Two weeks into the regular season is a decent time to look and see if there are any trends starting to emerge. One that has definitely surprised me is how the Broncos offense is operating at a far more efficient level than the defense.
Even more surprising is how it’s the passing offense carrying the load. Coming into the season Joe Flacco was a bit of a mystery. Optimists were pointing to his success in 2014, but five years is an eternity in the NFL. So far, he’s answered the call about as well as I dared hope, even if his raw passing totals hardly wow.
What’s peculiar is how little support he’s received from the running game. According to Football Outsiders’ efficiency ratings through two weeks, the Broncos are a top 14 offense despite one of the worst rushing attacks in the league.
So what’s going on?
If you only looked at Royce Freeman’s statistical production, it’d be possible to miss the issues cropping up on the ground. He’s averaging 5.2 yards a carry with a long of 26, and he’s rarely been stuffed at the line of scrimmage so far.
The same doesn’t hold true for Phillip Lindsay, who’s averaging a mere 3.3 yards a carry and has seen his best rush of the year nullified by Garett Bolles.
The Broncos 2017 first rounder is hardly the only issue Rich Scangarello has had to deal with scheming the ground game, however. In fact, the Broncos have been better running the ball off the left side of the line than the right as the injury to Ja’Wuan James has forced Elijah Wilkinson into the lineup. The third-year guard has looked better than Bolles if only because he hasn’t held constantly.
Now, it’s fair to suggest Wilkinson earns his grade on a bit of a curve. He’s a backup pressed into duty and Akiem Hicks is among the best defensive linemen in football, after all. But when the Broncos are trying to rush off the right side of the line, they’re averaging less than three yards a carry, per FO’s Adjusted Line Yards.
One area where the run game has seen a lot of success is between the tackles. Dalton Risner and Conner McGovern have both been better than expected blocking at the point of attack and Ron Leary looks really solid on his best plays.
He’s been uneven in space. Some of this should be expected after limited reps throughout training camp and a nonexistent preseason. The hope has to be that he’ll improve on pulls and on second level blocks as the season goes along and gets further away from the Achilles injury that derailed his 2018.
Eyes on Janovich and the “skill” positions.
The other big issue holding Lindsay and Freeman back is the lack of success by the Broncos’ tight ends. Rich Scangarello’s scheme asks a lot from them as run blockers and not a single one has performed up to expectations.
Noah Fant has received a fair bit of criticism for this, and he certainly struggled against the Bears, but it’s impossible to overlook Jeff Heuerman’s role. Considering the fact that the five-year veteran was brought back to serve as the steadier tight end while Fant grew into the job, he’s been a huge disappointment.
The tight ends have been poor blockers in just about every conceivable way. They’ve failed to set the edge on wide runs and have been hit or miss leading the way on Scangarello’s counter plays. Troy Fumagalli, Jeff Heuerman, Noah Fant. All have had their issues.
I suspect this should improve as Fant gets more reps and acclimates to NFL speed, but I’m anxious to see how Andy Janovich can help when he returns to the lineup. Until then Scangarello may be wise to mix in more 11 personnel, as both Courtland Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton have had their moments as blockers. If nothing else, more spread sets should lighten the box count and give the backfield some room to operate.
Looking ahead to Green Bay
At first glance, the Packers are a prime opportunity for the Broncos’ backs. While they rank as a top five defense, their run D is among the weaker in the league. The Vikings gashed Green Bay for almost 200 yards rushing, including a 75-yard touchdown by Dalvin Cook.
However, it’s important to note that on the play above Green Bay’s war daddy Kenny Clark is on the sideline. The 6-foot-3 315-pound Clark was a first rounder in the 2016 draft and has built upon a breakout 2018 so far this season. He’s one heck of a load on the nose, who can stalemate doubles and generate chaos with his heavy hands and underrated quickness off the snap.
There’s also reason to believe the Packers’ defensive coordinator Mike Pettine will force the Broncos to go to outside runs if they seek to get the ground game going.
One of the reasons Green Bay was so successful at stifling the Bears rushing attack in week one was because of variations on the alignment above. Chicago’s base run is the inside zone, and by setting three heavier players in the A and B gaps, it forced the Bears running game horizontal.
It may help Denver to follow Nagy’s early approach by trying to run out of passing sets. David Montgomery and Mike Davis found some wiggle room on these plays as the Packers couldn’t simply load up the interior.
The alignment also leaves the Packers’ susceptible to wide zone, the staple of Minnesota’s ground game. As I previously mentioned, the Broncos’ outside zone has been more hit or miss, but they may be forced to go back to the well and hope the line and tight ends can rise to the occasion against Za’Darius Smith, Blake Martinez, and Clark.
Broncos Country should expect the Broncos rushing attack to improve as the year goes along. I simply wonder if this is a bad enough match-up where things will look pretty bleak. The Packers defense has a burgeoning star who can put the clamps on his assignment in Jaire Alexander, as well as one of the better safety duos in the league.
Their pass rush is much improved with the addition of the Smiths and it pushed Kyler Fackrell into a reserve role where he’s harder to expose. Blake Martinez is among the better “no-name” linebackers in the league and Mike Pettine calls plays to stop the pass first and foremost. Much like week one against Paul Guenther, he’s not afraid to dial up exotic pressures to attack protection schemes in all manner of ways.
Rich Scangarello’s best road forward is to try and play keep-away from Aaron Rodgers. Let’s hope he can find a way.