ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos know what needs to be done to get everything they want headed into the postseason. They need to play the regular-season to the end, they need to win in Oakland Sunday and they need to stay as healthy as possible doing it.
If they accomplish all that, they will have home-field advantage in the AFC throughout the postseason and certainly will be one of the Super Bowl favorites.
And after a long look at the video from Sunday's 37-13 win against the Texans, here are some thoughts on the team's offense:
Last week, offensive coordinator Adam Gase was asked about finding some balance in the Broncos' high-flying offense and spoke of efficiency. "When we're efficient in our running game, that is when you're looking for that balance," Gase said. "When we're able to move the ball efficiently in the running game and the passing game, that's when you get that. It's never really going to be 50-50. You try to get that. A lot of times it's probably more 60-40 for us." And then against a Texans' 3-4 look on defense that consistently pounds away at quarterbacks against more traditional sets, Gase opened the game in a three-wide receiver, two-tight end look with no running back in the formation. The Broncos played their first six snaps in the look and Peyton Manning completed passes to five different players -- one completion was negated by a penalty on right tackle Orlando Franklin. The Broncos flashed the look again briefly in the second half. It was an intriguing tact to take, moving defenders out of the middle of the field, pushing the potential extra rushers away from the quarterback and giving Manning a little clearer view of the defensive front. Given the Broncos had used the formation on just two previous snaps this season -- both against New England, including a touchdown play -- it's unlikely the Texans spent much, if any, time this past week on the prospect of facing the look. And had it not been for two penalties, one on Franklin, one on Zane Beadles, the Broncos would have moved the ball better than they did, even with the one-dimensional, pass-only approach the formation offers.
If it were not for the staggering numbers Manning and the rest of the offense have continued to post week after week, what running back Knowshon Moreno has done, coming from an offseason stem cell treatment on his knee and with his roster spot in question when training camp began, may be more at the forefront. Moreno has consistently run with power and passion, been reliable in pass protection and an impact receiver in the team's attack. Moreno is one of three running backs in the league with at least 55 catches and has topped 1,000 yards rushing -- Matt Forte and Jamaal Charles are the others, with the Eagles' LeSean McCoy on the doorstep with four more catches. And the light has started to go on for rookie running back Montee Ball in recent weeks as well -- he's averaged at least 5.1 yards per carry in four of his past five games -- as a productive complement. But the Broncos lack some home-run pop in the run game. Moreno's first carry Sunday is an example of that, when he blasted through a hefty crease for a 31-yard gain with room up the sideline if he could have cleared the last defender (safety Eddie Pleasant). It's why there is still a place in this offense for running back Ronnie Hillman if he can earn his way into the rotation. For the season, with Moreno's run this past Sunday, the Broncos have had four rushing plays for at least 30 yards and one of those came on a fake punt by David Bruton against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
When the Broncos had finished their work in the first round of the 2010 draft they had selected wide receiver Demaryius Thomas with the 22nd pick, Tim Tebow with the 25th. Both were players who had played in an option-based offense in college who would have to adapt to the NFL. Tebow's work, both good and not-so-good, is well documented. Thomas entered the league as a player scouts believed had essentially run one route in Georgia Tech's triple-option attack. But with plenty of work and effort on his part, he is now a player with immense physical talent who runs precision routes, a combination that keeps defensive backs awake at night. His touchdown Sunday came on a spectacular post-corner-post three-pack of moves that turned Texans cornerback Kareem Jackson around and gave Thomas the room he needed for the 36-yard scoring pass. Thomas never lost his forward momentum as he ran the route, but sold each move and beat double coverage while doing it. His cuts are precise and when in the formation with Eric Decker and Wes Welker, there may be no other set of wide receivers with that kind of skill/route combination.
Penalties continue to vex an offense that is so disciplined on so many other levels in terms of performance. The Broncos had two flags -- four plays apart -- on their opening drive Sunday and right tackle Orlando Franklin had back-to-back penalties inside the two-minute mark in the first half, a drive the Broncos finished with a field goal. Franklin and defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson, who is on injured reserve (hip), have been the team's most penalized players this season -- each with 10 flags, including penalties that were declined.
The Broncos have now had consecutive games with three consecutive three-and-outs. And in the big picture that may seem like BBs off a battleship, considering all they have done on offense, the six possessions are worth a look. The Broncos had Manning drop back to pass 15 times on the 18 plays and two of the dropbacks resulted in sacks. The Broncos ran the ball just three times in those 18 plays -- twice on first down, for minus-1 and 3 yards, and once on second down for 5 yards. They were in a three-wide receiver set for 10 of the plays, in two tight end for eight of the plays, a fairly even split between their two most-favored personnel groupings.
Against the Texans' physical front and with Welker out with a concussion, Sunday's game was the first time this season the Broncos didn't run more plays out of their three-wide set than any other. The Broncos were in a two tight-end set, with two wide receivers, for 68 percent of the offensive snaps, including penalty snaps. They were in a three-wide look, with one tight end, for just under 23 percent of the snaps.