Denver Broncos vs. San Diego Chargers: Breaking Down Denver's Game Plan

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Denver Broncos vs. San Diego Chargers: Breaking Down Denver's Game Plan
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
Peyton Manning is set to rock and roll against the Chargers on Sunday.

The Denver Broncos are going to have a different look when they come off their bye and face the San Diego Chargers in Week 10.

For the first time this season the team will be playing without head coach John Fox, as he continues to recover from the heart surgery he had on Monday.

Jack Del Rio is going to fill in as the team’s interim coach while Fox is out. He has almost a decade of experience as a head coach from his time leading the Jacksonville Jaguars. Del Rio is not as enthusiastic as Fox, but he’s incredibly focused and dedicated to continuing the team’s winning ways.

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
Del Rio has a different style from Fox.

After practice on Wednesday Del Rio talked about the team’s focus on San Diego.

Our guys understand San Diego. [Head Coach] Mike McCoy is a guy that worked here (as offensive coordinator). We’re familiar with them; they’re familiar with us. Looking forward to the opportunity to go in there and compete; it’s a divisional opponent. It will be a big opponent for us. Offensively, they’ve done some nice things, they’re No. 1 in the league in 10-play drives, they have 20 of them on the year. They’re second in third-down percentage, which helps on those long drives. They’re not allowing sacks on third there. They’re averaging over 400 yards a game. Special teams, second in holding field position. And defensively, no pass touchdowns [allowed] over the past three weeks. And I think fourth in points[allowed] over the last three weeks. So it’s a good team, it’s a division game, and all of our attention is on getting prepared for them.

McCoy spent four years with the Denver Broncos before taking his new position earlier this year. Given that it's a division game, this matchup is between opponents already familiar with each other. Now the familiarity is even stronger with McCoy facing many of the players he coached last year.

The Broncos are 7-1 after eight games, with the only blemish on their record being a loss to the Indianapolis Colts in Week 7. They are one game behind the Kansas City Chiefs, who remain the lone undefeated team in the NFL.

Denver’s offense is getting healthier thanks to the bye week. Tight end Julius Thomas was lost for most of the Week 8 game against Washington with an ankle injury. He had an extra week of rest and was a limited participant in practice on Wednesday.

As I noted on Twitter, Thomas is moving well and not favoring that injured ankle.

 

In addition to Thomas, quarterback Peyton Manning had a chance to rest his injured ankles during the bye week.

After practice on Wednesday, Manning sounded off on his thoughts about McCoy:

Mike was great for me. I just can’t tell you how indebted and grateful I am for the support Mike gave me. He and I spent a lot of time together. We kind of put together a hybrid offense last year—a combination of some of the Colts stuff, some of Mike’s stuff, some of, I guess, [Patriots Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks Coach] Josh McDaniels’ New England stuff. It was really a hybrid last year. It was pretty rare for the offensive success we had in that short period of time when you are putting an offense together and have new quarterback and a coordinator working together for the first time, it doesn’t work that well, that often. So it’s a real credit to Mike for making it work and being the leader of our offense last year. He was great for me on Sundays, talking in my ear, great for me talking situations out here on the practice field, on the sidelines during games. I’m very, very indebted to him and certainly happy—not surprised—that he’s a head coach. He deserves the opportunity.

 

Running back Knowshon Moreno was listed on the injury report Wednesday. He was listed as a limited participant with an ankle injury. The Broncos are likely just being cautious with their veteran back here.

Moreno’s relentless running style has helped energize the offense in 2013. In fact, we could see an even greater emphasis on the ground game for the Broncos in the second half of the season. This could lead to an increase in touches for guys like Moreno, Montee Ball and C.J. Anderson.

The Broncos lead the NFL in scoring, averaging 42.9 points per game. Manning is on pace to break Drew Brees' single-season yardage record of 5,476 yards (posted in 2011) and the touchdown mark of 50 that Tom Brady set in 2007.

The Chargers' pass defense won’t be able to put up much of a fight against Manning and company. They currently rank 27th in the league, allowing an average of 275.4 yards per game.

If the Chargers have any hope of beating the Broncos then they must score a ton of points. In order to keep up with the high-powered Broncos offense, they will feature a passing offense that has found new life this season.

