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Broncos Film Room: How the offense can exploit a common defensive look they’re facing

Andre Simone Avatar
October 26, 2018

Seven weeks into the NFL season, teams have figured out how to exploit the Denver Broncos on both sides of the ball.

If they’re to salvage their season and Broncos coaches are to stay employed, some key adjustments need to occur, particularly on offense.

Much like Denver’s nickel defense has been attacked on the run, the Broncos offense has faced a ton of eight and even nine defenders in the box in the last couple of weeks.

Despite this, the Broncos have insisted on running the ball against loaded boxes and haven’t properly exploited the defensive looks they’re facing.

Of course, opposing defensive coordinators aren’t stupid. There’s a reason they’re stuffing the box, as they simply don’t feel Case Keenum and the passing game can take advantage of such looks, baiting them to throw it more.

So while fans clamor for the Broncos to run the rock even more, Denver needs to find other ways to punish defenses.

There are plenty of things the Broncos can do to counter this, if the run game is to continue performing at the level they were earlier in the year. In the past three weeks, we’ve already seen the ground game begin to struggle, giving up more tackles for a loss and run stops then they had earlier in the season.

While lots of those TFLs or run stops at the beginning of 2018 were a product of poor blocking, more and more of those plays are coming as a result of math; meaning opposing defenses just have more defenders than Denver has blockers.

When that occurs, something has to change, as the Broncos run game has averaged 3.9 yards per carry the last two weeks, which is way down from their 5.5 average in the first five games.

With all that, we went back to the tape to see what isn’t working and what Denver could do differently to improve their offense. 

What isn’t working for the run game?

As the Broncos have made running the ball a greater point of emphasis, all while dealing with a banged up offensive line, they’ve implemented a greater number of heavy sets—using two tight ends—and utilizing more formations with receivers lined up in tight. All this in an attempt to add more potential blockers closer to the line.

This has forced defenses to come in closer to the line of scrimmage to defend such formations, and generally, the Broncos added blockers haven’t aided them in running the ball.

Opponents are reading the run well and tackling efficiently outside, which has led to the Broncos giving up 17 tackles for a loss in their last three weeks—an average of 5.6 per game, a major increase from the 3.5 they allowed in the first four weeks.

Denver’s young backs aren’t doing themselves any favors, either, forcing runs outside and running into unblocked defenders. 

There needs to be a greater point of emphasis on receivers blocking outside too, as getting into the open field has become harder and improved blocking is required from everyone involved.

Take this great block by Emmanuel Sanders for example, which opened up an alleyway for Phillip Lindsay to run through. Better blocking could significantly help the ground game even against loaded boxes.

12 personnel spread out

One solution is to use the same personnel packages that are leading to TFLs—12-personnel packages with two tight ends, two wideouts, and a running back— but spreading those formations out.

We analyzed how the Broncos did this during their win Week 1 against the Seattle Seahawks, and it worked quite well.

Implementing five-wide looks with an empty backfield allows Denver to dictate how a defense will line up, but still makes it easy to run safe plays like outside screens, with competent blockers on the perimeter, that in essence work as an extension of the running game.

Another wrinkle the offense could throw in is lining up in a classic 12-personnel look and then spreading out the formation once the defense is set—we see this used primarily down on the goal line but it can be done in any part of the field, as shown here in a very exotic look by the Cincinnati Bengals.

Keeping defenses off balance is crucial, and Denver’s already had success with spread looks using 12-personnel this year.

It’ll be harder to pull off without tight end Jake Butt, but that shouldn’t prevent the Broncos from successfully executing these same plays to counter eight men in the box.

More play-action bootlegs

Finally, Thursday night against the Arizona Cardinals, the Broncos utilized more play action bootlegs, a key for Keenum to perform his best.

These plays had a good amount of success for the Broncos and worked perfectly against loaded boxes, resulting in easy completions to wide open receivers.

Utilizing more bootlegs just makes sense, not only because it’s putting Keenum in a position to succeed but because it forces defenses to adjust quickly when they’re expecting a run and typically puts pressure on them to defend outside. 

If more play-action bootlegs lead to more wide open touchdowns like the Cards gave up to Emmanual Sanders, better yet.

Alter the math

Another easy solution is to counter eight men in the box with a Broncos Film Room favorite, the jumbo formation, adding a sixth offensive lineman.

We haven’t seen many jumbo packages used by the Broncos this season, but it has been thrown out in spurts, including on the goal line against Arizona for a one-yard touchdown run by Royce Freeman.

Matching power with power is a simple solution and adding fullback Andy Janovich on more run plays as an added blocker would be another way to counter the clogged box.

While Jano has seen more playing time and was on the field for what should’ve been a big run for the Broncos in Arizona—the run was nullified by an avoidable Janovich holding penalty, as the run would’ve still gone for a big gain—he can be used even more and be targeted in the passing game as well, a wrinkle defenses certainly wouldn’t expect.

When they least expect it

The key to countering eight defenders clogging the box is simple; unpredictability.

Defenses are showing their hands by implementing this strategy, they are dictating their terms, it’s up to the offense to exploit them. Essentially the Broncos hold all the cards.

Beyond passing the ball with one less defender in coverage and taking advantage of one-on-one matchups outside—an area in which Keenum has to be more accurate—Denver can use more draw plays, which have worked effectively for them all year.

Cutback runs have also been an area the offense has experienced a good amount of success in. Again, the Broncos have the advantage of dictating how defenses line up. Stacking more receivers to one side opens up those backside lanes that speedy runners like Lindsay can take advantage of. 

This will come down to play calling, as Denver can run more out of second-and-long and pass more out of third-and-short, two other trends that have worked out offensively this season.

We’ve advocated for the Broncos to pass it out of third-and-short more often since the offseason, and we’ve seen the Broncos have success running out of longer down and distance as well.

Providing Keenum more audibles at the line when he sees loaded fronts will also be key.

In conclusion

What we’re advocating here is far from groundbreaking. However, it is essential that the Broncos stay ahead of the curve and begin to counter the loaded boxes they’re facing.

If adjustments aren’t made, the offense will only get worse, as the ground game will be doomed to face more and more plays like the example below, where defenses just have more defenders than they can block.

With Keenum’s struggles on third-and-medium and especially third-and-short, plays like the loss of yards above have become absolute drive killers and opposing DC’s know it.

A strong running game has made it possible for the Broncos to dictate the terms offensively, now the passing game and an influx of creative play calls are needed to help them out.


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