The Denver Broncos offense used to be pretty straight forward from 2014-16. Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders would account for half the passing offense, while a tight end would be a much less-utilized third target. The running backs would follow Thomas and Sanders as the third and fourth most productive members of the offense.
And that was simple enough for opposing defenses to strategize against. Cover Thomas and Sanders, defend the running back, be aware of the tight end, and the fifth skill player really wouldn’t be too much of a threat for anything. Not every team could handle both Thomas and Sanders or the zone runs by the running backs, but the blueprint wasn’t difficult.
Throw that blueprint away with this 2017 Broncos team because while they’re laughably impotent at times, they’re an entirely different beast from previous years.
The fifth-man in the Broncos offense in 2015 and 2016 posted 207 and 232 yards, respectively, as that final skill player was barely a threat for any yards on a given day. That fifth-man (WR Bennie Fowler) already has 220 yards this year though eight games, meaning that Denver is spreading the football around better than before. There are no throwaway match-ups anymore.
“If you look at this team and what they can do and the weapons that they have, it's definitely – they create some big challenges for us,” Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said on Monday. “Like I said, [C.J.] Anderson is running the ball extremely well. They have a great change-of-pace guy with [Jamaal] Charles and [Devontae] Booker in there also. [Demaryius] Thomas who's obviously one of the better wide receivers in the league. He's a big guy, he can go get the ball, he can jump up and go get it. Then [Emmanuel] Sanders who's a big problem. He's a versatile route runner. [He] does a good job of finding space. He can catch the ball on the move and create big plays. The skill positions – these guys do a great job at that.”
Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore expects to play on Sunday and will likely be tasked with shadowing Demaryius Thomas around the field, while Malcolm Butler covers Emmanuel Sanders. Patrick Chung should cover the Broncos tight end, whether it’s A.J. Derby or Virgil Green, and that leaves Johnson Bademosi or Jonathan Jones to cover Bennie Fowler in the slot, or the second tight end on the field.
And that second tight end position will be important to monitor as Patricia notes that the Broncos enjoy flexing the tight ends around the formation until they get a favorable match-up.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick offered similar analysis of the Broncos.
“Offensively, they’re very explosive,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick echoed on Monday. “C.J. Anderson has had some big runs. [Demaryius] Thomas, [Emmanuel] Sanders, [Virgil] Green had a big play against the Chargers. It’s a very explosive team.
“They’ve got a lot of guys that can hurt you in a hurry. Obviously, a very experienced team, a veteran team, knows what to do, knows how to play, has some savvy. We’ll have to do a good job in all areas.”
But just how explosive is this Broncos offense? They have 31 plays of 20+ yards on the year, tied with the Pittsburgh Steelers and one fewer than the Atlanta Falcons. When you expand the search to 30+ yard plays, they have just 7, tied for the second-fewest in the league and ahead of only the Miami Dolphins. They have just 3 plays of 40+ yards, ahead of the Dolphins and Cleveland Browns.
Despite having the clear talent capable of making big plays, this isn’t really an explosive offense. Perhaps last week’s dress rehearsal with Brock Osweiler will allow the passing offense to open up again after Trevor Siemian struggled to move the ball down the field.
While Osweiler’s short return to the starting position could have been in jeopardy, the coaches decided to stick with Osweiler for a second week, and maybe that vote of confidence is what Osweiler needed to be more aggressive down the field.
Regardless of whether or not the Broncos are actually capable of being an explosive offense, the Patriots defense is preparing as if Denver is capable of picking up major yards on any given play- and after the Patriots struggles against big plays, it’s certainly better to be over-prepared than under.