Philip Rivers has been made extremely comfortable in McCoy’s system, aided by the design and game plans of offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt. The Chargers have the league’s fourth-ranked passing offense, averaging 300 yards passing per game.

Rivers benefits from concepts that make him comfortable. McCoy and Whisenhunt have removed the deep passing game that Rivers was known for. They now use a more controlled passing game which keeps routes close to the line of scrimmage.

These concepts help out Rivers in a couple of different ways. First, the short routes mean he’s getting rid of the ball quicker. This helps protect him better as the offensive line is still a work in progress.

Second, the design of the offense highlights the run-after-the-catch ability of his playmakers. Guys like Eddie Royal and Danny Woodhead are able to hurt defenses by what they can do with a short catch in the open field.

On Wednesday, Del Rio highlighted his thoughts on Rivers and the changes made to the Chargers’ passing game:

Less shots down the field and more efficient passing. His numbers represent that, I think he’s 106-107 in passer rating. His completion percentage I think leads the league right now. So he’s getting the ball out of his hands and not taking a lot of sacks. Before they were kind of a chunk offense that would look for chunks, and they might take a sack here and there but they were going to throw the ball deep a lot during the game. So it’s a little different approach.

 

I was able to interview former Chargers All-Pro Shawne Merriman on ESPN Denver Wednesday. He was not confident that his old team could beat the Broncos. “I don’t see a way they can slow down Manning,” Merriman said.

This is a big game, which kicks off an even bigger month for the Broncos. After the division game against the Chargers they return home for a crucial game against the Chiefs. The week after that Denver travels to face the New England Patriots. They wrap up this critical four-game stretch with a trip to Arrowhead Stadium to play the Chiefs again.

The team wants to get off to a good start under interim head coach Jack Del Rio. Let’s take a look at how the Denver Broncos will attack the San Diego Chargers on both sides of the ball.

 

When the Broncos Run the Ball

The Broncos won’t have much trouble moving the ball on the ground against the Chargers. Moreno could have a big game on Sunday. We may also see Ball continue to get almost the same number of snaps as a starting running back.

In Week 8 against Washington, Moreno played 38 snaps while Ball played 30 snaps. So long as Ball continues to hang onto the rock this could continue to be a near 50-50 split. Anderson will serve as a power change-of-pace back who can grind out tough yards.

Finishing as the number one touchdown scorer in the history of college football means Ball has a tremendous nose for the end zone. When the Broncos want to grind down the clock late in the game, we should see them turn to Ball and Anderson.

Below is a view of how Anderson can pound away between the tackles.

 

When the Broncos Pass the Ball

The blue print to beat (or at least slow down) the Broncos is already out there. The Colts were able to perfect what the Jaguars tried earlier this year. Washington also tried this method, but they were unable to hold off the Broncos’ 31-point fourth-quarter onslaught.

Defenses should blitz Manning with an extra rusher, gambling with bump-and-run coverage on the outside. Doing this can rush Manning and create off-target throws downfield.

Manning had trouble throwing deep against Washington, but it wasn’t due to any sort of arm strength problem. In fact, I like what I have seen from Manning in practice so far this week:

 

Below we see a defensive alignment the Broncos should see often. The two high safeties put more defenders closer to the line of scrimmage.

Washington is showing blitz, so the Broncos counter by tossing a screen pass to Demaryius Thomas.

 

When the Chargers Run the Ball

Several of the concepts the Chargers use are the same that McCoy used during his time in Denver. One of the staples of his offense is the inside power-zone scheme. This requires hat-on-hat blocking with no lateral movement from the offensive line.

After the snap the running back is supposed to slam it up into the hole as designed. This style gives the back little room to improvise.

Here we see a pre-snap alignment with Ryan Mathews in a single-back set. The Chargers are in the shotgun, but they still run an inside power play that goes for six yards.

McCoy used a lot of 12 personnel (two tight ends) in Denver, but is now using more 21 or 22 personnel (two running backs and one or two tight ends) in San Diego. They essentially do the same thing offensively but allow for different alignments.

In addition to Mathews, the Chargers also feature change-of-pace running back Danny Woodhead. They are using Woodhead in a similar way to how the Patriots used him when he was in New England.

Woodhead is a speed back who can make plays in open space. This means draws and screen passes will be the most likely plays called when Woodhead is on the field.

