Broncos’ new scheme and O-line hurting run game

Despite a 2-0 record, the Broncos' ground attack has yet to click. PFF's Neil Hornsby explains why.

| 2 years ago
(AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

(AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

Broncos’ new scheme and O-line hurting run game

The overwhelming emotion emanating from the Broncos at the end of Thursday night’s game was a mixture of joy and relief. They had travelled to perhaps their key rival, and in a game they should have lost, came away with a “W.”

Despite problems with the discipline of their defense—six penalties, including three for unnecessary roughness—and initial sketchiness in their passing game, they came through. By the end, the defense was flying to the ball with control, and the passing game appeared to be its usual, clinical self.

Despite these positives, Denver still has significant issues. There was one facet of play that started poorly and never improved: the running game.

Over two games, the Broncos have averaged only 65 yards at only 2.8 per attempt—despite being in close games that allowed them to continue running into the last quarter. If they maintain that lack of big-time ground production, Denver will only crack 1,000 team yards for the season.

Compare that to 2014, when they gained 1,777 yards at 4.0 per attempt—a solid, if hardly electrifying, set of numbers, but well in excess of what they are achieving now. What’s the difference?

With the runners essentially stable, the obvious changes are on the offensive line, as well as the new offensive scheme. Let’s examine both.

Offensive line

To be clear, the group last year was not great, but somehow generated 2.13 yards before contact for their runners—a mark that was good enough for fifth-best in the NFL. That may be more indicative of defenses still fearing Peyton Manning’s arm than of any gaps they generated, but at least they did have 40 percent of the line run-blocking well. Both LG Orlando Franklin (after he came to terms with his move from right tackle) and C Will Montgomery had good years and garnered the only two positive grades in that facet of play. It was no surprise, therefore, that the left side a gap had the best return with 5.4 yards per attempt.

Both these players are now gone, along with Manny Ramirez (who blocked much better after his move to right guard) and Chris Clark (who had a poor year). In fact, only Louis Vasquez returns from the 2014 incarnation of the line, and he is now in a different position. Therefore, it’s not surprising that, in a line that is still coming together, every member is negatively graded; they have allowed their halfbacks only 1.4 yards before contact (25th in the league).

If the Broncos’ offensive line manages to make it through the year together, it’s highly likely things will get better. For now, at least, they have a lot of work to do.


For months, people have been speculating about head coach Gary Kubiak’s offensive scheme and how it conflicts with Peyton Manning’s style of play. It involves a lot more of the quarterback being under center—not something the veteran signal-caller has done much of recently. It’s certainly true that Manning looked a lot more comfortable in the passing game when he moved back to the shotgun against KC later in the game, but does it affect the running game?

Last year, the Broncos ran from the shotgun on 50 percent of plays (third-most in the NFL); this year, that number has plummeted to 23 percent (19th-most). This is a massive difference, for sure, but not exactly Kubiak’s M.O. Here are the results:

Denver running game: yards per attempt
Year Shotgun Under Center Total
2015 3.4 2.6 2.8
2014 4.9 3.2 4.0

Here’s the deal—last year, when he was the offensive coordinator in Baltimore, Kubiak ran the ball only 20 times out of shotgun, a league low of 2 percent. He also employed a fullback on 43 percent of all running plays. The 2014 Ravens were in three wide receiver sets on only 31 percent of plays (the league average is 53 percent).

In Denver, he’s never used a fullback once, and he’s had the Broncos in 11-personnel (three WRs) on 61 percent of plays.

This isn’t Kubiak’s offense—it’s a hybrid between what he wants, what Peyton would like, and the personnel he has at his disposal.

So the real problem for Denver is an offense that’s neither one thing nor the other, behind an offensive line that is still going through its growing pains.

Will they change their philosophy, or gut it out until things get better? Will either of those things happen before it’s too late?

At 2-0 (against two very good teams, it should be said) it’s easy to argue they have time—but just how much?

| PFF Founder

Neil founded PFF in 2006 and is currently responsible for the service to the company's 22 NFL team customers. He is constantly developing new insights into the game and player performance.

  • Cris Collinsworth

    This is the kind of analysis that sets PFF apart. Thanks.

    • anon76returns

      No patting yourself on the back, Chris!

    • J Sandoval

      I especially enjoy how they take off points for personal fouls, Denver’s Defense had 4 and that was just the first two drives.

      Denver’s Defense sent a message to the NFL with this game…Hit people as late as you want, as often as you want, all that you will get is a 15 yard penalty.

      It is good that PFF takes these things into account…looking at their results from analyzing the Chiefs – Broncos game shows that the Chiefs clearly had the better Defense out there Thursday night.

      • Taylor Christian Vance

        UH, no. Denver FORCED turnovers. Forcing turnovers is in fact a product of skill and design.

        • J Sandoval

          No one said anything about turnovers. Those turn overs didn’t help Denver’s Defense out perform the Chiefs in PFF analysis…why?

