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What the Broncos’ 2020 offense tells us about the 2021 offense

The personnel might be a little different, but the play-caller is the same.

NFL: Miami Dolphins at Denver Broncos Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time in what feels like ages, the Broncos will have the same offensive coordinator two seasons in a row. Remember, Peyton Manning was the de facto offensive coordinator from 2012 to 2015. It actually has only been since 2017, but if you want two full seasons you have to go back to 2015-16.

2009 - 2012: Mike McCoy

2013 - 2014: Adam Gase

2015 - 2016: Rick Dennison

2017: Mike McCoy, Bill Musgrave

2018: Bill Musgrave

2019: Rick Scangarello

2020 - 2021: Pat Shurmur

Mike McCoy is the last man to be the Broncos offensive coordinator for three consecutive seasons (or more).


Let’s dig into the positional groupings that Shurmur deployed in 2020 by down and distance, keeping in mind that in the game against the Saints we didn’t have an actual NFL QB.

The Broncos ran 418 plays on 1st-and-10, 21 plays on first and less than 10, and 14 plays on first and more than 10. Below is a table of the formations we used on 1st-and-10. One running back and one tight end (which means three wide receivers) is called “11 personnel” or an “11 package.” The first number is the number of running backs and the second number is the number of tight ends. Broncos used the 11 package the most on 1st-and-10, equalling 59% of the time. According to NFLGSIS, Broncos also only had one play in 2020 where they didn’t have a running back on the field on offense (meaning, 3 WRs, 2 TEs).

# RBs # TEs # WRs Play Count Avg Gain Rushing Plays Passing Plays Avg Gain per Rush Avg Gain per Rush, NFL Rank Avg Gain per Pass Avg Gain per Pass, NFL Rank
2 1 2 18 4.7 10 8 2.8 15 1.8 22
1 1 3 245 5.3 108 137 2.0 17 3.3 26
2 2 1 23 4.3 21 2 4.3 3 0.0 21
1 2 2 113 4.5 64 49 1.5 32 3.0 22
1 3 1 19 2.0 15 4 0.7 21 1.3 21

Out of the Broncos’ preferred three-WR package, they ran the ball 108 times and threw it 137 times. Broncos averaged 2.0 yards per carry on those runs (which was 17th in the league on 1st-and-10 runs from a 3WR set) and averaged 3.3 yards per throw (which was 26th).

The Broncos’ next most frequent grouping was “12 personnel,” using it 113 times on 1st-and-10. Denver ran 64 times and threw 49 times from that package on 1st-and-10. The runs gained a pitiful 1.5 yards per carry, which was worst in the league on 1st and 10 runs from a 12 package.

The only package where the Broncos were effective running the ball on 1st-and-10 was from 22 personnel. Broncos only used this formation 23 times on 1st-and-10, but ran the ball on 21 of them. Broncos rushers averaged 4.3 yards per carry on those runs despite running almost exclusively from that grouping. That was third best in the league despite how predictable they were at running from that grouping on 1st-and-10. The two passes thrown from that grouping were both incomplete.

Overall on 1st-and-10, the Broncos averaged 5.0 yards per play (3.9 yards per carry and 11.3 yards per catch). Denver had exactly 200 drop-backs on 1st-and-10 (9 sacks) and 218 runs. The 191 passing attempts resulted in 49 first downs or touchdowns (6 TDs) and the 218 runs resulted in 20 first downs or touchdowns (2 TDs) - 10.1 percent of Broncos’ runs on 1st-and-10 resulted in a first down or a touchdown, 28th in the league. Only the Chargers, Buccaneers, Dolphins and Falcons were worse. Almost 20% of the Browns’ runs on1st-and-10 resulted in a first down or a touchdown (19.6 percent). That was the best in the league.

There were four teams in the league that did not have a single TD run on 1st-and-10: the Lions, the Jets, the Steelers, and the Rams.

The Broncos had 24 plays on 1st-and-10 that gained 20 or more yards - 19 passes and 5 runs. Five of those plays were touchdowns - four via passes and one via run. That lone run was the 43-yard TD run that Melvin Gordon had against the Jets.

The Broncos were equally as ineffective at converting via the pass on 1st-and-10, ranking 29th there as well with only 24.5% of its throws on 1st-and-10, resulting in a first down or a TD. Only the Jets, Washington Football Team and the Steelers were worse at converting via the pass on 1st-and-10. The Falcons were the league’s best converting almost 40% of their throws on 1st-and-10 (39.1%). The only team in the league that did not throw an interception when passing on 1st-and-10 was the Packers. There were a handful of teams that only threw one though - including the Chargers.

2nd and 10 (or more)

The Broncos found themselves in 2nd-and-10 or worse 140 times in 2020. Denver ran the ball on 63 of those plays (59 real runs - 4 kneel-downs) and dropped back to pass on the other 77 (three sacks). All three sacks were deep sacks resulting in losses of 10, 10 and 13 yards.

Broncos went with three WRs on 102 of these 136 actual plays, which is not surprising since 11 personnel was our most common package in 2020. On these 102 plays, Broncos ran the ball 44 times. Those 44 runs gained 135 yards (3.1 yards per carry) meaning that we usually ended up in 3rd and long (7 or more needed) if we ran the ball on second and 10 or more from 11 personnel.

