ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos offense, at least the one coach Gary Kubiak sees in the perfect world, is one that can run the ball with consistency and regularity. And it’s an offense that can flip the switch and go for it, turning the run-game production into big-play ability in the passing game.
"That’s kind of when we’re at our best," Kubiak said. "When you have that balance, when you can make (defenses) defend everything, you’re going to have some chance for big plays. We had those chances at times this season, but we didn’t make enough of them."
Where have all the big plays gone? The Broncos, even with two wide receivers (Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders) and a running back (C.J. Anderson) who were named to the Pro Bowl following the 2014 season, did not have the ability to, week in, week out, strike quickly on offense.
They had injuries in the offensive line, Thomas missed the offseason workouts during negotiations on a long-term contract as the team installed a new offense, quarterback Peyton Manning missed seven starts with a left foot injury that limited his ability to push the ball down the field long before he was pulled. And Manning’s replacement, Brock Osweiler, made his first NFL starts in the teeth of a stretch run.
The end result was the Broncos were tied for 29th in the league, with the Minnesota Vikings, with 41 pass plays of 20 or more yards. And after the Nov. 1 win over the Green Bay Packers, the Broncos had just one game with more than three pass plays of at least 20 yards. As a result, Kubiak said the Broncos were forced to adjust the offensive game plans this season.
"I just think it gets back to, OK, how does your team win? You don’t force issues and say, ‘This is what we’re going to be’," Kubiak said.
"As a coach, you’ve got to say, ‘OK, this is what we have. This is what we do best. How are we going to win on Sundays?’ That’s how I’ve tried to approach it. We’ve been young up front, so that’s been a challenge throughout the course of the year. The quarterback situation -- we have one that started nine games and the other one started seven -- so what are you doing at that time? This game is about adjustments and how do you win a game on Sunday. That’s what you’ve got to try to do."
To put those 41 pass plays into perspective, consider the Broncos' defense was No. 1 in the league in total defense this season, No. 1 in pass defense and No. 1 in sacks. In short, the Broncos' defense was the most difficult defense for opposing offenses to throw on all season and the Broncos defense surrendered, yes, just 41 pass plays of at least 20 yards this season.
"I think we had a whole new system," Sanders said. "I think we got more comfortable as the season went along … We showed at times what we could do."
The Broncos have a long list of prospective free agents, including Osweiler and running back Ronnie Hillman, but Thomas, Sanders and tight end Owen Daniels -- the team’s top three pass catchers this past season -- as well as Anderson, are all under contract for next season. And the team’s offensive line, with tackle Ryan Harris and guard Evan Mathis both free agents, is expected to get plenty of offseason attention.
Kubiak has said the team’s inconsistencies in the run game -- seven games in the regular season with fewer than 70 yards rushing to go with seven games with at least 134 yards rushing -- didn’t compel defenses to move more defenders to the line of scrimmage, a must for the Broncos’ play-action game to work.
"I always feel like when we have the run game going, good things happen," Anderson said. "We can dictate … really force defenses to worry about everything."
It’s no accident the Broncos had their two most productive days offensively -- with at least 500 yards worth of offense -- Nov. 1 against the Green Bay Packers (500 yards) and Jan. 3 against the San Diego Chargers (503 yards) -- when the team had two of its most productive days running the ball.
Their 210 yards rushing against the Chargers was their best total of the year, while the 160 yards rushing against the Packers was the fourth-highest total of the season.
"(The run game) has been important to us," Kubiak said before the Super Bowl. " … When we’ve run the ball well and when we play well, physically, we’ve had some good things happen for our team. It’s something that we can always, hopefully, try to get done … it’s been something that has been important to our football team."