Hello, Bronco fans! Four weeks have passed and now it’s becoming clearer where things stands with the Broncos (and other NFL teams, for that matter). The Broncos get a Week 5 bye, and while it stinks having an early bye, four weeks is still the time to evaluate where the Broncos are at, identifying what the strengths are and why they are strengths, and recognize what areas need improvement and who is really responsible.
Let’s start by looking at where the Broncos stack up in each aspect of the game (offense, defense, special teams) as measured by Football Outsiders, then get into each position and find out what’s really going on with particular players.
Football Outsiders DVOA
The Week 4 DVOA rankings start taking into account the quality of opposition that teams face and reduce how much its preseason rankings are factored in. Over the next couple of weeks, the preseason ranks will no longer count toward DVOA and it will be based more on each team’s performance this season and the opposition it faces.
Here are the links to the overall, offense, defense and special teams DVOA rankings. The Denver Broncos rank 14th overall, which puts them right at the league average. They rank 16th in offense (eight in rushing, 17th in passing), eighth in defense (first in run D, 13th in pass D) and 29th in special teams.
It’s probably not surprising that the Broncos rank as a better rushing than passing team and I’ll get more into the reason why when examining positional breakdowns. On defense, we know how strong the run defense has been, but the passing defense might surprise a few people. But it’s worth noting that teams have been passing more against the Broncos because of the inability to run the football, meaning the Broncos must defend it more. Additionally, the Broncos pass defense didn’t have a good outing against Buffalo, which affects the ranking. Finally, when it comes to special teams, a lot of that ranking is because of Brandon McManus missing several field goals, with a couple instances of either the Broncos giving up a long kick return or not getting much on their own kick returns when forced to make one.
Overall, though, I would expect to see an improvement in the pass defense rating as the Broncos clean up coverage issues and, if McManus can get more consistent with making field goals, the special teams ranking should improve – and it may also improve if Isaiah McKenzie is able to break out more long punt returns, something we know he can do when he gets the chance.
As for the passing, that brings me to the start of the positional breakdowns.
Trevor Siemian ranks 22nd overall in Football Outsider DYAR, which is slightly different from DVOA (check Football Outsiders for explanations of both). He’s had one very good game (Dallas), one good game with important mistakes (Chargers), one mediocre game (Oakland) and one bad game (Buffalo). While it’s easy to blame other areas for the times he has struggled, plenty rests on his shoulders, too, and it needs to be recognized if he’s going to improve.
One of Siemian’s biggest issues is that he hasn’t developed enough pocket awareness. It’s true that you want to give your quarterback time in the pocket to throw, but the pocket is going to collapse at some point and expecting it to stay clean for as long as it takes for the QB to find a receiver is unrealistic. And while Siemian is getting sacked too much, some of the sacks are on his shoulders and, by cutting down his own mistakes, he can reduce the times he’s sacked.
For anyone on Twitter, I recommend following Erick Treckel, who does a good job breaking down plays to determine what really happened. Let’s look at Treckel’s remarks, starting with two examples of sacks that Siemian took, one which wasn’t on him but one that was.
The one that wasn’t is the obvious one from the Raiders game in which Donald Stephenson stepped in at right tackle when Menelik Watson briefly left the game.
Here is the play to highlight Stephenson. He has Anderson for help on the outside. Over comits out. Mack fakes in and he bites. pic.twitter.com/4Veq38o7R1
— Erick Trickel (@ErickTrickel) October 4, 2017
We’ll get to Stephenson later, but it’s easy to see that Siemian had no chance to do anything, so the sack isn’t on him. Now let’s go to the example of a sack that’s on Siemian.
Again poor awareness in the pocket. Climbs early and right into a decently blocked Macks arms. He has room off the left to scramble. pic.twitter.com/kCipHpjkM6
— Erick Trickel (@ErickTrickel) October 4, 2017
You have to remember that Khalil Mack is a good pass rusher and expecting any lineman to keep Mack from ever touching the QB is asking too much. Indeed, Siemian could have stepped to his left to escape pressure and at least gain a few yards on the ground.
Can Siemian get better with his pocket awareness? He certainly can, as evidenced here.
