Inside Slant: Broncos and 6-man boxes

September, 26, 2013
9/26/13
11:30
AM ET
There are plenty of advantages to covering an NFL game on site. Among the most underrated: Having an instant "All-22" view of the field from far-slung modern press boxes.

So it was pretty wild Monday night to watch from that vantage point as the Denver Broncos' offense carved up the Oakland Raiders in a 37-21 victory. The Raiders understandably spent a good portion of the game with two safeties deep, an extra defensive back off the ball and usually six or fewer men on the line of scrimmage.

That approach protects against big downfield plays, but leaves two vulnerabilities: Short passes and the running game. Predictably, Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning exploited both. The circumstances, however, did leave one (relatively minor) question in my mind: What will happen when the Broncos face a better tackling defense that plays the two-deep look better than the Raiders did?

[+] EnlargeDenver's Montee Ball
Chris Humphreys/USA TODAY SportsDefenses are inviting Peyton Manning and the Broncos to run the ball this season.
More specifically: Can the Broncos run the ball when they want to, not just when the defense invites it? They couldn't on Monday night, and we'll get back to that in a moment. First, however, let's look closer at what Manning and the Broncos did against the Raiders' scheme.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Raiders had six or less men on the line of scrimmage on a little more than two-thirds of the Broncos' offensive plays. That type of look invites a running play, and the Broncos obliged 21 times and gained 124 yards.

Manning also kept things notably short in the passing game, taking advantage of the underneath space the Raiders were giving him. His average pass traveled 6.6 yards past the line of scrimmage, tied for his lowest in a game since 2010. Of his 374 passing yards, 172 came after the catch.

In other words, Manning and the Broncos did exactly what smart offenses do: They took what the defense gave them. They finished with 536 yards of offense even though only four of their plays gained 20 or more yards. The longest, a 63-yard pass to receiver Eric Decker, traveled 15 yards in the air.

"The line made it easy to get into a groove this week," said running back Ronnie Hillman, who combined with Montee Ball and Knowshon Moreno to rush for 166 yards on 32 carries. "They had gashing holes. We were just going downhill. We didn't have to read nothing. They were just playing so soft that it just kind of helped us as a running back crew to get into a rhythm."

Hillman's sentiments make perfect sense when you realize he was running against a scheme that in essence is sacrificing run yardage to guard against big plays in the passing game. But when the Raiders lined up in an "honest" front -- seven or more men on the line of scrimmage -- the Broncos didn't have nearly as much success. In those instances, when their scheme didn't have the inherent advantage, they gained 40 yards on 14 carries.

The Raiders' approach represented a more concentrated version of what the Broncos have seen all season. The Broncos rank No. 5 in the NFL with 45 rushing attempts against six-man boxes, totaling 222 yards. Their 35 attempts against seven-man boxes (or more), and their 121 rushing yards rank No. 25 and No. 26, respectively.

Meanwhile, Manning is now averaging 8.0 air yards per throw, a figure that would be his lowest since 2006 if it continues through the season, and the Broncos have racked up 551 yards after the catch, second in the NFL.

The Broncos are in pretty good shape if their biggest concern is how effective their running game can be against run-based fronts. It's an issue that might not arise until the playoffs, but as we discussed Monday night, that's pretty much what this season is all about for the Broncos.

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