After a five-year hiatus, I was elated to return to Broncos Field at Mile High to attend this year’s stadium scrimmage. One of the many great attributes of Vic Fangio is how much he appears to appreciate the fans and his sincere desire to gain their support. Fangio described his reasoning for having a stadium scrimmage when the idea was presented to him following his hiring: “Just to go down there. New staff, players—just get in an NFL stadium. That’s a pretty nice stadium down there. Pretty imposing. I think it’s good… It will be good for the young guys.”
One of my best friends, who I had not seen in over six years, accompanied me to the scrimmage. Beforehand, we were able to find a pretty good taco spot just south of 6th Avenue on Federal Boulevard called, La Junta, which should not be confused with the Southeastern Colorado town of the same namesake.
My friend and I arrived in our seats near the 30-yard line on the westside of the stadium about ten minutes before the scrimmage commenced. Aside from some bouts of scorching sun before the shade set in, the weather was cooperative. Thankfully, some ominous skies did not result in any lightning or rain delays like in 2013, which significantly shortened the scrimmage that year.
While I brought a paper pad and pencil to this year’s scrimmage, my observations and details were not as fixed due to catching up with my friend. Nevertheless, here are some notes and thoughts for you to dissect and digest.
DEFENSIVE OBSERVATIONS AND THOUGHTS
True to form, do not expect the Broncos to blitz with great regularity this season. Fans should also expect much more four-man pressure than in seasons’ past under Wade Phillips, Vance Joseph, and Joe Woods.
The Broncos showed some diverse coverage looks at the scrimmage session, including zone, off man, and some press man. The amount of press man played was significantly less than what the Broncos have deployed the past four seasons which is to be expected.
Von Miller and Dekoda Watson both did not participate in the scrimmage. Miller was at a funeral and Watson has a minor injury. Needless to say, this team definitely needs Miller to be a defensive force.
A player who really stood out to me today that we have not heard much about during training camp was Shamarko Thomas. Thomas was active in pass coverage breaking up at least one pass and sniffing out a run for no gain.
Adam Gotsis played very well and had the play of the game when he effectively ended the scrimmage with a pick-six of Drew Lock. On the play, Gotsis disengaged from the offensive lineman who was blocking him. Gotsis saw Lock staring down a receiver along the sideline and jumped up at the right time to clamp the ball between his hands. It was a really athletic and heady play. I expect Gotsis to become an even better player this season. He could be in line for a big pay raise from the Broncos or some other team in 2020.
OFFENSIVE OBSERVATIONS AND THOUGHTS
Much of my focus today was on the offense. As we all know, the Broncos’ offense has left much to be desired for nearly half a decade now. The Broncos, yet again, have a new offensive coordinator and offensive line coach this season.
I was encouraged by some of the things I witnessed yesterday from the offense. That said, I am slowly conditioning myself to take more of a wait-and-see approach until a significant number of regular season games are played before I cement my opinions. Lest I forget, I was bullish on what I saw in training camp and preseason action from both Mike McCoy in 2017 and Bill Musgrave in 2018 before being utterly disappointed by many of their plans and play calls in games that really mattered.
Last Sunday, Denver’s newest offensive coordinator, Rich Scangarello said,“I think that the easiest matchup to create in the NFL is the halfback on a linebacker, and that’s what we try to do in this offense a lot.” At yesterday’s scrimmage, Scangarello was not just a man of words, but a man of action. Scangarello often had two running backs flanking the quarterback when lined up in the shotgun formation. Scangarello also had one running back motion out wide or in the slot, while another running back remained in the backfield. The running backs were targeted frequently yesterday and caught a good deal of passes. Royce Freeman caught a touchdown pass on a slant when lined up wide and Khalfani Muhammad caught a touchdown on a seam pass perfectly thrown by Joe Flacco, over an outstretched Josey Jewell, in the back of the end zone.