Really good awareness on the pocket from Siemian. Delivers a ball to Derby to keep Derby safe. a smart play. pic.twitter.com/JjfRBM8YL5
— Erick Trickel (@ErickTrickel) October 4, 2017
It’s true that Siemian had a cleaner pocket in that example, but demonstrating more awareness, play after play, will allow Siemian to either buy more time or break free for a scramble and cut down on the sacks he takes.
And in some cases, Siemian needs to be more aware of what’s developing at the line of scrimmage and change up the play. Here’s an example of that.
Multiple issues with this play. Question the call. Why stick with It? Once snapped you can't attempt to throw this. pic.twitter.com/uDbyFs2Mnz
— Erick Trickel (@ErickTrickel) October 4, 2017
It’s easy to blame Mike McCoy, but McCoy can’t predict exactly how the defense will line up on every play. If Siemian had noticed where Reggie Nelson was, he could have changed to a safer play, such as handing off to CJ Anderson, then at least have better field position, rather than sticking with the called play and risking a near interception. And if you look at McCoy, it would be better for him to ask Vance Joseph to call time out (the Broncos had plenty at that point) to figure another play to run.
But these are all things that the coaching staff will go over with Siemian. The good thing is that Siemian has shown a willingness to watch game film and figure out what he needs to do to get better. That leaves room for optimism that he’ll continue to grow as a quarterback.
It also serves as an important reminder to the guy who was drafted to be the long-term guy (Paxton Lynch) about what he really needs to do to have a future as a starting QB in the NFL. He, too, needs to be watching the film, even when he’s not playing, to understand what allows one to grow as a QB and start applying those lessons to his own work.
Both Jamaal Charles and CJ Anderson rank high in Football Outsiders DYAR, with Charles ranked fifth and Anderson ranked 12th. While that might suggest to some that Charles needs to be the featured back, some perspective is necessary.
It is true that Charles has been more productive with his touches, but he’s had fewer touches to begin with. Anderson has had at least 20 carries in three of the Broncos’ first four games and in the one he didn’t (Buffalo), it was because the Broncos passed more than they ran. When a back has 20 touches, though, the frequency of run plays stopped for no gain, or even a loss, increases simply because the possibility of that increases with more touches. No, I don’t believe those wanting more touches for Charles believe he should get 20 touches, but even if it went up to 15, you would see more plays on which Charles is stopped for no gain.
Remember, too, that Charles is 30 years old and coming off multiple seasons that were cut short because of injuries. Thus, when you see Charles showing so much burst on his few carries, it’s likely because he’s not carrying the ball that much and stays fresher. He’s had at least nine carries in three of the four games and in the one he didn’t (Oakland), it was because he got hit in the knee and was kept out for a while after that. Nine carries per game, though, is about right where Charles should be, because it allows you to maximize what he can do.
The player who really should be getting more touches is Devontae Booker, who missed the first three games because of an injury, and might have been able to play Week 3 but the coaching staff was cautious with him. They remained cautious in Week 4, giving him just three touches, but a good sign is that he averaged 4.7 yards per carry on those three touches.
It’s easy to get on Booker’s case given his performance last season, but let’s not forget he was a fourth-round pick, a round in which the expectation is that the player will be a rotational guy who can play special teams, with any contributions as a starter making him a value pick. It’s not like Montee Ball (taken in the second round and failing to finish his rookie contract, making him a bust) or Ronnie Hillman (taken in the third round when he was a rotational player at best, making him overdrafted). And before people bring up Terrell Davis and Mike Anderson, there is a reason why both are steals and, in TD’s case, why he is called one of the biggest draft-day steals ever.
In other words, Booker’s performance needs to be thought about in terms of where he was drafted. Last season showed that Booker wasn’t really a guy who can carry the load (and was only doing so because Anderson was lost to injury). But if he can be a rotational player, that’s a good thing – and in this case, he can be the guy who can take some of Anderson’s touches, thus keeping Anderson fresh.
Think of it this way: In a game in which you have 30 total rushing attempts, the ideal mix of touches could be 15 for Anderson, nine for Charles and six for Booker, which allows the Broncos to maximize the contributions each player makes.
With that said, it’s a good thing the Broncos are bringing Booker along slowly because he missed the preseason. Gradually increasing his touches over time will be for the best, allowing him to get more comfortable. And once he gets more involvement, it will allow the Broncos to lighten Anderson’s load, while keeping Charles involved at his current rate. And as long as the three backs can keep averaging at least four yards per game and stay healthy, the Broncos could emerge with one of the best run offenses in the NFL.
