ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – For one week, the Denver Broncos showed they are intent on getting things done while coach John Fox is away, recovering from open-heart surgery.
The Broncos moved to 8-1 with a 28-20 victory over the San Diego Chargers, continuing to show flashes of a team that is historically dominant on offense as well as one with a fast, aggressive defense that can change games. But they also showed some bobbles on both sides of the ball, enough so that the Chargers made it a game before all was said and done.
So, with that in mind, and a long look at the video, here are some thoughts on the Broncos' offense:
Running back Knowshon Moreno touched the ball on four of the team’s first five plays from scrimmage Sunday – two runs and two receptions. Overall, Moreno led the Broncos with eight receptions – on eight targets – to go with 15 carries. And he will have to be part of the answer moving forward because defenses have gotten progressively bolder against the Broncos' offense. Whereas the Broncos faced plenty of zone coverage to go with three- and four-man rushes in the season’s first five games, recent opponents have played more man coverage, roughed up the Broncos' receivers to knock them out of the routes and added a pass-rusher to go after Peyton Manning. Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano often added inside linebacker Manti Te’o to the rush after a delay, and used a variety of stunts to try to shake the rushers free. Moreno keeps the linebackers busy, whether in coverage or with play-action, and with Manning having to deal with some ankle issues, the Broncos will look for more ways in the coming weeks to slow those players trying to get upfield.
Manning identified Te’o in the formation at times and indoctrinated the rookie. Te’o took the bait on play-action on the Broncos’ third play from scrimmage as tight end Julius Thomas then drifted out, uncovered, and turned what was a 4-yard completion into a 74-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown up the right sideline. Pagano also used Te’o plenty in the pass rush, often having Te’o rush on a delay, into the middle the Broncos' formation after the offensive linemen had already engaged with other Chargers defenders.
The Broncos have given plenty of thought to trying to help Thomas perform better in a blocking role. One of the adjustments they’ve made is to let Thomas line up with his right foot forward when he is on the outside shoulder of either tackle, and that includes when he is lined up to the offensive right, alongside right tackle Orlando Franklin. It positions Thomas angled toward the middle of the field, rather than with his right foot back when lined up to the right, as would be customary. When Thomas has lined up in a traditional stance to the right, he often takes an extra step as he moves into a blocking position and can end up off balance or wrong-footed as he engages with the defender in front of him. It is an attempt to aid him with his footwork as he plays along the line of scrimmage. He is such a big part of the passing attack, they’d like to keep him on the field in as many down-and-distance situations as possible.
With so many defensive backs playing in off-coverage, with 7-to-10-yard cushions, the Broncos have repeatedly run screen passes to their wide receivers with great success. Manning gets them the ball quickly, and they make the most of the initial space to catch the ball. On Demaryius Thomas’ 34-yard catch-and-run score in the third quarter, Thomas started the play in the backfield and motioned left. Manning ran a play-action fake to the right to Moreno to start the play and quickly got the ball to Thomas, who had plenty of room to work. Toss in some quality blocks, especially by Eric Decker and Wes Welker to go with Chris Clark, and it went for a touchdown.
Offensively, the Broncos’ profile against the Chargers fit the mold, at least in terms of personnel groupings, of what the team did against the Jaguars a month ago. The Broncos were in a three-wide-receiver set on 45 snaps, including penalty snaps, and in a two-tight-end set 18 times. All of the two-tight-end plays came in the second half, after the Broncos had run the ball just three times in the first half. By contrast the Broncos were in three-wide for 72 snaps against the Redskins and for 69 snaps against the Colts -- their two previous games before their bye week. Against the Jaguars the Broncos played in three-wide for 39 snaps, including penalty plays, which is a season low. They used at least two tight ends in the formation 29 times against the Jaguars.