If yesterday’s scrimmage is any indication, I think many of us will be encouraged, if not enthused, by the heavy use of running backs in the passing game. We saw running backs involved as receivers in 2017 and 2018 training camp and preseason games, but this time around, I am more confident that Denver’s offensive coordinator, and more importantly, the head coach, will make sure that the running backs are utilized as receivers in both quantity and quality.
While the Broncos utilized the fullback, I was surprised by how many times the Broncos were in both the shotgun and spread formations. As expected, the Broncos worked in plenty of outside and zone runs, a couple of dives, a draw, along with a sprinkling of angle, gap, and power looks. Following one OTA session this past spring, Connor McGovern said that the Broncos were developing a diverse running game. Scangarello alluded to the same last week. I did not see the Broncos run any pin-and-pull plays that Mike Munchak is famous for utilizing at yesterday’s scrimmage, however.
The Broncos made use of their tight ends frequently as well. The tight ends lined up in-line, split out, in the slot, and engaged in substantial pre-snap motion. Jeff Heuerman was targeted once in the passing game. Noah Fant, Troy Fumagalli, and Austin Fort saw plenty of looks. There were too many dropped passes by this group, however, as Fant, Fumagalli, and Fort all let perfectly placed passes ricochet off of their hands at some point during the scrimmage.
The offensive line looked better than I was expecting when they weren’t committing silly penalties. Those mistakes need to get ironed out quickly. They drew the ire of Fangio after practice. Fangio said, “We definitely have made some strides. Where we haven’t is in the penalties.” The offense accounted for eight penalties. Fangio continued by saying that the penalties were “[w]ay too many. This team last year was 31st in the NFL in penalties called. That’s got to stop. We’ve got to improve that. We’ve emphasized it. Obviously I haven’t done a good enough job of doing that, and obviously they haven’t done a good enough job of listening. So that’s got to be a main focus. It has been. It’s got to continue.”
Ja’Wuan James didn’t practice. I thought that Elijah Wilkinson played well in his place except for a holding penalty. The Broncos were missing quite a group of skilled players at the scrimmage with Phillip Lindsay, Emmanuel Sanders, DaeSean Hamilton, River Cracraft, and Jake Butt all out.
As has been Fangio’s modus operandi this training camp, the Broncos got in the majority of their work in 11-on-11, along with some 7-on-7 repetitions and situational football segments. The majority of what follows is a listing of plays from those phases.
11-ON-11 TEAM PERIOD
- PLAY 1: The Broncos ran a short gap run play to Royce Freeman for a couple of yards.
- PLAY 2: Joe Flacco threw a quick smoke screen to Devontae Booker, who was lined up in the slot, for a decent gain.
- PLAY 3: Flacco hit Booker again on a swing pass route.
- PLAY 4: Drew Lock hit Troy Fumagalli for a short gain over the middle.
- PLAY 5: Scangarello called a zone read to Khalfani Muhammad for a gain of five yards.
- PLAY 6: The Broncos called another zone read to Devontae Jackson. This run went for around 15 yards.
- PLAY 7: Flacco ran an outside play action bootleg. He made a near perfect throw to Courtland Sutton, who would have caught the ball for a 35-yard gain had he not been interfered with by Chris Harris, Jr. The back judge flagged Harris on the play.
- PLAY 8: Flacco hit Fumagalli on a shallow cross in which Flacco took the snap from the shotgun.
- PLAY 9: Noah Fant caught a pass on a shallow curl.
- PLAY 10: The Broncos called a sweep to Dave Williams for a minimal gain.
- PLAY 11: The Broncos split out Muhammad wide. Muhammad ran a great stop-and-go, but he dropped a perfect pass placed right on the numbers by Hogan.
- PLAY 12: Hogan connected with Sutton for fifteen yards on an excellently executed slant route.
- PLAY 13: Dave Williams ran for no gain up the middle on a gap run.
- PLAY 14: Muhammad gained 7 yards on an outside zone run.
- PLAY 15: Joe Jones broke up an out route intended for Austin Fort.
- PLAY 16: Flacco executed a play action fake on an outside zone look to quickly hit Fant over the middle.
