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GIF Horse: How can Pat Shurmur fix the Broncos’ redzone offense?

The Broncos’ offense has been abysmal this year. That has to change for Shurmur to keep his post.

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Football is a simple game made complicated. Five games into their 2021 season, the Denver Broncos are providing a good example of it. A 3-0 start over the cellar dwellers of the league was enough to hide troubling issues with both of the offense and defense, issues that have reared their ugly head in embarrassing, back-to-back losses to AFC North foes.

The skid led to finger pointing. Denver’s offense isn’t doing enough on their opening script. The pass rush isn’t getting home as much as we thought. The third down offense isn’t good enough. Kyle Fuller has giving up too many long completions. All problematic, but there’s a more pressing issue hidden in plain site. Easy to overlook because it’s become so familiar, it’s a defining feature of the post-Peyton Broncos.

For the sixth straight year, the Broncos offense isn’t scoring enough points. Since Manning rode off into the sunset, the average NFL offense has scored 23.18 points per game. Over that same period, the Broncos averaged 19.6 points per game. Four different playcallers failed to solve the problem and it ultimately cost three of them their jobs.

Will Pat Shurmur be next?

The 2021 Broncos are currently averaging 20.4 points per game and haven’t broken the 20 point mark in their losses to the Ravens and Steelers. Albert Okwuegbunam and Javonte Williams’ fumbles against the Giants and Jets are certainly a factor, but those turnovers alone don’t explain the inefficiency around the endzone. According to Football Outsiders’ DVOA stat, the Shurmur offense is the 4th worst redzone offense in the league. They’re abysmal in goal to go situations, where only the Colts are worse.

So what’s going on?

A feast or famine run game hurts down-to-down consistency

Way back when the Broncos were 2-0, I took a look at the rushing offense and came away with some concerns. Lloyd Cushenberry’s lack of play strength was hurting the line’s ability to create space on inside runs, while Shurmur was frequently utilizing heavier personnel groups such as 12 and 13 (two and three tight end sets) personnel and running into heavy box counts. It also looked like Javonte Williams outplayed Melvin Gordon and deserved a larger workload.

Fast forward a few weeks and there’s good news and bad news.

Let’s start with the good. After using three receiver sets on just 59% of the snaps during the 3-0 start, the Broncos utilized 11 personnel on 75% of their offensive snaps the last two weeks. Doing so has seemingly given the ground game a boost, as opponents are typically matching it with their nickel personnel and the extra receiver tends to drag a defender out of the box.

Now for the bad. Williams’ highlight reel runs are hiding the sort of decision-making issues he had at North Carolina. Far too often Pookie tries to cut wide to space because there isn’t an obvious track inside. Part of this is a usage issue. The rookie was clearly at his best on gap concepts such as power and counter OH when he was with the Tarheels, but the Broncos run game has deemphasized them. This is a problem in the short-term, as both inside zone and outside zone depends on the ball carrier using his vision to make the line right, something the rookie’s struggling to do.

Making matters worse is that Lloyd Cushenberry continues to be the weak link on the offensive line. Multiple times against the Steelers, a run was mucked up because Cush wasn’t able to wall off an opponents leverage or because he failed to create any sort of push.

The Broncos line used gap blocking on 43% of their rushing plays in 2020, the 5th highest rate in the NFL.
Ryan Weisman / The Kneel Down
5 games in the Broncos are leaning heavily on Inside Zone runs out of shotgun.
Ryan Weisman / The Kneel Down

The run game issues are hurting the Broncos offense across the length of the field and become exasperated around the goal line, where the Broncos are the 29th best rushing offense by DVOA. It seems as if Shurmur’s noticed. Counting penalties and the two point play, Shurmur called 13 plays within the 20-yard line in Pittsburgh. Only one was a run: An inside zone carry out of shotgun with Kendall Hinton on motion across the formation. Casey Heyward crossed Dalton Risner’s face and blew it up.

Too many isolation routes in tight spaces

The strength of the Broncos offense is their passing attack, so it makes sense for Shurmur to lean on Teddy Bridgewater to cap off drives with points. Where issues arise is how the offensive coordinator helps his quarterback do so, or more specifically, how he doesn’t.

On the Broncos’ first foray into the redzone in Pittsburgh, Shurmur dialed up a whip route for Tim Patrick. Conceptually, the idea makes sense, as it gives Patrick a chance to work inside before cutting back out into the corner of the endzone. So long as Bridgewater puts a little air on the ball, it should be a situation where only the receiver can come down with it. Where things went awry is in the time it took for the play to develop. Patrick slips on the break out of his in-cut, which forces him to recover to get back outside. As he’s doing so, Bridgewater is a sitting duck for T.J. Watt, who’s running the arc around Bobby Massie. Bridgewater does the right thing and gets rid of the ball, as he has no other viable options on the play.

