The Denver Broncos lacked an offensive identity in 2020 and it cost them. After acquiring Melvin Gordon I thought they were built for a persistent running game and play-action passing game featuring their exciting young receivers, limiting mistakes and allowing their strong defense to win games. Even without a solid offensive line, some teams can achieve at least moderate success this way (such as Washington and Chicago last year). But that didn’t happen for Denver. Instead, Drew Lock chucked the ball all over the field in the face of pressure, leading to a league-high 32 turnovers and an offensive performance that was only better than the Jets.
They weren’t terrible running the ball, finishing with the 13th-most rushing yards and the 16th-highest yards per carry, despite not having a mobile quarterback. But when they weren’t running, their passing game was very erratic and largely unsuccessful.
DEN Passing Offense
|Pressure Rate Allowed||27.4%||27th|
|Sack Percentage Allowed||5.4%||14th|
Drew Lock loves to throw the ball downfield, to a fault. The Broncos had the highest average depth of target in the NFL but allowed the 6th-highest pressure rate. He did not take a huge amount of sacks, so he was essentially throwing bombs under pressure all season. It’s not surprising that they led the league in turnovers. He trusted his receivers to make plays, and they often did. But throwing under pressure and relying on receivers to make big plays downfield is not a recipe for consistent success. They needed to establish more consistency in the passing game.
When they stuck to the game plan and ran the ball well, they played better offensively. Lock did not feel as pressed to make magic happen, and so the whole offense looked smoother and more confident in these games.
This chart tracks Denver’s offensive Adjusted Rating by the team’s rushing yards in each game. Three of their four best offensive performances came against MIA (-0.09), KC (-0.22), and LAC (+0.26), in games where they ran for over 130 rushing yards. But when they were unable to run, they were truly awful. Their two worst performances (outside of the infamous no-QB game v. NO) came against TB (-1.61) and LV (-1.87), in games where they ran for fewer than 70 yards. These numbers, which measure offensive performance relative to other teams against those same defenses, show that the Broncos were exceptionally bad when they could not run.
Their ultra-aggressive offense meant they were live against anyone. They executed an improbable comeback against the Chargers in which they erased a 24-3 second-half deficit and, according to ESPN’s game log, pulled out the win after having a 1% chance to win the game in the 3rd quarter. Lock gave them a chance to win when things clicked.
But there was a major downside to this style as well. In their first matchup against the Chiefs, their defense impressively limited Mahomes and the Chiefs offense to a season-low 286 total yards. But they still lost 43-16 because they turned the ball over 4 times, including a pick-six. When things weren’t clicking, the offense lost the game for the Broncos no matter how well the defense played.
That’s why I say the offense lacked an identity. With a fairly strong defense, an ultra-aggressive offense does not work. I understand why they wanted to be aggressive. Jerry Jeudy, Noah Fant, Tim Patrick, and Courtland Sutton (when healthy) make a formidable young receiving corps. They want to use their talent. But they need to either scheme better in the passing game or the quarterback needs to make better decisions. This offense has the talent to complement their defense if they can be more consistent.
To that end, heading into 2021, I think Bridgewater is the optimal solution (assuming they don’t land Aaron Rodgers). Lock is too wild and erratic to play quarterback for a defensive-minded team that needs a more conservative offense. He is not a game manager. He is a gunslinger. Bridgewater may not be as exciting, but I think he is what Denver needs. If he doesn’t start Week 1, I anticipate he will take over at some point, and that might be a good thing for Denver.
Vic Fangio is an excellent defensive coach. Despite dealing with some major injuries, the Broncos 11th-ranked defense was well-schemed and made things difficult for every offense they faced in 2020. They pressured the quarterback at the 7th-highest clip despite blitzing at only the 18th-highest rate. They didn’t have to manufacture pressure but instead mixed up man and zone coverages to confuse opposing quarterbacks and tackled well in the middle of the field to limit opposing run games.
It was a difficult scheme to overcome. Teams that tried to roll out a vanilla run-first offense or conservative passing game struggled for consistency against Denver. It was not enough to draw up good plays and stick to the plan. To succeed against Denver the quarterback needed to be smart and adaptable, capable of reading defenses and adjusting on the fly to take chances at every opportunity.
