What's New for the Denver Broncos in 2013?
The Denver Broncos are not the same team they were last year. Changes are a part of the game, and teams build with the expectation that players and coaches may move on.
This season Denver sees a different offensive coordinator take over as Mike McCoy moved on to be the head coach of the San Diego Chargers. That position will now be filled by Adam Gase, the Broncos' quarterback coach in 2012. Gase will bring an exciting, uptempo offense to Denver and will even use the pistol formation from time to time.
In addition to Gase, the team also brought back zone-blocking guru Alex Gibbs to help out with the offensive line. This style of system fits the skill sets of the running backs on the roster better than the inside power zone we saw last year under McCoy.
Several players have changed from last year. The biggest addition was arguably wide receiver Wes Welker. There is no question the biggest departure was the loss of pass-rusher Elvis Dumervil.
The Broncos' rookie class is one of the most exciting in all of the NFL. They have a few impact rookies in addition to some sleeper picks who could make a bigger impact than some people think.
Overall the Broncos are looking at another AFC West division title. That would make three in a row but this year the Broncos want to get all the way to the Super Bowl. They have the core in place to make a championship run. The additions to the roster and to the coaching staff could help them reach their championship goals in 2013.
Offensive Coordinator Adam Gase
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The Denver Broncos promoted Adam Gase to Offensive Coordinator when Mike McCoy moved on to coach the San Diego Chargers. Gase enters his fifth season with the Broncos after serving as the quarterbacks coach over the last two years. The two years before that he was their wide receivers coach.
Gase, 34, is one of the youngest coordinators in the game today, but he has plenty of experience with building a top offense. Last season, Gase was on staff for an offense that finished fourth in the NFL with 397.9 yards per game and second in scoring with 30.1 points per game.
He worked as the right-hand man for Peyton Manning last year and knows what makes the quarterback comfortable. There are elements of the McCoy offense that are staying, and a lot of the terminology remains the same as it was last year. However, Gase will have his own stamp on the Broncos offense and some of that trademark is going to be in the uptempo offense.
Gase joked around with me earlier this year that he's not Chip Kelly, but the Broncos will feature a fast-break offense from time to time. The tempo is just another weapon for the offense. There are times the pace will be accelerated, and the opposition's defensive package will be exploited. There are times when the Broncos will slow down the tempo and pound the rock to close out a game.
Gase's DNA as a coordinator goes back to his time studying under Mike Martz. During his time with the Rams, Martz was incredibly effective at closing out games. His teams went 55-5 when having a fourth quarter lead. Gase should use some of the same play design that made Martz and the Rams the "Greatest Show on Turf" when they went to two Super Bowls in three years.
We'll see the outside zone stretch play return. Last year under McCoy, the Broncos ran inside zone with power blocking concepts. That works great if your starter is Willis McGahee but it's not as effective if Montee Ball or Ronnie Hillman is the lead back.
The stretch play was made famous by Manning during his time with the Colts. His play action fakes are among the best in league history. Defenses have trouble diagnosing if Manning is keeping the ball or handing it off on that stretch play. Another way the Broncos will look different is their use of the stretch play from the pistol formation.
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When you think of Peyton Manning, the idea of running plays out of the pistol formation doesn't spring to mind. However, in the first preseason game against the 49ers the Broncos unveiled to the world their version of the pistol. The pistol formation is fairly new to the NFL but was popularized in college at the University of Nevada under Chris Ault.
The pistol formation has the quarterback line up four yards back from the center instead of seven yards back like a shotgun formation. The running back lines up behind the quarterback which is again different from the shotgun where he lines up beside him.
Out of the pistol formation the Broncos will be able to run the outside zone stretch play with ease. Peyton Manning won't have as far to go in order to execute his play fake since he's already four yards back from the center. With the running back lined up directly behind the quarterback, a run play can go in either direction. In a shotgun formation, the back usually runs to the opposite side he lines up at. This tell isn't there in the pistol, and it keeps defenders on both edges honest.
