Tracing the Denver Broncos' Path to Super Bowl XLVIII

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Tracing the Denver Broncos' Path to Super Bowl XLVIII
Ed Andrieski/Associated Press
Peyton Manning conquered the cold this season.

Making it to the Super Bowl is hard.

In fact, Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning will be making just his third trip to the Super Bowl even though he's made it to the playoffs a dozen times. It will also be cornerback Champ Bailey’s first trip to the big game in his 15-year NFL career. Some players never make it at all.

Teams that make it to the Super Bowl often see their coaches and executives coveted by other teams. To navigate the treacherous waters of a 16-game season and the playoffs, it takes quality people. Adjustments have to be made to even the greatest plans if a team is going to make it to the Super Bowl.

Although the Broncos were pre-season favorites to make it to Super Bowl XLVIII, that doesn’t mean it’s been an easy path to get there. The Broncos have overcome a lot this season to be in this position, including key injuries, a suspension and their head coach having heart-valve replacement surgery.

 

Coaching Changes

The first thing every organization must do each offseason is evaluate its coaching staff. The Broncos opted not to make any changes this year, but they did lose their offensive coordinator to one of the head-coaching positions that are annually available.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Adam Gase's first year as offensive coordinator was a huge success.

When the No. 2 scoring offense loses its offensive coordinator, there’s some reason to be skeptical about the future. That is why when Mike McCoy became the head coach of the San Diego Chargers, the Broncos had a couple decisions to make.

They promoted their 34-year-old quarterbacks coach Adam Gase to the position instead of going outside the organization. With Manning at quarterback, the Broncos opted for the least disruptive path. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it with a foreign part.

Promoting Gase to offensive coordinator left an opening at quarterback coach, which the Broncos promptly filled with fired Oakland Raiders’ offensive coordinator Greg Knapp. The Broncos didn't need to make other staff changes, and they were able to continue with their offseason plans to improve the team.

Offensive Coordinator Comparison
Offensive Coordinator Points Points/Drive Yards Yards/Drive
McCoy's Offense 481 (2) 2.24 (5) 6366 (4) 33.9 (3)
Gase's Offense 606 (1) 2.83 (1) 7317 (1) 36.2 (2)
Difference +125 +0.59 +951 +2.3

Pro-Football-Reference.com

Gase’s promotion proved to be the right move; the Broncos scored 125 more points in 2013 than they did in 2012 and broke the NFL’s single-season scoring record. The Broncos also moved from fifth in points per drive to first.

Under Gase, tight end Julius Thomas had a breakout year, catching 65 passes for 788 yards and 12 touchdowns. The emergence of Thomas made a prolific offense even more dangerous. With Thomas as the fourth weapon in Manning’s arsenal, even good defenses had trouble slowing the Broncos down.

 

Free-Agent Acquisitions

Coaching wasn’t the only reason the offense went crazy.

Slot receiver Wes Welker signed with the Broncos in free agency, giving Manning another great option to go to along with Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker at wide receiver. Welker finished with 73 catches, 10 touchdowns and 778 yards receiving in just 13 games played.

To protect Manning and keep him from taking too many hits, the Broncos also signed right guard Louis Vasquez. Right guard had been a trouble spot for the Broncos in 2012, but Vasquez was even better than expected.

Vasquez was one of the best guards in football in 2013. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) graded Vasquez as the third-best guard overall among qualifiers and the second-best pass-blocker. Vasquez didn’t allow a sack and played every snap in every game this season, including the playoffs.

Due to injuries on the offensive line, Vasquez even kicked out to play right tackle for a game. Vasquez played so well that the Indianapolis Colts had to put outside linebacker Robert Mathis on the other side to get any production out of him.

Free Agent Additions - Offense
Player Position PFF Grade Relevant Stats
Wes Welker WR +8.2 73 Receptions, 778 Yards, 10 Touchdowns
Louis Vasquez RG +33.6 0 Sacks Allowed, 100% Snaps Played
Total 29 Starts +41.8

Pro-Football-Reference.com, ProFootballFocus.com

On defense, the Broncos made several additions through free agency. The signing of Tracy Porter didn’t work out, and Father Time appeared to be catching up with Bailey by the end of the season, so the Broncos needed at least one cornerback.

After slogging through a couple years with the Philadelphia Eagles, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was a low-risk, high-reward signing for the Broncos. Rodgers-Cromartie was always talented, but the Broncos were able to bring the best out of him.

Rodgers-Cromartie had arguably the best season of his career, and he undoubtedly earned his next contract. The only receiver Rodgers-Cromartie really struggled against was Dez Bryant, but very few cornerbacks in the league don’t struggle against a player like Bryant. 

The underrated signing of defensive tackle Terrance Knighton has paid off for the Broncos in a big way. Knighton immediately became a starter at defensive tackle next to Kevin Vickerson and played well, but his contribution since Vickerson went on injured reserve in Week 13 has been particularly notable.

