They might not be scoring as much as you’d like, but there’s no denying the Denver Broncos offense has been different in just the first four weeks of the 2017 season.
A big part of that has been Denver’s running game which is currently third in the NFL, averaging 143 rushing yards per game. The Orange & Blue have gone over the century mark on the ground in every game thus far, and it’s all happening in a variety of ways. More impressive, it’s occurring with an offensive line that features three new starters, in a new offensive scheme that’s paying off in a big way. Something that we featured in offensive coordinator Mike McCoy’s first game against the Chargers with endless personnel variations.
We went back to see what the Broncos did to impose themselves in the run game over the Oakland Raiders a week ago in their 16-10 win. To try to understand what’s working so well this season.
Denver did this in six different instances, using tackle Donald Stephenson as an "eligible receiver," lined up to the right of right tackle Menelik Watson. Every time Denver was in these jumbo packages they ran the ball and had plenty of success.
In all these jumbo packages, there were also either two tight ends or a TE and a fullback, giving Denver eight players on the field who were competent blockers. In using this package, the Broncos had 62 yards on the ground, including the biggest run of the game; C.J. Anderson’s 40-yard run that you’ll see below.
This run is a perfect example of how effective the running game can be, and how good some underrated blockers are performing. Watson, with Virgil Green, made this play, as Green makes a crucial block coming in motion inside to clear Anderson's initial lane. Watson, all the while, takes out the inside linebacker opening up a big hole for C.J. at the second level.
Stephenson is also crucial here, as he completely takes out Khalil Mack while Jeff Heuerman—an underrated blocker in his own right—does a great job here, too.
While there’ve been lots of issues for the line in pass protection, the run blocking has been much better. Even more so in these jumbo packages, where Denver is bullying teams in a manner that we haven't seen for a while.
Even when you take out the one 40-yard run, the Broncos still averaged 4.4 yards per rush on the other five plays out of the six-man o-line groupings.
It might be a tell and could be a great way to set up play action in the future, but while it’s not exotic, this formation’s working. Stephenson and the two tight ends also give Watson more help in pass protection as the Broncos do pass out of two tight end formations a bunch.
In general, the attitude from the ground game is different, and it’s showing on short yard downs. Denver converted all second and third downs of three yards or less against Oakland and has looked much better in short yardage.
Don’t look now, but Denver’s offense is trying to bullying opponents.
Running out of the gun
While the Broncos are imposing themselves physically on teams with their jumbo packages, essentially saying, “we’re going to run it down your throat, try to stop us,” another wrinkle that’s been fairly effective is how well the team has run the ball out of the shotgun.
In last Sunday’s game, the Broncos had 40 snaps with Trevor Siemian in the gun and 12 of those times they ran the ball. While there weren’t any big runs, without anything big to brag about, the rushing attack still averaged 4.4 yards per carry out of the gun.
Jamaal Charles had three of his five runs out of the shotgun and was explosive, showing himself to be a real weapon out of the formation. While Devontae Booker also had two of his three runs out of the shotgun go for nine yards.
Part of this has been talked about by head coach Vance Joseph who’s said the Broncos offense just isn’t getting many single-high safety looks.
The play below is a perfect example of this, and Denver’s running game is taking advantage.
As you can see, right guard Ronald Leary was crucial getting out on the move, where he was able to get to the second level and take the inside linebacker out of the play. You can also see how the entire line is getting great push here, something we’re seeing much more of than a year ago. In this play, the left side of the line dominates, as tackle Garett Bolles and guard Max Garcia blocked their defenders five yards downfield.
The Broncos ability to keep you honest and run with consistency out of both heavy and three-wide formations has been crucial. That balance will allow for more room to open up for Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, while also keeping pass rushing defenders at bay from the Broncos biggest liability, their pass protection.
Running back production
The running game’s success hasn’t just been scheme and blocking as the running back tandem of Anderson and Charles has been very successful thus far.
Anderson is currently fourth in the league in rushing yards, averaging 82.5 per game, his highest in a season thus far in his career. On film, it’s easy to see that he has an extra step this year. He’s more powerful, and he’s making more people miss once he gets to the second level. His ability to make later cuts has been outstanding.
Anderson has also been a valuable asset as a blocker and receiver, two essential qualities that make him a true three-down back. If he can stay healthy, there’s no reason to doubt C.J.’s ability to maintain this performance for a whole year.
Charles has only carried the ball 33 times so far this season, an average of only eight per game, but he’s already seventh in the NFL in yards per carry at 5.3. It’s clear that Charles’ vision and balance have been there since the preseason but we’re now seeing that burst. Charles is also looking deadly quick on his lateral cuts and is just impossible to bring down on a first tackle attempt.
He’s been ever so close to making one last tackle miss and breaking off a big run but hasn’t quite got it yet. Jamaal is actually the only runner in the top 10 leaders in yards per carry to not have a run over 20 yards this season; all other runners have at least one run of 35 yards or more. It sure feels like that big run is just around the corner.
As Charles is clearly being used on a bit of a pitch count, Devontae Booker is now back and could add yet another dimension to this unit with his young legs, versatility, and power.
With all these pieces in place, the running game has gelled and so far has been the true strength of this offense. Their ability to keep it up into November and December might just be the difference between Denver being a contender this year or a pretender. The initial signs are encouraging, particularly with the versatility of scheme with which the Broncos are having success on the ground. With a deep stable of backs on the team, there’s also reason to believe that this success can be maintained for the long haul.
Only time will tell, but seeing the Broncos offense impose their will on teams is a welcome change, there’s no denying that.