Football Outsiders DYAR ranks Demaryius Thomas 13th, Bennie Fowler 20th and Emmanuel Sanders 53rd among all wide receivers. Sanders’ low ranking is because of dropped passes or other mistakes he made in the first two games – mistakes which he is correcting and thus becoming more productive as a result.
Some may have questions about how often the three have been targeted. Thomas has been targeted at least eight times per game in three of the Broncos’ first four games, except for the Raiders game. Sanders, meanwhile, has seen his targets vary, but he was targeted a whopping 15 times against Buffalo. I attribute part of that to Siemian picking on Tredavious White, who was tasked with covering Sanders on many plays (and, as we know, Siemian fell into the trap of continuing to pick on a cornerback, only for that CB to get better as the game continued). Another reason was the Broncos passed so much against the Bills, as evidenced by Fowler being targeted seven times, meaning he, Sanders and DT (nine targets) accounted for 31 of the pass attempts Siemian made in that game.
But I don’t think there’s any issues with DT not being targeted enough. While he was only targeted five times in the Oakland game, Siemian didn’t throw that many passes and DT’s targets were comparable to Sanders (five as well) while Fowler was targeted just twice. The truth is that Siemian is trying to get to the ball to DT, but DT has drawn several pass interference penalties, thus he gets credit for a target but not a reception. I don’t see any issues with play calling or DT doing anything wrong; it’s simply a matter of what happens when Siemian sends the ball his way.
As for the other receivers, Sanders’ heavy targets against Buffalo look more like an anomaly that I wouldn’t expect to happen again, because I’m sure the coaches will remind Siemian not to get greedy when picking on a particular cornerback. Fowler, on the other hand, has been coming along nicely in his third season and just might be worth a second-round restricted free agent tender next season if he keeps contributing like he has.
AJ Derby is the only Broncos tight end ranked in Football Outsiders DYAR because he’s the only tight end with at least eight receptions. He’s ranked 17th among tight ends and his ranking has more to do with the fact that he was targeted just three times in the Dallas and Buffalo games combined and had just one catch. But in the other two, he’s been targeted more often and gotten more results, catching passes on all three targets against the Chargers and four of his six targets against the Raiders.
Virgil Green has six receptions in the first four games, which is why he isn’t ranked in DYAR. But he’s been productive because every time he’s been targeted, he’s made a reception. The only game he wasn’t targeted was Oakland, likely because he was called upon to block more often. But Green is quietly having his best season in the NFL.
Jeff Heuerman has been targeted six times and has two receptions, but his only targets came in the first two weeks and he hasn’t been targeted since. He’s also played the fewest snaps of any of the tight ends (he hasn’t played more than 30 percent of the offensive snaps in a game). I don’t think that means that Heuerman is gone should Jake Butt be cleared to play, though. Keep in mind that Green is a free agent after this season and likely won’t be retained, even if he keeps playing well, because the Broncos certainly see Butt as the player who can take Green’s place in the future. But keeping Heuerman ensures the Broncos have an experienced tight end who can compete for the third spot behind Butt and Derby next season. I’ll get more into what might happen with Butt later, but I wouldn’t be quick to write off Heuerman just yet.
I know this is the topic that weighs on everybody’s mind the most, but let’s get some Football Outsiders rankings out of the way first. FO ranks the Broncos’ O-line eight in run blocking, with left end (Garett Bolles and any receiver or tight end lined up there) ranked second, left tackle (Bolles again, but part Max Garcia or Allen Barbre responsibility) fourth, middle and off guard (any play involving Matt Paradis plus either Garcia, Barbre or Leary) 22nd, right tackle (Menelik Watson but part Leary responsibility) third and right end (Watson and any receiver or tight end lined up there) 17th.
To sum up, Bolles has been a great addition to the offensive line and Leary has been a good one as well. Paradis isn’t quite at the level he was last season, but he’s playing well, even if the middle/guard run blocking doesn’t show that. That has more to do with Garcia and Barbre, who have been inconsistent, but I attribute it to the guard rotation the Broncos have employed. I think this will get better if the Broncos pick one of the two and stick with him for the rest of the season, with the other only coming in if there’s an injury. Given Barbre’s flexibility in terms of what position he can play, I’d go with Garcia.
