Is Trevor Siemian still the answer for Denver at QB?
The plan for quarterback Trevor Siemian to run the Denver Broncos’ offense coming into this season was laid out in front of him. Lean on the best defense in the NFL and an improved running game, and make the expected throws—as well as a few tough plays down the stretch—in order to win games. Most importantly, take care of the football. Siemian and the Broncos have found some interesting ways to win, and all things considered, should be pleased to be 7-3 heading into the bye week, entrenched in an AFC West battle that has proven to be the best division in football.
The question was there before the season, and is now more prevalent than ever: Can Siemian and the Broncos’ offense take care of the ball and generate enough points to compliment the defense and make the team a legitimate Super Bowl contender? Or, is Siemian holding this team back from getting where they expect it to be? Have recent weeks given way to the belief that developing first-round pick Paxton Lynch with real-game experience may be the better option?
The roller coaster season of Siemian and the Broncos has been an intense ride through 10 weeks, and like last season—as expected—the defense is carrying the load. Denver’s defense is currently second in the NFL in takeaways, with 20, averaging two per game, and seemingly has a knack for timely turnovers when it’s needed most to pick up the offense.
Siemian was given somewhat of a pass early in the season while he was gaining experience and familiarity with the NFL game, and rightfully so. This is no easy task he was faced with, and his toughness throughout has been impressive. But the struggles have come to forefront of the team in recent weeks, with teammates and head coach Gary Kubiak showing frustrations with the offense.
While the Broncos’ Super Bowl run last year had some up-and-down play at times from the offense, with Brock Osweiler and an ailing, less-than-self Peyton Manning, they were still a capable unit. This current Denver attack doesn’t have that same type of feel as it did a year ago, even, ranking below their 2015 stats in most categories, and near the bottom of the NFL in the key offensive stats this season, including 27th in average yards per pay, at 5.1.
Before Siemian’s first start this season, I wrote about what we could expect to see from the former Northwestern QB’s game; so far, we’ve seen much of the same player as I described early on. Perhaps no quarterback in the NFL needs a running game more than Siemian, based on his style of play. With the running game not being what Denver had hoped, however—losing C.J. Anderson to injury was a huge blow—Siemian has been required to shoulder the load more than expected.
The area where Siemian has shown to be most comfortable this year is getting the ball out with quick timing and rhythm passes in the short-to-intermediate areas of the field, specifically outside the numbers. The running game presence earlier in the season was able to dictate coverage for him, often drawing single-high one-on-one opportunities on the outside, allowing Siemian to be decisive with his pre-snap reads and use his powerful arm to drive the ball outside of the numbers to two of the better one-on-one route runners, Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas. When Siemian is confident with what he sees, he is accurate and can make nearly any throw in the book.
The go-ball is something Siemian has connected with fairly consistently, posting a 116.4 rating on such routes, nearly 16 points higher than the league average. He constantly gives his guys the chance to make a play, as these opportunities have proven to be the difference in a few games (Cincinnati), and something that will need to come up big for him down the stretch. Siemian has also shown the ability to make some athletic, tough plays at times that have been big for the offense. The touchdown pass below in the Oakland game was a big-time play, and shows what he is capable of at times.
Recent weeks have seen many problems we expected from Siemian begin to surface. Lacking the consistency needed on a down-to-down, drive-by-drive basis, teams have been able to disrupt the rhythm of his half-field, pre-snap reads with post-snap movement and disguise from safeties, often confusing him with coverage. The lack of a running game has forced Siemian to face a few more 2-high looks than Denver would like. This has forced him to do the two things he has been least comfortable with this season: hold onto the ball longer and work in the middle of the field between the numbers.
Siemian has not been able to consistently decipher coverage in the middle of the field dating back to college, and the even the 2016 preseason. His passer rating between the numbers averages out to be 18 points lower than the NFL average for quarterbacks, with five of his seven interceptions coming in that area of the field, as well as a handful of dropped, turnover-worthy throws that could have spiked those numbers. For the season, Siemian is well below average on all in-breaking route variations (ex.: slant, in, crossing routes, post), with a combined average passer rating 25.8 points lower than the league average on such throws.
