The AFC West-champion Denver Broncos are on a well-earned playoff bye. The players and coaches have taken some time off this week, to recharge their batteries, but they've now returned, turning their attention toward next week and the process of improving.
Finishing the season at 12-4, the Broncos had a very good year. They won their fourth-consecutive division title and earned their third consecutive first-round bye.
As the only NFL team to finish in the top-5 in total defense (3rd/305.2 YPG) and offense (4th/402.9 YPG), there's no denying that the Broncos have been remarkably efficient on both sides of the ball. However, every team has room for improvement, including the Broncos, and it's on this topic that we'll bend our thought today.
There are three areas I've identified, in particular, that the Broncos could improve on. With a stifling defense, strong running game and Pro Bowl quarterback, the Broncos are uniquely positioned for a deep playoff run. But if they can hone in on these three areas and get better, it's hard to imagine anyone being able to stop them.
Back To Basics
One of the most prominent common denominators that Super Bowl champions share is a pride and focus on the basics; fundamentals. They vary somewhat, depending on which side of the ball you're on. On offense, there are a number of fundamentals to shore up.
“A lot of the stuff that we focus on is just our general rules as far as what we do, whether it be protections, run game or route concepts," offensive coordinator Adam Gase said this week. "Ours is more just general offense. It’s not one thing that I could say that we’ve focused on to say, ‘We’re going to get better,’ but we try to make sure we hit a good amount of stuff as far as what’s going on with our offense.”
For the Broncos, arguably their greatest vulnerability is on the offensive line. Communication and technique will go a long way towards improving protections and run blocking concepts. On paper, the Broncos have a very talented group on the O-line. The issue that has plagued them in 2014, however, has been consistency.
Some games they've looked absolutely nasty and dominant, while in others, they've been sloppy and undisciplined. For the Broncos to advance beyond the Divisional Round of the playoffs, this unit must gel and work together as single-minded body.
Execution and unity of purpose becomes even more paramount on the road. If the Broncos advance beyond the Divisional Round next week, they'll likely have to travel to take on the No. 1 seed New England Patriots. There's always a chance that the Patriots could be upset and drop one at home, but it is unlikely.
To get to the Super Bowl, the Broncos will probably have to steal a win on the road in an extremely hostile environment. The O-line will be key. However, looking that far ahead might be an exercise in putting the proverbial cart before the horse. First thing's first; they have to win on January 11th.
If the O-line can play inspired football, paving the way for C.J. Anderson on the ground, and keeping Peyton Manning 's jersey clean, this offense would be virtually unstoppable. It all starts at the point of attack.
On defense, the key fundamentals amount to sound tackling technique, leverage (angles of pursuit) and communication. Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio knows what his unit has to do to improve, after they dropped one on the road in week 16. He talked about what they've focused on in practice this week.
“We did a little review on us over the last couple of weeks and we got into a little bit of the three various opponents that we could see in the next round," Del Rio said via the team. "Spent a little bit of work on that. Beyond that, healing up some guys and working on the basic fundamentals. We tackled both days even though we’re in shorts. We were working on the fundamentals of tackling, leveraging, things that—some of the fundamentals that we’ve been good at that have given us a chance to be good on defense.”
In that week 16 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, the Broncos defense was plagued by ineffectual tackling and poor angles. When this unit plays disciplined football, they are as good as any defense in the league. The Broncos will need them healthy, focused and physical, if they hope to stay alive.
Unleash Peyton Manning
Much has been made of the perceived "decline" of Manning over the final six weeks of the regular season. Some chalked it up to the inevitable vagaries of Father Time, others believed Manning was playing hurt. But the truth is, following a brutal road loss to the St. Louis Rams in week 11, the Broncos offense did a 180 and forged a new identity.
The pass-first aerial attack was shelved somewhat for a physical ground game. With this new identity, the Broncos went 5-1. It worked. However, perhaps one of the unintended consequences of the shift was that Peyton Manning seemed to have a much harder time getting into a rhythm, throwing 6 interceptions in the final 6 games, averaging a quarterback rating of 90.8.