In the 11 games Knighton played alongside Vickerson, ProFootballFocus (subscription required) gave him a grade of 9.8. In the seven games without Vickerson, PFF gave him a grade of 22.1. Knighton started making three good plays per games instead of one.

Free Agent Additions - Defense
Player Position PFF Grade Relevant Stats
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie CB +13.0 3 INT, 14 PD
Terrance Knighton DT +24.1 3 Sacks
Shaun Phillips DE +6.6 10 Sacks, 2 FF
Total 47 Starts +43.7

Pro-Football-Reference.com, ProFootballFocus.com, NFL.com

After the fax fiasco that resulted in pass-rusher Elvis Dumervil being released, the Broncos also signed Shaun Phillips to be the complementary pass-rusher to Von Miller. Unfortunately, the Broncos also needed Phillips to be their primary pass-rusher for the first six games because Miller was suspended for violating the league's substance abuse policy.

When Miller tore his ACL in Week 16 against the Houston Texans, Phillips had to step in as the team’s primary pass-rusher again. Phillips produced 10 sacks during the regular season and snagged two more in the divisional round against his former team.

Phillips has been a season-saving type of signing for the Broncos. While not a game-changing player at this point, he gave the Broncos a legitimate pass-rusher on third down. 

Without the all the players the Broncos brought in through free agency, there is no guarantee they would have made it this far. The only reason no one can perceive the work the Broncos did in free agency as trying to buy a Super Bowl is because they didn’t spend much after already being so close last season.

 

Draft Selections

The Broncos drafted three players in 2013 that have seen significant snaps this season. All three of them have been key role players, but none of them have been the kind of impact rookies that might have altered the team’s Super Bowl path.

However, that doesn’t mean they didn’t help the Broncos. First-round pick Sylvester Williams became a starter at defensive tackle after Vickerson went on injured reserve. Williams will be one of several players that will need to play well in the Super Bowl if the Broncos hope to shutdown running back Marshawn Lynch.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press
Slyvester Williams may need a big game in the Super Bowl to slow down Marshawn Lynch.

Third-round pick Kayvon Webster filled in as the team’s nickel cornerback while Bailey was nursing injuries for most of the season. Webster played decently before having three tough games and then hurting his thumb, but he could see playing time in the Super Bowl if Tony Carter or Quentin Jammer struggle.

Rookie running back Montee Ball is consistently stealing 10 carries or so per game from Knowshon Moreno. Ball has been more efficient on the ground than Moreno, as he averaged 4.7 yards per carry to Moreno’s 4.3.

Ball had issues with fumbling early in the season, and it took some time for him to be trusted again. A fumble in Week 12 reminded the team that the issue may not totally be in his past. That could weigh heavily in the team’s decision to use Ball against Seattle’s great defense.

Still, Ball finished the season sixth on the team in terms of yards from scrimmage and touchdowns. In perspective, 704 yards from scrimmage and four touchdowns is good production from a rookie that wasn't a primary weapon for his offense. Only eight rookies had more yards from scrimmage, and only five of them were running backs.

 

Key Game No. 1: Broncos Beat Kansas City Chiefs, 27-17, in Denver

When the Kansas City Chiefs rolled into Denver in Week 11 to play the Broncos, they were 9-0 and coming off their bye week. The Broncos were 8-1, so the winner of the game would sit atop the AFC West, and the AFC overall, with just six games to play.

The Broncos opened up a 10-point lead in the first quarter, but the Chiefs got it down to a touchdown by halftime. In the third quarter, the Chiefs forced the Broncos to punt three consecutive times, but they couldn’t get anything going offensively.

Game Rewind
The Broncos took advantage of the Chiefs' rookie cornerback.

After the Chiefs also punted three times in a row, the Broncos finally opened up a two-score lead. The Broncos extended the lead to 17 points before the Chiefs finally got something going offensively.

The Broncos never looked back from this win and secured the No. 1 seed in the AFC, but the game was also notable because it was the third example of the offense going cold for a stretch in a game. Had the Chiefs been able to score at all in the third quarter, the result of the game may have been different.

The offense also went cold for a stretch against the Indianapolis Colts, which opened the door for quarterback Andrew Luck to lead the Colts to a win. The Broncos still scored 33 points with a shuffled offensive line, and the game was on the road, so it wasn't a huge concern at the time. 

Going cold for stretches on offense turned out to be a problem for the Broncos in all of their losses. It was something that went mostly unnoticed at the time, but it would certainly be an issue the following week in New England.

 

Key Game No. 2: New England Patriots Beat Broncos, 34-31, in Overtime in New England

In Week 12, the Broncos were up 24-0 on the Patriots at the half, but they didn’t finish the game. Notable was an offense that stalled repeatedly and gave the Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady a chance to get back into the game.

