Game Preview: Broncos offense finding its identity?

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It took until Week 5 but the Denver Broncos finally got their first win on the board, a divisional win too, against the Los Angeles Chargers last week. Meanwhile, the Tennessee Titans are in a rut of their own, coming into this week having lost three of their last four. As veteran wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders told the media on Monday, this is no time for the Broncos to be content with winning one game, especially considering the hellish schedule this year.

Broncos finding their feet on offense

Whisper it quietly but I believe the Broncos offense is starting to resemble what new offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello envisioned for this season. Scangarello comes from the Kyle Shanahan coaching tree; he wants to run a similar form of the west coast offense that his old OC is running over in San Francisco. Then it should come as no surprise that the Broncos two best offensive performances have come in the last two weeks, right around the time that full back Andy Janovich made his return from injury. With Janovich back in the line-up and working his way back towards full fitness the Broncos used a lot more heavy sets (formations that include more tight ends or backs) against the Chargers. The Broncos lined up in 21 personnel (2 backs, 1 TE) on around 17% of snaps (10 of 59), 12 (1 back, 2 TE) personnel on 15% of snaps and also used a fair bit of 22 and 13 personnel sets. These heavier sets present more gaps that need to be covered by the opposing defense thus presenting RBs with more opportunities.

The assistance of Janovich has clearly been a boost for Phillip Lindsay as he had the second-highest output of his career last week rushing 15 times for 114 yards and a TD. In fact the running game as a whole benefits when Janovich is in the game. If we look at just the 12 run plays that were called with Janovich in at FB last week the Broncos had 88 yards on those 12 runs which is good for 7.33 yards per carry whereas the 17 designed run plays without Janovich went for 96 yards which works out at 5.65 yards per carry, so the Broncos averaged nearly two yards per carry more with Janovich in the game last week. It’s not just the running game that benefits out of these heavy sets either, this article on Pro Football Focus examines the success teams have in the passing game when they line up in heavy formations, with the data showing teams average nearly a full yard more per pass play with multiple TEs and/or backs on the field. 

Speaking of the passing game, Courtland Sutton is in the midst of a breakout season. After catching four passes for 92 yards last week including a 70-yard touchdown, Sutton ranks 10th in the league for receiving yards through Week 5 and is one of only two receivers with two years or less in the league in the top 10 (DJ Chark is the other). Sutton has garnered an 82.6 receiving grade from PFF (8th in the league among receivers with at least 12 targets) and is averaging six yards after the catch per reception (15th in the league) while he has caught 20 passes for a first down (8th in the league). Emmanuel Sanders also ranks in the top 15 for receiving grade from PFF among all wide receivers, having caught 24 passes for 307 yards and two touchdowns. Clearly Joe Flacco has been having a solid, if unspectacular, season as he sits around league average by most metrics. Flacco has completed 66.7% of his passes for 1,258 yards with six TDs and four interceptions which has earned him a 66.7 passing grade from PFF however he has been one of the most conservative QBs in the league, according to NextGen Stats the Broncos QB is averaging 6.4 intended air yards per pass which is the fourth-worst in the league. 

Denver have been moving the ball quite well (in the first half at leas)t; they actually have the most drives of 10+ plays in the league with 12 while they are fifth in the league for drives of 5+ minutes with nine. They will, however, be keen to get Ju’Wuan James back from injury as soon as possible with Flacco having the sixth-least amount of time to throw per drop back. James’ backup Elijah Wilkinson has been the biggest weakness on the O-line so far allowing a team-high nine QB hurries and by far the most sacks of anyone on the team with six. Garrett Bolles is next on that list with two sacks allowed. It’s great not having to talk about Garrett Bolles getting penalised in the last couple of games. 

The opposition 

It’s incredible how similar these two teams actually are. According to Football Outsiders DVOA rankings the Titans are the 24th-ranked offense in the league (Broncos 19th) while they are ranked 14th on the defensive side of the ball (Broncos 16th). PFF have the Titans ranked 24th on offense (Denver 25th) and 6th on defense (Denver 10th) so it’s clear that both sides strengths are on the defense. If we look at run/pass splits, both sides have a 60% pass 40% run split while the Titans EPA (expected points added) per run is –0.06 (Denver –0.07).

Even the QBs rate out very similar: Mariota has a PFF grade of 69.1 through five weeks with Flacco earning a 68.8 grade. Mariota has a big-time throw percentage of 2.65% while Flacco’s is 2.54%, and Mariota has a turnover-worthy play percentage 3.17% with Flacco’s sitting at 3.05%. 

Credit: AP Photo/Mark Zaleski

I analysed this Titans team for their game against the Jaguars in Week 3 and one of the things I pointed out was Mariota’s tendency to hold on to the ball a little too long. He runs out of ideas if his first read isn’t immediately open and that’s something that’s held true through the first five weeks. In the Titans’ two wins this season, Mariota has a QB rating of 141.4 when getting the ball out in under 2.5 seconds, that’s the best in the league. In their three losses so far, we have seen Mariota hold on to the ball for longer for one reason or another and when Mariota held on to the ball for more than 2.5 seconds in those games his QB rating dropped to 93.7 (18th in the league) while he was sacked 14 times. The key for Denver here will be getting pressure on Mariota and taking away his first read, forcing him to hold on to the ball. 

Denver will have to pay close attention to Tennessee’s weapons on the outside because Corey Davis and A.J Brown are two very talented WRs. Brown has made a good start to his career in the NFL catching 12 passes for 250 yards and two TDs averaging 9.8 yards after the catch per reception while Davis has caught 13 passes for 201 yards and a TD. The biggest weapon on this Titans team is at running back, though. Derrick Henry is seventh in the league in rushing yards with 388 through five weeks and he is one of the most bruising backs in the league accumulating 333 of those yards after contact which is good for fourth in the league. Henry is also joint third in the league for explosive runs (runs of 10+ yards) with 13. 

This one is going to be a close fought battle and will be won in the trenches, the offensive lines will go a long way in deciding who wins here. This is probably the most winnable game Denver have left and I’m hoping they follow a similar plan to last week with the personnel groupings, if so then I give Denver the edge here.  

Prediction: Titans 17, Broncos 23 

Featured Picture – Credit: Ryan O’Halloran/reporterhearld.com

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