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.
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
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?