The old adage in football states that a team has to run the ball in order to set up the pass. It’s a time-honored approach to the game that dates back to Vince Lombardi, Tom Landry and Don Shula.
In recent years, however, things have been changing in the NFL. Thanks to changes to the rules that tilt the advantage toward the offense, as well as the adoption of more college-based systems, more and more teams are taking the opposition approach. Football has become a past-first game, with running lanes opening up based on how successful a team can air it out.
If that’s the definition of “zigging” – with Sean McVay’s Rams perhaps leading the way in this evolution – the Broncos have chosen to “zag.” They’re turning back the clock a bit, sticking with the tried-and-true philosophy of running the football to set up the rest of the offense.
In part, this is based on necessity. Anyone who has watched the first four days of training camp can understand why Rich Scangarello wants his offense to dominate on the ground; they aren’t very prolific in the air.
For the most part, that’s due to personnel. With wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders on the sidelines for most of practice while recovering from a torn Achilles tendon, Denver’s young stable of wideouts have been called upon to make plays; by and large, they haven’t answered the bell.
This is most apparent in 7-on-7 drills, when there’s nothing happening in the trenches and success is based on being able to create separation against coverage. Repeatedly, Broncos quarterbacks are having to buy time by patting the football, rolling out or even scrambling because they don’t have a receiver open. It’s disconcerting to watch.
Again, this is against zero pass rush. And Denver’s QBs are still under “duress.”
On Sunday, the Broncos were in full pads for the first time during training camp and things were a little better. This is to be expected, as it allowed Denver to have a little balance to their attack.
Finally, the defense had to wonder if they were going to be facing a run or a pass. And being off balance just a bit prevented them from dominating quite as much.
Joe Flacco was able to connect with Courtland Sutton for a touchdown during red-zone drills, Kevin Hogan found Noah Fant for a score and the running backs showed some spark. It was a much-different offense, one that wasn’t as painful to watch as it had been in previous days.
And it was all because the Broncos were finally able to do what the offense is designed to do.
“The easiest matchup to create in the NFL is the halfback on a linebacker,” Denver’s offensive coordinator explained on Sunday. “That’s what we try to do in this offense a lot.”
Denver doesn’t have the personnel to dominate in 7-on-7 drills, especially against a defense like the Broncos boast. In that situation, when both sides of the ball know that a pass is coming, it’s going to be a lopsided battle.
But when the element of the running game is factored into the equation, things get different. And when one particular back is on the field, things change a lot.
“One of the great things about coming to Denver that really excited me from the day I walked in the door is that there are a very few players in the league like Phillip that have the ability to win in a one-on-one matchup at any time,” Scangarello added. “I think (Lindsay) has that gift and that ability and those traits. (I’m) excited to try to do that and try to force defenses to put a DB on him to open up other players.”
The Broncos have a lot of fine skill position players. They’re not bad. They’re not great. They’re fine.
But they only have two who have demonstrated the ability to be difference makers at the pro level – Sanders and Lindsay. Fant might get there someday. Sutton could eventually translate great practices into great games. But for now, it’s a two-man show.
So if the Broncos offense is going to be anything other than pedestrian this season, those two players are going to have to shine. And with Sanders being brought along slowly after injury, even more pressure falls on Lindsay.
Royce Freeman is a competent back, but the “thunder” portion of a “thunder and lightning” combination is the easy one to find. And Devontae Booker has proven to be a marginal NFL runner during his career.
“I think Royce and Lindsay are perfect compliments,” Scangarello said “They kind of remind me of Tevin Coleman and Devontae Freeman in Atlanta. They have different skill sets. They are both talented in their own way. They are both able to be used with their strengths so that they can be the best they can be. As far as running the football in the scheme, they both can do it. One is just going to do it probably with a little bit more physicality and the other is going to make you miss.”
That’s high praise, considering that the Falcons’ duo has been as dynamic as any in the league at times. To even approach that level, Lindsay is going to have to shine.
The difference maker, the player who can be special, is Lindsay. So finding creative ways to get him the football, by creating mismatches that his skill set can exploit, is the key.
That means lining him up on the outside as a receiver, forcing the defense to choose between trying to cover him with a linebacker or moving a defensive back off of another weapon. Either option creates an opportunity for Denver.
Scangarello’s offense has been much-maligned thus far in camp. But to be fair, he hasn’t gotten the chance to unveil what makes it click. At least not yet.
But on Sunday, a glimpse of what’s to come was offered. And there were reasons to be encouraged.