What The Broncos Need Is To Trust The Run Game

As we know this past Sunday – and from the past two games – the Broncos have struggled offensively, thanks in part (though not exclusively) to the struggles of Trevor Siemian.

Earlier this week, I shared with everyone a good article by Chad Jensen of Mile High Huddle, who wrote about how defenses have noted the issues with Siemian’s approach and, more importantly, that the Broncos abandoned the run in the two games they lost.

A quick check with Pro Football Reference shows that the Broncos had a balanced offense in terms of rushing attempts and passing attempts in their victories over the Chargers, Cowboys and Raiders. But in the losses to the Bills and Giants, the Broncos threw the ball far more times than they ran it.

In breaking down the rushing versus passing attempts in each game, I separated intended rushing attempts, meaning plays in which Siemian hands off the ball to another player on a designed run play, from the QB rushing attempts because nearly all of them came when Siemian was flushed from the pocket and forced to scramble. This gives us a better picture of rushing attempts versus passing attempts. Here is the breakdown for the first five games:

Vs LAC: 30 intended rushing attempts, 6 QB rushes, 28 pass attempts
VS Dal: 34 intended rushing attempts, 5 QB rushes, 32 pass attempts
Vs Buf: 20 intended rushing attempts, 3 QB rushes, 40 pass attempts
Vs Oak: 28 intended rushing attempts, 4 QB rushes, 26 pass attempts
Vs NYG: 15 intended rushing attempts, 2 QB rushes, 50 pass attempts*
* – only Siemian’s rushes and pass attempts included (Brock Osweiler took five snaps)

If you count a QB rush as a designed pass play, the Broncos have run more pass plays than run plays in every game, but the QB rushes in the three wins didn’t result in a large imbalance between rushing and passing. But in the two losses, it’s easy to see the imbalance.

So what happened there? Was Siemian really being forced into situations in which he had to throw all the time?

I examined the Bills game and looked at a couple of the drives in which the Broncos threw the ball on nearly every down, to determine if the situation really warranted throwing on every down. Here’s a look at those drives.

With 2:51 left in the first half and the game tied 10-10, with the Broncos starting a drive at their 25-yard line. Siemian passed twice for 20 and 11 yards, gaining first downs each time that brought the ball to the Bills 44-yard line at the two-minute warning. At that point, it was certainly possible to run the football on first down, but the Broncos passed instead, gaining just two yards and running 35 seconds off the clock. That was followed by pass attempts on second and 8 for 5 yards and third and 3 for 21 yards, at which points 11 seconds were run off the clock. Though I will grant that the time ran off the clock on the first-down play might have been the same with a running play, it’s possible the running play might have gained more yards and the Broncos were having modest success in running the ball in the first half.

But the time when it was really perplexing why the Broncos didn’t run the ball came after Siemian’s 21-yard pass to Demaryius Thomas that gave the Broncos the ball at Buffalo’s 16-yard line. Instead, the Broncos ran a pass play and Siemian was sacked for a one-yard loss. That was followed by the Broncos again running a pass play, which results in Siemian being tackled at the line of scrimmage.

After the Broncos had ran five straight pass plays, you should certainly expect the Bills to want to defend the pass because they see how aggressive the Broncos are at throwing the ball. They had no reason to load up the box against the run – why would you do that when the quarterback has completed three passes for more than 10 yards? Simply put, there wasn’t any reason for the Broncos to pass on first and 10 at the 16-yard line. Sure, the Bills might have called time out (and they did after the second down play that happened), but the Broncos might gain, say, seven yards on the next two plays, force the Bills to burn two time outs and have plenty of options for a third and 3 play, in which all the Broncos need to be mindful about is not turning the ball over. And by running the ball twice, they avoid putting Siemian into situations in which he could get sacked.

Then came the fourth quarter, when the Broncos got the ball with 13:45 left and were trailing 20-16. The Broncos did need a touchdown to take the lead, but there was still plenty of time to get one. But the Broncos threw the ball six straight times – they did get a 23-yard pass from Siemian to Thomas, but after that, the passes went for shorter gains and, in one case, a gain was negated because of an offensive pass interference penalty. And on that play, the Broncos had third and two and the Bills’ 31-yard line, so a run play was possible. The Broncos can feel fortunate that the Bills committed a penalty on the next play that gave Denver an automatic first down.

But the next play, the Broncos attempted another pass that fell incomplete. They ran the ball on second down and Jamaal Charles gained 12 yards. You would think the Broncos would try running it again, but they called a pass play instead and Siemian threw an interception, ending the drive.

By the time the Broncos got the ball back, they had 3:09 left and now trailed 23-16, leaving them no choice but to throw. But had the Broncos mixed up the run and pass plays more often on the previous drive, they would at least have taken some of the load off Siemian’s shoulders and might have had better results.

And against the Giants, the Broncos faced other situations in which they could have ran the football but chose not to. They trailed 10-0 with 12:30 left in the second quarter, the ball on their own 25-yard line and had some success with the pass. When they tried running the ball, the Giants did stop them for a short gain (but which led to a first down) and for a loss, but after the loss, the Broncos abandoned the run altogether. Even when a defensive pass interference penalty gave the Broncos the ball at the Giants’ 35-yard line, the Broncos opted to keep passing. Though the run game hadn’t produced much to that point, that was no reason to stop trying. And the drive, of course, ended with an interception.

