ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – In a season when they have largely kept the pedal to the metal and simply overwhelmed those in front of them with the league’s highest-scoring offense, the Denver Broncos found things a little more difficult than most expected this past Sunday.
But after a long look at the win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, here are some thoughts on the Broncos' offense:
It can be camouflaged at times because of the impact the three wide receivers – Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker – have had this season, but people would be hard-pressed to scan the league’s rosters and find as good a collection of tight ends anywhere. And with all four of the Broncos' tight ends now back, healthy and circulating in the offensive game plan, the offense’s ability to find big plays down the field will improve as defenses have to deal more and more with the big guys in the pattern. The Broncos used all four tight ends – Julius Thomas, Joel Dreessen, Jacob Tamme and Virgil Green – against the Jaguars, with Thomas having played all 74 plays the team had on offense. Dreessen checked in at 19 plays, Green had 15 and Tamme had nine plays. It gives the Broncos the option of playing both big and small within the same personnel grouping. A look with Tamme and Thomas is closer to a three-wide-receiver set, whereas if the Broncos simply want to pound they put Dreessen, Green and Thomas in the formation. They can still put Demaryius Thomas out wide in the three-tight-end set, and with Thomas there it gives them the ability to play a power look with two matchup dilemmas in the pattern in the two Thomases if they want to go with play-action and throw the ball. In the second half Sunday, especially in their two scoring drives after right tackle Orlando Franklin left the game with knee and ankle injuries, the Broncos consistently moved the ball with the group in the lineup.
It was just one play, but you have appreciate the texture of quality design from time to time. And when the Broncos were able to convert a third-and-20 on their first possession of Sunday’s game, it was because of what offensive coordinator Adam Gase and the rest of the offensive staff drew up worked just fine. Peyton Manning hit running back Knowshon Moreno with a short dump-off after Moreno had leaked out of the backfield a little late and the Jaguars rushers were already working their way upfield. In a three-wide look, the Broncos had also constructed the pass routes on the play to put the three receivers in position to block for Moreno once he had the ball. So, when Moreno made the catch, the three receivers, already clustered in the middle of the field, simply turned and blocked the defensive back on them in man coverage. The result? Moreno had a clear path to pick up an improbable first down because the Broncos' three wide receivers were willing to roll up their sleeves and block it up for somebody else. “I just caught it and it was open in front of me,’’ Moreno said. “It worked great, those guys just cleared it out.’’
Manning has made a Hall of Fame living on playing the percentages against the defenses in front of him because of his otherworldly preparation. But there are times the defense gets a win on a play because they have studied Manning as well. Manning’s interception just before halftime, which Jaguars linebacker Paul Posluszny returned 59 yards for a touchdown, was a result of Manning trying to jam a ball into a route that has resulted in a pile of big plays over the years, and the Jaguars floated Posluszny into the passing lane just in case Manning tried it. Manning was trying to hit Welker, who was sprinting out of the slot on the left side of the formation. Welker was already essentially doubled, with Jaguars cornerback Mike Harris with inside technique and safety Josh Evans closing on Welker’s outside shoulder. Double coverage, yes, but certainly the kind of pass Manning has fit into similar spaces hundreds of times. But knowing when, and where, on the field and against what look on defense Manning likes to make that throw, the Jaguars then floated Posluszny underneath. The ball was slightly underthrown – Manning called it a “total force’’ – and the interception followed.
In reality, the time to make those coveted halftime adjustments is severely limited. At least by the time any injured players get some brief treatment, any uniform issues taken care of and 53 players take care of assorted other things. But the Broncos are money in the offensive bank coming out after halftime thus far, as defenses routinely have given them the same looks they used in the first half. The Broncos have come out after halftime knowing what they want to do and have executed those plans with ruthless efficiency. In six games this season, their first possession of the second half has ended with a touchdown five times and with a field goal once. Sunday was no exception as they opened the second half in their three-wide look for the first six plays of what became a touchdown drive until they went to their heavy package -- three tight ends and two backs, with defensive tackle Mitch Unrein at fullback, from the Jacksonville 1-yard line. “You just get together and decide what could work,’’ Manning said.
The Broncos prefer Moreno as the running back in their three-wide-receiver look because of Moreno’s skills in pass protection, but that doesn’t mean they have stuck to the plan when Ronnie Hillman is in the formation. When Moreno has been the back in the three-wide set the Broncos have thrown a little more than 70 percent of the time. When Hillman is the back in the three-wide set the Broncos have thrown the ball 69 percent of the time.