Here is a good question.
Do the Broncos themselves believe that they have a good running game, or at least the potential to be a good running team?
There are a lot of ways to come to an answer on the question, but I wanted to delve into the subject from what I think is a rather unique angle: the distant edges of the recently controversial redzone playcalling.
"Red Zone +25" is a way of describing this far edge of the red zone. Does a team start to knuckle down, under increased defensive pressure and shrinking passing lanes, and run the ball on this periphery? Do they attempt to bypass red zone running altogether with deep tosses from this zone? In three weeks the Broncos have called plays from this transitionary zone in 10 separate situations, early in games, late in games, during a 2-minute offense, while ahead and while behind. That provides plenty of opportunity to examine just who they think they are...
Week 1 vs. Jaguars
Context: 1st quarter, 1st drive of game, score 0-0
The Broncos have set this situation up with a number of big plays already, and have mixed Tebow into a couple of formations, including lining him up at the Right Split-end position on the preceding play, which was an 8 yard completion to the TE on 1st down.
Formation: The Broncos run a 3TE set, Moreno in the backfield, Gaffney split to the left. Larsen is the H-back flanker on the right and he motions into the backfield as the ball is snapped.
Defensive notes: The Jaguars are in man coverage on the outside, playing off and inside. The free safety is up in run support, but shaded back to the middle just enough to drop into zone coverage if needed and the corner is in man coverage on Larsen and switches to zone when Larsen goes in motion.
Result: Short gain setting up 3rd and 1. The Broncos had 8 on 7 at the LOS but failed to effectively block the LBs out of the play, allowing penetration by two players. The play looks designed to run off the outside shoulder of Graham, with Gronkowski and Larsen chipping and sealing off the SOLB and SCB respectively. The RG, Kuper, who is uncovered, needs to release into the second level and pick up the MLB, but he gets caught in the garbage at the LOS and the MLB makes the tackle, untouched. Additionally Gronkowski was responsible for chipping the SOLB, but he barely made contact on his way to the SS. Moreno is responsible for eluding the chipped SOLB, but had the MLB around his feet at the LOS.
Upshot: It was a combination short yardage situation and exterior red zone situation, and Denver obviously felt they had a good situation for the run call. Despite a numbers advantage on the call, failure to execute allowed the MLB to penetrate and make the stop. The Broncos obviously don't have any aversion to grinding out a first down in the red zone at this point, and the FS not commiting to the run against a heavy formation made it an easy call.
context: 3rd quarter, Denver trails by one score, 14-7, and they have the ball in JAX territory after a 4th and 1 stop. A play-action catch for 15 yards to Gaffney across the middle has set up 1-10 at the JAX 25.
Formation: heavy formation, offset-I, 2TE to the right, Gaffney lined up tight as a split-end on the left
Defensive notes: Free safety is set to drop into a deep zone, corner is in off-man coverage to the inside on Gaffney.
Result: This play has Stanley Daniels pulling to the strongside to take the MLB out of the play, while Larsen clears out the corner, with Moreno being responsible for the strong safety. The play works pretty good, the edge is sealed effectively by Larsen, and Daniels does get to the MLB, though he doesn't maintain the block. Moreno leaps over the SS, and then stiffarms the FS, and with blockers in front gets tackled from behind by the MLB.
Upshot: Denver earns themselves a big play and a first down inside the JAX 10. The playaction from earlier kept the FS out of the picture, and despite a heavy run formation the Broncos got favorable numbers on the LOS. They obviously feel that they can run it in the redzone, and execution, while it could have been better, was good enough for the first. If Daniels maintains his block the play was a legitimate threat to score from the 25. Not bad.
Context: 4th quarter, Denver behind by one score, 24-17. Two big plays, a deep pass to Lloyd and a big run by Moreno have set the Broncos up 1-10 on the JAX 21.
Formation: heavy formation, I back, 2TE balanced line (Graham R, Quinn L) Gaffney flanking on left, motions in tight.
Defensive Notes: FS is deep middle, SS is zone right, Corners are in man coverage, tight.
Result: The run is a weakside (left), with Graham sealing the DE Kampann inside and Larsen taking out the CB. Moreno will be responsible for the SS. Graham has a pretty good wrestling match with Kampmann but manages to seal him off, the OL has cut down the entire JAX LB corp. Unfortunately, Larsen meets the CB in the backfield instead of on the edge (great anticipation by the CB), and Moreno is forced to dodge around the block to the inside. Alas, that is also where Graham sealed Kampmann off to, so Moreno ended up running right into an already well-blocked player.
Upshot: The Broncos are running very similar setups, heavy, obvious running packages, and are 1 for 3 so far, but apparently committed to being a running team. We haven't seen any perfect run blocking yet, but there has been a big play in the mix nonetheless.
context: this play follows the previous one above. 2nd and 10 from JAX 21.
Formation: Shotgun, 1-back, 4 wide, (Royal slot-R, Graham Flank-R, Gaffney Split-R, Lloyd Split-L) Buckhalter motions out of backfield to WR Flank-L.
Defensive notes: FS Deep Right, SS drops deep left when Buck goes in motion, corners in man coverage on Lloyd and Gaffney, OLB man coverage on Buck, MLB man coverage on Graham, NB man coverage on Royal.
Result: The quick adjustments by the Jags leaves every receiver covered with deep help, so Orton has to hang onto the ball. When the pocket splits on the right side, Orton scrambles for seven yards. Lloyd and Gaffney both run deep routes.
Upshot: The design called for the Broncos to take a shot deep if it presented itself against one deep coverage, but the Jags adjustment left only the underneath guys to get open, and no ideal matchups. Royal vs. the nickle might have been the best option, but Royal is clearly covered on the play.
Week One Overview
The Broncos obviously started the season off committed to the run. JAX never committed fully to cheating against the run, even against heavy formations, probably due to Denver's success on playaction. On first down and obvious run downs Denver had no problem showing their hand with the heavy formation, despite their inexperience along the line, though they consistently ran to the outside, and behind Daniel Graham. The one time they were faced with a semi-obvious passing situation (2nd and long) they went to the extreme the other way, with 5 wide, hoping to catch one side of the field without deep help, or to hit soft coverage underneath, or possibly get a good matchup but JAX gave them none of these things.
Further analysis in part 2 will look at their adjustments in this category for the Seattle game, where we know overall that they played better. But did they still think of themselves as a running, grind it out in the redzone type of team?