The Broncos got the ball back with 7:27 left and twice ran the ball, with one gain negated because of a holding penalty. The holding penalty did force Siemian to throw, but he got a big play when he passed to Thomas for a 40-yard gain. The Broncos got the ball on the Giants’ 10-yard line – the perfect time to run the football for at least two plays to see what they could get. Instead, they called passing plays on first and second down and both were incomplete. Not attempting to run the ball on at least first down, in my eyes, was a mistake.

The Broncos got a field goal after that drive, then got the ball back with 2:32 left. It was understandable that the Broncos needed to throw the ball more often on this series. They moved the ball 16 yards after a five-yard run by CJ Anderson, a 2-yard pass from Siemian to Charles and a 9-yard scramble by Siemian. There was 1:09 left on the clock at that point and the Broncos arguably should have called time out to figure out what to do – at the very least, remind Siemian to get the ball to receivers near the sidelines so they can get out of bounds to stop the clock. But that didn’t happen and we know that this drive ended in a pick six.

Finally, the Broncos had the ball at the 25-yard line with 8:08 left in the third quarter, but there was still plenty of time left on the clock to score a touchdown and cut a 20-3 deficit to 20-10. The Broncos, however, chose to throw the ball six times and rushed it just once, a three-yard gain by Jamaal Charles on the third play of the drive. One point of the drive that stands out to me is this: Siemian completed an 11-yard pass to Emmanuel Sanders on the fifth play of the drive that gave the Broncos the ball at the Giants’ 37-yard line. That was a good time for the Broncos to try a run play. Instead, a pass play was called and Siemian took a sack for an 11-yard loss.

Once the fourth quarter arrived, the Broncos were forced to throw on almost every down, but had they chosen to run the ball on at least a couple more plays earlier in the game, that’s fewer plays the Broncos are putting the load on Siemian’s shoulders. And when they did get the ball into the red zone in the fourth quarter, thanks to a defensive pass interference penalty that gave the Broncos the ball on the Giants’ 8-yard line, it was the perfect time to try to run the ball again. But that is not what the Broncos did – they ran pass plays on the first three downs, two for completions that were short of the goal line. Not until the fourth-down play at the 1 did they call a run play and it was ruled short. While a run play called on first down is not guaranteed success, the Broncos at least should have tried one.

In other words, while it’s true the Broncos were faced with a few situations in the losses in which they had to throw more often, there were still plays on which they could have run the ball and reduced the risk of the weaknesses of Siemian or the pass protection coming into play. At the very least, you are reducing the number of times Siemian is attempting to pass when he’s clearly not a quarterback who should be throwing the ball 40 or more times per game.

So while there are some issues with Siemian’s play, and the pass protection issues are known, things aren’t going to be solved by just trading for an offensive lineman to replace a current starter. Some of this goes back to coaching decisions. It appears to me that Vance Joseph and Mike McCoy want to be aggressive on offense, but that doesn’t mean they need to throw the ball so much, and it certainly doesn’t mean they need to hurry up to either take a lead or cut down a deficit.

Besides, the whole offseason approach was clearly about wanting to become better at running the football and taking the load off whoever was the starting quarterback. This season, Anderson, Charles and Devonate Booker have all played well in their roles. The five starting offensive linemen are all good at run blocking and, while not every position is settled for both now and in the future, the Broncos should at least be taking advantage of what those linemen do well. But in the losses, it didn’t happen enough and it’s not simply because the Broncos were trailing.

The Broncos need to realize Siemian’s limitations and be smarter with when to run the ball versus passing it. If they intend to have a QB who can bring them right back into the game through passing the ball, they need to switch to Osweiler or Lynch (when he’s healthy) because Siemian isn’t in a position to do that. And even then, the Broncos still need to be aware of when to run the football.

This will be especially true in this week’s game against the Chargers. The last time the teams met, the Broncos gained 140 yards and that was without Booker in the lineup. The Chargers rank 28th in Football Outsiders DVOA in run defense, so they are vulnerable against the run. The Broncos may be starting Donald Stephenson at right tackle this week because of Menelik Watson’s injury and we all know Stephenson is not good in pass protection, though he can be serviceable as a run blocker. Most of all, the Broncos have two wide receivers who will not play this week (Emmanuel Sanders and Isaiah McKenzie) and a third, Demaryius Thomas, is banged up.

In other words, the Broncos need to run the ball more often early in the game and find a way to get that working. They can’t assume the Chargers are just going to load up the box every play. If anything, the Chargers are more likely to play pass defense in hopes of taking advantage of Siemian’s issues, much like the Giants did. And the Chargers happened to be ranked 12th in pass defense in Football Outsiders DVOA, which makes it more imperative that the Broncos focus on the ground game rather than challenging the Chargers’ pass defense.

We’ll see if the coaching staff understands this and does more to establish the run game early. If they can do that, the Broncos have a chance to win. But if not, it’s likely to be a long day.

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Bob Morris

I'm a sports writer in real life, though I've always focused on smaller communities, but that hasn't stopped me from learning more about some of the ins and outs of the NFL. You can follow me on Twitter @BobMorrisSports if you can put up with updates on the high school sports teams I cover.