ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Well, for six NFL weeks it was largely sunshine and rainbows for the Denver Broncos offense. Then the Indianapolis Colts played far more aggressively than any of the Broncos’ first six opponents did and made it work.
But after a long look at the loss to the Colts, here are some thoughts on the Denver Broncos offense:
With the kind of size the Broncos put into the pass pattern on most plays, with the rule book tilted so far toward offenses these days, most defenses have elected to play in off coverages against the group and take their chances tackling. The idea being to limit the big-play opportunities and limit run-after-catch gains. It hasn't exactly worked for defenses as the Broncos haves scored at historical rates against it. The Colts chucked that thought aside, however, and their cornerbacks challenged the Broncos receivers with intent at the line of scrimmage. And given how fast Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning has been getting rid of the ball thus far this season, it didn’t take all that much disruption to affect the rhythm of the Broncos passing game. It has long been a Bill Belichick strategy, played out at its best in the Patriots win over the Rams’ Greatest Show on Turf offense in the Super Bowl when the Patriots manhandled running back Marshall Faulk in the pass pattern. So much so the league quickly made downfield contact a “point of emphasis’’ for the league’s officials that is still in place. But the get-physical tactics seemed to frustrate the Broncos receivers at times. At 6-3, 214 pounds and 6-3, 229 pounds respectively, Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas have routinely overpowered smaller defensive backs in their careers. But Manning wasn’t quite as sharp as he has been and the Broncos wideouts, Wes Welker included as well, didn’t always earn the separation they needed to make a play. It’s certain to be something the more forceful defensive minds left on their schedule, like say Belichick, will consider moving forward.
The Colts used some inside info to devise a plan on Welker Sunday, namely cornerback Darius Butler. The Colts repeatedly matched up Butler on Welker, certainly believing all of those day-to-day battles the two had with the Patriots would help in some way. Butler played for Patriots in 2009 and 2010 and personnel people around the league routinely take notice of defensive backs Belichick drafts -- Butler was a second-round pick in ’09 (41st overall) -- because he is regarded to have one of the league’s best set of eyes at the position. One of Welker’s best traits, and there are many, is the ability to set one route up off another he ran earlier in the game. Because he is so disciplined in his route running he doesn’t often tip his hand, the defensive backs across from him often play the percentages and what they’ve seen from him earlier in the game. So when he changes a route later in the game, they often can't adjust quickly enough to keep him from the ball. Butler fared well early in the game -- Welker had just one catch for three yards in the first half -- but Welker found his rhythm after halftime with six catches for 93 yards in the second half. Butler tried to play tendencies later in the game, but Welker made the adjustment, often getting free because he varied his approach.
The Colts essentially challenged the Broncos to run the ball, playing with two deep safeties for much of the game, and the Broncos couldn’t run Indianapolis out of that approach. The Broncos couldn’t make room to run seven-man fronts much of the time -- they finished with just 64 yards on 20 carries. The Colts, playing out of a 3-4 look much of the time, consistently clogged things up and the Colts usually kept the safeties away from the line of scrimmage. It made for a bigger crowd for Manning to throw through much of the night.
The sample size is relatively small at just seven games, but while Broncos tight end Julius Thomas is not nearly as proficient at this point in his career as a blocker as he is a receiver he seems to fare better from a three-point stance than he does standing up to open a play. From a three-point stance he seems to keep his hips lower and maintains his base with more consistency. When he lines up standing, just off the outside shoulder of the tackle, he tends to play higher when asked to block out of that set. As a result he quickly gets pushed off his spot and often can’t gather himself enough to anchor. On Manning’s fourth-quarter interception, a play where Colts outside linebacker Erik Walden shoved Thomas all the back to Manning and Walden got close enough to hit Manning’s arm, Thomas opened the play standing up in a two-point stance.
With left tackle Ryan Clady on already on injured reserve and right tackle Orlando Franklin out of the lineup because of an ankle injury, the Broncos tried to remain true to their offensive philosophy. They lined up in a three-wide receiver set on all but eight snaps -- penalty snaps included. As you would expect they scored all four touchdowns out of three-wide, but they also surrendered three of their four sacks and Manning’s interception came on a protection breakdown in the three-wide set. Like the Colts, the Redskins will bring a 3-4 defense defense to Denver this week with some pop in the pass rush with outside linebackers Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo. It may force the Broncos into a little more two-tight end look to maintain the edges of the formation.
Three of the four sacks the Broncos surrendered -- they had surrendered just five in the previous six games coming in -- came with Manning in the shotgun. Fifteen of the Broncos’ 20 run plays came out of the shotgun; either the pistol, where Manning stays in front of the running back but is not under center, or the traditional shotgun.