For Denver Broncos' offense, bigger -- as in more tight ends -- is better

Tight end Noah Fant scored the Broncos' only touchdown against the Ravens. Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos' offense has scored eight touchdowns this season. Five of those have come with at least two tight ends in the formation, three have come with three tight ends.

In each of their three wins the Broncos used personnel groupings with two or three tight ends, including penalty snaps, at least 31 times.

And in their only loss of the season -- this past Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens -- the Broncos used those formations just 16 snaps. Their only touchdown of the game was scored, yes, by tight end Noah Fant.

The bottom line is when the Broncos cycle Fant, Albert Okwuegbunam, Eric Saubert and Andrew Beck into the offense, good things happen. When they don't, at least so far, not so much.

"It's always good to have all of us on the field at once," Fant said.

It starts with the speed of Fant and Okwuegbunam to go with the physicality at line of scrimmage with Saubert and Beck. Fant ran a 4.5-second 40-yard dash, at 247 pounds, in the months leading up to the 2019 draft. Okwuegbunam raised plenty of eyebrows at the 2020 scouting combine when he ran a 4.49 40.

Both times were faster than many of the safeties in those drafts and faster than virtually all of the linebackers. The two give the Broncos potential match-up wins just on speed alone.

Or as Saubert put it earlier this season, "Those guys can move -- it's crazy. It speaks for itself. Those guys are freaky."

In the ever-changing punch, counter-punch world of offenses against defenses in the NFL, a tight end who can run is a knockout. Coach Mike Tomlin, whose Pittsburgh Steelers host the Broncos on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, Fox), said the evolution of tight ends is making life difficult for defenses.

"You see guys like that week-in, week-out, it makes you ponder how you match up with them, linebacker or safety, or the mix of both," Tomlin said. "And when to do it and why ... there's so many of those guys in today's game, you're having that discussion two and three weeks a month."

For the Broncos, especially with wide receivers Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler on injured reserve, the more work they've given the tight ends the better it's gone on offense overall. The Broncos have consistently won matchups when tight ends are part of the plan. Both of wide receiver Tim Patrick's touchdowns have come from sets with multiple tight ends on the field.

Against the Ravens, with two backup guards in the lineup and the most blitz-happy defense across from them, the Broncos were in multiple-tight end formations roughly half of what they had done in each of their three wins. The Broncos moved to the three-wide look more quickly and more often despite pass protection woes (five sacks allowed and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater knocked out of the game).

The Broncos moved away from their running game overall as well, which seemed to move them away from their bigger formations. They rushed for 73 yards in the first quarter, 71 of those yards on called runs, but then downshifted to four rushing attempts in the second quarter and four overall in the second half.

"I think the running game started good early," Fant said. "I think we just have to keep on it. Sometimes those big plays don't bust all the time. You just have to keep on it and keep pushing forward with those. Sometimes you're only going to get 3 yards on each play, but you just have to keep grinding it. That's what I expect us to fully do. I think we have a good running game, and we can make a lot of yards in that area."

The Broncos may be forced to adjust some Sunday against the Steelers. Okwuegbunam suffered a hamstring injury in Wednesday's practice and did not practice Thursday. Broncos coach Vic Fangio, when asked if Okwuegbunam could miss the game, said "yeah, possibly." That could push Saubert and Beck into more duty so that the Broncos can maintain their most productive look.

For the season, Fant is second on the team in targets and Okwuegbunam is fourth. The Steelers have held the two best tight ends they've faced so far -- the Bills' Dawson Knox and the Raiders' Darren Waller -- to 41 and 65 yards receiving, respectively, and without a touchdown.

"I remember years ago when it was Tony Gonzalez and then everybody else," Tomlin said. "It's a little different in that regard now, there's a lot of guys at the tight end position with unique skills and ability to stretch the field."