Is Denver’s Offense in Trouble?

The Broncos are an execution offense. They seldom try to trick the defense. They rarely use motion. They have a select set of formations and route concepts they usually rely on. You would think this would make them a predictable offense. It does, and this makes what they’ve been able to accomplish over the last 3 years so impressive. They get to the line, the defense knows what’s coming, Peyton Manning knows what the defense will do, gets his team in the best possible play versus that defensive look, and then he uses his unmatched anticipation and accuracy to pick the opponent apart. Unfortunately for Denver, when the Broncos aren’t executing or when Manning is having an off day, there is nowhere to turn. There is no other aspect of this team that can lead the way to victory. When Manning isn’t at his best, which isn’t very often, the Broncos’ chances of winning are not very good. This is what happened against the Patriots two weeks ago. It’s also what happened against the Rams on Sunday.

The Rams brought pressure on Manning all day long, blitzing on 25 of 56 drop backs, a significant amount. The Broncos weren’t terrible at picking it up, but there were enough leaks to make Manning uncomfortable. For the 2nd straight week, the Broncos weren’t playing with their normal line. Will Montgomery was the center. Manny Ramirez, normally the center, moved to right guard. Louis Vasquez, normally the right guard, moved to right tackle. New positions mean new assignments as well as communication from unfamiliar perspectives.

Did this play a role with their handling of the Rams’ stunts and blitzes? Perhaps. St. Louis was around Manning all day. Even when they didn’t get to him, they seemed close, either collapsing the pocket around him or hitting him just after he threw the ball. The pressure was tangible, and this left Manning playing fast. He wasn’t going to wait around to give his shuffled line a chance to figure things out.

What was rare about Peyton’s performance in this one was his unwillingness to let plays develop downfield. This was the result of the cumulative effects of the Rams’ pressure. Manning was getting the ball out to his initial reads, and he missed some routes that could have been big plays downfield.

Manning’s decision-making was also not up to his normal extremely high standards. Both his interceptions were forced passes. When the Rams played man coverage, he chose some peculiar matchups. He kept trying to go to Jacob Tamme against a linebacker (which he did on his first interception) or a safety. This isn’t exactly a mismatch in Denver’s favor. He also chose to attempt a back shoulder wheel route to his 3rd-string running back, C.J. Anderson, versus a linebacker. That’s expecting receiver-like ball skills out of a player who does not have them. Making Manning’s decisions more peculiar was the fact that Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker were also getting some 1-on-1 matchups.

This all begs the question of why Wes Welker wasn’t more involved, especially after Julius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders left the game due to injuries. Welker hasn’t been a big factor in this offense, and there’s a good reason for it. The Broncos don’t use him based on his skill set. In New England, Welker ran option routes from the slot. He was uncoverable between the numbers in 1-on-1 matchups, and he kept the chains moving regularly. In Denver, and especially on Sunday, Welker seems to run one vertical route after another. This is not the type of receiver he is. He doesn’t have the straight-line speed to knock the top off the defense. He doesn’t separate on these types of routes like he does on quick lateral routes. So why are the Broncos using him this way?

Even with all of these issues, Peyton Manning and the Broncos’ passing game will be just fine. The bigger concern has to do with their rushing attack (or lack thereof). The Broncos called just 9 running plays against the Rams versus 56 passes. This game wasn’t a blowout. It was in reach for most of the day. Even when it was a two-possession game, there was still time to mix in the occasional run to at least keep the defense honest. For some reason, Peyton Manning/Adam Gase did not. This has been an alarming trend of late.

Over the last 3 weeks, Denver has had terrible balance on offense. This might help explain their sudden inconsistency. Last week against Oakland, the Broncos called 32 passes to just 11 runs in the first half. They were out of sync, turned the ball over twice, and only scored 6 points through the first 27 minutes. Then, the Raiders became the Raiders again, and Denver exploded for 5 touchdowns. The week before against New England, the Broncos scored just 7 first half points on a 28-10 pass-run ratio. That game was out of hand by halftime. By contrast, in their three prior games, the Broncos had first half pass-run ratios of 19-12, 18-10, and 22-15. They scored 14, 21, and 17 points respectively in those first halves.

Comparing their last three performances with their previous three shows that Denver might need to tinker with their offensive approach. The Broncos are never going to be 50-50 run-pass, nor should they be. However, it’s tough to win with the severe lack of balance they’ve had in recent weeks no matter who the quarterback is. It enables the defense to dictate the game. Defenders can pin their ears back and attack the quarterback without worrying about the run. Defensive coordinators can be aggressive and use disguise more easily. Combine this with the fact that the Broncos’ passing game doesn’t use any motion and relies solely on execution, and the result is a very predictable offense.

With the way the Patriots are playing, the Broncos’ loss on Sunday almost ensures that they’ll have to go through New England to get to the Super Bowl. They won’t have a chance in Foxborough in January if they don’t get more balance on offense. They won’t win a Super Bowl if they can’t win in multiple ways. This has been the case for every single Super Bowl champion in history. It won’t change this year.

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