When the Denver Broncos won Super Bowl 50 last December, they became one of the most flawed teams to hoist the Lombardi. That's not to say that even the NFL's most elite teams have become watered down — just that's Denver's strengths were so overwhelming that they covered up the weaknesses.
A year later, they're 6-2 through their first eight games, and they're a significantly more balanced team. The defense no longer has to do everything for the offense (even if there are a few timely bailouts here and there). This year's offense, captained by Trevor Siemian, is more even-keeled, and is almost always on schedule. The Broncos rank just 27th in yards gained, but are eighth in scoring. Efficiency.
That's not to say that the Broncos don't have room for improvement — in fact, they have plenty. At the moment, though, they're winning in spite of them. If those holes aren't plugged up soon though, they may start to leak.
Here's five areas in which the Broncos can improve at midseason.
This may be the most drastic and jarring change from last year. The Broncos defense is currently 24th in the NFL in rushing defense, allowing an average of 116.1 yards per game. Last year, they only allowed their opponents to rush for 83.4 yards per game.
http://www.scout.com/nfl/broncos/story/1719434-get-si-subscription-with-... At the beginning of the season, it looked like the Broncos porous rush defense might be a bit of an anomaly, with high-caliber running backs like Jeremy Hill carving through the defense.
The issue came to a head against the Atlanta Falcons, when the duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman combined for 122 yards. Just last week, Melvin Gordon became the first running back to surpass 100 yards against the Broncos since Week 2 of 2015.
Through eight games, it's now a trend rather than anomaly.
The obvious reasons for the decline in rush defense are the departures of Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan, but there are also massive running lanes being opened up when Von Miller and Shane Ray rush too far past the tackles.
Tight End Production
The Broncos have struggled in this area since they let Julius Thomas walk after the 2014 season. Virgil Green, despite missing three games, is the leading receiver at tight end with just 14 catches for 150 yards. He's a good option and certainly blocks well, but he's not a major threat at tight end.
Jeff Heuerman and John Phillips haven't lit the world on fire either, combining for just 88 yards on nine catches. At this point, the only consistent producers have been the obvious ones, Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders — but they're not tight ends.
Enter tight end A.J. Derby. Last week, when the Broncos dealt for Derby from the New England Patriots, I took a look at his preseason tape. A couple of things; Derby is about as athletic as they come at the tight end position, but he's not much of a bulldozer at the end of the line.
No problem. The Broncos issue at the position is not blocking ability, it is athleticism. The Broncos can even keep Green or Phillips in to block next to the tackle spot, and flex Derby out to the slot where he becomes an effective third receiver.
It would also be encouraging to see Derby take a few targets from Jordan Norwood, who hasn't been especially effective as of late.
Put simply, there's way too many of them. Especially of the holding variety.
http://www.scout.com/nfl/broncos/story/1723921-evaluating-denver-s-3-mid... This issue was exacerbated in the Thursday night game in San Diego, when the Broncos racked up five different holding penalties, including a particularly backbreaking one that erased a touchdown by C.J. Anderson that would have brought the Broncos within a score of the Chargers late in the game. Another was committed in the end zone, resulting in a safety.
That was one of 13 penalties in that game. It's reasonable to think that may have been the difference in the game. Overall, the Broncos are committing 7.4 penalties per game, which is 21st overall.
If you want to look at things through a more positive lens, you might note that the holdings have saved Siemian from some big hits. Either way, it would be best if the offensive line blocked both legally and effectively, which leads me to my next point.
Offensive Line Play
It's important to note that the Broncos line is almost an entirely new bunch. The only player that started at their position during Week 1 of 2015 was Matt Paradis at center. Everyone else is a new starter for the Broncos, including Michael Schofield at right guard.
At times the protection has been solid, and at other it's fallen apart at the seams. One of those times was against the Atlanta Falcons, when Paxton Lynch was sacked a total of six times by one of the least-effective pass rushes in the NFL.
It hasn't been that poor all season, however, as Trevor Siemian (due in part to a quicker release) has been sacked 11 times over his seven games played.
The same thing can be said, more or less, for the running game. Denver has run the ball well against teams like Carolina and Houston, but struggled against San Diego, Atlanta, and Cincinnati.
The biggest remedy is time. Offensive lines become much more palatable when they build up trust and experience alongside one another. Remember last season when the Broncos running game began to come alive late in the regular season and playoffs? It's not an accident that it usually clicks around that time of year.
In the first game of the year against the Carolina Panthers, the Broncos fumbled on their first offensive possession and then gave up a touchdown pass on the ensuing defensive possession.
That first game was somewhat of a harbinger of things to come in 2016; Denver almost always seems to get behind the eight ball right from the opening kick. When the Broncos win, it usually involves a comeback of some variety. It's worked so far to the tune of 6-2, but you can't count on it every single week.
Right now, the Broncos are scoring just two points in the first quarter on average, good for second-to-last in the league. Defensively, it's almost a mirror; they allow the 30th most points in the first quarter, 6.8.
To some extent, it's a matter of play selection on offense. Gary Kubiak has a penchant for opening the game with three or so pass plays. He's explained himself, saying that aggressiveness is more important than balance early in the game, but I'm a little skeptical of that philosophy, mainly because of the results.
Running the ball in the first quarter balances out the time of possession (a stat the Broncos are behind in currently) and it sets a precedent for the rest of the game.
The Broncos have won all three games in which they've scored first. Let's keep trying that method.
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Will Keys is an Editor for Mile High Huddle. You can find him on Twitter @WillKeys6.