Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
What’s wrong with the Broncos’ offense?
Among the most prevalent narratives after the Broncos’ loss to the Falcons is “Pat Shurmur is the problem with Drew Lock.” I’ve seen multiple variations of “if only Shurmur called the whole game like it was the fourth quarter, Denver would lead the league in scoring.” We’ve now reached a point where some would rather the Broncos go back to last year’s
scapegoat coordinator Rich Scangarello.
I went into this week’s film study hoping to zero in on the plays being called as well as the quarterback executing them. Along the way I found a few surprises as well as confirmation for some of my prior beliefs.
Shurmur tried to “establish the run.”
With how badly Lock has struggled with managing the pocket and reading the field, passing downs have been an adventure this year. It went as well as I expected, considering the strength of the Falcons’ run defense:
Like Gus Bradley, the Falcons play most of their defensive snaps out of a single high shell. They’ll use Keanu Neal around the box and try to outnumber the blocking scheme. Keep in mind that while Atlanta’s defense has been quite poor to start this season, they’re one of the best run defenses in football. Over the last two weeks they’ve shown signs of improving against the pass as well.
Melvin Gordon and Phillip Lindsay combined for all of 41 yards on 14 carries. It’s even worse than that. Lindsay had a long of six, Gordon nine. The Broncos had two carries for 15 yards and 12 for 26. Far too often, the line never game them a real chance, which is on brand for an offensive line that’s allowed the most stuffs in the league this year.
There’s a bit more to unpack from here, however. Raheem Morris is a smart coach. Anyone who watched the Broncos tape from the last three weeks know Lindsay is the only consistent big play threat. With Grady Jarrett leading the Falcons line against an overmatched interior, it became easy to penetrate the line of scrimmage, give the ground game no air, and force Drew Lock to play quarterback. Before it was all said and done, Lock lead the team in rushing yards thanks to all his late scrambles.
Since we’re talking about those.
Any yards are better than none, but…
If you listened to last week’s Cover 2 Broncos, you may remember how Justin Herbert’s rushing yards didn’t concern me. Unless a team has one of the Lamar Jacksons, Cam Newtons, and Kyler Murrays of the world, scrambles aren’t a huge concern because signal callers typically aren’t dangerous enough with the ball in their hands to consistently deal real damage. It’s typically better when they run than pass.
Lock carried the ball seven times against the Falcons. To his credit, he scored a touchdown on one of the more exciting runs I’ve seen from a Broncos’ quarterback.
I legit thought Lock was going to helicopter. pic.twitter.com/euHiJGA1AA
— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) November 8, 2020
Lock also left easy completions on the field and put himself in harms way. You love the results when they work, but if we’re talking process here it’s something Lock needs to improve upon. Jeff Driskel and Brett Rypien have already seen action in half the Broncos’ games this season. That’s way too much. Three of Lock’s scrambles came on second and six or longer.
Since Shurmur’s earned a ton of heat for his second down play calling, I dug in here.
Did Shurmur call too many runs on and second and long?
As I looked at the Broncos’ situational run/pass splits, I made a point to keep track of the subsequent third down play if necessary. I also took note if the Broncos gained a first down or not. Pat Shurmur called seven second and long runs against the Falcons:
- *2nd & 8 – K.J. Hamler for 15. First down.
- 2nd & 21 – Lindsay for six. Pass to Gordon for 9 on 3rd down.
- 2nd & 10 – Gordon for one. Incomplete pass on 3rd down.
- 2nd & 21 – Gordon for nine. Pass to Noah Fant for two on 3rd down.
- *2nd & 10 – Lindsay for four. Pass to Jerry Jeudy for seven on 3rd down. First down.
- *2nd & 9 – Lindsay for six. Pass to DaeSean Hamilton for three on 3rd down. First down.
I’d say it’s worth noting here than when I dug into the situational DVOA numbers at Football Outsiders, I was surprised to find that the Broncos’ are the 5th best rushing team in football on 2nd downs. I’m not going to explain DVOA at length here, but it’s worth checking out. Boiling it way down I’d say the stat means the Broncos do a pretty a good job gaining 60% of the yards needed for a first down on second down.
Just under 43% of the Broncos second and long run plays led to a first down, which got me wondering how that compared to when they threw. Pat Shurmur called 13 pass plays on second and six or more.
- *2nd & 7 – Pass to Noah Fant for 32. First down.
- *2nd & 15 – Incomplete pass. Pass to Hamilton for nine on 3rd and 5. First down.
- *2nd & 7 – Pass to Hamler for 14. First down.
- 2nd & 10 – Incomplete pass. Incomplete pass on third down.
- *2nd & 7 – DPI for 22 yards. First down.
- *2nd & 10 – Scramble for four. Pass to Albert Okwuegbunam for seven on third down. First down.
- 2nd & 10 Pass to Jerry Jeudy for three. Scramble for four on third down.