The play above comes from the Broncos’ final trip into the redzone when they were chasing eight points to tie the game. It’s 1st and 10, and Shurmur dials up a 3X1 set out of 11 personnel with Noah Fant manning the inside slot. It’s a Double China concept with both Fant and Tyrie Cleveland running square ins on the trips side in order to isolate Patrick’s corner route against Joe Haden. On the snap of the ball Bridgewater eyes the Glock concept to the left, sees the safety drop, and moves to the trips side, where Patrick’s initial break is beneath Haden and forces the corner to grab on to stay in good position. Bridgewater puts air under the ball to give Patrick a chance and the Steelers’ corner is able to recover and position himself to break up the pass.

This is also a good place to mention that Bridgewater could have had Sutton if he’d hung in with his first read. There’s a chance No. 34 robs him if he continues to look that way, but we’ll never know for sure. Bridgewater didn’t stick with it and was left with a low percentage shot to Patrick.

Following the incompletion, Bridgewater finds Gordon on a bend to get the offense to the Broncos to the 3, setting up a 3rd and ballgame with less than 30 seconds on the clock. With two chances to score the touchdown Shurmur goes back to Double China, only this time Sutton’s running an endzone fade instead of a Glock route, while Diontae Spencer’s running the corner against Terrell Edmunds.

It’s worth noting that with a receiver like Jerry Jeudy, this may have been a worthwhile play design as the sophomore receiver has a special knack for creating space, and the corner is dependent on a receiver running away from the defender. Unfortunately he’s still out of commission, and Shurmur asked his worst route runner to fill in.

On the snap, Bridgewater quickly looks to his primary read. He lets go of the ball just as Spencer takes the first step into his break. Spencer turns his head around to look for the ball and Edmunds gets his hands on him. The ball falls just outside the punt returner’s grasp, and the Broncos have one last down to score.

On the final play of the game, Bridgewater throws a pick chasing the bench route to Sutton. There’s a few things to unpack with the play because it’s a shaky design that leaves the quarterback choosing a hero ball. Some will argue Bridgewater could have thrown the hank route to Fant right in front of him or gone with the speed out to Hinton out of the slot. It’s fair to bring up, but the issue with the call persists: Fant has a defender hanging off his back while the slot corner is playing Hinton with outside leverage pre-snap, which means it’s no guarantee he can shake free.

Which brings me to my primary complaint about Shurmur’s gameplan against the Steelers. Far too often he dialed up routes that were dependent on the receiver making him right in the endzone, rather than going with a concept that’d help to create space for Bridgewater to fit a ball in. For the sake of full disclosure, it’s worth admitting that this was a concern of mine since Shurmur was hired in January of 2020 and I wrote about it then.

What can Shurmur do to score more points?

The most frustrating part about Shurmur’s part in the redzone woes is that he tends to sprinkle in concepts and plays that address the issue. The Fant touchdown against the Ravens is a perfect example.

On the Broncos’ first redzone trip in Pittsburgh, Shurmur dialed up a mesh concept that could have been an easy touchdown if the progression or protection was up to snuff. On the Broncos’ second redzone trip, he dialed up an RPO that Bridgewater should have given to Pookie for a score, but fortunately the drive led to points because of a really nice design to give Kendall Hinton his first NFL touchdown. Shurmur’s capable of cooking with gas, he just needs to do it more consistently.

On the play above, the Broncos set up in an 11 personnel 2X2 set. On the snap, Bridgewater fakes the handoff to Gordon while Fant blocks down, which draws the eyes of the Pittsburgh defenders who would be responsible for picking up Hinton running across the formation behind the line of scrimmage. Patrick’s corner route draws the DB and creates a high low read for the quarterback. Following the fake to Gordon, Bridgewater rolls out right and Watt steps up to prevent a scramble, which leaves him unable to account for Hinton right behind him. Easy six if Teddy can throw the ball over the defender, and he does.

At the end of the day, it boils down to the fact Shurmur has play calls that can help make up for the fact Denver’s currently missing their best route runner and separator in Jerry Jeudy. The last two games, he’s too often gone with what he’s comfortable with rather than doing what’s necessary to maximize his personnel. Here’s hoping he comes around, and fast. If they’re going to contend for the playoffs, the Broncos can’t afford to drop any more winnable games. They need the offense to do its part.

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