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Broncos Film Room: What Gary Kubiak's 2014 offense tells us about how Denver plans to use Joe Flacco

Andre Simone Avatar
May 23, 2019

Whether you like it or not, Joe Flacco is the Denver Broncos unquestioned starter, and there are a few reasons for the trust that the franchise has already placed on their new quarterback’s shoulders.

Having a Super Bowl ring and MVP sitting on his mantle is a big part of that, but nothing is more key to Denver’s trust in Flacco than how No. 5 performed in 2014, under former Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak’s offensive scheme.

While Kubiak was surprisingly not kept in the Mile High City as the offensive coordinator, or as a consultant, Denver’s new coordinator Rich Scangarello’s scheme is rooted in that same Kubiak offense. Of course, Scangarello learned under the tutelage of Kyle Shanahan, and the younger Shanahan was given his start in the NFL as a position coach and then offensive coordinator under Kubiak back in the mid-2000s, bringing everything full circle.

This is why Flacco’s career season in 2014 under Kubiak is such a huge part of the Broncos bringing him in with the utmost confidence that in this offense, the former Super Bowl MVP can get back to being a premier starter in the league.

With all that, we went back to the tape to see what Kubiak did to get the most out of Flacco and how Scangarello and Co can reproduce that same success in 2019.

Playing to Flacco’s strengths

For the first part of this piece, we’re going to focus on the Shanahan-Kubiak scheme and how it fits Flacco. 

For starters, the former first-round pick is a veteran who is apt in reading defenses, selling play-action fakes, and taking what the defense gives him. That’s especially true when Flacco’s reads are simplified, which is something this offense does a great job of.

Taking shots is another key in this offense, but knowing when to take those shots is just as crucial, and that ability to methodically pick his spots is where the Broncos new quarterback really stood out in his time under Kubes. That harmony between setting defenses up with short throws and letting the running game strive, while also attacking vertically at the right time is where the marriage between Flacco and this offense is at its best. 

Now, there were also times like Week 6 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers where Flacco attacked vertically with consistency and just tore the Bucs apart. In that game, he threw just about everything downfield and tallied an absurd five touchdowns by just hammering his opponents deep. If that’s Flacco’s upside in this offense, there’s a lot to get excited about.

A key to the success of that vertical passing game came down to executing double moves outside, where Flacco could attack the high safety and squeeze throws in between the cornerback and safety over the top.

The threat of vertical routes down the sideline, in turn, opens up space for in-cutting routes over the middle of the field, where Flacco’s “hose” allows him to thread the ball in tighter windows on intermediate passes.

All of that makes jumping on Flacco’s throws underneath much harder, a massive difference between him and 2018 starter Case Keenum. 

Denver’s new signal caller possesses better accuracy than most give him credit for, especially in the red zone, where he can squeeze throws into tight areas with impressive timing and anticipation when defenses dictate where the ball should go.

Another area in which Kubiak’s scheme benefitted Flacco was in the balance between run and pass, allowing the Delaware product to throw the ball just 34.6 times per game, his second-lowest average since 2012.

That balance is absolutely key to get the best out of Flacco’s arm, as defenses are forced to respect the run but can’t cheat and bring safeties in the box like opponents did regularly against Denver in 2018. If they do bring more defenders in the box to stop the run, opponents will run the risk of getting burned deep by Joe’s howitzer arm. 

With that big arm, consistency in the short game and staying ahead of the chains isn’t as essential as it has been for Broncos quarterbacks in the recent past. Hunting big plays is the name of the game, as Flacco merely needs to nail a couple of big throws to put 21-plus points on the board and put the Broncos in position to win.

Particularly on play action, Flacco can take his shots with defenses caught off guard on those play-action fakes, as his big arm paired with a productive run game can really stress defenses to their limit.

The play-action game is where it all starts in Scangarello’s scheme, which, as any older Broncos fan knows, is a staple of this offense. Not just play action, but the play-action bootleg game is a big part of the Broncos’ attack, and Flacco really stood out on tape for his ability to get out on the perimeter and deliver timely throws on half-field reads coming off of play-action boots.

Considering Flacco’s not the most mobile quarterback, it’s almost counter-intuitive to think he’s at his best when put on the move on bootleg throws, however, play action actually suits the 6-foot-5 quarterback because it buys him extra time. If Flacco’s in the pocket, he can be a bit slow to get through his drops and this slows down his reads, while play-action throws and especially bootlegs, allow him to simplify his reads and eliminate those choppy drops.