Manning is the king of the pre-snap read. Out of the pistol formation he can see the field clearly and gain a better understanding of what the defense is trying to do. The pistol will also aid him as a passer. Clearly seeing the field, Manning will be able to make even quicker decisions with the football. Getting rid of the football quickly will help accelerate the pace and keep defenders on their toes.
Last season the Broncos averaged over 75 plays ran over the last five weeks of the season. That ranked number one in the NFL during that time. The Patriots led the NFL with an average of 74.4 plays per game for the entire season. We should see the Broncos average around 75 plays per game for the entire season in 2013.
The uptempo Gase offense and the pistol formation go hand in hand. They'll use both frequently to move the chains and produce big numbers this season.
Fresh Faces on Offense
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The Broncos were fairly active in free agency this offseason. The two biggest pieces added to the offense were wide receiver Wes Welker and right guard Louis Vasquez.
Welker gives the team another dangerous weapon in the passing game. He'll catch around 85 passes on the year and seems to have already established a strong chemistry with Peyton Manning during training camp. Welker will also help out the Broncos in short yardage situations. He can run a jerk route on third-and-short in what is a nigh unstoppable play.
Vasquez gives the Broncos more beef on the offensive line. He's a mountain of a man, measuring in at 6'5" 335 pounds. Vasquez is athletic enough to be laterally agile and work well in the zone blocking system the Broncos will employ in 2013.
The Broncos also added veteran guard/center Ryan Lilja in free agency earlier this offseason. In addition, they also traded with the Seahawks for veteran guard John Moffitt. They keep mixing things up on the offensive line as they are trying to find a combination that works best for them in 2013.
Offensive Line Shuffle
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The Denver Broncos are trying to find the right combination of players on the offensive line. It's one of the reasons why we've seen so many transactions at the position.
Starting center J.D. Walton is still bothered by the ankle injury he suffered last year and will miss around half the season on the Physically Unable to Perform list. The Broncos went out and picked up veteran Dan Koppen again after Walton needed another surgery to clean up his ankle. Koppen then went down with a knee injury that ended his season and sent the Broncos into scramble mode.
After the Koppen injury we've seen Ryan Lilja added as a free agent and John Moffitt acquired via trade. The team keeps searching for the right mix and will leave no stone unturned during this search.
They've been using Manny Ramirez as the starting center for most of the offseason. The team expresses confidence publicly, but they keep adding players who can play center. They're also trying guard Chris Kuper at center as well in order to find answers in the middle of the offensive line.
From their actions it appears they don't trust 2012 fourth-round pick Philip Blake with an expanded role this season. It would be surprising if Blake ends up on the final roster.
The Broncos will use the zone blocking scheme as part of their new look offense in 2013. That requires their linemen to be more agile laterally where they can move in unison to create rushing and cutback lanes.
Once the final roster is set, it doesn't mean the shuffle on the offensive line will cease. The Broncos know that middle pressure can disrupt Peyton Manning and they need to insure that he's well protected across the entire line.
Fresh Faces on Defense
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The Denver Broncos made a couple of key moves on the defensive side of the ball in free agency. Their two best acquisitions are cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and defensive tackle Terrance Knighton.
Rodgers-Cromartie comes over from the Philadelphia Eagles, and he gives the Broncos a much-needed presence opposite Champ Bailey. He seemed to have lost his confidence during his time with the Eagles, but all indications point to his swagger returning now that he's with the Broncos. Rodgers-Cromartie has a fantastic size/speed combination. He can play physically with receivers near the line of scrimmage and has the recovery speed to stay in stride on downfield routes.
Knighton is reunited with defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. The two have a prior working relationship from Del Rio's days as the head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Knighton fits the profile for what Del Rio wants from his defensive tackles. The veteran is huge and takes up a bunch of space in the middle of the line.
The Broncos also added linebackers Stewart Bradley and Shaun Phillips to the roster this offseason. They'll be part of the changes at linebacker we see in 2013.
In addition to those two, Denver also brought in veteran cornerback Quentin Jammer to help in the secondary. He was originally asked to move to free safety but it looks as though the Broncos may now try to keep him as a sub-package corner.