- PLAY 17: Scangarello went with an inside zone call to Freeman for a minimal gain.
- PLAY 18: Flacco connected with Freeman out of the backfield for a short gain.
- PLAY 19: Fort dropped an out route pass from Flacco.
- PLAY 20: Brandon McManus connected on a 48-yard field goal.
- PLAY 21: Booker had a minimal gain on an angled block run.
- PLAY 22: From under center, Hogan ran play action out of the I-formation looking for Sutton on a corner route. The pass fell incomplete.
- PLAY 23: From the shotgun formation, Fant dropped a pass on a mid-level crosser. An offensive lineman was flagged for holding on the play.
- PLAY 24: This was a very discombobulated play. Jeff Holland would have sacked Hogan in a real game.
- PLAY 25: From under center, Williams ran for four yards on a gap run.
- PLAY 26: False start on the offense.
- PLAY 27: Lock connected with Fred Brown for a 20-yard gain on a slant pattern. Dymonte Thomas should have been flagged for a helmet-to-helmet hit as well.
- PLAY 28: Lock and Fort connected for a short gain on an out route.
- PLAY 29: Lock overthrew Fort over the middle.
- PLAY 30: The Broncos called a power run to Freeman, with Dalton Risner pulling, for a minimal gain.
- PLAY 31: A zone read for Booker which gained little was called back for holding.
- PLAY 32: Out of the shotgun, Lock connected with Muhammad on an arrow route. Josey Jewell was flagged for pass interference on the play.
- PLAY 33: McManus was good on a 43-yard field goal.
- PLAY 1: Flacco hit Sutton on a short out route.
- PLAY 2: Flacco threw incomplete to Jeff Heuerman on a crossing route.
- PLAY 3: Shamarko Thomas broke up a Flacco pass on a comeback route.
- PLAY 4: Hogan connected with Fant on a slant. (I think I need to reserve intellectual property rights on that one.)
- PLAY 5: De’Vante Bausby broke up another slant pass from Hogan that was intended for Trinity Benson.
- PLAY 6: Hogan hit Fort for a short gain on yet again another slant.
- PLAY 7: Lock threw a beautiful pass to Brown for the second time of the day on a seam pattern.
- PLAY 8: Brendan Langley caught a fifteen-yard pass on an out route thrown by Lock. This was one of the best throws of the scrimmage.
- PLAY 9: Nick Williams caught a short out route from Lock.
- PLAY 10: Freeman, who lined up wide, caught a Flacco pass on a slant.
- PLAY 11: Flacco threw an incomplete pass to Kelvin McKnight in the corner of the end zone.
- PLAY 12: Flacco placed a perfect pass over the top of Josey Jewell for a touchdown to Muhammad up the seam and in the back of the end zone.
- PLAY 12: The Broncos lined up Hogan in the shotgun on this play, who was flanked by Booker and Freeman. Hogan threw a short completion to Booker on a slant.
- PLAY 13: Out of the shotgun, Hogan overthrew his intended targeted out of the back of the end zone.
- PLAY 14: Hogan would have taken a sack in a real game, as he held the ball too long.
- PLAY 15: Hogan with another overthrow out of the back of the end zone.
- PLAY 16: On his first pass attempt of the day, Brett Rypien completed a throw to Juwann Winfree on a slant for 15 yards.
- PLAY 17: Rypien’s throw to the back of the end zone intended for Tim Patrick was broken up by Alijah Holder.
11-ON-11 MOVE THE BALL PERIOD
- PLAY 1: Hogan completed an out route to Brown.
- PLAY 2: From under center, Dave Williams had a small gain on a gap run up the middle.
- PLAY 3: From the shotgun, Hogan completed a pass to Fort, who ran a nice up-and-out route. the play resulted in a first down.
- PLAY 4: From under center, the Broncos ran an outside zone to Jackson for a minimal gain.
- PLAY 5: A play-action fake of an outside zone run. The pass was incomplete.
- PLAY 6: Steven Dunbar, Jr. caught a Hogan pass on a slant.