          Because Denver’s Defense committed personal foul, after personal foul, after personal foul, after personal foul (That is just the first two drives).

          Denver put on a ‘clinic” for the NFL…how to commit personal fouls early and often and not get ejected from the game, or suspended after the game.

          The Lions, Vikings, and Raiders Defenses are watching that clinic right now.

          • SpringsGal

            Personal fouls are subjective calls made by officials. There were couple of late hits on Manning that should have been called. But the officials swallowed the whistle. Also KC cornerbacks (especially Peters) practically mugged Demariyus Thomas over and over again. Most of which went uncalled.

            The flip side of the argument is that even though Denver was called for so many personal fouls, KC’s offense could not take advantage of all those free yards.

            Denver’s defense was aggressive. No question of that. Product of that aggressive play is “turnovers”.

            KC’s defense had the advantage of playing at home with the crowd noise hindering Broncos offense. After all was said and done, Denver prevailed.

            Certain games throughout the season make or break a team. This game was set up for Chiefs to win. It is easy to say that this is one loss in a 16 game season. But it is NOT. At the end of the season, I will not be surprised if this loss caused the Chiefs’ season to derail.

          • Taylor Christian Vance

            Especially playing Green Bay as a follow up. If they lose talk about the confidence impact.

          • Taylor Christian Vance

            Whoa, slow down there cowboy. Kansas city had 13 offensive possession all game. They had 5 drives in which KC got more than 10 yards offensively.

            Only 2 of those drives had Broncos defenders commit personal fouls. Ware had a personal foul on the first drive and Malik Jackson/ Von miller had a personal foul on the second. The Von Miller PF is questionable imo, the whistle blew miliseconds before Miller made contact with Alex smith. Those were the only personal fouls in the entire game for the Broncos and accounted for 7 of the Chiefs points.

            Malik committed a personal foul sure, but it wasn’t “nasty”. He fell on charles late, back first. It happens.

            Personal fouls had a minimal impact on the game. Denver’s defense dominated the Chiefs in 8 of their possessions. If you could the two drives in which Denver’s penalties helped the Chiefs move the ball, then that’s 10/13. The other 3 drives were supported by big plays from the chiefs. If i had to point out a weak point on denvers D, it’s that their over aggression allowed for the chiefs to get 3 plays of 30 yards, leading to drives that totaled 17 points.

            Get a grip man.

          • David Huynh

            Personal fouls were big. We gifted them 30 yards on one drive and 15 another another. They helped put chiefs in scoring opportunity.

          • Taylor Christian Vance

            This is true, both drives in which we committed PF’s were drives in which the Chiefs moved the ball 70 yards. However, Denver ended up forcing a fumble at the end of one, so it garnered the Chiefs only 7 points.

            While that can’t be overlooked(That’s one touchdown more than the Broncos allowed all last week), It wasn’t the main reason the game was close, and didn’t cost the Broncos much overall.

            So, lets get back to the context of the larger argument, which was “The chiefs out played the broncos defensively because the Broncos had several personal fouls”. Denver’s defense did allow 106 of their 314 yards allowed on those two drives in which they incurred a PF, however, they only allowed 7 points. Overall, I wouldn’t even come close to saying those PF would be a determining factor in whether the Broncos or the Chiefs defense had a better day. In fact, I’d say the Denver Broncos had a much better day defensively than the chiefs(PF included).

            The Chiefs offense right now, as I see it, is much better than the Broncos. When the Broncos are operating the Kubiak-Manning hybrid offense, it’s a joke. When Manning plays Manning ball, he was quite effective imo. Certainly it wasn’t as crisp as it usually is, but that’s to be expected with a new-porous offensive line and the practice week focusing on Kubiak centered ideology. The Broncos, meanwhile had to stop Jamaal Charles, one of the most versatile backs in the league while their offense failed to do much of anything for most of the first two quarters.

            While the argument goes both ways with the chiefs having to stop DT, Emmanuel Sanders and Peyton Manning in his traditional offense, the chiefs did little to exploit Denver’s awful offense Line for the second half of the game, despite PM having no running game to ease the coverage. The Chiefs knew PM was going to pass and really couldn’t capitalize. The Broncos meanwhile, efficiently played the Run and the pass, and forced 4 offensive turnovers.

            So, the Broncos had the better defensive game, imo. But the chiefs did work too.

          • Thomas Bell

            Yeah, what he said!

            I am still a bit foggy on this. Personal Fouls take away from a defensive scoring, not because the foul itself gives the team an unfair advantage, but because the 15 yards hurts their field position? in other words, penalties negatively affect the individual’s score, which in turn affects the team, right?

            Personally, I am not all that concerned with the PFs — they were more the passionate aggressive sort vs. the frustration vendetta fouls i.e. Orlando Franklin. Wade must have had a really good half-time talk. These guys listen to him.

            Something worth noting is that Denver hasn’t lost a fumble all season, on O or ST. And dropped passes seem to be at minimum. A contrast to the start of more than one Fox coached team early in the year.