The offense opened the door, but the defense allowed the Patriots to barge through it by allowing four consecutive touchdowns to open the second half. The defense was able to crank it back up and force three punts at the end of regulation and the start of overtime, but it wasn’t as easy for the offense.

Outside of one great drive, the Broncos only had one scoring drive in the second half and overtime. Two interceptions and six punts isn’t a good way to secure a victory.

Manning’s inability to perform in cold weather and against Tom Brady became the top storylines. The bigger storyline, however, was that Denver’s great offense wasn’t invincible and that the defense was beatable.

That didn’t just go for Brady and the Patriots.

The Broncos were vulnerable, but it was a lesson they are probably glad they learned during the regular season. Key games for good teams are often losses because they are able to adjust and learn from their mistakes.

 

Key Game No. 3: San Diego Chargers Beat Broncos, 27-20, in Denver

No one had beaten the Broncos in Denver in almost two seasons before the Chargers did it in Week 15. The most alarming thing was that the Chargers did it with a suspect defense.

The Chargers successfully executed a ball-control offense that limited the Broncos’ opportunities on offense. The Chargers were able to exploit Denver’s defense on third down and in the red zone, forcing the Broncos to keep pace with them and not vice versa.

The Broncos punted on four consecutive drives in the middle of the game, which allowed the Chargers to open up a 14-point lead. A common thread in all of the Broncos losses was the offense going cold at the same time the defense struggled.

It was a valuable lesson for the Broncos to learn at the end of the season. The Broncos weren’t invincible at home; even if they secured the No. 1 seed in the playoffs, they still had to execute better than the other team.

The game plan was also one the Broncos knew they would see again, so they had to be ready. As it turns out, they were.

 

Playoff Performances

As luck would have it, the Broncos had to play the Chargers at home in the playoffs. This time, however, the result would be much different.

The Chargers still tried to keep the ball out of Manning’s hands by running the ball, but the Broncos were better on both offense and defense. The Broncos didn’t allow the second-most efficient offense in terms of points per drive to score until the fourth quarter.

The Broncos turned the ball over twice, but they never punted. There was never a point at which the offense went cold that would enable the Chargers to get back into the game. More importantly, the Broncos scored touchdowns on long drives.

It got close at the end, as the Broncos missed a field goal and the Charges successfully recovered an onside kick, but those were the only reasons. The Broncos knew the Chargers were going to try to control the clock, but they embraced that philosophy offensively and made it hard for the Chargers defensively.

The Broncos proved they could win in the playoffs in a very different way than they won during the regular season. The offense was still great, but it was also more efficient. The Broncos perfected it against the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game.

After punting on their first drive, the Broncos never had to punt against the Patriots. They also had no turnovers, just long drives ending in points. The Patriots never had a chance to get back into the game because the Broncos were too good at controlling the clock.

In total, the Broncos have had just six offensive drives this postseason, but they have averaged more points per drive (3.13) than they did in the regular season (2.83). The lessons learned during the regular season enabled the Broncos to beat the Chargers and Patriots on their way to Super Bowl XLVII. Now, only one more team stands in the way of their ultimate goal.

 

Status Updates

The Broncos enter the Super Bowl as a very healthy team. The only injury of serious concern is that of Moreno, who hurt his ribs in the AFC Championship game.

Moreno was a limited participant in practice on Thursday, per Broncos.com, but it’s worth noting that he did participate. Moreno has plenty of time to let his sore ribs rest between now and the Super Bowl.

Injury Report
Player Position Injury Wednesday Thursday
Fua, Sione DT Calf - Limited Participant
Moreno, Knowshon RB Ribs Limited Participant Limited Participant
Unrein, Mitch DT Knee Did Not Participate Did Not Participate

denverbroncos.com

It’s seems likely that Moreno will be ready to go when the Super Bowl rolls around. If Moreno is limited at all, the Broncos could give Ball more opportunities. Any speculation that Moreno could be limited is premature, however. 

Defensive tackle Mitch Unrein is the only player that missed practice with an injury (kicker Matt Prater was ill). Unrein has been playing about a third of the snaps this season, rotating into the mix in order to keep the other defensive tackles fresh. Unrein’s absence could be an issue for the Broncos against a run-heavy team like the Seahawks.

Malik Jackson would likely see more snaps at defensive tackle if Unrein can’t play, with Jeremy Mincey seeing more time at defensive end as a result. The other option might be heavier-set Sione Fua, who tweaked a calf and was a limited participant in practice Thursday.

The Broncos are currently 2.5-point favorites in Super Bowl XLVIII, according to OddsShark.com.

 

 

Unless otherwise noted, all statistics via Pro-Football-Reference.com. Betting odds provided for informational purposes only. 

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