For the second consecutive week, the Denver Broncos rushed for 200+ yards. In week 12, they accomplished it vs the Miami Dolphins second-ranked defense. In week 13, they did it on the road, in a hostile environment and against a desperate divisional foe in the Kansas City Chiefs.
Impose your will on the ground and smother the opposition on defense. That's championship-caliber football. Add to that mix the deadly aim and arsenal of an Hall of Fame quarterback in Peyton Manning, and the Broncos are presenting the NFL with a very difficult formula to overcome.
Against the Chiefs, the Broncos came away with a 29-16 victory. Brand new place kicker, Connor Barth, did his job, connecting on 5 field goals. The special teams unit also chipped in with a successful fake punt (David Bruton) and a fumble recovery. Complimentary football is a beautiful thing to behold, especially when it's on the doorstep of December.
There were many things we can glean from the Broncos impressive road victory. Let's get to it.
What A Difference Virgil Green Makes
It's no coincidence that the Broncos recent rushing turnaround came when Green returned to the lineup. After missing three weeks with a calf injury, he was finally activated in week 12 vs the Dolphins.
The Broncos rushed for 201 yards that day, spear-headed by C.J. Anderson's 167 on the ground. Last Sunday vs the Chiefs, the team went for 214 yards rushing, 168 of which again came from the second-year running back out of California.
With Green's in-line blocking over the last two weeks, the Broncos are averaging 4.7 yards per rush. In the three games without him, the team could only manage 3.2 YPC. That's a stark contrast.
There's no such thing as coincidence. The way the Broncos have ran the ball of late, also happens to line up with the two games that pass-catching phenom, Julius Thomas, has missed with an ankle injury.
Thomas' prowess (or lack thereof) as a blocker has been lambasted and for good reason. It's simply not his forte. But as a tight end, it's something he knows he needs to work on, in order to be a complete player.
Thomas was asked about Green's recent work and the team's subsequent production in the running game. His response, via the team.
“It’s great. Virgil’s a guy that we see as a big part of our offense. In the Seattle game, when he went out with a concussion, it kind of changed some of the things we did. Having him back and healthy is huge for us. We’re kind of getting to that ending stretch of the season, and getting guys back and healthy and ready to make that push, so we like where we’re at and we’re going to continue to work as hard as we always have done, and we’re going to continue to count on guys to make big plays for us.”
The Broncos destiny as a rushing offense certainly seems to hang on the health of Green. But over the last two weeks, as the team has committed themselves to running the ball, they've also managed to strike a very balanced run/pass ratio; 80 runs to 69 passes.
When asked whether his receiving opportunities will be “quality over quantity” when he returns, Thomas said this:
“I don’t know going into each week what that run-pass distribution is going to be. It’s just a feel thing. We’re going to go with whatever’s working well, and for us, we’ve been able to run that ball consistently well, and if that is the case, we’ll continue to do that when I get back. We’ve been doing a lot of one-big-tight-end, one-regular-tight-end [looks], but if I’m in, we could easily change that to two-tight end personnel sets like we did earlier this year. We’ve got the ability to do it. I’m comfortable playing either the ‘Y’ or the ‘F’ tight end. It doesn’t matter. We all have a good understanding of both spots. ‘Goose’ (Offensive Coordinator Adam Gase) will continue to do a good job, and he’ll get us where we need to be.”
The "Y" tight end means in-line. The "F" tight end is usually moved around more. He can line up in the backfield as a fullback, or move around, and even line up in the slot. Thomas is referring to the inclusion of tackle, Paul Cornick, in the Broncos "jumbo" 12 personnel sets lately, along with Green. (2 TE, 2 WR, 1 RB).
The offense could still be quite effective with Thomas in the game, especially in play-action. The Broncos struggled in the redzone vs the Chiefs, but having Thomas in the lineup would likely change that. It'll be interesting to see how it plays out, once he is healed. For now, the Broncos will ground and pound on the heels of their best blocking tight end; Virgil Green.
Starting Field Position A Concern For The Defense
Brandon McManus might not have been much of a field goal kicker, but he could boot the ball out of the back of the endzone with ease and regularity. He was one of the best in the league in that regard.
Although Barth went 5-of-5 on FG attempts vs the Chiefs, he failed miserably in kicking touchbacks. He kicked off a total of 8 times. On the ensuing possession, the Chiefs averaging starting field position was at their own 32-yard line.
Not good. Now, it must be said that the conditions were not ideal. When the game started, it was 23 degrees out, with wind gusts. Couple that with low elevation and it stands to reason that kickoffs wouldn't travel as far as they would in the Mile High air, or in a dome.
Until I see Barth handle kickoffs at home, I'm going to reserve judgement. But it is a very valid concern. When a team's average starting field position is beyond the 30-yard line, it can put inordinate pressure on the defense. Going down the stretch and into the playoffs, the Broncos don't need that. Hopefully, the coaches have an answer, if Barth can't get it done at home.
Jack Del Rio Finally Dialing Up The Blitz
There have been complaints in Broncos Country that the offense has been too predictable at times this year. They've turned that trend around of late, but there's no question that the defense has also been predictably complicit in its own right.
But over the last two weeks, that has also changed. We've seen a lot more of T.J. Ward in the box and blitzes being deployed more frequently by defensive coordinator, Jack Del Rio.
Now, the injuries the Broncos have sustained in their linebacker corps could be the reason that Ward is playing more like a LB and in the box more often. Whatever the reason, it's where he belongs.
Ward is at his best when patrolling the box, where he can read the play and react down-hill. A coach's job is to put his players in the best possible position to succeed, and playing to a player's strength is key in doing that.
Too often, earlier in the season, Ward was tasked with coverage responsibilities down-field. He's not the worst coverage safety, but he's not the best either. And time after time, we saw him struggle to defend the tight end particularly.
Del Rio has also deployed more exotic blitz packages and at a more frequent rate. Last week, the Broncos sacked Alex Smith 6 times; 2 of them by a defensive back (Ward, Carter). Using the "A" and "B" gap to put added pressure on the QB, has also served to confound the opposing offensive line, which leads to guys like DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller having even more success rushing the passer.
As the Broncos pick up steam down the stretch, they'll need to continue their smothering defense. As we've seen over the last decade in the NFL, QBs win games, but defense wins championships.