ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Those who have been around the Denver Broncos year after year, season after season, have seen what it looks like when the team craters its playbook.
That was 2011 when, between an Oct. 30 blowout loss against Detroit and a Nov. 6 win over Oakland, the Broncos shoved aside a traditional offense and put Tim Tebow in a read-option offense for the remainder of the season.
This, what the Broncos have done so far in a 3-0 start, is not that drastic. But they've continued to kick the tires as they try to find something that works for all involved, from Peyton Manning at quarterback to coach Gary Kubiak on the headset. And Sunday’s wrinkle – putting Manning in the pistol formation – is something that just might stick.
“We operated cleaner,’’ Kubiak said. “That's the best that we've protected our quarterback. Whether it was the pistol or whatever, it's the best that we protected him. There was some progress from that standpoint. ... We played a little more effectively, stayed on schedule, and at the end of the day moved the ball better.''
The pistol, with the quarterback away from center, gives Manning the look he likes. And since he can still line up a running back directly behind Manning and force a defense to honor the run in either direction, Kubiak gets the look he wants as well. The game film shows the Broncos spent 29 snaps in the pistol against the Lions on Sunday, and Manning completed 11 of 13 passes for 118 yards. Overall, Manning was 31 of 42 for 324 yards and two touchdowns.
Manning looked far more comfortable than he did in the first two games, moving well in the pocket, and the Broncos allowed just one sack after surrendering seven in the first two games. It was the first time in his career Manning had been sacked seven times in the first two games of a season.
“It says we're winning as a team. I think everybody is doing something to help us to wins,’’ Manning said. “Some phases might be doing a little more than others, but I don't think you win many games if all three phases aren't contributing in some way. Offensively, we want to be able to contribute more and be able to do our part.’’
In the first two games, the Broncos had Manning largely play under center or out of the shotgun – they ran one play out of the pistol in the season opener and one play out of the pistol in the Week 2 win over Kansas City. But while the offense had some moments, mostly it looked uncomfortable.
So the pistol, after its success against the Lions, deserves another look, even as the Broncos try to develop their running game. The Broncos are 31st in the league in rushing, averaging 57 yards per game, and are tied for last at 2.6 yards per carry.
But now the Broncos see some hope in the passing game, and they will continue to see if a solution can be found in the run game, because Kubiak believes more big plays await if the Broncos can add a legitimate play-action element to the offense.
Until then, Kubiak liked what he saw when Manning had to throw on the move as well as how the offensive line gave Manning a cleaner pocket to throw from overall out of the pistol.
“We actually moved a few times,’’ Kubiak said. “We made a couple plays. [Manning is] really comfortable doing some of those things. I wouldn't say right now that the reason we're not doing that is because of something that I don't think that he can do. We're really not doing it because we're not running. It's all built off of running the football.’’
Manning added, “Obviously, when you have somebody open and somebody in the front is keeping you from throwing it, it's nice to be able to get to a spot to be able to deliver the throw.’’
It won't be easy Sunday. The Broncos' opponent, the Minnesota Vikings, rank 24th in run defense, but that’s because they let San Francisco rush for 230 yards in the season opener. In the past two games, against Detroit and San Diego, the Vikings allowed just 38 and 90 yards, respectively.