Through the first four games of the season, Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos looked truly unstoppable. However, after the loss of All-Pro left tackle Ryan Clady, the team has shown glaring holes along the offensive line and appears to be barley clinging on to their Super Bowl hopes.
Starting this Sunday, the Broncos face a grueling three-week schedule against the New England Patriots in Foxboro and the undefeated Kansas City Chiefs. Being a game behind the Chiefs, and only a game ahead of the Patriots, this tough stretch will inevitably determine the Broncos postseason future.
Entering this important stretch of their schedule, the most troublesome flaw in the Broncos’ game is protecting Manning. He did not have a single turnover in the first four games of the season, but since Clady’s injury, he has not played in single contest without a turnover, including fumbles in each of the last four, and has struggled with minor injuries.
The Chiefs have the most productive pass rush in the league this year and a very aggressive, ball hawking secondary. On paper, they match up perfectly with the Denver offense. The Chiefs are first in the NFL in sacks, tied for second in interceptions and have scored an astounding six defensive touchdowns. The only team in NFL history with 10 defensive touchdowns was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers when they won the Super Bowl in 2002.
If the Broncos’ offensive line continues to struggle against the pass rush, this opportunistic Chiefs’ defense could force Manning into a number of turnovers and run away with the game. With AFC West superiority on the line, the Broncos must find ways to better protect Manning — even if that means limiting their high-paced offense and keeping more players in to block.
Manning and the Broncos’ offense have shown the ability to be effective against aggressive defenses by spreading the field with numerous receivers and running short crossing routes, outs, comebacks and especially screen passes, but as we saw against the San Diego Chargers last week, they must be more careful to balance their game plan with a rushing attack and more jumbo sets with multiple tight ends and running backs in order to protect Manning.
While some have noted that the Broncos must stay true to their high-octane offensive identity in order to stay sharp, the Broncos were defeated last year due to the team’s minor weaknesses, not the potency of their strengths. By diversifying their offensive attack and focusing on their weaknesses, they not only become less predictable and more playoff ready, but they are also better prepared to protect Manning against elite pass-rushing defenses.
The Broncos have so many athletic playmakers on offense that using jumbo formations is not necessarily an offensive set back. The Broncos carry three very talented tight ends in Julius Thomas, Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen. All are able blockers as well as reliable receivers. If the Broncos used more two- and three-tight end sets, the offense could keep one or two in to block while the other runs passing routes. The beauty of the formation is that the defense will rarely know which tight end(s) is staying in to block and which is going out to run routes. Moreover, it’ll allow the running backs to run routes out of the back field – which has been extremely effective with Knowshon Moreno this year – and will greatly help creating holes in the run game.
The trademark of a great team is the ability to successfully adjust their game plan according to their opponent. If the Broncos can show versatility in this game, they can make a statement to the entire NFL, and force teams to alter their preparation for the Broncos not allowing them to focus on stopping Peyton Manning and the passing attack.
Written by John Spina. Follow him on Facebook or on Twitter @jsspina24.