The Denver Broncos are coming off the bye week looking for answers. An offense that scored nearly 38 points per game last season is averaging just 25. It’s a small sample size, but the offense hasn’t been particularly efficient or explosive, and the running game has been a disappointment.
Giving quarterback Peyton Manning two weeks to prepare for an opponent should be illegal in all 50 states and Canada, but it likely didn’t take him long to identify the problem with his offense. Manning’s No. 1 wide receiver Demaryius Thomas is producing at levels not seen since before he arrived.
The solution to what is ailing the Broncos is simply to get Thomas back on track, but how to do that is a bit more complicated, even if it doesn't require wholesale changes.
We do know that Thomas is getting plenty of opportunities to produce. According to Pro-Football-Reference.com, Manning has targeted Thomas 27 times through three games. That actually puts Thomas on pace for 144 targets after having 143 in 2012 and 142 in 2013.
While Thomas is dropping a higher percentage of his passes so far this season, it’s not the primary reason he’s struggling. Thomas has dropped three passes, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), which means a bigger issue has been the 11 balls thrown in Thomas’ direction that haven’t been catchable.
Last season, there were few wide receivers better after the catch than Thomas. On average, Thomas gained 7.7 yards after the catch. According to Pro Football Focus, the only wide receiver that was better was Golden Tate at 7.9 yards after the catch on 28 fewer receptions.
Thomas is both seeing fewer catchable balls and not getting as many yards after the catch. There’s a perfectly good explanation for this, but it might not be particularly comforting for Broncos fans.
Defenses have adjusted to the short-passing games and quick screens to Thomas that he has turned into big gains in the past, and the Broncos have responded by attempting more deep passes in his direction unsuccessfully.
In Week 2 against the Kansas City Chiefs, it was clear how defenses were adjusting to Denver’s short-passing game. On 3rd-and-5 in the third quarter, Manning gets the ball out to Thomas quickly hoping he can run for the first down.
Three defenders quickly tackled Thomas, and the Broncos’ drive stalled. The Broncos were up 21-10 at this point, but they weren’t so lucky in Week 3 against the Seattle Seahawks.
Just like the Chiefs, Seattle’s defenders keyed in on Thomas and were able to keep him from gaining yards after the catch on quick passes. Some of it is execution, but the Broncos won’t be able to continue using these same short passing players if defenders can diagnose the plays so quickly.
However, it won’t take large adjustments to make a big difference for Thomas. The Chiefs didn’t respect the deep pass on the quick pass, so it would have only taken a pump fake for Manning to find another wide receiver open for a big gain.
If opposing defenses aren’t respecting the short-passing game to Thomas, the Broncos can use fakes and double moves to take advantage. In so doing, the Broncos will keep defenders from keying in on Thomas and open up the underneath passes once again.
One thing the Broncos tried was giving Thomas more blockers, but they didn’t get away with having two ineligible blockers downfield on what would have been an 80-yard touchdown to Thomas against the Chiefs. Trying to get Thomas more space is a good idea, but if the Broncos can’t execute without breaking the rules and officials are going to call a tight game, it’s not going to do any good.
The other thing the Broncos can do is to hit Thomas on deep passes. Manning has attempted just 9.9 percent of his passes beyond 20 yards, according to Pro Football Focus. That’s down from deep attempt percentages over 12 percent the last two years.
This is despite that fact that Manning reportedly has better zip on his passes this season.
"He's getting stronger," Thomas said, via Troy E. Renck of The Denver Post. "He's getting older, but younger with his arm. He has more power behind his throws. I have had a couple sneak up on me that I dropped. There's a noticeable difference."
Better zip has come at the expense of some deep accuracy—at least through three games. Manning has completed just 45.5 percent of his passes over 20 yards. If that doesn’t improve, it would be the second consecutive year his accuracy percentage on deep passes has declined.
Manning’s ability to get the ball out of his hands quickly may also be to the detriment of the deep-passing game. So far this season, no quarterback is getting the ball out of his hands faster.
Even when Manning has targeted Thomas in the short- and intermediate-passing game, the two haven’t been able to connect. Thomas has drawn several penalties, but he has had trouble gaining separation.
The solution could be for Manning to give Thomas a little more time to get open. The margin of error in the NFL is so small that even a half second could be the difference between a big play and a punt.
Part of the reason Manning has been getting the ball out of his hands so quickly is because of the defenses he has played. The Chiefs and Seahawks have great pass-rushers, but the Broncos' Week 5 opponent doesn’t.
The Arizona Cardinals are 30th in the league in sack percentage and don’t fare much better in advanced metrics. The Broncos should be able to give Manning a little more time to find Thomas to get open deep in the coming weeks, and slight adjustments in the short-passing games could pay big dividends.
While Thomas and the offense are off to a slow start, they can easily get back on track with a few bye week adjustments. As good as Emmanuel Sanders has been, Manning isn’t about to forget about Thomas.
The Broncos also aren’t going to change their offensive identity after four games, and nothing is wrong with Thomas. Defenses have just adjusted to what the Broncos like to do, so it’s time for offensive coordinator Adam Gase and Manning to add a few new wrinkles.
In that way, the early bye week may have come at an opportune time. The best teams in the league are those that are able to adjust and still execute on the fly. Expect a big week from the Broncos offense in Week 5.