Watson has been pretty much what was expected, in that he can do good things as a run blocker, with his best work coming when he’s working alongside Leary. But that brings us to pass protection, in which the Broncos rank 26th per Football Outsiders. This is one ranking, though, in which FO may not be the best measurement because it doesn’t account for who is responsible for a sack.
With that said, we have several instances of sacks that were Watson’s responsibility, but that doesn’t make him responsible for everything, nor does it mean he’s never played well at any time. Against the Chargers and Dallas, he struggled, and the Chargers game is the one that really raised concerns because he wasn’t giving up sacks to Joey Bosa or Melvin Ingram, but to players who aren’t considered to be top pass rushers. Against Dallas, he twice gave up sacks to DeMarcus Lawrence, but one might be forgiving because Lawrence is leading the NFL in sacks and proving his worth as a pass rusher.
Against Buffalo, though, Watson didn’t really bear responsibility for the sacks Siemian took, and against Oakland, Watson had a role in one sack but Siemian did have a chance to avoid it (and let’s be fair – Khalil Mack is a top pass rusher and he was the player Watson gave up the sack to). Otherwise, Watson was adequate in pass protection. On one hand, it could be a sign of improvement. On the other hand, his play will be a concern because the next three games the Broncos have come against teams who have more than one top pass rusher and it’s hard to see him holding up in those games, even if he does better with technique.
My belief is that the Broncos need to consider putting CJ Anderson or Jamaal Charles in on pass protection on those passing downs, or perhaps call for screen plays on some of those downs, which would allow the RB to help Watson. Another option could be to keep a tight end in to block and maximize protection.
As for Donald Stephenson, he’s been fine when used as a sixth offensive lineman on run plays, but that’s all he’s been good for. He’s still struggling in pass protection and we need to keep our fingers crossed that he doesn’t have to start multiple games at tackle.
Which brings me to the last point: The only way I see the Broncos going out to acquire another offensive lineman is if one of the starters is out with a long-term injury. In the trade market, there just aren’t going to be any linemen traded given the lack of good linemen out there, unless you have a general manager who is desperate to get a bounty of draft picks in hopes of impressing the owner enough to keep his job (that’s exactly what Ray Farmer was doing with Joe Thomas and the Browns and what Trent Baalke was doing with Joe Staley and the 49ers). In free agency, the cupboard is pretty bare, unless you want to talk to Brendan Albert out of retirement. I did favor doing that when we had questions about how long Bolles would be out, but now that we know his injury wasn’t going to keep him out for the long term, there’s less urgency to get Albert.
But while we can keep somebody like Albert in mind if the Broncos lose a starting lineman to injury, the best thing the Broncos can do at this point is play with the hand they selected, hope for improvement and making adjustments in games as needed. The good news is that the Broncos at least have three positions settled (left tackle, center, right guard), which is a much better position to be in that last season in which center was the only settled position with everything else being a question mark at best.
Of course, the talk about the Broncos defense has been how impressive they’ve been at stopping the run. Football Outsiders ranks the defensive line first, with its play at left end second, at left tackle second, at middle and guards fourth, at right tackle sixth and at right end seventh. (Yes, it’s strange that the Broncos don’t rank first in any of those categories, but keep in mind the overall rank is an average across the line and it’s possible for a line to rank first in one category but much lower in the others and thus not be first overall.)
Much of the talk has surrounded the signing of Domata Peko, who has been an important acquisition, both in terms of his knowledge of the game and his play thus far. But what’s helped the Broncos maximize Domata’s talents is they are keeping him on a snap count. He’s played more than 50 percent of defensive snaps in just one game (Buffalo) and he was on just 27 percent of the snaps against Dallas because the Cowboys abandoned the run early.
The two linemen who are getting overlooked by plenty of observers – but not by those of you at Thin Air, if you’ve been remembering all our discussions – are Adam Gotsis and Shelby Harris. Gotsis has emerged as a good run stopper and had his moments as a pass rusher. He played 62 percent of the snaps against Dallas and 69 percent against Buffalo. Gotsis was declared a major reach by many when he was a second-round pick in the 2016 draft, but has emerged into a quality starter and everyone who called him a major reach is having to eat crow.