If (when?) the Chargers get behind they’ll abandon the inside power game and use Woodhead more than Mathews. They desire explosive plays, and Woodhead can provide that. Draws and screens also slow down an opponent's pass rush. That will be something San Diego wants to do as well.

Woodhead can also split out wide (as seen here). Matched up against a linebacker is what the Chargers are looking for here. Woodhead hauls in the pass for a big play.

 

When the Chargers Pass the Ball

This is where the biggest improvement have been made offensively for the Chargers. Rivers has revitalized his career by changing his game.

Known mostly as one of the best deep-passing quarterbacks in the league throughout most of his career, Rivers is now using shorter passing plays to move the chains.

He can still be quite aggressive as a passer, but Rivers is not taking the same number of hits behind the team’s work-in-progress offensive line. In fact, Rivers can be more aggressive now than ever before. The shorter routes coupled with a hurry-up offense make the Chargers difficult to slow down.  

Once the defense has been hammered by short passes, the Chargers will then take a few deep shots downfield.

Rookie wide receiver Keenan Allen has had an outstanding first season so far. During the pre-draft process I had an NFC scout tell me that Allen had some A.J. Green-like tendencies to his game. Allen is a linear athlete who can make difficult catches seem routine.

The only reason Allen fell to the third round of the 2013 NFL draft is a PCL injury that prevented him from working out at the NFL Scouting Combine or California’s pro day. Throw draft stock out the window and recognize Allen as one of the best young receivers in the game today.

The Chargers love the vert shade under in/out route combinations. Here we see Royal run a vertical route to move the defense from the middle of the field. Allen runs what looks to be a go route as well, but he breaks his route inside as soon as the safety flips his hips to stick with Royal. 

In order to keep up with the Broncos the Chargers need to approach this game like a shootout. Denver averages 42.9 points per game, and they may be able to reach that mark against the Chargers. San Diego must score early and often in order to stay in the game.

The Broncos can't forget about tight end Antonio Gates either. Here we see a common route on which Gates attacks the seam of the defense.

Rivers is an emotional quarterback and loves to talk smack on the football field. Rahim Moore commented on the Chargers vociferous quarterback:

That’s part of his game, but he’s a good guy. That’s what quarterbacks do. They’re aggressive. They love the game so much. He’s one of those guys that just talks back, which is fine. That’s part of his game and he does a good job at it. And he can back his talk up, too. That’s another good thing.

Former Chargers linebacker (and current Broncos linebacker) Shaun Phillips is looking forward to trying to hit his old quarterback.

Yeah. Me and Philip go way back to the Senior Bowl. We played against each other in the Senior Bowl and we were jawing back and forth. I think I hit him one play and the next play he threw a pass and he jawed back at me. So it’s just all out of friendly competition in football and I’m pretty sure I’m going to get a hit or two on him and I’m pretty sure he’s looking to make a play or two on me. It’ll be a little bit of jawing back and forth but all out of love because I admire Philip and I think he’s a great person and a great player.

 

Summary

The Broncos are not going to overlook the Chargers. San Diego is a quality opponent who has the offense to keep up with a high-powered Broncos team.

In order to protect Manning from the Chargers pass-rushers we could see the team emphasize the ground game more in Week 10. Moreno is a huge key for this offense. Not only is he a strong runner and receiver out of the backfield, but he’s also the best pass-protecting back on the roster.

If the Broncos get a lead we may see them try to take the air out of the football with even more of the ground game. This may create a late-game role for both Ball and Anderson. Handing off the ball and moving the chains quickly milks the clock and keeps Rivers on the sidelines.

When the Broncos do go to the air they are likely to have their full complement of weapons. It’s going to be nearly impossible for the Chargers to stop the likes of Welker, Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Julius Thomas.

Denver’s rush defense should be able to easily bottle up the Chargers’ ground game. The game script should also move the Chargers into a more pass-happy mode. This means fewer opportunities for Mathews and an increased role for Woodhead.

The secondary will be tested against Rivers and the Chargers’ passing game. The linebackers will also be tested in coverage against tight end Antonio Gates.

This is going to be a fun game to watch. The scoreboard may hit “Tilt” if neither defense is able to slow down the opposing offense.

It’s “this one's for John” in Denver again. However this time it’s John Fox who creates the rallying cry and not John Elway. Expect the Broncos to come out on top in Week 10.

 

All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record information provided via email from the Denver Broncos. 

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