ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- If first impressions matter, the Denver Broncos offense has not exactly put its best plays forward in the team’s 4-0 start.
They are the yin-yang team in the league at the moment, at, or near, the top of every major ranking on defense, but by contrast are operating at the other end of the spectrum on offense. And among the things that needs, and has received, the most attention from the team is first down.
Quarterback Peyton Manning routinely speaks of the importance for an offense to stay “on schedule," that a quality first-down play leads to second-and-short and “that maybe you go into that first down, second down, first down, second down, first down rhythm, that’s when you’re on that schedule, moving the chains, getting some points, hopefully finishing off those drives with touchdowns.’’
But while the Broncos defense is the league's stingiest on first down -- the Broncos allow a league-low 3.74 yards per first down play and are the only team that has allowed, on average, fewer than four yards a first-down play -- the offense has struggled mightily on the opening down. The Broncos’ offense has averaged a league-low 4.19 yards per first-down play to this point and that includes Ronnie Hillman’s 72-yard touchdown run in this past Sunday’s victory over the Minnesota Vikings.
Only the Cleveland Browns, at 4.16 yards per first-down play, are ranked behind the Broncos.
“I thought we improved [Sunday in a win over Minnesota]," said Broncos coach Gary Kubiak earlier this week. “It's always an improvement when you have a big run like we had. We got a little bit more out of our passing game as far as our play-action pass. We got the ball down the field more and I think that it all has to do with the fact that we just ran the ball better. We have a long way to go, but there was some improvement there."
The Broncos did have their first 100-yard rushing game from one of the their running backs -- Hillman finished with 103 yards on 11 carries -- as the team rushed for 144 yards, easily their best output of the season. That was a week after Manning had his first 300-yard passing game of the season in the win over the Detroit Lions.
“I feel like we can do more," Hillman said. “On offense you always want those second-and-short situations because then the offense can pick what we want to do."
Overall the Broncos have been fairly balanced on first down with just six more pass attempts than rushing attempts on first down. Manning is 31-of-54 on those first-down pass plays (penalty plays not included), for a 57.4 percent completion rate and lower than his 63.6 percent completion rate overall.
So, with the threat of either run or pass on the table, teams have been able to defend the Broncos passing game better. The Broncos’ offense also has allowed two sacks on first down, had three first-down penalties of its own and Manning has thrown two of his five interceptions on first down –- both of those against the Vikings.
Some of the issue is the Broncos haven’t stressed defenses much beyond the 10-yard zone from the line of scrimmage. They have just three plays, including Hillman’s run Sunday, longer than 20 yards on first down and only 11 percent of their first down plays overall (13) have gone longer than 10 yards. While that is a small sea of numbers it does lead to the shore of the bottom line.
“And we have to be better than that," Kubiak said. “We know that."
Kubiak has said the issue has been a “point of emphasis" in practice and he continues to hope a pumped up run game will help things along and believes even with their best rushing performance of the season against the Vikings, the team left plenty of rushing yardage unclaimed, yardage that would force defenses to commit more resources along the line of scrimmage and open things up for Manning down the field.
“We really did," Kubiak said. “We felt like, going back and watching the film, that we still had a few more that could have come out of there. We'll continue to work on that. I did think, as backs, that we made some tougher runs. I think that we made more than what was there a couple of times, which is something that we're looking for. I was very encouraged by Ronnie ... I just think that we've been pushing and saying that we think that there's more there. We're just being honest with them. We've been pushing them from that standpoint and I think that they went and got a little bit more than was there this week.’’
“As long as we continue to improve the running game, all of those things will come,’’ said tight end Owen Daniels. “Guys are getting it, we’re right there."