Harris was signed to a futures contract after the 2016 season and became yet another under-the-radar acquisition for the Broncos. He’s been utilized a fair amount at nose tackle and is making the most of his snaps. He played in 56 percent of the snaps against the Chargers, and hasn’t played more than 50 percent since, but he’s been effective in every game, both as a run stopper and a pass rusher.
A lot of the D-line’s tremendous play can be attributed to Bill Kollar, who has done wonders in coaching up players. But it has helped that he has more players who are able to both rush the passer and stop the run. He didn’t have that last year after Vance Walker got injured and Jared Crick never developed as a run stopper. But with Gotsis and Harris filling both departments well, allowing Domata to come out on more snaps and thus maximize his run stopping ability, the Broncos are in a much better position up front defensively.
I don’t need to tell you much about Von Miller, but what’s interesting to note is that Shaquil Barrett is taking far more snaps than he has before. He’s played at least 87 percent of the snaps in every game this season. I imagine the Broncos will be glad to get Shane Ray back, because his presence will allow them to reduce Barrett’s snap count. With that said, Barrett has been effective on most of his snaps and is showing he could be a worthy starter.
At inside linebacker, what surprised me is that Todd Davis took just 32 percent of the snaps against the Chargers and 23 percent against the Cowboys. He was far more involved against Buffalo (63 percent) and Oakland (57 percent). Davis has always been a good run defender but he’s been tremendous in that department this year, and he’s doing a respectable job as a pass defender. It does appear the Broncos don’t want him in on many passing downs, given his snap count, but he is making a good case for some type of extension beyond 2017 – not a high-dollar extension, mind you, but an extension nonetheless.
Two developments that are worth noting deal with the two safeties taken in the 2016 draft last year, Justin Simmons and Will Parks. Simmons has taken more defensive snaps than nearly any other defensive player this season, with the exception of Aqib Talib, and has been highly effective in most games. He’s been good in coverage and even better in run defense – the latter another reason why the Broncos have been better at stopping the run.
But the player who has surprised me is Parks. He took more than 70 percent of the snaps against the Chargers and Cowboys and did have a few issues, but his snap count went down against Buffalo and Oakland. And it appears to have helped, because Parks played his best game of the season against Oakland, making key stops that prevented third-down and fourth-down conversions, to the point that Football Outsiders recognized him as one of the top players for Week Four. If Parks keeps that up, it will do a lot to improve the Broncos pass defense to the point that it should be back in the top 10 in DVOA.
I’ve already touched upon special teams’ biggest issue, which is McManus missing several field goals, but hopefully he gets that cleaned up. Otherwise, the main things for the Broncos to focus on is special teams blocking to give Isaiah McKenzie more chances to return punts for long gains and improving kickoff returns when they are forced to field the kick.
In the meantime, since some of you might want to know how often certain players take the field for special teams, here’s the top 10 from each game, with the number indicating the percentage of special teams snaps played.
Vs LAC: Will Parks, 77; Jamal Carter, 77; Corey Nelson, 77; Cody Latimer, 62; Zaire Anderson, 62; Andy Janovich, 58; Bennie Fowler, 54; Brendan Langley, 54; Virgil Green, 46; Bradley Roby, 42.
Vs Dal: Will Parks, 67; Lorenzo Doss, 63; Jamal Carter, 63; Cody Latimer, 57; Andy Janovich, 57; Zaire Anderson, 57; Justin Simmons, 50; DeAngelo Henderson, 47; Bradley Roby, 43; Virgil Green, 43.
Vs Buf: Corey Nelson, 84; Will Parks, 81; Jamal Carter, 81; Lorenzo Doss, 69; Zaire Anderson, 69; De’Angelo Henderson, 66; Andy Janovich, 62; Cody Latimer. 56; Virgil Green, 44; Bennie Fowler, 41.
Vs Oak: Corey Nelson, 82; Will Parks, 82; Jamal Carter, 79; Zaire Anderson, 79; Andy Janovich, 75; Brendan Langley, 71; Kasim Edabali, 54; Devontae Booker, 50; Bennie Fowler, 50; Virgil Green, 50.