            In terms of the running game, curious where those Hillman 7 yarders are coming from , and CJs 14 yard burst to start the game. Seem to be off right Guard? How often are the linemen moving in zone scheme, vs traditional power runs, as this doesn’t remind me much of the Terrel Davis wide pitch and cut back.

          • anon76returns

            The PF call on Ware was complete BS- Smith was in the process of throwing when Ware went after him, and Ware was being blocked into the ground at the time. The one on Miller was also debatable, considering the time between the whistle and Miller impacting the QB. Players are allowed a step after a throw to avoid a collision, but Von got less than a step after the whistle to do the same thing.

        • donnie johnson

          not really.

          • Taylor Christian Vance

            5 total turnovers vs a team that hardly gives the ball up. A great play for an INT by Talib. A tipped pass due to great pressure by the bronco D-line for an INT by Harris. Great pursuit to the ball, and direct contact with the ball on the second hit of the ballcarrier leading to two forced fumbles. I’ll ignore the special teams fumbles if that makes you happy.

          • donnie johnson

            Turnovers are pretty random in a larger sense, and will normalize over time. Bill Barnwell of Grantland, Football Outsiders, Football Perspective, and just about everyone else with a website and time to kill has written about this extensively. The Seahawks were first in takeaways in 2013, then 20th last year. The Chiefs were second in takeaways in 2013, then 30th last year. These cases are the rule, not the exception.

          • Taylor Christian Vance

            Well, when a team has established a method for creating turnovers, team’s will emphasize their protection against that.

            A good example is how Sherman covers the go route. He had a number of picks on QB’s trying to fit it in, and Sherman dominated. Now QB’s know not to test him in that situation at all. Game planning is a thing.

            If a team has a ferocious Pass Rush, Teams typically attempt to counteract this a variety of ways. Running more, getting rid of the ball quicker etc.

            If you have a team that contently pops the football out, you emphasize covering the ball leading to fewer mistakes.

            Statistical analysis doesn’t tell the whole story. This is a new Broncos defense with new tricks. Kansas city had less to prepare with and Denver FORCED critical turnover’s because of it.

          • donnie johnson

            Wade Phillips is a known commodity. His system and philosophy weren’t a surprise to the Chiefs. And to my point, Phillips has a reputation for his defenses forcing turnovers, yet he’s finished in the bottom half of the league in takeaways just as often as he’s finished in the top half. Heck, his last year in Houston, they were dead last in takeaways.

      • Ross

        I disagree. PFF ratings aside, when the game was on the line, the Broncos went 80 yards to tie it up in a minute and half. And made it look pretty easy. When KC had the ball, with a chance to win it with a field goal, the Bronco’s D forced the fumble and won the game.

        Also, the ratings don’t take into account the quality of the opposition. The Bronco’s O line has barely played together, and other than Vasquez and Mathis, their talent level is unknown. Under the circumstances, I would expect the other team’s D to grade highly.

  • Franchise Punter

    Simpler answer: they’ve just played two of the best run defenses in football. Last year they averaged 1.8 YPC against Seattle (#2 by DVOA), 2.8 YPC against St. Louis (#4), and 3.3 YPC against Arizona (#6).

    • cjfarls

      To be fair, KC had a lousy run D last year… but that was without DeVito, Berry, etc.

      But yeah, I believe a number of the Broncos were saying how impressed they were with KC’s run DEF, and both DEFs were awesome all around in Balt game.

  • Ross

    Another issue is that CJ is limping. His ankle has been bothering him since mid pre-season. Agree with everything else you said. Also, I wonder why they don’t use what worked two years ago – the hurry up slow down offense. They wouldn’t huddle, Manning would get the team on the line, look around for a bit, and read the D. If the safeties were deep, he would run it, and if the safeties were in the box, or near the box, he’d pass it. If they wanted to eat the clock, he’d run it down to to the last seconds before having the ball snapped. Fox got away from that last year. interested in your thoughts on it.

  • humper-dinkle dinkle-humper

    If Denver avoids serious injuries to key players, they have time to figure things out. Over the next month, they will not be playing terribly formidable teams. And I believe their bye is just before the Packers game. As long as the beating Peyton is taking doesn’t knock him out or give him a nagging injury like last season, there is time.

  • Taylor Christian Vance

    PFF, how often did Peyton Manning throw from under center last year? This is something worth looking into. If that’s the case, of course defenses would key on the Run when PM played from under center.

    If I was a defensive coordinator, and PM was playing under center, I’d call a blitz every time. PM has no time to throw the ball when he play’s from under center.

  • Malachi

    we’ve used a fullback plenty, he just happens to be a tight end, james casey

  • Douglass Pinkard

    A universe in which the Gary Kubiaks of this world tell the Peyton Mannings how best to run their offense is one that is barely worth living in. He should be fired for even ASKING Manning to ditch his system in favor of Kubiak’s. Gary bloody WHO?!