Every once in awhile, something gets stuck in my craw and I can’t let it go. This week it’s parts of the Broncos gameplan against the Ravens. Now, this isn’t something as simple as “Shurmur should be fired rawr” or anything like that, but I thought he made some noticeable tactical errors and they could come back to bite the Broncos in the Steelers game if they aren’t rectified.
With questions about the WR3 and the fact Baltimore had notable issues defending runs off right tackle or covering the middle of the field, it seemed reasonable to hope for more 12 and 13 personnel. It didn’t happen. Shurmur used three receiver sets on 76% of their snaps despite the dearth of proven talent in the receiver room.
Due to the injuries to Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler, Denver signed wide receiver David Moore off the Raiders practice squad the Tuesday before they’d face off against Baltimore. In the days leading up to the game, Fangio expressed his faith that the former Seahawk would quickly leapfrog Kendall Hinton and return specialist Diontae Spencer in the receiver room.
I discussed Moore’s situation with former NFL quarterback Tim Jenkins on Cover 2 Broncos last Saturday. While there’s definitely a good bit of overlap between the Raiders offense and Shurmur’s, the lack of reps and time in the playbook meant Moore would have at most a shallow understanding of the Broncos’ playbook. Jenkins said it’d be smart to give Moore a package of 15 or so concepts and use him in a rotation with Spencer.
Shumur seemed to agree, as Moore played 19 snaps against the Ravens while Spencer only played three. Where the Broncos surprised me is with their liberal use of Hinton, who logged 26 offensive snaps in addition to the five he played on special teams. The trio combined for one catch.
The Broncos are in 12 personnel with Noah Fant in the slot to create a 3X1 set. Baltimore sends heat and 21 is in a bind with Fant running an out while Tim Patrick sits down in the vacated space.— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 4, 2021
Easy completion. Easy first. pic.twitter.com/nuj5NLIPsy
On one hand, it made sense to prioritize Tim Patrick, Courtland Sutton, and Noah Fant in the passing game. The problem lies in the fact that leaning so heavily on 11 when one of the receivers was essentially a traffic cone is that Baltimore’s coaching staff is smart. Hinton, Moore, and Spencer weren’t able to do more than draw minimal attention from their defender, and the extra receiver made it easier for Baltimore to dial up their overload pressures out of nickel and dime personnel with little fear of repercussions.
What’s particularly frustrating about the Broncos’ 11 heavy gameplan is that they found hints of early success out of other personnel groupings. During the opening drive, the Broncos ran two plays out of 11 and 12 with a play each out of 13 and 22. After that things moved towards three receiver sets. When you stop to consider how big a mismatch Noah Fant and Albert Okwuegbunam posed to Malik Harrison and Josh Bynes, it sure does seem like Shurmur let Baltimore off the hook.
Heading into week five, the Broncos’ personnel packages are something I’m going to have a close eye on. As I write this, Courtland Sutton is questionable for the game. Add to that the hamstring injury to Albert Okwuegbunam and there’s suddenly huge questions marks about both the WR and TE rooms.
With so few reliable receivers, the pressure is on Pat Shurmur to make the most of his personnel. If Sutton can’t suit up or is badly hampered, there aren’t many proven pass catchers:
- Tim Patrick
- Kendall Hinton
- Noah Fant
- Eric Saubert
Some would add David Moore to this list, but until we know he’s got a grasp of the Broncos offense, it’s hard to believe he’ll serve as much more than a decoy. Same with Diontae Spencer, who adds little to the passing game because of his marginal catch radius and inability to create separation.
Pass happy ‘til we’re sad
Before the game I made note of the fact Denver probably would need to mix in quick game and manufactured touches because the running game would be bottled up. I was most definitely wrong. The running game was just about the only good thing the offense did against the Ravens. Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams both averaged more than six yards per carry, but Pat Shurmur only gave them 16 combined carries. When asked about it at the presser on Thursday, Shurmur blamed the passing game.