Denver only ran the ball 19 times on 2nd-and-10 or more from something other than 11 personnel. Those 19 runs gained 36 yards total (1.9 yards per carry), which might explain why Broncos didn’t run from other personnel groupings more often on 2nd-and-10 or more. I can’t tease out the kneel-downs from this data, though, so I don’t know how many of those 19 runs were QB kneel-downs. NFLGSIS does not show individual plays and stathead does not show lineup or formation data on a play.

3rd-and-short/3rd-and-goal (1 or 2 yards to gain)

The Broncos only found themselves in 3rd-and-short 33 times in 16 regular season games in 2020. From an absolute numbers perspective, that was 30th in the league. Only the two NY teams were worse with the Giants and the Jets tied at 29 plays on 3rd-and-short or goal.

While the Broncos didn’t get to this situation often, they were one of the better teams in the league at converting on 3rd-and-short or 3rd-and-goal. Our 24 conversions meant that we converted on 72.7% of these plays. That was the sixth-best value in the league. The Patriots were the best in the league converting on 80% while the Steelers converted on a pathetic 51.9% . The Washington football found itself this situation most often with 56 plays on 3rd-and-short or 3rd-and-goal.

If we restrict this to just goal-to-go from the one or two yard line, the Broncos only had two plays in 2020 in those situations. Only the Jaguars had fewer with one. The Browns, Cowboys, and Vikings all had eight plays where they were 3rd and goal from the one or two yard line. There were 142 3rd and goal plays from the one or two yard line in 2020 - 52 of those plays resulted in a TD for the offense (26 runs and 26 throws).

The Broncos ran the ball on both plays on 3rd-and-goal from the one or two. One play resulted in a touchdown - Drew Lock on a designed run against the Chiefs. The other play was stopped from no gain - a run against the Titans in the first game of the season where Melvin Gordon was stopped. That game was tied at 7 at that point and there was about four minutes left in the first half. Vic Fangio chose to go for it on 4th and one and we ran a disastrous shovel pass to Jake Butt which gained zero yards. The Titans would take the ball from the one all the way to the Denver 26 before Stephen Gostkowski would miss a 44-yard field goal attempt with 12 seconds remaining in the half.

Overall on 3rd-and-short or 3rd-and-goal, the Broncos used 11 personnel 23 times, meaning that they only used two or more tight ends 10 times on 3rd-and-short or 3rd-and-goal. On those 23 times, Broncos ran the ball 14 plays. Those 14 runs gained 20 yards but one of those “runs” was a sack which lost nine yards become it was a strip-sack that Drew Lock recovered at our own two-yard line. This is where NFLGSIS and stathead don’t agree. Stathead shows that we threw the ball 11 times on 3rd-and-1 or 3rd-and-2 needed to gain. Eight of those were completed for 67 yards and seven conversions (one TD - the TD pass to Tim Patrick vs ATL on 3rd-and-2 from the 9).

Two of the three incompletions came on throws by Jeff Driskell. Brett Rypien was one of one and Drew Lock was seven of eight with his lone incompletion coming on a drop by Albert Okwuegbunam against the Patriots in the end zone on 3rd and 2 from the New England 25.

When we didn’t use three WRs on 3rd and short we ran nine plays - 6 runs and 3 passes. One of those plays we used six offensive lineman. We only did that twice in 2020 and both times was in the game against Carolina where Garret Bolles was not playing. Those six runs on 3rd and short with at least two tight ends in the game resulted in 19 yards. So they were moderately successful judging by the average alone.

Can we expect to see more usage of two or three tight ends in 2021?

The Broncos have a very talented group at WR with Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, Tim Patrick and KJ Hamler all able to hurt defenses on short, intermediate and deep routes. I can see Pat Shurmur using three WRs early and often in 2021. Our tight ends outside of Noah Fant have almost no NFL experience. Eric Saubert has 348 offensive snaps in the NFL. Albert O. has 86. Austin Fort and Shaun Beyer have zero.

I would be surprised if we kept four TEs on the 53-man roster. I would expect Fort and Beyer to both land on the practice squad unless one of them impresses enough to keep Saubert from making the team as the third tight end. Saubert has almost as many NFL tackles (6) as he does catches (10). Saubert also has four drops on 16 targets in his NFL career. That screams blocking TE to me since he does have some offensive snaps during his three NFL seasons but has proven to be an absolute waste as a pass catcher.

I would not expect to see much, if any, three TE sets in 2021, but I really like the idea of having Noah Fant, Albert O., Jerry Jeudy, Courtland Sutton and KJ Hamler on the field in an empty set. That’s a lot of pass-catching ability and there will be plenty of mismatches for our QB to exploit with those five receivers in the game. FWIW we used two or more tight ends on 309 offensive plays in 2020, but we only used three tights (or more) on 39 offensive plays. From what I remember this is fairly standard for Shurmur’s offenses.

Overall, the Broncos used “11 personnel” on 683 of 1030 offensive plays in 2020. I would expect that to stay the same or even increase in 2021 with Sutton, Jeudy and Hamler making up one of the more deadly (at least on paper) trios of wide receivers in the league.