The Denver Broncos fell one game short of their goal last season, but general manager John Elway attacked the offseason as if his team wasn’t already the best team in the AFC. The offense wasn’t broke, but Elway decided to fix it anyway, and it’s a good thing he did.
Elway elevated running back Montee Ball to the starting job by not bringing in competition and signed wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders to replace the departed Eric Decker. On Saturday night against the Houston Texans in the dress rehearsal for the regular season, Ball and Sanders proved that they are ready to take Denver’s offense to the next level.
For opposing defenses, the thought of Denver’s offense being even better in 2014 than it was in 2013 is horrifying. It’s hard enough for a defense to cover wide receiver Demaryius Thomas and tight end Julius Thomas, but it isn’t impossible. With two more weapons, Denver’s offense could be unstoppable if they all stay healthy.
Sanders and Ball bring a level of explosiveness that the players they replaced simply didn’t possess. Decker and running back Knowshon Moreno were very productive players for the Broncos, but mostly because off the talent around them and by the sheer quantity of their opportunities.
Quarterback Peyton Manning will always take what opponents give him, so playing time is often the only key to production. Playing with Manning is a sure-fire way to maximize just about any offensive player’s production provided he can get on the field.
It was Ball’s first preseason action after having an appendectomy just 19 days ago, and he touched the ball eight times on the opening drive of the game. Ball ran the ball four times for 13 yards and caught four passes for 21 yards.
Those aren’t great averages on a per-carry or per-reception basis, but it was clear the Broncos were trying to make up for lost time. Noteworthy was Ball’s work in the passing game, as the departed Moreno was one of Manning’s safety valves in that area.
Manning’s other safety valve is and was Wes Welker, but head coach John Fox confirmed after the game that Welker suffered a concussion after taking a hit from Houston Texans safety D.J. Swearinger at the end of the first half. It’s Welker’s third concussion in the last nine months, but he didn't seem concerned that this could happen again.
"You make yourself solid and get in the the best shape you can be," Welker said via Troy E. Renck of The Denver Post prior to training camp. "When I am sound and strong, it gives me that courage that I can take hits, and can go across the middle. But there are some things you can't avoid. It's kind of the game."
Welker could miss weeks or months with another concussion, and his future in the league could be in jeopardy. Maybe it’s a mild concussion and he’ll be able to return soon, but his history alone suggests the Broncos can no longer rely on him.
Even before the concussion, there are signs that Welker is in decline. Welker’s drop rate has steadily increased since 2007, and he’s catching a smaller and smaller percentage of the balls thrown his way according to Pro Football Focus data (subscription required).
Without Welker, the pressure will be on Ball and Sanders to carry even more of the offensive load, and they seem up to the challenge. Wide receivers Andre Caldwell and rookie second-round pick Cody Latimer will also contribute, but Caldwell is a journeyman and Latimer just a rookie.
The Broncos may not miss Welker that much if Sanders can consistently do the things he did against the Texans. Like Ball, it was Sanders’ first action of the preseason, and the Broncos made it a point to get him work.
Sanders finished with a team-high five receptions for 128 yards and two touchdowns. On the first touchdown, Sanders simply ran past the defense and Manning hit him in stride. Decker has good speed but would have had a tough time making that kind of play.
On the second touchdown grab, Sanders snatched Manning’s throw out of the air on a dive into the end zone. It was an impressive catch on the play after Welker left the game. It’s as if Manning and the Broncos were making a statement that they can beat the defense in many different ways—with or without a player like Welker. Having Welker helps the offense, no doubt, but the addition of Sanders and maturation of Ball have reduced his importance.
Barring a catastrophic injury to Manning or multiple offensive weapons, just about everyone expects the Broncos to have a great offense in 2014. It seems insane to think that Denver’s offense could be even better than 2013, but that now seems like a possibility.
A tough schedule and an improved defense may keep the numbers down compared to last year, but offensive numbers aren’t always indicative of the quality of the offense. The San Diego Chargers were probably the second-best offense in the league last year, but they did it in a very different way than the Broncos.
The emphasis on defensive contact could open the door for even bigger numbers, but even if they don’t, Denver’s offense could be even better than last year. Either way, expect Sanders and Ball to be key contributors.