A QBR of 90.8 would have put Manning in the middle of the pack of NFL passers in 2014. However, in the 10 previous games, Manning averaged a QBR of 111.9; more than 20 points higher. Gone was the no huddle, hurry-up offense, and, so it seemed, was Manning's rhythm.
Balance is key to the success of any NFL offense. But the Broncos swung the pendulum so far in the other direction that it became detrimental to their fortunes, even if it was inadvertent. Adam Gase has to find a way to get Manning back into his comfort zone.
I'm not suggesting that the Broncos should abandon the run and let Manning sling it 50 times a game. But there are things that can be done to facilitate Manning getting back into a groove.
Running the hurry-up offense is first and foremost. Running the hurry-up does not necessarily mean that each play must be a pass. Far from it. When Manning and company are in hurry-up mode, they can choose to run or pass. However, for this to work, the Broncos must be able to run the ball from 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR). Variations of 11 personnel can be found in the pistol, shotgun, or under center.
Utilizing tempo would not only serve to get Manning and company clicking, but it also prevents the defense from getting the time they need to adjust to what's happening on the field and makes substituting difficult, thus rendering an advantage to the offense, who can not only dictate the pace, but also the defensive alignment.
Manning is at his best when he's utilizing tempo as another offensive weapon. The crux of the issue, is finding a way to be effective on the ground, while running the hurry-up. The last six games of the regular season gave the Broncos the opportunity to better hone their rushing mindset, technique and communication. Now, they must apply those lessons to the hurry-up.
Create More Pressure On The QB
As a team, the Broncos finished the season with 41 sacks, tying with three other teams for No. 9 in the NFL. The signing of the Dallas Cowboys all-time leader in sacks, DeMarcus Ware, was expected to help the Broncos pass rush dramatically. And it did. But from a singular statistical point of view, the Broncos finished with exactly the same amount of sacks that they did in 2013.
They were on pace to shatter their 2013 numbers, but over the last month of the season, the Broncos only managed to notch 7 sacks, over 4 games. Ware hasn't taken down the QB since week 13, and although Von Miller finished the season with 14 sacks, he only managed 2 over that same 4-game span.
However, this lack of pressure doesn't seem to alarm Del Rio. He remains confident in his front seven.
“It hasn’t been a problem," Del Rio said leading up to week 17 vs. the Oakland Raiders. "We’ve had a very effective pass rush, got off the field, one [sack] on third down. If you’re asking sack numbers, it’s not always reflected in the sack numbers. We’re happy with the rush that we’re able to get and we’re happy with the results being able to get off the field and so those things are all part of it. It’s not about one guy or one facet. It goes hand in hand: good rush, good coverage. If they are content to punt, go three-and-out or turn the ball over, we’ll take those and sometimes you just don’t get the sack in those situations.”
The Broncos were the best in the NFL at forcing three-and-outs. And it is true that an effective pass rush is not strictly reflected in sack numbers, but it is the predominant marker. And simply put, the Broncos have not been as impactful in rushing the passer, over the last month of the season.
In the playoffs, that must change. Whether it's at the individual level; guys like Ware, Miller, and Malik Jackson, or from a scheme level, the Broncos have to sack the QB. Like our common denominator above, another that Super Bowl champions share, almost without fail, is the ability to pressure and sack the QB.
The Seattle Seahawks, Baltimore Ravens, New York Giants, Green Bay Packers, and New Orleans Saints; the last five Super Bowl champions, all excelled in this area. Last year, the Broncos finished in the middle of the pack in team sacks. The loss of Elvis Dumervil and the injury/suspension of Von Miller, took their toll on the defense.
But in the post-season, the Broncos found a way to manufacture pressure. At least, up until the Super Bowl. They ranked No. 2 in sacks in the playoffs last year. Only the San Francisco 49ers had more. Del Rio and company will have to find a way to repeat the feat this time around, even if it means by dialing up the blitz.
The Broncos have the coverage talent to buy the blitz time to get home. However, it seems that Del Rio has been reticent to blitz with any regularity this season, even becoming predictable on third downs down the stretch. That will have to change in the playoffs.