The Los Angeles Chargers’ comeback — and Vance Joseph honoring the 10th anniversary of Mike Shanahan introducing the modern kicker-icing tactic to the world — became the primary stories in the Denver Broncos‘ Week 1 escape Monday night.
What was relegated to secondary fodder in the Broncos’ opener should not be overlooked.
With four scoring drives in six possessions, the Broncos built a 24-7 lead and displayed the offensive diversity largely absent the past two years. These methodical possessions, ones that showcased some of Trevor Siemian‘s best NFL work, put the Chargers on their heels and reasonably indicate that Denver’s offseason offensive refinements will provide vital assistance.
While Siemian looked like an improved player, with Pro Football Focus grading him as Week 1’s No. 10 quarterback, he had more options at his disposal than he did for much of last season.
These additional avenues do not appear to give the Broncos the capabilities of forming an upper-echelon offense — it owns a mid-level ceiling given its makeup — but growth potential exists where it largely didn’t in 2016.
On a team fueled by a defense that should still be one of the NFL’s elite stoppage forces, the difference between a poor offense and an average one is crucial.
The Broncos slogged through their least exciting offseason in years and still feature the same primary cogs from last season’s 27th-ranked offense. Siemian, Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, C.J. Anderson and Matt Paradis remain in control of how this goes, but the franchise’s fixes and experiments — Ron Leary, Garett Bolles, Allen Barbre and Jamaal Charles — place the team’s holdovers in better positions to excel. Having Mike McCoy back as offensive coordinator doesn’t hurt either.
McCoy’s 36-rush, 28-pass play-calling effort became possible because of Anderson’s return and the new-look offensive front. While it wasn’t hard to call 2017’s plan a more dedicated effort to repairing the offensive line than last year’s patch job, these newcomers prevented Siemian from having to lead a one-dimensional attack Monday night.
Last season, the Broncos rushed for fewer than 90 yards 10 times, putting way too much on Siemian. Monday, the 140 rushing yards Denver amassed helped Siemian orchestrate these scoring drives. Altogether (small sample size alert), this combination could create a legitimately intriguing offense.
Anderson’s second-quarter shimmy on Jason Verrett should excite Bronco fans. While still a health risk, the unquestioned starter looks like a player who has recovered from his torn meniscus. That elevates Denver’s offense.
Anderson at his best is a Pro Bowl-caliber back. His 20-carry, 81-yard night allowed McCoy to make play action a legitimate threat throughout the game. With Anderson out for much of last season, establishing the run became tougher for Gary Kubiak — and it raised Siemian’s degree of difficulty.
McCoy’s use of the Broncos’ biggest health risk may be even more encouraging.
Charles did not operate as a luxurious pass-catching back, instead being deployed as a true complement. For a player who has missed most of the past two years, it was odd to see the 30-year-old Charles test the Bolts’ defense between the guards and being given short-yardage carries.
Despite deploying Charles in only one preseason game, the Broncos did not slow-play their buy-low flier.
Charles’ pivotal fumble notwithstanding, his Week 1 form looks like a sign the coaching staff believes he can hold up. That’s still far from known, but Charles brings something no other Bronco back does. The two-time All-Pro, by unveiling a reasonable facsimile of his early-2010s explosiveness, gives McCoy additional game-planning choices in the weeks to come.
Compared to a Devontae Booker solo show behind an overmatched offensive line, Siemian — with this crew supplementing him — owns possibilities unavailable to him in Year 1.
The ground game set up some of the third-year quarterback’s finest throws. Siemian used auxiliary wideout Bennie Fowler and each of his tight ends in key spots to provide a change of pace for an attack that brought little to the table outside of Sanders and Thomas.
Winning a game where Sanders totaled 26 receiving yards — his lowest in a victory since a Brock Osweiler-led win in San Diego in December of 2015 — shows Siemian was working with more of a safety net.
That will be a big factor in the Broncos’ viability as a contender, which is still up for debate.
Converting 8 of 15 third downs — with passes to Fowler, Derby and Jeff Heuerman — is a positive sign after finishing 31st in third-down success rate (34.25 percent) last season. Scoring touchdowns on three of their four red zone drives also delivered quite the contrast to the Broncos’ 2016 woes near goal lines. In producing touchdowns on 46.15 percent of their red zone appearances, the Broncos ranked 28th last season.
Siemian’s ability to dissect the Bolts’ defense — an underrated unit fronted by Pro Bowl cornerbacks and terrifying edge rushers who took turns beating right tackle Menelik Watson — inflated the Broncos’ lead to 17. The display revealed signs of life that weren’t there for much of the passer’s first season at the helm.
It’s important not to overreact in “peak overreaction week,” and I still harbor doubts about Denver’s contention chances, but the Broncos’ offensive floor seems to have been raised.
While it’s too early to determine if this formula will even matter in the AFC’s grand scheme, where teams with far better offenses will decide things, this was a positive start for an offense with low expectations.
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