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GIF Horse: How can the Broncos improve on offense?

2-0 doesn’t mean there aren’t issues to correct.

Riding high atop the AFC West and undefeated in 2021, it’s easy to sip the orange Kool Aid right now. The Broncos are 2-0 and Teddy Bridgewater is the toast of the NFL after his best Peyton Manning impression to open the season. While the injuries to Josey Jewell, Ronald Darby, and Bradley Chubb cast doubt over the state of the defense, the Broncos’ offense seems to raise the ceiling on the roster’s potential.

Bridgewater and the passing game have been so good that the cracks in the foundation aren’t ringing alarm bells just yet. Still, issues along the Broncos’ offensive line are bleeding into every part of the offense.

First of all, the ground game was unreliable against a pair of winless teams with serious talent deficiencies, though this can get overlooked due to the small sample size. The Broncos are averaging 130.5 yards per game, which is good for the fifth best mark in the league, but the number would dip to 95.5 if you took out Melvin Gordon’s 70-yard run where he did most the work after the second level.

Two metrics I keep up with that do a good job boiling down who is doing what in regards to rushing performance is Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards and RB Yards. Denver currently ranks 25th in the league by ALY, but sixth in RB Yards because Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams have both done admirable jobs making the most of the opportunities presented to them. They’re doing this despite getting stuffed on 24% of their carries.

The other big issue with the Broncos’ front is related pass protection, where Bridgewater’s poise has been enough to mitigate the fact he’s been under pressure on 34.2% of his snaps. And while Pro Football Focus’ Tej Seth has found a quarterback’s pressure rate tends to follow him from year to year and throughout situations, Bridgewater’s is an alarming 14% jump from his career average of about 20%.

So what’s actually causing issues?

The Broncos are running into loaded boxes

Fangio was asked about the issues running the ball on Monday and offered what I thought was an interesting explanation. He said opponents focused on taking away the ground game.

“These first two teams went to extreme measures to try to stop our run, which is one of the reasons we’ve been able to translate it into really good passing days these first two games,” Fangio said Monday. “Maybe teams, in light of our passing success these first two weeks, will play the run a little more honest, and maybe that will get it going, too.”

After hearing the presser, I decided to go back through the Broncos’ first two games and chart out every rush. I also took a look at the numbers. By Football Outsiders’ charting, the Broncos have been a top 10 team when they’ve rushed off the left end or tackle, but the numbers fall to right around 25 when they’ve run in every other direction.

Broncos run concept usage through 2 weeks.
Ryan Weisman / The Kneel Down

Just about every time the Broncos used 11 personnel in their first two games, opponents brought either six or seven defenders into the box. The one exception came in the Jaguars game when the Broncos dialed up an 11 p 2X2 set with the receivers lined up tight on third and one. Jacksonville countered with a bear front.

On the snap, Netane Muti and Bobby Massie double down on No. 93 at the point of attack. As Williams takes the handoff he sees one of the two unblocked defenders in the hole and elects to pivot wide to give the corner Shaq Griffin a bad angle. The decision leaves him a sitting duck for the unblocked linebacker scraping down. Griffin grabs an ankle and Williams takes a clean shot from No. 54.

When the Broncos went with 12 personnel in the first two games they saw between six and eight defenders in the box, which isn’t necessarily atypical. Both the Giants and Bears did pack the interior with a bear front a few times, and also mixed alignments. I do wonder if these are the extreme measures Fangio alluded to, as these sets didn’t always occur in end game or short yardage situations.

On the play above, Denver is running Counter OH out of an ace set with a tight end on each side of the line and K.J. Hamler in a nasty split beside Fant. On the snap Garett Bolles blocks down and creates a double team on No. 98 lined up in the three technique over Dalton Risner. Lloyd Cushenberry blocks back on the one technique as Graham Glasgow and Fant pull and become lead blockers for Williams. Glasgow meets No. 48 and stands him up, which gives the back and Fant space to wrap around and get into the open field.

While both the Giants and Jags mixed in a variety of looks as a response to the Broncos’ three tight end sets, they typically used nine defenders in the box, which makes perfect sense. Things became a little more “extreme” at the end of each game, which isn’t a surprise when you consider the fact Shurmur used 13 personnel to ice the lead and run out the clock.

Denver’s facing second and four looking to ice the Jags game in the play below. Shurmur sends out a 13 personnel set with Okwuegbunam and Eric Saubert on the right. Cushenberry and Muti double down on the one technique and look on to the backer as Williams receives the carry and sets up, which gives the Broncos right guard time to climb. No. 50 meets Muti with his left shoulder in the hole and an undeterred Pookie lowers his shoulder into contact for five yards.