- PLAY 7: Freeman gained a couple of yards on an angle block play up the middle.
- PLAY 8: Booker had about a 20-yard run on a duo block play up the middle with a fullback lead blocking.
- PLAY 9: From under center, Flacco play action faked with a short completion to Freeman in the flat.
- PLAY 10: An inside zone play to Freeman which was stuffed by inside linebacker A.J. Alexander.
- PLAY 11: A false start penalty by Wilkinson.
- PLAY 12: Tim Patrick catches a deep slant from Flacco for a big gain.
- PLAY 13: From under center, a middle run to Booker for a minimal gain.
- PLAY 14: Lock threw a quick bubble screen to Nick Williams for a good gain.
- PLAY 15: Lock completed an out route throw to Benson for decent yardage.
- PLAY 16: A gap run to Jackson was sniffed out by Shamarko Thomas for no gain.
- PLAY 17: From under center, the Broncos called Williams number again on a gap run. He ran for a couple of yards.
- PLAY 18: Lock was flushed from the pocket and threw a good ball to Williams who dropped the pass.
11-ON-11 RED ZONE PERIOD
- PLAY 1: Out of the shotgun, Rypien threw incomplete out of the back of the end zone.
- PLAY 2: The Broncos picked up a good gain on a draw play to Muhammad.
- PLAY 3: From the shotgun, Rypien hit McKnight for a touchdown near the front corner of the end zone. In an actual game, this play more than likely would have resulted in a sack.
- PLAY 4: Out of the shotgun, Flacco was flanked by Booker and Freeman. Freeman motioned out wide pre-snap. Flacco connected with Booker for a short gain.
- PLAY 5: Sutton caught a short tunnel screen pass for four yards.
- PLAY 6: A Flacco pass intended for Patrick was broken up by Holder in the back of the end zone.
- PLAY 7: From the shotgun, Lock completed a sit down route to a wide receiver.
- PLAY 8: From under center, the Broncos called Williams number up the middle for little gain.
- PLAY 9: Out of the shotgun, Linden Stephens broke up a pass intended for Dunbar.
11-ON-11 TWO-MINUTE DRILL
- PLAY 1: Flacco hit Sutton for a short gain on an out route.
- PLAY 2: From the shotgun, Flacco completed a pass to Booker, who was lined up wide, with Freeman in the slot, on a scissors route.
- PLAY 3: Under heavy pressure, Flacco threw the ball away out-of-bounds.
- PLAY 4: Out of the shotgun, McKnight dropped a well-placed pass on an out-and-slant.
- PLAY 5: Under duress, Flacco’s completed a short pass to Patrick.
- PLAY 6: From the shotgun, Flacco connected with Freeman on an out route to put Denver in field goal range.
- PLAY 7: Lock completed a short crosser to McKnight.
- PLAY 8: Gotsis ended the scrimmage with a pick-six of Lock, who stared down his receiver from the inception of that play.
As far as I could see, there were no errant offensive snaps. . . . All of the returners cleanly fielded kicks during that special teams drill, which begs the question: who is going to be the kickoff and/punt returner? . . . Joe Flacco can still sling the football, with ease and at times, some serious mustard. . . . I think that Drew Lock can develop into a bona fide NFL quarterback. To me, Lock is more than just a gifted athlete with untapped talent and potential. I see a genuine desire to get there from Lock. I never really developed such an expectation for Paxton Lynch. . . . As you could gather from above, Devontae Booker, Royce Freeman, and Khalfani Muhammad all had good days, especially as receivers. Muhammad remains a darkhorse to make the team, especially if he establishes and separates himself in the return game. . . . The crowd size was almost half of what it was compared to stadium scrimmages of summers past when a certain quarterback who wore number 18 was donning Broncos’ orange and blue. . . . Please forgive any typos, errors, or omissions, as I composed this way past my bed time. For example, I may have missed a short completion to Andy Janovich during one of the scrimmage sessions. . . . Finally, I look forward to each of your thoughts, especially those who also watched the scrimmage.