ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- With the injuries piling up, the Denver Broncos breathed a sigh of relief when they concluded their business Sunday -- a 45-21 victory over the Washington Redskins -- and headed into their bye week.
They'll do a little self-scouting this week and hope to get a little healthier across the board. But after a long look at the win over the Redskins, here are some thoughts on the Broncos' offense:
Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase showed he will diversify things to make it more difficult for defenses to lock into quarterback Peyton Manning's top three targets -- Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Eric Decker. He flashed one snap with Trindon Holliday lined up in the backfield. Holliday often lined up at running back at LSU, so the 170-pounder is more than willing to run in the high-traffic areas -- and he had a 7-yard carry in the first quarter. If Holliday can take care of the ball, he offers some offensive variety given his history as both a back and receiver to go with the speed that made him an NCAA 100 meters champion. If the Broncos use him a little more from time to time, it won't scream "trick play" so often when he lines up in the formation. They have also incorporated running back Knowshon Moreno into the team's passing game. Over the last three games, Moreno has been targeted 10, six and six times and Sunday he had his first receiving touchdown on a 35-yard catch-and-run screen play.
It's clear after the last two games, especially since the Colts did it in their win, that the book on the Broncos receivers is to push the contact limits to get them off their routes. Defensive coaches always say look for the receivers constantly looking for the flags after they don't make the catch -- those are the ones thinking about something other than catching the ball. The Broncos' wideouts have to go a little old school, do it the way receivers did before the league made it a priority to limit what defensive backs could do and let the receivers run free. Pass catchers have to get the defensive players' hands off of them with their own willingness to mix it up in close quarters. The Broncos have plenty of size on the outside in Thomas and Decker; they should be able to work themselves free. They're going to have to, especially in the coming weeks when they face the Chiefs' physical defense twice to go with the Patriots'. New England coach Bill Belichick has fouled up more than one offensive game plan over the years by jostling receivers who let it get to them.
When the Broncos do bunch up the receivers, it helps them create that needed space as well against man coverage. The defensive backs can't all line up in press coverage if the receivers are bunched together. The Broncos made it work on their first touchdown of the game when Thomas ran a slant from the outside position and Welker cut in behind Thomas and headed to the flat. The Redskins' defensive backs got tangled by what is a natural pick play and Welker had all the space he needed to get the corner for the 6-yard touchdown. Center Manny Ramirez showed quality movement skills on the play, as did guard Zane Beadles.
Given the injuries the Broncos have had up front in the offensive line of late -- right tackle Orlando Franklin (ankle) missed the loss to the Colts and gutted out a painful day against the Redskins -- the Broncos made tweaks in their three-wide receiver look to give Manning reinforcements against Washington's rush. With three wide receivers in the formation, they routinely lined up the tight end and running back in the backfield alongside Manning. They bracketed Manning with the two players on several snaps and in the pistol, with Manning in a shorter shotgun set. They put Moreno behind him with whatever tight end was in the game right next to him. The Broncos also had one snap with a tight end on either side of Manning in the backfield. It is something they'll have to look to in the coming weeks as well, given the Chiefs lead the league in sacks and the Patriots are tied for eighth.
The Broncos leaned more on the three-wide set more than ever against the Redskins' 3-4 look. They were in a three-wide on 72 snaps, penalty snaps included, with three of those with an empty backfield. As you would expect with that kind of personnel grouping, both of the Redskins' sacks came against the three-wide set, and Manning threw three of his touchdown passes out of it. He threw the fourth touchdown with three tight ends to go with defensive tackle Mitch Unrein in a short-yardage look.
Manning's 13 completions between 11 and 20 yards accounted for his highest total of that range for the season and included plenty of yards-after-the-catch work on 35-yard touchdown by Moreno and Thomas' 35-yard catch-and-run in the fourth quarter.
The Broncos also ran the ball 22 times with Manning in the shotgun with limited success. The Broncos didn't have a run longer than 11 yards in the game but did keep the run game part of the game plan -- 34 carries, the second-highest total of the season -- and that kept the Redskins' defensive front honest, especially when the Broncos flashed play-action.