Passing Prowess Needs To Translate to Improved Running Game, Red Zone Efficiency

You would think a team as good at passing as the Denver Broncos have been this year would be able to at least generate some respect and open up a few holes for the running game.

So far, that has not been the case, and the Broncos currently rank 30th in the NFL at 67 rushing yards per game. There are many things you could attribute this lack of success to. A young, inexperienced offensive line, indecisive runners, poor coaching, motivated defenses--whatever the excuse is, the running game for the Broncos has been unacceptable thus far, and everyone realizes it.

Even without the running game, the Broncos have been able to move up and down the field this season, averaging 417 yards of offense in three games so far. Those numbers are due large in part to Kyle Orton and the passing game, but a larger problem looms, and the problem really goes without saying, but we'll say it anyway.

The Broncos have been atrocious in the red zone in two of their first three games, and they have lost both of those games. No surprises there.  When the Broncos failed in the red zone in week one, it was clearly an emphasis the next week, and they took it to Seattle, scoring 31 points in week two.

It was also an emphasis in week three preparation, and is obviously one of the top keys to beating the Indianapolis Colts. The resut? How about a big epic fail for the Broncos' offense, which failed to score a touchdown on five red zone attempts? How about seven trips into enemy territory that resulted in zero points?

That is the difference right now in this team being a 3-0 squad and a 1-2 squad. Red zone efficiency. The numbers do not add up, though. You would look at the Broncos' offense and remember back to 2008 when Jay Cutler was orchestrating a beautiful offense right up until the team entered the red area. Then the screws came loose. Fast forward back to present time, and the numbers are eerily similar. The 2nd ranked offense in the NFL, and the 15th ranked scoring offense.

That simply will not do.

 

This is a pass first league. Josh McDaniels knows that, and he has built his team to be one of the most potent passing attacks in all of the NFL. However, this team is not currently built to run the ball, something that I still maintain will improve as the season progresses, but right now, it seems as though even though we realize it is a pass first league, we have forgotten that the running game cannot be non-existant.

Our backfield features two first round picks, a well respected veteran, and a young guy who has loads of talent. That has translated to the 30th rushing offense in the league through three games, a number that makes Mike Shanahan fans cringe with disgust.

Let's call a spade a spade--this is simply not a running offense. Even at the end of the season, we will be a passing team. That does not excuse the running game though, and it is an area that should be much better than it is.

One would have to think at the very least, with the Broncos passing all over opponents so far this year, that they would be able to at least utilize the run on key short yardage situations because of the fact that teams have to respect the pass. That has not been the case.

Even if you expect the Broncos to rank near the bottom in run offense, which we all should because of the focus on the passing game, nobody in their right mind should expect 2.5 yards per carry from the running game as a whole, which is what the Broncos are currently putting out. The Broncos struggle to get anything going on the ground, and it puts the passing game in a bind, especially in the red zone.

In order to be successful in the red zone, you cannot be a predictable offense. Because the Broncos cannot run the ball adequately, the Colts knew pass was coming in the red area. Despite the fact that the Broncos threw up and down the field on Sunday, the Colts tightened up where it mattered, and with their speed, you absolutely must force them to respect the running game if you have any plans of success in the passing game.

The Broncos might have more yards than two other teams in the NFL on the ground, but they have the worst yards per carry average in the entire league, right behind reigning champion New Orleans. Obviously, the Saints have hardly any running game to speak of, but you did see timely running in their week one matchup against Minnesota, and they closed out the game with a steady dose of Pierre Thomas. Can the Broncos do that in a close game? I'm not so sure.

Another frightening aspect to this running game disaster is the fact that the Broncos are only getting a first down from the running game 16 percent of the time.

You could attribute the lack of success on the ground to poor goal line offense. It seems the Broncos have struggled to get the ball into the end zone on first and goal to go. It has been a struggle literally every time we have been near the goal line, and you saw that on exhibit on Sunday as Laurence Maroney could not punch it in from a yard out on three out of four attempts.

Is that completely Maroney's fault? I blame some of it on his being a little rusty from missing the offseason and pre-season with injuries, but look at the guy's season last year. He had a career high nine touchdowns, and eight of them came from five yards or less. He is a goal line specialist, and we could not punch it in on three tries from less than a yard out.

That is the definition of pathetic.

In all honesty though, none of us would care about any of this if we'd had red zone success yesterday. It's not like the Indianapolis Colts were running the ball well. In fact, their running game was arguably just as bad as ours yesterday, but they were efficient in the red area where Peyton Manning threw touchdowns from five, nine, and 23 yards out. Technically, the last one wasn't in the red zone, but you get the picture.

The Colts had four red zone opportunities, and they scored touchdowns on two of them. Had the Broncos converted on two red zone attempts, the game would have been different all together.

Like I said in the post game, the Broncos left 42 points off the board. At worst, they left 18 points off the board, which would have won them the game in theory.

It is amazing how many points the Broncos are leaving on the field. Dare I use the runners left on base analogy again? It's the difference between bad teams and great teams, to be honest. If the Colts couldn't be efficient in the red zone, they would be an average team. Unfortunately, right now the Broncos are an average team. Guilty until proven innocent in the NFL.

But, this can all change. Here are our reasons as Broncos fans to be confident in this offense. Kyle Orton's NFL rankings through three games:

Yards: 1,078--2nd
Completion Percentage: 66.4--8th
Completions: 83--4th
Average: 8.6--3rd
Yards/Game: 359.3--2nd
Touchdowns: 4--11th
Interceptions: 2--T3rd
1st downs: 50--2nd
20+ yard plays: 18--T1st
40+yard plays: 4--T2nd
Rating:  97.4--7th

This is undoubtedly the most talented group of skill players the Broncos have had in a long time. Even more talented than the group we had in 2008. Our top four receivers right now are Brandon Lloyd, Jabar Gaffney, Eddie Royal, and Demaryius Thomas. Lloyd and Gaffney are both on pace for over 1,000 yards receiving, Royal at 992, and Thomas at around 750. These guys are making plays left and right--just not in the red zone. Not consistently anyway.

The Broncos currently rank 24th in the NFL in red zone efficiency, something they have tried to improve drastically in the two years Josh McDaniels has been here. If that number continues throughout the season, the Broncos will be in a world of hurt and picking in the top ten of the draft. You simply cannot win games with a conversion rate that low.

Perhaps even more sickening is that the Broncos are currently tied for the NFL lead with 4.3 red zone attempts per game.  It's also interesting that San Diego and Oakland (also 1-2) are the teams tied with the Broncos in that particular area.

In their first two home games, the Broncos have had nine red zone attempts. By my count, they have scored three touchdowns on those nine attempts. Two one yard scores from Knowshon Moreno and Correll Buckhalter, and a touchdown pass to Eddie Royal. Obviously, none of those plays came last week. Three out of nine red zone appearances, at home, the Broncos are getting a touchdown.

The numbers do not lie. Even without any semblance of a rushing attack, the Broncos are getting themselves into the red zone more than any team in the NFL. They have been able to bend the opposing defenses, but with the exception of Seattle, have not been able to break through.

I think that will change this week. I think if the Broncos can get to the red zone four times against the Titans, they will make them pay. Teams that do not execute in the red zone do not win games, especially against quality opponents like Indianapolis. 

We can only hope that as the season goes on, the Broncos will figure out whatever it is that's ailing them when they reach the red area, and hopefully they figure it out sooner rather than later.

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