Broncos still look for more in passing game

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – When the Denver Broncos were busy going about the business of revamping the league’s record book last season, quarterback Peyton Manning was ruthlessly efficient working the ball all over the field to an array of pass catchers.

It was the classic take-what-the-defense-gives-you approach, with the Broncos taking all they could and a little more as four different players had at least 10 touchdown receptions on the way to Manning's 55 scoring passes on the season. This time around, through their first three games, the Broncos’ offense has been dominant at times, sluggish at times and a little of both at times, even a little of both during the same possession. And something is still a little off.

Offensive coordinator Adam Gase has said it, Manning has said it, that there have been good things, but at times the rhythm of what is an offense rooted in right-spot, work-fast timing has not been what they want.

Manning has worked the ball all over the field, to a variety of receivers, but there are some noticeable differences between how things have been spread around this year as compared to last season’s first three games.

Emmanuel Sanders, already on track for a career year, has been slightly busier in the first three games this year than Eric Decker was over the first three last year -- 33 targets for Sanders to go with 25 catches compared to 28 targets and 19 catches for Decker. Tight end Julius Thomas is on a similar pace as in '13. Last year he had 20 targets, 14 receptions and four touchdowns in the first three games. This year he has 17 targets, 14 receptions and five touchdowns.

The big differences this time around are with Demaryius Thomas’ output and Wes Welker’s as well. Welker, of course, was suspended for the first two games of the season and reinstated two games earlier than originally expected when a new drug policy was approved, so his work thus far consists of nine targets and six receptions against the Seahawks.

Last season, after three games, Welker had been targeted 27 times and had 19 catches and four touchdowns.

And then there’s Demaryius Thomas and at the moment, other than a run game with far too many negative plays, it is Thomas’ work in the offense that is among the biggest differences between what the Broncos have done in the early going this season as compared to last year’s assault on the record book.

While the 2013 season is not a fair gauge for the seasons that come after it given that the Broncos scored more points than any team in league history, Manning has still tried to get the ball to Demaryius Thomas this year at almost the same pace as last year.

Manning has targeted Demaryius Thomas 27 times in the first three games this year as compared to 28 times i ’13. But last year Dnemaryius Thomas turned those 28 targers into 20 catches and two touchdowns. This time around Thomas, with four drops, has 13 catches and one touchdown.

His 10.8 yards per catch is far lower than last year’s 15.5 yards per catch over the first three.

The gap this year between targets and catches -- a difference of 14 -- is an indication of Thomas’ drops, that perhaps he has had a sore left foot as well as Manning’s desire through it all to still get the ball to the team’s No. 1 receiver and shake things loose. And there's no reason to think those targets will go down since the belief is Thomas will find his groove soon.

It all means there’s room to grow for the Broncos in their passing game, that being 11th in scoring is fine, but not what they were looking for and they can, as offensive coordinator Adam Gase often says, “clean things up ... get things the way we want them.’’