While his indecisiveness at times can lead Siemian to experience some accuracy issues, the majority of the quarterback’s bad plays are decision-based, not accuracy-based. Recent weeks have seen him throw the ball into coverage quite often, and has made Kubiak’s job of calling plays even more difficult. The Denver offensive line has had its struggles, specifically at right tackle, with Siemian under pressure at a rate 3 percent higher than the league average. But let’s be honest—the vast majority of quarterbacks in this day and age face consistent pressure, and at times, Siemian has created his own pressure by failing to feel the rush or step up in the pocket.
The big reason for Siemian winning the job in the first place was his familiarity with the system, and what Kubiak thought would be a better option in terms of taking care of the football over his competitors, Mark Sanchez and first-round pick Paxton Lynch. With the recent offensive struggles, would Lynch now be the more sensible option?
Lynch was forced into duty—and played pretty well—in the Tampa Bay game, but followed it up with a rookie-like performance against a Falcons’ team that controlled the Broncos on both sides of the ball. The rookie was under constant pressure and simply did not play very well under some tough circumstances, throwing an interception and showing some shaky ball security in the pocket at times. Although there are plenty of areas for concern with Lynch right now as well, he’s now 10 weeks into learning the Denver offense, and has been able to see what NFL games are all about—not to mention playing scout-team quarterback against the best pass defense in the NFL. The intrigue for Lynch with his arm and athleticism is there, and he might be able to see and feel things a tick better than Siemian is at the moment.
So, if the Broncos have a QB like Siemian, who is currently struggling to see coverage at times and throwing the ball in harm’s way too often, then why not go with Lynch, a player that may make some similar mistakes, but presents much more upside to make a few more plays throughout the course of the game with his arm between the numbers, as well as the athleticism to evade the rush and make plays with his legs?
The urgency for NFL teams at this point in the season is high, and possibly even greater for the Broncos’ offensive unit, knowing that Denver has a Super Bowl-caliber defense yet again. I hate to say that the next couple of games are make-or-break for Siemian, but that just might be the case. While Lynch may not be a great answer at the moment, either, if Siemian’s struggles continue against a tough schedule (Chiefs twice, Patriots, and Raiders), the move to Lynch may need to happen for the simple reason of just providing a potential spark.
The bye week comes at a perfect time for a reset for Siemian and the Broncos’ offense, giving Kubiak a chance to look at what Denver has right now in terms of offensive options, and perhaps come back with some creative ways to take the pressure off of Siemian. This may come in the form of simple passes to manufacture yards through the air, as well as ways to run the football more effectively.
The recipe for success for Siemian after the bye week is fairly simple: he must come back more consistent and disciplined with his reads, and understand that turnovers will lead to losses for this team down the stretch, as there aren’t many opposing offenses that can consistently drive the field on the Broncos’ defense. If Siemian can protect the football (without being too careful), find a few ways to manufacture more TDs in the red zone (where he is currently just 11-for-27 with five TDs inside the 10-yard-line), convert a couple key 3rd-and-7+ plays, and make plays at critical points in the fourth quarter like he has at times, he will do enough to help the Broncos continue to win games and make a playoff push.
Siemian was named team captain a few weeks ago for the last half of the season, obviously speaking volumes for what his teammates think of him, as well as showing the confidence the Broncos have in him going forward. If this really is their guy for the remainder of the season, Denver needs to rally around him and try to elevate his play. Receivers can’t get noticeably upset when the ball doesn’t go their way; it’s been showing up on tape week-to-week, and only adds to the pressure Siemian is likely already feeling.
The decision to go young at quarterback with Siemian over Mark Sanchez was a pretty risky one looking back, and Gary Kubiak is faced with perhaps his toughest coaching job to date. Kubiak has shown in the past that he is not afraid to make a tough quarterback change. As one of the best play-callers and offensive minds in the game, one would expect him to help Siemian out as much as he can, but ultimately, it will come down to how Siemian responds to a few of the key areas above. If he doesn’t, then playing rookie Paxton Lynch may just the best way to go.