas’s drag route, and Norwood go route put pressure on the safety and backside corner, both of whom didn’t appear to be involved in the play whatsoever at the snap.
They have to make a choice. On this play, the backside cornerback bit on Sanders’ jerk route and the safety was a second late reacting to Norwood’s go route. Siemian hit him in stride for a touchdown.
Efficiency is the core concept of Dennison’s offense. High completion percentage, receivers catching the ball in a position to accumulate yards after the catch — yes, there are plenty of wide receiver screens — and routinely testing defensive back’s discipline in zone coverage with layered horizontal routes.
Because of all that and the heavy reliance on the run game, it’s a system often described as “quarterback friendly,” and the numbers back up that description.
In 2007, Jay Cutler completed 63.6 percent of his passes. The following year, his completion percentage was 62.3. After he and Dennison were separated, Cutler didn’t hit the 61 completion-percentage mark for the next four seasons. Matt Schaub completed 64.6 percent of his passes during his seven years in this West Coast Offense with the Texans. Brock Osweiler completed 61.8 percent of his throws in eight appearances last year with Denver. His yards-per-attempt average was 7.2 His completion dipped to 59.0 in 2016 in Houston, and he averaged 5.8 yards per attempt.
In 2014, with Kubiak as his offensive coordinator and Dennison his quarterbacks coach, Joe Flacco had a completion percentage of 62.1, which was the first time he hit the 62 percent plateau since 2010.
Dennison was the Ravens’ quarterback coach in 2014 when Tyrod Taylor was still in Baltimore. Because of the high-usage of “moving pockets” via play-action bootlegs, a quarterback with mobility is crucial. Both those facts increase the chances of Tyrod being the Buffalo Bills quarterback in 2017 and beyond.
In 2016, Tyrod’s best performances came when Anthony Lynn — also a Mike Shanahan disciple — put a greater emphasis on the short, high-percentage passing game, yards-after-the-catch, and staying dedicated to the running game.
After reading this article, all that should familiar.