- 2nd & 10 – Scramble for five. Touchdown pass to Jeudy on third down.
- 2nd & 10 – Pass to Hamler for four. Incomplete passes on third and fourth down.
- *2nd & 10 – Pass to Nick Vannett for 11. First down.
- *2nd & 7 – Pass to Hamler for nine. First down.
- 2nd & 6 – Scramble touchdown.
- 2nd & 10 – Incomplete passes on second, third, and fourth down.
The Broncos gained a first down after a pass on second and long 53% of the time. I couldn’t help but notice how many of these plays happened in the second half, which got me wondering what changed. 18 of Lock’s 25 completions happened after halftime.
How did Lock come alive late?
There were two things that really flummoxed the Broncos’ protections and Lock in the first half: blitzing and simulated pressure looks where the line has to account for a potential rusher that doesn’t come. This can often wind up more devastating than extra rushers because it will occupy a lineman while the “rusher” is able to drop in coverage as someone else gets free.
LMAO the center points at him and then just lets him go!
— Coach Vass (@CoachVass) November 11, 2020
I couldn’t help but notice the Falcons became far more static in the second half, especially after they scored their last touchdown off Drew Lock’s interception. With the score 34-13, Raheem Morris knew the Broncos’ would need to score three touchdowns in nine minutes. The Falcons offense had mostly made mincemeat of the Fangio secondary to this point, so Morris took his foot off the gas. The clock was now the Broncos’ primary opponent.
This helped the Broncos’ offense because the coverages became more predictable, which helped Shurmur give his young quarterback easier reads. At one point the Broncos run a sail concept on back to back plays. So it’s no coincidence that Lock hit six different curl routes in the second half. It also didn’t become a magic fix when Morris did dial up sim pressures.
Facing a 3rd and 8 in the third quarter, the Broncos come out with a trips bunch to the left. Shurmur uses motion to help Lock decipher the coverage. As Jeudy moves across the formation, the overhang/nickel pulls out on the WR2 to the right while the boundary corner moves to meet Jeudy. Both the interior linemen and Foyesade Oluokun (54) slide over a gap when Jeudy motions. The backside edge squeezes down.
On the snap, the Falcons send four rushers at the right side of the Broncos’ line. It makes sense. By this point in the game Jake Rodgers has taken over for Demar Dotson, and it’s become clear Austin Schlottmann and Lloyd Cushenberry are struggling. The backside edge and Olokun do just enough to maintain Garett Bolles’ eyes before dropping into coverage. The overhang moves to pick up Gordon on his wheel while the corner drops off into a shell over the top. On the backside, Keanu Neal (22) has Tim Patrick in man coverage. Lock is looking at Jeudy. The line is sliding left which means Jake Rodgers is responsible for the B gap and Lock has to protect himself from the C, in this case by dumping it down to Patrick on the drag. He failed to do so.
There’s little doubt the Broncos offense has moved in fits and spurts this season. While it’d be convenient to have one single issue to blame it all on, this isn’t the case. The young receiving corps has had a number of drops and struggles with physical coverage on Sunday. The running backs and line haven’t always been on the same page in pass protection. Both Drew Lock and Pat Shurmur shoulder responsibility for the offensive shortcomings.
For Lock it isn’t any more complicated than it’s been all season. His pre-snap and post-snap reads are painfully inconsistent, which has lead to him throwin to the wrong side of the field more than once. This compounds on another big issue. Lock is still overly dependent on his first read, so it hardly matters if Jerry Jeudy’s open when Lock doesn’t find him. He rarely throws with the proper anticipation, which compounds the catch inconsistencies with the receivers because oftentimes they’re catching the ball with contact incoming. Lock rarely steps up into the pocket and will bail out to his right, which makes it harder to protect him.
As for Shurmur, the problems go back to many of the concerns I had upon his hire. This year’s offense is more dependent on isolation routes, especially from about the 25-yard line going in. This puts more pressure on the receivers to beat their opponent in the air for the ball. When Courtland Sutton is healthy, this may look brilliant. Without him, there are far too many low percentage shots and reliance on Drew Lock’s pre-snap recognition and ball placement from a muddled pocket. More motion and play action could also serve as “cheat codes” for a quarterback who’s struggled with the speed of the game so far. The other big issue I’m having with Shurmur are the issues with protection. There’s no way to ignore that the quarterback is a huge part of it, but the Broncos have far too many mental errors in pass protection.
With these issues in mind, it’s worth noting Pat Shurmur runs a quarterback friendly offense. Philosophically it’s built around easy completions off staple concepts like Mesh, Flood, and Slant/Flat. There’s only so much a coach can do when his quarterback struggles to make the right decision against single guy coverage. It’s elementary football.
Who should Broncos’ Country blame for the offensive woes: Drew Lock or Pat Shurmur?