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2019 Opponent Scouting Report: Broncos Offense Flacco slightly better than his linemen

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NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Denver Broncos Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Overview

On October 27, 2019 the Indianapolis Colts will host the Denver Broncos. In this Week 8 match-up I sought to understand our opponent and get a better idea of how they may attack our Colts.

Since 2002 the Colts are 11-5 against the Broncos, including three playoff wins. The last five meetings haven’t gone as well for our Colts going 2-3 in that span. These Broncos have yet to see a Frank Reich led Indy team, while our Colts have never seen a Vic Fangio led Broncos team. Ultimately Sunday’s contest will come down to far more than those two men, but each franchise has entered a new era since the last time they faced off and spoiler alert the Colts new era leadership seems to give them the upper hand in this match-up at first glance.

Let’s figure out what we can expect in week 8.


Offensive Scheme

Under John Elway’s leadership the Denver Broncos haven’t done much of anything in a conventional way so when he went out and hired longtime defensive coordinator Vic Fangio it shouldn’t have been surprising. In an era where every general manager seems to have seen the light and understands the value that keeping a franchise quarterback in the same offensive system has (if your head coach determines the offensive scheme, the coordinators can come and go, the system and it’s familiarity stays). Also it’s my personal opinion that hiring a coach that coaches the vastly more complex part of football known as “offense” is more well equipped to craft effective game plans and will almost always be willing to take on more risk, which isn’t always a good thing, obviously.

I’ll get off my soapbox soon but after writing these breakdowns for nearly three years, learning an unholy amount about not only the NFL, but the history of football, scheme, concepts, coaching trees and the coaches themselves, it is my opinion that the modern game has created an environment that is more well suited for offensive head coaches to succeed. That isn’t an absolute and there are bad head coaches that used to be good offensive coordinators and good head coaches that used to be defensive and even special teams coordinators. If I somehow became the general manager of an NFL franchise, I would want to cast a wide net, I would interview every qualified candidate possible but at the end of the day my belief would make it very difficult for any non-offensive minded coach to get the job. Back to more Broncos talk.

So when Elway hired Fangio the question then became who is calling the offense? That’s where Rich Scangarello comes in. Before taking over as one of just 32 NFL offensive coordinators on the planet, Scangarello put together a long and successful football coaching career. When I say “successful” it’s important to understand the context. Many football coaches flame out and go get a “real” job because, frankly coaching at the lower levels is usually a requirement for most guys starting out and those jobs don’t pay much of anything. Also, you tend to get fired a lot and usually you can’t just go get another job across town. So considering Scangarello has been paid (only an assumption, I don’t know for sure he was always paid, seriously) to coach football every year since 1998.

Before being hired to call the offense for the Broncos the only play calling experience Scang’s had were in his stints with FCS powerhouses (not true) Wagner and Northern Arizona University and with Division III Millsaps College for one season. To be completely fair to the coach, both FCS teams improved their win/loss totals by a significant margin upon Scang’s arrival.

He spent 2015 with the Atlanta Falcons as an offensive quality control coach and then spent two seasons with the San Francisco 49ers as their quarterbacks coach before finally landing his current gig; offensive coordinator of the Denver Broncos.

Ultimately none of that really matters now. Sure his resume isn’t as impressive as a lot of other NFL OC’s but resume’s don’t win games, the abilities of both players and coaches do. So what does Rich Scangarello’s offense look like? This is an excerpt taken from a July interview with The Athletic’s Nicki Jhabvala:

How similar is your system to Kyle Shanahan’s, and are there things you added to it that are exclusively yours?

Ultimately my whole career, even before I got to Kyle, it was modeled after this system to some degree. But yeah, Mike Munchak has definitely been a huge influence on a lot of things, just his experience and some of the stuff he’s done in the past and had success that he’s been able to bring to the table. It’s just going to make us be a little more diverse and have some things that maybe people won’t expect.

So there you have it! He, like others I’ve looked at this season, has been heavily influenced by Mike Munchak and the Shanahan Coaching Dynasty. If you want a more in depth breakdown of the Shanahan-ian offense you can read either of these two articles. But the long and short of it is this:

It is a West Coast based system that traditionally relies on play action passes, bootlegs and the zone run. This style of offense tends to establish the run, even when it doesn’t seem to be establish-ible and is ultimately versatile in how it can be used. Those other articles go into more detail about that kind of offense, specifically but I’ve written that article before, I’m going to do my best to give you what this offense actually looks like under the 2019 Rich Scangarello, led Denver Broncos.