Unsurprisingly, under Kubiak and beyond, the Ravens still implemented tons of play-action concepts where Flacco has done some of his best work through the years.

Of course, as is the case in any modern NFL attack, Flacco was still throwing the ball out of shotgun 37 percent of the time with Kubiak, even sprinkling in some play-action bootleg throws from the gun.

Personnel packages play a big part in all of this, too, and Kubiak mixed in plenty of two-tight-end formations, pre-snap motions, and more 11 personnel than most would think.

The use of multiple tight-end sets gave Flacco added blockers in pass protection and allowed those formations to morph into three-wide formations with the tight end flexed out wide.  In that same five-touchdown thrashing of the Buccaneers, there were a ton of two-tight-end sets which opened things up for receivers out wide.

Expect to see plenty of 2019 first-round pick Noah Fant flexed out in the slot or out wide, much like Owen Daniels was in 14, where he hauled in 48 receptions on 79 targets.

21 personnel (two backs) was even more prominent than 12 personnel (two tight ends) in Kubiak’s offense and fullback Kyle Juszczyk was heavily featured in the passing game, as was running back Justin Forsett, with the two combining for 86 targets.

Spreading the running back out wide was a big part of the passing game in Baltimore, too, an area in which Phillip Lindsay could be lethal both as a receiver and decoy.

Beyond throwing to backs and tight ends, the screen game was featured, as well, as Kubiak kept defenses guessing and forced the opposition to cover the entire field with an equal mix of deep shots and short dump offs.

How Flacco makes it all work

The harmony in Flacco’s play in Scangarello’s offense all starts from his ability to sling it deep on designed bootlegs and under center. Especially under center, more than his ability to execute typical pro-style concepts, in 2014, Flacco did some of his best work while standing tough in the pocket and delivering throws that even most NFL quarterbacks couldn’t pull off with pressure bearing down.

His height and arm serve him well in these situations and allow the former Super Bowl MVP to make up for a lack of athleticism. While other quarterbacks would be forced to scramble out the pocket, Flacco can stand tall and deliver deep throws despite not being able to step into his motion, as he can still fling the ball a country mile without any torque in his lower body, a rare trait. 

Just watch him here as he delivers a pass on target, all though it was dropped, with pressure in his face on a designated bootleg to the right side.

Flacco’s touch on deep throws and his accuracy vertically is underrated, as he can mix up velocity and does a nice job of delivering catchable throws. Beyond slinging it 50-plus yards in the air, No. 5’s arm strength shows up all over the field where his ability zip timely passes to the sideline is just as important as his ability to sling rainbows downfield. 

This allowed Flacco to constantly stand tough in the pocket and thread the needle in key downs, as he excelled on third down and in the red zone, key areas for a quarterback.

In 2014, Joe threw 18 red-zone touchdowns where his zip in tight quarters and timing really stood out.

Flacco’s ample arm strength makes him a weapon to convert any down and distance, with a hose to zip passes into tight coverage even without the ability to transfer his weight forward. 3rd-and-long is where Flacco will help the offense in a major way with the arm velocity to challenge defenses deep, or sling passes with timing underneath.

An underrated aspect of Flacco’s game is his decision making and patience as he only threw 12 interceptions under Kubiak’s tutelage.

A big part of the QB avoiding turnovers was his focus on attacking one-on-one matchups, though, he too can get a bit carried away and overconfident.

If receivers are getting free at the line and beating press coverage at the top of their route, Flacco can be unstoppable.

Denver’s new big-armed quarterback also flashes supreme ball placement on in-cutting routes where he can hit his targets in stride leading to big runs after the catch, though he must be more consistent with his placement.

In conclusion

Flacco’s strong arm and ability as a pocket passer open up plenty of options that the Broncos haven’t had offensively the last few years.

Once you combine that with the Shanahan-inspired attack that keeps defenses guessing by maximizing the short passing game and run, the scheme fits perfectly to his strengths and alleviates the stress of carrying the offense and making complex reads. 

Assuming his skill throwing on bootlegs and arm strength haven’t diminished, the fit in Denver’s offense is quite promising. The big question is if the Broncos receivers can stretch the field enough to give Flacco opportunities to go deep.

How Scrangarello mixes in some of the college concepts he’s picked up along the way, will be an interesting added wrinkle to the offense, which should be much more nuanced and explosive than the attacks we’ve seen in Denver the past few years.

Like it or not, Flacco’s the starter in 2019, and if Scangarello can replicate the success his veteran quarterback had just five years ago, offensive football in the Mile High City could get a lot more fun soon.


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