As the Broncos prepare to face Detroit this Sunday, the question everyone seems to be asking is whether or not it’s best for the Broncos to go back to the offense Peyton Manning usually runs or stick with the offense Gary Kubiak wants to implement.
I wrote last week that I believe Kubiak’s intent is to not rely too heavily on Peyton. That was an issue last season even before Peyton got hurt, because the Broncos couldn’t run the ball well, and as we’ll recall, the biggest issue was the offensive line. The biggest culprits that season were Chris Clark (who wasn’t comfortable at right tackle) and Manny Ramirez (who was good in 2013 but rapidly regressed in 2014). There were a few issues with the running backs (Ronnie Hillman hadn’t yet hit his stride and time has told us about Montee Ball’s issues) but the primary problem was the offensive line.
I’ve read the discussion several Thin Air posters have had about what should be done. One point brought up was whether or not it’s smart to let Peyton sit a couple of games. First of all, every regular-season game matters unless your playoff spot is already decided when Week 17 comes along. Second, the last thing the Broncos need is a quarterback controversy that distracts them from what the real issues with the offense are.
With that said, there is a valid point about allowing Peyton to run the offense he’s more comfortable with. The point, though, is not to have him run it every single down because it leads to over-reliance on Peyton. I think it’s fine to have Peyton line up in the shotgun when the Broncos want to throw the ball frequently, but when they want to run frequently, Peyton should get behind center. But when the Broncos do that, they need to run block well so that as teams adjust, Peyton can take advantage with a play-action pass that defenses aren’t as prepared for.
We’ve gone over what the Broncos’ current offensive line issues are, but the bottom line is that it’s two positions in particular in which the Broncos need improvement: left guard and center. With the former, it’s Evan Mathis getting back into form; with the latter, it’s Matt Paradis gaining experience. The issues with Ryan Harris at right tackle are more about pass protection — in the Chiefs game, I think Ty Sambrailo played similar to Baltimore, in that he struggled early but got more comfortable, so the Chiefs changed up where Justin Houston lined up. As you’ll recall, when Houston got his sacks, he wasn’t challenging Sambrailo, and in the more notable instance, Harris had no answer for Houston’s challenge.
So it bears repeating that to effectively take the load off Peyton Manning, you need to run the football effectively. And if any game is the time to do that, it’s this week’s game against the Detroit Lions.
The Lions rank among the worst defenses through two games. They’ve given up 147 yards rushing per game, and it’s not simply because the Lions trailed and opponents ran the ball often in garbage time. Against San Diego, the Lions held the lead at halftime but the Chargers ran the ball effectively. What allowed the Lions to take the lead was a pick six of Phillip Rivers and another interception of Rivers in the red zone. The second half was when the Chargers threw the ball more often to get back into the game, but continued running the ball with moderate success.
Against the Vikings, I’m sure everyone will point out Adrian Peterson’s reputation as an elite running back, but this was the same Peterson who looked sluggish against San Francisco the week before. He lost a fumble against the Lions as well, which came when the Vikings were in the red zone. So it’s not like Peterson is infallible.
If there’s going to be any game in which the Broncos show they can run the ball and boost the confidence of the offensive line, this would be the game. If the Broncos run the ball effectively, that allows them to take advantage when the Lions adjust and run the plays that Peyton Manning likes to run. The Broncos might even get to run play action, something you can’t do when you can’t run the football well, regardless of what age your quarterback is.
Again, the Broncos should get some help from the defense. The Lions still had chances to beat the Chargers, but Matthew Stafford threw two second-half interceptions, one which gave the Charges great field position and led to a field goal. Against the Vikings, that fumble Adrian Peterson lost came just a couple plays after the Lions lost a fumble, which the Vikings nearly returned for a touchdown. Minnesota built a 23-10 lead in the third and the Lions lost another fumble, followed by Stafford throwing a fourth-quarter interception that led to a Vikings field goal.
As Pro Football Focus detailed, Stafford has been pressured frequently on dropbacks and Lions left tackle Riley Reiff is off to a poor start. We’ve already seen how the Broncos made life for Joe Flacco and Alex Smith a living hell, so you can imagine what it may be like for Stafford (assuming he plays). If the Broncos defense can pressure the Lions offense enough into turnovers or drives that end deep in Detroit territory, that allows the offense to take advantage, so long as the Broncos take care of the ball.
I wouldn’t go into this game thinking the Broncos have it made. If they don’t get the running game going, turn the ball over too much or commit too many penalties (the latter was an issue for the Denver defense in the first half against Kansas City), there will obviously be problems. But the Lions game is one in which the Broncos have a good chance to promote the idea that they can run the football and get the offense in sync.
The only thing to remember is that, if the Broncos do get the offense in sync, that it’s just one game and the Broncos can’t take anything for granted going forward. But the Broncos demonstrating they can do it against a team that is vulnerable on defense might promote the idea to the players that they can execute on offense and there’s no reason for them to doubt they can’t do it in other games.