Changes at Linebacker
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The Denver Broncos are going to be without Von Miller for the first six games of the regular season due to a suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy. Without Miller we're seeing players being moved around the field to find the right fit.
Veteran Wesley Woodyard has been asked to move from weak-side linebacker into the spot at middle linebacker. We'll see if Woodyard can hold up to the beating most middle linebackers have to sustain. Woodyard has improved his coverage skills and is already the player who calls out defensive adjustments on the field.
Woodyard has to fill this position because Nate Irving did not progress in the middle and free-agent addition Stewart Bradley will miss time because of surgery on his wrist. Veteran Paris Lenon was signed at the end of camp to provide depth in the middle.
In Woodyard's weak-side spot we'll see Danny Trevathan. He's an explosive player who loves to initiate contact. Trevathan can diagnose quickly, but his coverage skills are still a work in progress.
At the strong-side spot we'll see a mix of players. Filling in for Miller will be Irving and free-agent addition Shaun Phillips. Irving can keep contain as a run defender, but it's a curious move if he's asked to rush the passer much. That's where Phillips comes in. The veteran could have as many as 10 sacks for the Broncos this year as a part-time pass-rusher.
Secondary Position Changes
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We'll see some changes in the secondary this year. The team added Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to start opposite Champ Bailey this year.
With Bailey battling a foot injury, we could see nickel corner Chris Harris moved to the outside. Harris has done it before, and the Broncos are fortunate to have a player with his versatility in the secondary.
The safety position is one that should be manned by Duke Ihenacho and Rahim Moore. Behind them we've seen some shuffling as well. The Broncos added veteran Quentin Jammer in free agency, and he was supposed to compete at the free safety spot. If he makes the team it's likely to be as a sub-package corner as the transition to safety wasn't a smooth one.
Cornerback Omar Bolden was asked to move to safety towards the end of the preseason. Bolden was likely to make the team as a reserve corner and return man. His versatility makes him a virtual lock for the final roster.
Key Offseason Departures
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The biggest loss for the Broncos is the departure of Elvis Dumervil. He was in the process of renegotiating his contract with the Broncos when a fax machine delay caused the deadline to be missed. This made Dumervil an unrestricted free agent, and he ended up deciding to play for the Baltimore Ravens. Because the Broncos' division is so weak, their real rival is likely the Ravens. It's especially painful for the Broncos to lose Dumervil because of the six game suspension for Von Miller.
Other players that were released or moved on in free agency include D.J. Williams, Justin Bannan, Willis McGahee, Tracy Porter, Caleb Hanie and Jim Leonhard. None will be missed as much as Dumervil will.
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The Denver Broncos hope they selected a few impact rookies in the 2013 NFL draft. Guys like Sylvester Williams, Montee Ball and Quanterus Smith could play bigger roles than some think this season.
The Broncos selected Williams in the first round of the 2013 NFL draft. He's got an incredible work ethic to go along with his immense natural talent. Williams can occupy two opponents at the point of attack and stuff the run. He's also got the quickness off the snap to create middle pressure on the quarterback.
The team is going to need him to make an impact as a part-time player to start his pro career. Without Von Miller this team needs to generate pressure wherever they can get it.
In the second-round of the 2013 NFL draft the Broncos added Ball to the roster. It looks like he could open up the season as the starting running back. He'll work in a committee with Ronnie Hillman and Knowshon Moreno in 2013. With his durability, consistency and nose for the end zone we could see Ball finish the year as the team's leading rusher.
The Broncos were in the top 10 last year in red zone rushing attempts. A majority of those attempts will be by Ball this season. It wouldn't be a shock to see him finish with near double-digit touchdowns as a rookie.
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Throughout all the changes and problems this offseason the Broncos have worked diligently to build a championship team. That hard work should pay off for the team unless there's a devastating injury to quarterback Peyton Manning.
In the end, it all comes back to Manning. So long as he's healthy this team will win at least 10 games with their weak schedule.
Playoff success is another story, and one that will define this team. Many feel the Broncos have the best team in the AFC, but they'll have to prove it come playoff time. Anything less than a Super Bowl championship is a disappointment for a team with the construct of the Denver Broncos.