When he met with the press back before week one, Pat Shumur said that by and large, Bridgewater has freedom to audible at the line of scrimmage.

“There are certain plays we’re going to run regardless, and he knows that, but then there are other plays in different situations where it makes sense to adjust to what the defense gives you. It shows up in varying degrees. Sometimes it happens to the untrained eye and you’ll never ask me about it, then there’ll be other times when it’s obvious. Sometimes an audible is obvious to everybody watching by word or gesture, and then there’s a lot of other subtle things that happen that nobody will even know.”

One thing that could help the Broncos offense going forward is checking out of boxed out runs. The passing game is good enough and multiple enough that it would make sense to capitalize on a defense loading up to stop the ground game more often.

Cush is getting pushed around

Take a quick hop in the hot tub time machine with me and let’s dial it back to May of 2020. The Broncos do not retain Connor McGovern and he signs with the Jets, leaving them with questions at center unless newly signed Graham Glasgow slides to the pivot. On the second day of the draft the Broncos call and offer a fifth-round pick to the Jets so they can move up to the 79th overall selection to acquire Temple’s Matt Hennessy. The deal falls apart when Hennessy is drafted by the Atlanta Falcons at 78 and John Elway settles on the next available center Lloyd Cushenberry.

Cushenberry eventually wins the starting center job as a rookie over Patrick Morris and proceeds to be the only member of the o-line to play every offensive snap in 2020. He’s also one of the worst interior linemen in the league, so much so he’s essentially a cinder block around the feet of Dalton Risner and Graham Glasgow.

Hop back to 2021 and Cushenberry has made improvements to his game, most notably with how he’s become more assignment sound. Unfortunately, he remains the weakest member of the line. He’s an adequate athlete with sub-par play strength and loses too often because of these limitations right now. The hope is that as he continues to gain experience he’s savvy enough to make up for these weaknesses with technique. Until last year’s draft I thought the Broncos would be patient with his development. Since then, I’ve had questions.

The fact the Broncos drafted Quinn Meinerz in the third round a year after taking Cushenberry suggests George Paton and the coaching staff do not necessarily believe in the LSU product as a long-term solution. He won the job in camp in large part because the rookie out of Wisconsin-Whitewater never made it a battle, rather than his own play. If Cushenberry’s struggles continue to dog the offense, the Broncos coaching staff could decide the growing pains with Meinerz are worth the upside.

Given Glasgow’s positional versatility and Netane Muti’s performance at right guard, they could also elect to bench Cush for the former Lion. I have concerns about the lack of reps with Glasgow at center through camp, but it may be deemed necessary as a “best of five” solution.

The Broncos running game hasn’t been great through two games.
Ryan Weisman / The Kneel Down

Javonte Williams looks better than Melvin Gordon

Gordon’s 70-yard run in week one hid the fact he averaged 3.1 per carry outside the long rush. While Gordon looked better last weekend, Javonte Williams has outplayed him by the Next Gen Stat charting.

Javonte Williams had 13 carries for 64 yards, including +10 RYOE. He ran for yards over expectation on 53.8% of his carries in Week 2. Williams has rushed for yards over expectation on 51.9% of his carries this season, the 4th highest rate among RBs.

Melvin Gordon ran for -18 RYOE and picked up rush yards over expectation on just 23.1% of his carries.

Unlike last season, the Broncos look committed to a true 50-50 type of split with their backs this year. I’m curious how long that keeps up if Pookie continues to outplay the veteran. He was on the field when Shurmur called one back power out of the gun on third and eight.

The Jags are in a double mug look pre-snap, but the playside backer No. 5 bails when the ball is snapped. Cushenberry blocks down on the backside backer to free Muti up to pull and lead around the left end. Bolles and Risner double the three technique and Okwuegbunam steps down to seal the pursuit. Muti kicks out Josh Allen so Williams can cut upfield and gain 14 yards for a first down.

Teddy checkdown may be a good thing in 2021

Checkdown Charlie is thrown around like a derogative because no one outside of fantasy gets excited about five-yard passes to running backs. It’s also helping Bridgewater to keep the offense on track despite facing pressure at the third highest rate in the league so far.

Bridgewater’s willingness to take what’s available and live to see another down has made him blitz-proof against the Giants and Jags. I’m curious if more tape on the Teddy offense leads to less blitzing and more simulated pressures as a way to try to force Bridgewater to hang in the pocket longer so the rush can get home. This is going to be something I’ll check back on after the games against the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers, two of the most aggressive defenses in the league.

The coverages teams have thrown at Bridgewater this year.
Ryan Weisman / The Kneel Down