Demaryius Thomas became Public Enemy #1 with Broncos’ fans last season. As the year wore on, the grumbling got louder about his performance; however, there was more going on than meets the eye. His bothersome hip, which we’ve only now discovered how aggravated it was last season, wasn’t the only problem.
The problem boils down to the fact under last year’s scheme, DT wasn’t’ being used as a traditional wideout that Bronco fans were accustomed to in prior seasons. It’s important to note that the role of slot and wideout receivers aren’t the same. However, DT was often used as a glorified one even when lined up wide.
Slot Receivers (the Y) line up inside and are predominately thrown passes into coverage in the middle area of the field; therefore, they get hit hard, a lot, causing more dropped passes. Their routes are typically more ‘comeback’. Meaning, not hit in stride. They’re turning around towards the ball. There are many types of these routes, but for simplicity’s sake, just going to call any route that requires the receiver to turn towards the ball while still moving/stopping/running, a comeback.
Slots are typically quick guys off the line with great short bursts of speed, but smaller and sturdier than a wideout. These guys take hits. Repeating: A lot of them. They have great hips and the ability to stop, start, spin quickly. They usually need to see the ball to catch it and have smaller hands. These are the guys you target inside ten yards. Short yardage guys. The Floyd Mayweathers of wide receivers. Because a slot is showing the QB more of his torso since he’s turned towards him, balls thrown to them don’t need to be as accurate. They have a bigger target area and the slot is looking at the ball coming at him. This makes him invaluable to a rushed or new QB.
Wideouts line up outside and typically run routes that only their head moves and a shoulder. The ball comes to them while they’re running….from behind. Often catching balls, blind. These guys have big hands meant to grab passes out of the air, over their shoulder and use their big bodies to shield it from a defender. These are fast, long stride guys. Hit these guys in stride and…he gone. Gone like a freight train because they’re matched up against DBs who are typically smaller than bruising linebackers.
Most wideouts are fast, but not quick. Hitting a 6’3″ wideout while he’s on a ‘comeback’ route, then expecting him to turn around quickly and have a burst of speed is tough. These guys aren’t the ones winning the 110 sprints, they’re winning the 220. They’re not usually going to beat a CB off the line, but they will beat them downfield once they get those long legs moving.
Why have I gone into depth on this? Because wideouts are the guys you typically target down the field or the sidelines where ball placement needs to be more accurate. So does timing. Except on jump balls, those rainbow passes that rely on the WO to adjust to. Those are a little easier than a ball on a rope 15 yards out. In the long run, asking a wideout to act like a slot isn’t a recipe for success. Physically and game wise.
First, because they’re big guys. Getting them off the line, running five yards out, swiveling their big bodies around to turn towards the QB to make the catch and then take off without both a DB and a LB there is difficult. If you’re going to do that, a screen is a better choice because it gives the wideout more space to get up to speed and therefore a better chance at getting more yardage, out running defenders.
Second, the very nature of turning back towards the ball often means you’re no longer along the sideline. The closer to the middle of the field, the more defenders to hit you. That means less break out runs. The giddy, dizzy ones we’ve grown accustomed to expect from our wideouts. That beautiful one against Cincinnati. Plus, tall guys have more area to hit.
Crossing routes, picks, rubs, whatever, work with wideouts even though they’re in the middle of the field because while more of their body is turned towards the QB, they’re still moving, shedding their defender. Often, the underneath guy, the one more in line with the linebacker, is the slot. I call him the sacrificial lamb. If the QB can’t throw through the traffic to the top wideout, he hits the slot who is now the meat in a linebacker sandwich. He’s the safety net. The security blanket. The guy who gets concussed. Another player we saw very little of.
So, what does this have to do with DT? He may have lined up as a wideout, 77% of the time, but his routes were more as a slot, even when lined out wide, way too often. And Emmanauel lined up as one 18% of the time. There was no dedicated slot, turning our wideouts into one 31% of the time. Sheesh.
Look at how DT’s YAC dropped with scheme and QB play. How the less he was thrown to, the worse he did. Not just yards, but in every category.
FYI, DT has never been healthy, not even as a rookie. He’s had several chronic injuries from foot to shoulder to hip. Even in 2013, he missed time because of ailments, so saying his hip was the lone reason doesn’t explain every other year he played hurt.
Moving on, why didn’t we see more screens if they’re easier for a WO and go with a conservative game plan that Kubes style uses?
It may be that the OL on the left wasn’t gelled enough to pull it off. Remember, ZBS guys are smaller than Spread OL, who are Big Boy Mamajamas, they rely more on technique. It also takes a QB who has finesse and can sell it. Not only does he need touch and guile, but the speed to react if a defender does burst through and be able to toss it over his head.
Two of the interceptions that Siemian threw were on screens. It seems that the game plan last year was extremely cautious. Incompletions were ok, short passes were ok as long as the ball isn’t turned over. On the few occasion he threw the ball behind ten yards, he seemed unprepared for it
His natural inclination is to drop back, look far left, left, then center, then right. The right sideline passes are from him throwing on the run heading in that direction. Or are in the Red Zone. Are they connecting in practice, but losing it in games? If so, do we have a problem with our scout team defense? Or is it the QB? The scheme?
“Most of the routes I’m catching now these past two years were down the field or deep comeback, or a deep in where it’s bang-bang. But now, it’s not bang-bang because you have so many options on the field. You can spread out with so many other players running around. With us, most of the time, it was wide receiver here and a wide receiver here. It was two safeties on top of each one of us.”
Translation: the last two years he was either running down the sideline for a jump ball or he stopped, waiting for the ball, making him a target to get hit immediately. Like what happens to a slot. Now, he’s getting passes while he’s in stride and other WR’s are out there so less people to double team him. This in itself should help keep him healthier.
Under Kubes and Dennison, the Broncos were no longer an aerial attack team. This means DT was virtually learning a new position. Instead of getting off his mark, running a good route to shake his defender and catch a ball in stride, he became a glorified slot that required a skill set outside his wheelhouse. The shift to a McCoy offensive scheme will have tremendous benefit for DT this year as well, not just a healed hip injury.
How well he does though, could very well be up to whom is taking snaps from the Center. Use DT as a wide out, throw to him often, hit him in stride with aggressive throws and he could see 2012-2014 numbers again.