“I think early on, we missed on some big passes early, so then you run to try run to keep on schedule. Then we had some long third-down situations. Typically, if you’re staying on the field and converting third downs, you get more runs. That just goes without saying. You feel more comfortable doing it. We’ve been a team that’s been able to drive the ball, which means when you’re running the ball, you’re making yards. It didn’t go our way, the other night. I have to be better, we got to be better. We just have to play better than we did against Baltimore and get back on the stick.”
Here’s the thing: Shurmur’s excuse doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Gordon had success right off the bus. His first carry went for seven yards. His second went for eight and moved the sticks. On the Broncos’ third drive of the game, deadlocked at zeros, Denver went run-heavy and were driving until Shurmur aired it out for three straight plays.
On the Broncos third drive of the Ravens game Shurmur dialed up a run on back to back to back plays. Gordon and Pookie combined for 21 yards. pic.twitter.com/OxSHced7cC— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 8, 2021
Gordon finished the first half with six carries for 39 yards, and the only carry I’d gripe about was a 2nd and long tote where he gained three. He averaged 6.5 yards per carry during the first half, so it would have made a ton of sense to lean on him once Drew Lock entered the contest.
If halftime didn’t convince Shurmur of this, he also watched Gordon run for six yards on his first carry of the second half. It didn’t matter. Lock would drop back to pass on the next seven straight plays. He completed three of his five attempts for 30 yards, but also took two sacks that cost him 14. Gordon didn’t tote the ball again until the beginning of the fourth quarter when Denver was down 13 points.
After Sam Martin’s punt pinned the Ravens down at the 12-yard line, the defense held Lamar Jackson to a three and out, so the offense got the ball back with 6:55 on the clock still facing a 10 point deficit. Plenty of ball game left, and Shurmur did try to get Javonte Williams involved with a carry to bail Lock out on 2nd and 10. The rookie rumbled for 10 yards, enough to get another carry on 1st and 10 until Hinton’s illegal shift knocked the Broncos into a 1st and 15. Facing a long yardage situation, Shurmur put his faith in his backup quarterback, who completed two of his three attempts for eight yards.
The next time Denver received the ball, they were down 20-7 at the beginning of the fourth quarter. Gordon received two carries across the last three drives while Pookie received zero. There’s obviously other issues at play that helped doom Denver against Baltimore. Injuries to Risner and Glasgow meant the Ravens’ pressure scheme was a huge problem, and the injury to Bridgewater completely neutered the passing game. But abandoning the run game certainly didn’t help either quarterback against an aggressive pressure scheme that hid their intentions until the snap.
The first three weeks of the season, I thought Pat Shurmur did a far better job than given credit for. With a competent starting quarterback, he found ways to maximize his weapons in the passing game and make life easier for Teddy Bridgewater. Unfortunately, I thought he got knocked off course matched up against a very good defensive coordinator in Wink Martindale. Which brings us to this week.
Keith Butler tends to fly beneath the radar of topflight defensive minds in the game. This is partly due to Mike Tomlin’s background on the defensive side of the ball as well as the fact Pittsburgh’s defense isn’t revolutionary by any means. It’s only been very effective for years in no small part because of it’s dangerous pressure packages.
Because of injuries, the Steelers defense Shurmur will try to shred on Sunday isn’t the same fearsome force to which fans have grown accustomed. So while the Broncos enter the game with some huge questions about their receiving corps. and starting quarterback, the opportunity is out there for Denver to make a statement.
I just hope Shurmur is up to the task.
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Listen, I believe in running the football and numbers point to that. Sometimes teams don’t run. I think it’s important that you run the ball for your offense as well as for your defense. I think after the fact in a game like last week, there’s a lot of things that go into what you did. A lot of it has to do with the fact that we didn’t play at our best, so then all these questions sort of pop up.”
On the challenges of running the football against the Steelers’ defensive front
“They’re good against the run, but we’re going to try to run it and pass it and do the things that we do well to try and match up against a really good defense.”