This is basically everything you need to know:

This is the entire first drive from the Broncos vs. Chargers week five match-up. This is the best case scenario for this Broncos team.

Play 1: The Broncos come out in a heavy, 13 formation. The offensive line fakes a zone run to the right, Joe Flacco fakes the hand off and finds an open tight end down the seam for a nice gain.

Why this is important: The Broncos don’t take a lot of deep shots, but when they do, it comes from a lot of looks like this one. There’s usually play action, they almost always keep extra blockers, multiple receiving option run vertical routes and there’s almost always a back or tight end that squeeze out into a flat to provide a checkdown option. The play shown checks all of the boxes.

Play 2: Denver has 11 personnel on the field, which is used, traditionally, as a passing formation. Instead Scang’s has lined up two receivers tight off of the right side of the line and he dials up a split-zone run. Number 17 DaeSean Hamilton fakes inside which makes Joey Bosa hesitate while number 14 Courtland Sutton works his way to a linebacker at the second level and gets a vital block that opens this play for a big gain.

Why this is important: This team is going to do everything it can to establish the run on Sunday and while the split-zone will almost certainly be a part of that they will look to attack our Colts front seven in a multitude of ways.

Play 3: Another split-zone run. This time the blocker flowing from the backside of the play was a fullback.

Why this is important: did you even read the last paragraph? Just kidding. This play is important for that same reason but also what Phillip Lindsey does with the ball after he doesn’t find a hole inside; he bounces this run for a decent gain. This isn’t always going to work for him, obviously. But if you were hoping to make it through a week of Stampede Radio without me talking about how important setting the edge is, well, it won’t be this week.

Play 4: This was a quick cut, my fault on that, but this play is one that works multiple levels of the field for Joe Flacco. As a matter of fact, it’s just a flood concept. I feel like I’ve talked about this type of play a hundred times before but I’ll do it again because it’s a good concept. It gives the quarterback three simple reads, all on one side of the field that progresses from deepest to shortest. So here Flacco sees that his deep receiving target is covered so he checks his intermediate route, it’s covered as well so Flacco does what he should and checks the ball down.

Why this is important: It shows that the Broncos do hope to push the ball down the field. They aren’t only drawing up passes short of the sticks. No the Broncos do want to take intermediate and deep shots if they’re available. However it seems that Joe Flacco either didn’t get the memo or has just gone full Alex Smith and seems to check every single throw down to a shallow receiver. Flacco made the right decision on this play but you’re going to see a lot of short passes, just know there were probably deeper options that just didn’t see the ball thrown their way.

Play 5 and 6: Both inside gap blocking runs.

Why this is important: Unlike what some believe about Shanahan like systems, Rich Scangarello uses his fair share of man blocking in addition to the zone schemes this kind of system became famous for.

Play 7: Back to the zone run.

Why this is important: It shows that they will use both styles of run blocking even near the goal line and they have had some level of success with both.

From my perspective this one drive tells you most of what you need to know about the Broncos offense under Rich Scangarello. Some of the other notes I took while watching the Broncos offense this season include:

Short, quick hitting throws. From gun, a lot. PA sets up a lot of screen action. Just handed the ball off on 3rd and 9????? Offensive line getting good movement. PA pass for deep concept. Run a lot of concepts short of the sticks on 3rd down. Blitz off of Flacco’s left side got home. Nice deep ball to Courtland Sutton. Fullback in run formation is a tell. Going to run. Not a lot of PA. WR’s sit down on a lot on curl routes over the middle at 5-8 yards. The Titans game was so ugly for both teams. This offense is painfully conservative. Did see something that looked RPO-ish. These tackles suck.

Some of these will come into play later when I go over the position groups but take from them what you will. I expected to see a lot more play action than what the Broncos have used and I’m not sure what I expected from a team with a defensive head coach but the offense was among the most conservative I’ve watched this year.

Something else I wanted to point out was from an article I found on Mile High Report from Joe Mahoney. Joe went into great detail explaining how predictable Rich Scangarello’s play calling has been in the third quarter when the Broncos have the lead. It’s a solid article but I don’t foresee that scenario happening on Sunday. To me the article was less interesting from the standpoint of what happens if the Colts somehow find themselves down at home to the Broncos and far more interesting that while the guys over at MHR have been able to pick up on that tendency, what tendencies are we missing that Matt Eberflus and his staff have picked up on. You know, since they’re the guys who are paid to spend most of their waking lives figuring out things like that, I feel like Rich Scangarello might not be too tough a nut to crack.


