Broncos look to be (a little) more grounded

March, 20, 2014
Mar 20
11:45
AM ET
When the Denver Broncos played offense last season, they were often driving toward history.

Their 606 points were a new NFL single-season record, as were quarterback Peyton Manning's 55 touchdowns and 5,477 passing yards. They worked fast, stayed aggressive and piled up the points, wins, and some did-you-see-that highlights week after week.

And why not? The league has constructed an environment to get the points it wants, and it’s easier to throw now, given the wording and enforcement of the rules, than it has ever been. Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay, who is a co-chairman of the NFL’s competition committee, which reviews any potential rules changes before they go before the owners for a vote each year, said Wednesday that the 47.682 total points per game and 697 combined yards per game last season were league records.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
Dustin Bradford/Getty ImagesMontee Ball and Denver's running backs might handle a bigger workload in 2014.
Also, 18 times a team overcame at least a 14-point deficit last season to win. That tied a league record, set in 2011. So, this is unquestionably the era of throw to score. Yet, the Broncos’ ability to be one win better in February in the coming season might rest on how well they do on offense when Manning isn’t throwing the ball.

“No question, we have to be better in the run game," said Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway. “... To keep our personality, our approach on offense, but to do better when we do run the ball."

By necessity, design, and just the simple fact it was working so historically well, the Broncos became a one-trick pony for the most part on offense. Oh, it was an awesome trick all right, the best ever, a never-before seen combination of speed, precision and grand design.

However, the trophy didn’t come with it. There will be the same number of Lombardi trophies in the Broncos’ newly renovated complex this September as there was last year in the now demolished lobby.

And after 606 points, 55 passing touchdowns, and six 40-point games, it’s simply bad football business to really expect the passing game to do any more of the heavy lifting to finish the unfinished business. So, with the ball in their hands, that leaves special teams -- and the Broncos need to be exponentially better on both their coverage and return units there -- and the running game.

Start with running back Montee Ball. In a support role last season, his 4.7 yards per carry led the three backs -- Knowshon Moreno, Ball, and Ronnie Hillman -- who had at least 50 carries last season, and his 45-yard run was the team’s longest rushing play of the season.

He’s the starter and also the reason the Broncos haven’t made much of a move to bring Moreno back. But with guard Zane Beadles' departure in free agency, the Broncos do have some decisions up front. Protecting Manning in the middle of the formation is always Job 1.

The Broncos are looking to be bigger, more powerful on the offensive front. And looking at the video from last season’s work, looking at some of the video from the available free agents in the offensive line, and in discussions with several personnel people around the league, their best move right now is still to bump Orlando Franklin down inside to left guard and play Chris Clark at right tackle.

There are plenty of scouts who have always believed Franklin came into the league with the potential to be a better guard than tackle after he had started games at both positions at the University of Miami.

And the feeling among those personnel folks is Manny Ramirez played better at center last season than he did at guard the season before, so a move back to guard wouldn’t seem to make the Broncos better overall. But there are some plug-and-play centers in this draft, including USC’s Marcus Martin and Colorado State’s Weston Richburg (a four-year starter who once had to snap with his left hand in a game because he had broken his right one), that will be worth a long look in the second round.

The Broncos were able to get by with the throw first, second and sometimes third, approach in the regular season if 13 wins and a big slice of scoring history could ever be called just getting by. However, in the playoffs their inability to move the line of scrimmage in the run game was a factor, particularly to the weak side when you’re largely running behind offensive linemen and no tight end.

The Broncos averaged just 1.6 yards per carry in runs over the left tackle in the three postseason games, just 2.43 yards per carry inside over the left guard. The figures were far better to the right -- 5.2 yards per carry over the right tackle in the postseason, and 4.4 over the right guard.

For a team that opens up the formation in three-wide receiver sets as much as the Broncos do (more than 70 percent of the time, and more than 90 percent down the stretch) with the tight end also in the slot or out wide, they have to be far more efficient on weak-side runs. Because they all look like weak-side runs with just the center, guard and tackle moving defenders and everybody else in the pattern.

No, they don’t have to box up a historical fast-break no-huddle attack, but in those times they need to do something besides throw, they have to be far better at it, far more committed to it. This includes Manning, because if you can't win a Super Bowl after the first-ever 606-point season, it might a good idea to consider another way.

Jeff Legwold

ESPN Denver Broncos reporter

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