First, it’s not unusual that McManus and Riley Dixon don’t appear on these lists because they don’t take the field when teams are either punting or kicking off to the Broncos. But it’s worth noting that Isaiah McKenzie isn’t listed at all – which is actually a good thing. By limiting him only to plays when he is to field punts and kicks, it keeps him fresh for such opportunities.
But the snaps also show that Will Parks is playing a LOT of snaps. He’s been one of those unsung heroes this season and it’s amazing to see him emerge into one of the top contributors.
Thus far, I think Vance Joseph has done more good things than bad things as the head coach, but a definite issue of concern is his clock management. I think Tony Romo made an excellent point during the Raiders game that, when it became clear the Raiders were just trying to kill the clock for a possible Hail Mary, that Joseph should have called time out (again, he had plenty to use) to get the Raiders to re-evaluate their strategy. Nothing wrong with forcing the Raiders to punt again and see if you can run a couple of plays in the final seconds for a long field goal attempt, especially because the Broncos wouldn’t get the kickoff to open the second half.
Another issue I saw against Oakland was the Broncos getting too aggressive late in the game. When there was five minutes left and the Raiders had no time outs, it’s understandable that the Broncos would have to throw the ball at some point, but not on first down. Running the ball on the first two downs and throwing on the third may be predictable, but it was the right thing to do in that case. If both runs get stuffed, then you make sure Siemian understands to not throw the ball away but, if he finds nobody open, to either try to run or just give himself up, allowing the Broncos to kill the clock.
But I will say that it’s good to see Joseph realize areas that need to be improved and what he needs to do in practice to get those things addressed. His remarks about how he wants to emphasize more about red-zone play, in response to the red-zone struggles the past two weeks, is a sign that he is identifying mistakes and what should be done to get players to correct them. I also like how he wants to ensure that the older players are kept on snap counts rather than playing for too many plays (as evidenced by Domata Peko and Jamaal Charles).
What’s more, Joseph seems to be the right combination of what the Broncos really need in a head coach — somebody who can simply oversee the team and let coordinators and positional coaches work on specific areas, but understand the need to adjust practices and his own management of the game to ensure the team gets better, while doing a good job keeping players energized. He’s like John Fox in that he believes that talent trumps scheme and it’s best to adjust the scheme as needed to take advantage of what the players can do, but like Gary Kubiak in that he wants to prepare well for games and keep players intense and focused.
If Joseph can learn to improve his game management and understand when to be aggressive and when to be conservative, I think he’s going to have a long, successful career as Broncos head coach.
Players coming back from IR and NFI
We know that three players are expected to return from injury lists soon. The question becomes what will be done to make room for them. I’ll be brief with each one.
Shane Ray: The most likely move will be releasing defensive lineman Ahtyba Rubin, because by the time Ray returns from IR, Zach Kerr should be healthy and there’s less need to keep Rubin around. DeMarcus Walker could also be moved to the D-line rotation to see if that’s where he’s better suited to contribute. Another option could be waiving Kyle Peko, but I don’t see that as likely.
Jake Butt: Again, I don’t think it’s a given the Broncos will waive Jeff Heuerman. If Butt is cleared to play later this season, the Broncos might prefer to waive Billy Turner, with the idea that Butt can be worked into the lineup by using him more as a blocker to start. Another option could be to cut Brock Osweiler, because Paxton Lynch should be healthy by then.
Chad Kelly: If Kelly is able to play this year, the easy move is to cut Brock Osweiler. But it’s just as likely that the Broncos try to slip Kelly onto the practice squad. While going to IR is a possibility, I suspect the Broncos will try to find some way to ensure that he can at least practice with the team, which isn’t possible if he goes on IR.
While I don’t see the Broncos as a favorite to win the Super Bowl at this point, they definitely have the makings of a playoff contender. Their three-game stretch after the bye will tell the tale as to how good they are. The Giants and Chargers both play well defensively, so the important thing for the Broncos to do is avoid turnovers and capitalize on red-zone opportunities, and by doing those things, they should be fine because the defense can do more than enough to keep the opposing offenses in check.
As for the Chiefs, they look like the favorites to win the AFC at this point and the first meeting will be at Arrowhead. But if the Broncos can at least keep the score close, keep Kareem Hunt contained and avoid turnovers – even if the final outcome is a Broncos loss – it would give fans more confidence that the Broncos could do more than contend for a playoff spot, but actually make a deep playoff run.