Quarterback:

Joe Flacco once sold himself to the Baltimore Ravens as an elite quarterback. Granted he did so after an improbable super bowl run and he just so happened to have an expiring contract in the same year. From that point on Joe Flacco has been above average at his best and bad at his worst.

Normally when someone gets as much negative hype as Flacco, I’m skeptical. Mostly because I’ve seen it time and time again, a team plays poorly and fans place the blame squarely on the shoulders of a single man.

Sometimes, however, the criticism is warranted.

I won’t say this teams 2-5 record is all on Joe Flacco, it’s not. But with a better quarterback this team is better than 2-5.

A lot of blame here

We can blame a rookie tight end for losing track of this ball or we can blame an under thrown pass. I tend to fall into the second category for the simple reason that the Noah Fant, rightfully, expected this pass to hit him in stride, or at least go over his head. With a little more experience he probably adjusts to this pass and is able to knock it away from the defender, regardless this was a poorly thrown ball.

At first I was concerned with the decision that Flacco made in throwing this pass, after further review, he probably made the correct read given the called play. That safety was late getting over to help, his receiving target was open and he saw it and made the correct read. Given that it was 3rd and 2, you always want to play to pick up a new set of downs but he did the right thing just in a really poorly executed fashion. If you notice, he sees pressure coming and he doesn’t step into this throw. We’ll talk about this more in the offensive line section but Flacco has good reason to be scared in the pocket.

The kind of play that got Flacco paid in the first place

For anyone out there who remembers the Ravens 2012 march through the playoffs, this kind of play should look really familiar. Flacco sees both safeties are around 10 yards deep each on a hash mark. He knows Courtland Sutton is running a 9 route. Flacco throws the ball up and lets his receiver run under it for a big gain.

If given time and a clean pocket, Joe Flacco can still throw a few passes like this a game.

I had a little free time

I actually put this together for this breakdown before I realized the Broncos were playing the Chiefs on last weeks edition of Thursday Night Football, but it was timely so I Tweeted it out then. Either way I could have put together a much longer blooper reel of Joe Flacco low-lights from just this season if I would have really cared to do so.

Here’s my takeaway after watching Flacco in a few games; he mostly makes the right reads. He isn’t often throwing really dumb passes after failing to read the defense. This is something you would expect from an 11 year starting quarterback but given the fact that the Colts just played Marcus Mariota earlier this season, nothing should be assumed. The biggest issues I see surrounding Joe Flacco and this offense are that he is a complete statue, the offensive play calling is very conservative and the offensive line doesn’t do a good job at either tackle position.

In the right situation Joe Flacco can win you games. Joe Flacco could win games for the Indianapolis Colts (God forbid). But in 2019 Joe Flacco can’t will an imperfect team that calls plays short of the sticks on third down as often as these Broncos do and if this is the offensive coordinator they plan to go with for the future and John Elway isn’t going to make any big moves for a good tackle before the trade deadline, then these Broncos need to see if there’s another quarterback on the roster who can create a spark given these circumstances. It isn’t all Flacco, but at this point in his career, he isn’t someone that can make this offense work given the talent around him.


Running Back:

We should see a healthy dose of Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman. Both are good backs with excellent vision. Lindsay doesn’t have as much wiggle as Freeman, which is odd considering Lindsay is 5’8” 180 pounds and Freeman is 5’11” 238 pounds. Lindsay is really good at setting up defenders at the second and third level of the defense and making a cut that makes it difficult to get to him.

Perfect example

Here Lindsay sees the big hole that he has on the right side of the line and he goes toward it. He then has a choice to make, he can either cut inside and try to make the safety miss in the hole, or cut outside to daylight. Lindsay will almost always cut to daylight but he pressed that inside hole just long enought to pull the safety up and out of position. Had tight end (number 82) Jeff Heuerman been able to hold his block Lindsay would be off to the races.

Freeman through traffic

I wish I could tell you that I loved Royce Freeman when he was coming out of Oregon. It’s not that I didn’t like him but I just wasn’t on the bandwagon like so many were. As it turns out, he’s a lot of fun to watch run the football. He does a great job reading where his holes will be and using and anticipating blocks. He has good contact balance and will slip through the occasional arm tackle. I believe Freeman is talented enough to carry the load in Denver if they ever ask him to do so.