This chart shows Denver’s defensive Adjusted Rating ranking each opponent by its season-long average depth of target, an indication of an aggressive passing game. Denver performed below average defensively against every team it faced that was top-10 in ADOT, including its two worst performances against BUF (-0.92) and NYJ (-0.72). But they performed relatively well against the conservative passing offenses employed by NE (+0.51) and NO (+1.30). Cam Newton and Taysom Hill were not able to effectively press downfield in the passing game, particularly with the weapons available to them. This meant that both offenses really struggled against the Broncos.
Similarly, this chart shows Denver’s defensive Adjusted Rating by each opponent’s season-long run rate. As more conservative and straight-forward offenses run more frequently, this chart further shows that Denver performed much better against conservative offenses. In addition to the games noted above, Denver played well against TEN (+0.53) and LV (+0.52 avg.), two teams who heavily relied on the run game. But they played below average against all the teams they faced who were bottom-half in run rate. The way to effectively challenge Denver’s defense was to play aggressively and rely on strong quarterback play.
Their defense was clearly a strong unit. But the Broncos gave up the 8th-most points in the NFL because the offense consistently but them in bad positions.
Denver Defensive Stats
|Avg. Starting Field Position||31.9 yard line||30th|
|Avg. Yards Allowed Per Drive||31.9 yards||11th|
Nothing illustrates the issue better than these statistics. They allowed the 11th-fewest yards per drive, yet allowed scores on 44.6% of those drives, which ranked 25th. The primary reason was that opposing offenses had the 3rd-best average starting field position against them due to the inordinate amount of turnovers they committed. They also failed to convert pressure and scheme into turnovers, which was a related issue. Opposing offenses did not need to take as many chances when they were given great field position and often held a lead.
Turnover regression should occur in 2021 and will likely help their defensive production. They strengthened their defensive secondary and will get Von Miller back, so the arrow for this already-strong defense is pointing up. They could reach the elite level if they play to their potential and their offense puts them in better situations than they did in 2020.
Putting it All Together
- Overall, the Broncos are underrated. They suffered injuries, had an extremely poor turnover ratio, and were mostly irrelevant in fantasy football. So they did not get much respect. But they should be a fairly good team when healthy, particularly if their quarterback plays better next season.
- If they roll with Drew Lock, be wary putting too many Units either way on Denver game because they are fairly unpredictable. Their offensive success is more erratic with Lock.
- If they go with Bridgewater, have more confidence with Denver, particularly when getting a lot of points as an underdog. With these weapons and this defense, I expect Bridgewater to keep things close.
- Expect the defense to outperform against conservative offenses.
- Expect the defense to underperform against the smartest and most aggressive opponents.
Fantasy and Player Prop Takeaways
- The offensive talent is exciting. Sutton, Jeudy, Fant, and Patrick are all talented. Now they drafted an exciting rookie running back. But that’s also the problem. Unless they trade for Rodgers, this is not an offense that can be a fantasy gold mine. It’s going to be Sutton with a couple huge catches one week and Jeudy hogging the targets the next week. Their defense also limits opportunities by keeping games tight. I would go into drafts with cautious optimism but don’t anticipate any of these receivers being a top season-long player.
- I’m not convinced this is a good run game that can sustain two running backs. The Melvin Gordon v. Javonte Williams debate doesn’t capture me, so I’ll likely be leaving both for others to draft. Gordon will likely clog up a starting spot with potential mediocrity or a bench spots with a guy you will hardly ever start but can’t drop. And Williams could be taking up a bench spot for who knows how many weeks, and may not even be that productive by season’s end.
- When Denver plays conservative offenses, avoid that team’s players in DFS and target Unders on prop bets. Not only do these teams struggle against Denver, but they often have short fields to work with, particularly if Lock plays.
Application: SharpClarke Bet of the Year
In Week 3, Denver played host to the Tampa Bay Bucs, who were laying 5.5 points on the road. It takes a perfect situation for me to want to bet a big road favorite, but this was it. I predicted the Broncos would struggle mightily after losing their best receiver and facing off against one of the NFL’s best run defenses. A shut-out was legitimately on the table. On the other side, Brady was the type of intelligent quarterback who can actually get the best of a Vic Fangio defense with the right weapons. And he had them, with Godwin and Evans healthy. I put 2 Units on TB -5.5 and the Bucs’ defensive line led them to a solid 28-10 victory.