John Elway and Gary Kubiak had a tough task trying to defend their Super Bowl title with inexperienced quarterbacks after moving on from Brock Osweiler. Ryan Dukarm broke down the first four weeks to analyze the Denver Broncos 2016 passing game so far and see how they’ve managed success with inexperience at the quarterback position.
The Denver Broncos entered the 2016 season as the defending Super Bowl champions, but with major question surrounding the quarterback position and an offense undergoing a full transition to Gary Kubiak’s preferred style of play, it was unclear how the passing game would look. After three and a half games with Northwestern alum Trevor Siemian under center, (he injured his shoulder in Week 4) the Broncos have looked efficient, productive, and organized passing the ball. Their success through the air has relied on scheme and playing to the strengths of Siemian, using timing, accuracy, and eye discipline on throws to various levels of the field.
Quick Passing Game
With Siemian at quarterback the Broncos have relied on the running game, ranking 14th in the league in rushing yards per game, compared to 23rd for passing yards. When they go to the passing game, they have relied on Siemian’s decision making and pre-snap mental processing to get the ball in the hands of elite playmakers like Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders.
On the first regular season play of Siemian’s career the Broncos run a play action tunnel screen, faking a staple of Kubiak’s offense, the zone run, before throwing a screen backside to wide receiver Demaryius Thomas (#88). With 11 personnel on the field, the Broncos will run this play with Siemian under center, C.J. Anderson (#22) in the backfield, a slot formation to the left and a pro formation to the right after Thomas motions into the left slot.
At the snap Siemian flows right to complete the play fake, before pivoting to throw back on the tunnel screen to Thomas. He makes a great adjustment to hold the ball as Carolina Panthers defensive end Kony Ealy (#94) jumps to try to deflect the pass, and Siemian pumps and throws sidearm to Thomas to avoid the deflection. Left tackle Russell Okung (#73) is able to release quickly to lead block for Thomas, and is able to dive and take out the legs from under safety Tre Boston (#33). Thomas is left with an open cut back lane and runs for a gain of 11.
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In Denver’s Week 3 game against the Cincinnati Bengals, the Broncos run a pre-snap Run Pass Option (RPO), with the offensive line blocking for an outside zone run to Anderson, and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders (#10) running a smoke route backside.
Before the snap, Siemian recognizes that the corner opposite Sanders is playing with a cushion of 6 yards, and decides to throw to Sanders on the smoke route immediately after taking the snap. Sanders takes one step upfield, forcing the corner to begin backpedaling, before cutting back towards Siemian. Siemian makes the throw and Sanders forces a missed tackle before picking up a gain of 10.
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The Broncos have shown quite of bit of success so far this season on these quick hitting routes and RPOs that get the ball out of Siemian’s hands quickly and accurately. Siemian’s decision making and mental processing have been a large part of the success on these plays, as well as the ability of receivers like Thomas and Sanders on the outside.
Use of Motion and Play Action
One of the ways that Kubiak and the Broncos have helped their first-time starting quarterback adjust to NFL defenses is their use of motion and play action. Motion is one of the most helpful ways that offenses can help identify the coverage pre-snap, as it forces the defense to show their hand and account for the offensive player in motion. Play action forces the defense to believe the play is a run early in the down, and can help open throwing lanes for the quarterback as the defense recovers back to their coverage zone.
One play where the Broncos used both play action and motion to help Siemian came in their Week 2 game against the Indianapolis Colts, with 14:36 remaining in the first quarter. The Broncos again have 11 personnel on the field with Anderson in the backfield behind Siemian. After sending TE Virgil Green (#85) in motion, the Broncos have trips to the left with Sanders alone on the right. The Colts are in Cover 1 and the Broncos fake an outside zone run to the right, getting the Colts defense to flow to that side of the field at the beginning of the play.
Siemian bootlegs to his left after the run fake, and Colts outside linebacker Robert Mathis (#98) is drawn inside by the play action, failing to get outside to prevent Siemian from rolling into space. Sanders then runs a shallow cross all the way across the field, using the defenders flowing with the fake zone run as natural picks against Rashaan Melvin (#30), the corner covering him in man coverage. As Sanders comes across the field he continues to gain separation from Melvin after the “picks.” Siemian delivers an accurate pass on the move and Sanders gains 14 yards before being tackled by Antonio Cromartie (#31).
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The Broncos used both play action and motion on a variety of plays under Siemian, giving the QB help in diagnosing coverages while also opening throwing lanes to various levels of the field. Siemian may not have the strongest arm, but his accuracy on the move and ability to diagnose coverages has served him well in Kubiak’s offense.
Deep Passing Game
Trevor Siemian does not have the strongest arm in the NFL, and that’s just fine. Gary Kubiak has done a tremendous job of simulating a deep passing game without a traditional strong armed quarterback. Siemian does not have the arm strength or deep field accuracy to hit deep balls down the sideline, but Kubiak has been able to scheme chunk yardage passing plays into the Denver playbook with two concepts, the deep comeback and the backside post.
The deep comeback is an outbreaking hook route, drawn out below, that requires timing, anticipation and accuracy to avoid being intercepted or broken up.
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One example of Denver running deep comeback routes comes from Week 1 against Carolina with 7:12 remaining in the first quarter. Both of the outside receivers (Thomas and Sanders) run deep comebacks against the Panthers Cover 3 defense. Thomas and Sanders begin their routes vertically, pushing the cornerbacks to commit to their deep third coverage responsibilities. Then, after running vertically for 15 yards both receivers break off their routes and turn back to Siemian.
At the bottom of the screen Sanders is able to cut off his route quick enough to lose cornerback Bene Benwikere (#25) and get open for Siemian. Siemian throws with anticipation and accuracy, with the ball halfway to the receiver by the time Sanders turns his head around.
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The other way in which the Broncos have simulated a deep passing game under Siemian has been the backside post. The Broncos will often run play action to one side of the field with a backside post, which will open up after the run fake draws linebackers and defensive backs away from the route.
One example of the backside post after a play action fake comes from the Broncos’ game against the Colts. With 8:17 remaining in the first quarter the Broncos have 21 personnel on the field, with Green on the left of the offensive line, Anderson and FB Andy Janovich (#32) in an offset i-Formation, and wide receivers Thomas and Sanders split to each side. Green coming in motion shows the coverage is Cover 1.
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The Broncos have done an excellent job of developing a deep passing game without a strong armed quarterback by scheming open plays down the field. They aren’t relying on deep balls thrown 50 yards down the field, but instead are relying on timing, accuracy and anticipation from Siemian within well designed passing concepts.
The Denver Broncos have done incredibly well throwing the football so far in 2016, to the surprise of many. With Trevor Siemian, the Broncos have an accurate, yet physically limited, quarterback that is leading a well designed offense under Gary Kubiak. With their use of quick passing schemes, tunnel screens, play action, motion, and a simulated deep passing game the Broncos are running a well designed and well executed passing attack and look to be picking up right where they left off in their 2015 championship season.
Follow Ryan on Twitter @DBRyan_Dukarm. Check out the rest of his work, including covering the UCLA Bruins’ use of Spot Concept, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ end around rush, and Buffalo’s double track block scheme and deep passing game.
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