Using blocks

Another example of Freeman using his blockers. He moves really well laterally while making good reads and he outweighs Darius Leonard by at least 20 pounds.

These Broncos running backs are talented. Both Lindsay and Freeman could have big days on the ground week in and week out. With that said this isn’t a team built to win consistently by running the football. I would be very surprised if either back eclipsed the century mark on the ground on Sunday but it isn’t because they aren’t capable.


Pass Catchers:

Courtland Sutton and Emmanuel Sanders were clearly the Broncos first two receiving options as Sutton has 36 catches while Sanders was second on the team with 30 of his own. However John Elway felt the need to make a move at the wide receiver position on Tuesday afternoon.

Running backs Royce Freeman and Phillip Lindsay are third and fourth on the team with 25 and 20 catches respectively followed by rookie tight end Noah Fant with 15 and receiver DaeSean Hamilton with 11 of his own. The Broncos really don’t have anyone capable of picking up the slack this season so it stands to reason that Courtland Sutton will see an increased number of targets going forward, which shouldn’t be that surprising given his continued growth into a true number one wide receiver.

Jeff Essary of Mile High Report took a look at Sutton’s usage so far this season and put together a great look at some of the ways the Broncos have schemed the ball to the second year receiver. From the article:

Play 1

I broke this one down after the Packers game but it’s worth mentioning again. One of the techniques we’ll see throughout these plays is Scangarello creating space within the defense for Sutton to go to work, often using 3x1 sets or motioning a running back out to create essentially a trips side where the other receivers work to pull defenders away from Sutton.

We see that here, starting with the RB motion. The motion pulls the underneath slot defender towards the sideline and holds him there so he doesn’t interfere with the passing lane. Next, Sanders in the slot will occupy the underneath defender on the inside.

What this creates, and what you’ll continue to see, is a sort of seas parting effect where there is a perfect window for Flacco and Sutton to connect.

This is great design.

Play #3

This one is a variation of Double China 7 where the #1 and #2 receivers on the trips side occupy the slot and wide corners while Sutton comes over the top on the corner (or 7) route.

This is great against both man and zone as it puts Sutton as the #3 WR, creating a mismatch in coverage.

Sutton executes it perfectly and I’m actually ok with the underthrow from Flacco which keeps Sutton away from the safety.

The play:

So to simplify Jeff Essary’s work further, the Broncos will use motion, spacing and multiple formations to try to work Courtland Sutton into mismatches this week and for the rest of the season. With Emmanuel Sanders in San Francisco, I do expect to see the Broncos feed Sutton that much more. I’m not sure how many plays the Broncos have designed to get Sutton open, but I have a feeling we’re going to find out Sunday.

Noah Fant will no doubt continue to grow and develop as a professional but it would be surprising if he played a large role this week. We can also expect the running backs to be heavily involved in the Broncos abysmal passing game.


Offensive Line:

Garett Bolles, Dalton Risner, Connor McGovern, Ron Leary, Ja’Wuan James and Elijah Wilkinson are the names you need to know here. Yes, there are six names there, James has missed the past six games with a knee injury and Wilkinson has filled in during his absence.

The Broncos drafted Bolles in the first round of the 2017 draft and thus far Bolles has been a tremendous disappointment. Risner will start at left guard and has made me look good as he was absolutely my favorite prospect available in the 2019 draft. So far Risner has been the lone bright spot on this line.

McGovern will start at center, Leary at guard and James or Wilkinson will start at the right tackle spot. While it's possible that James will be a big upgrade over Wilkinson the bottom line for this Broncos team is the best case scenario is that three out of five of their starting offensive linemen aren't that good.

Normally I would break down each of these plays but this article is late (I've had a crazy week) and I'm confident you can figure out what my point would be.

*These guys stink.*

So is there anything they do well? Running behind Dalton Risner seems to work.

Colts fans should expect another big game from Justin Houston. I don't anticipate that this will be the week that the Broncos figure it out up front and start to turn things around.


Final Thoughts:

The Broncos offense has some nice pieces at the skill positions but they lack talent at the games most importantly positions. The Colts defense will have a big day against an anemic offense with major issues.

Tomorrow (God willing) we'll take a look at the Broncos top five defense and how they will look to attack our Colts.