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Julius Thomas' Return Should Open Up Denver Broncos Offense

Cecil Lammey@@cecillammeyContributor IDecember 10, 2014

November 9, 2014; Oakland, CA, USA; Denver Broncos tight end Julius Thomas (80) celebrates after scoring a touchdown during the third quarter against the Oakland Raiders at O.co Coliseum. The Broncos defeated the Raiders 41-17. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Broncos have been playing without tight end Julius Thomas since he suffered an ankle injury in the loss against the St. Louis Rams in Week 11. The offense has undergone a philosophical change since that contest.

They have gone from a pass-happy team that put up “Star Wars” numbers through the air into a ground-and-pound team that wins with the running game.

The result of the shift is a 3-0 record against tough defenses in the Miami Dolphins, Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills. With running back C.J. Anderson leading the way, the Broncos are showing opponents they are much more than a one-dimensional team.

Thomas was originally thought to have a minor ankle injury, but now that doesn’t seem to be the case. His history of ankle problems has led the team to be careful with Thomas as he returns from this latest injury.

He had an ankle injury during his rookie season of 2011 that required surgery, and Thomas ended up missing most of his first two years in the league because of it. The Broncos are smart to ease Thomas back into the lineup.

Thomas was actually active for the game against the Buffalo Bills in Week 14, but you couldn’t tell from looking at the box score. He did not play a snap against the Bills even though he was suited up and cleared to play. Instead, Thomas chilled out on the sidelines while his team once again ran the ball to win.

After the game, Broncos head coach John Fox addressed Thomas’ playing status.

“I think he got a week better. He’s healing, he was close. We went with having him active but not the full intention of playing him. If we needed him we could have [played him]. I think he’s taken a step in the right direction and we’re going to need him moving forward.”

On Monday, Fox provided no further clues as to why Thomas suited up but didn’t play against the Bills.

“Just like every week, we have 53 men on the roster and we have to pick 46 to be active for the game. You have to sign documents. There is all kind of paperwork. There are guys who work out before games to see how they look and how they feel. We picked him as one of the 46.”

Julius Thomas’ return should open up the Denver Broncos offense. Here are a few ways they will utilize their talented tight end.

In-Line

Thomas will line up in a three-point stance from time to time. He’s not a devastating blocker, but instead will run routes from this position. By lining up next to a tackle with his hand on the ground, Thomas gives the illusion of a running formation. He can take defenses by surprise after the snap and quickly get to the linebacker level of the defense.

On this play in Week 1 against the Indianapolis Colts, the Broncos are showing a run-heavy formation with two tight ends lined up on the right side. As the ball is snapped, Thomas runs up and out, dragging a linebacker behind him. Once he secures the pass, Thomas is able to turn upfield quickly and score from 35 yards away.

NFL.com - Game Rewind

This play highlights another Thomas touchdown against the Colts. This time, Thomas is lined up close to left tackle Ryan Clady even though he’s not truly in line and he’s in a two-point stance. He runs a crossing route to the middle of the end zone, and Manning hits him easily for six points.

NFL.com - Game Rewind

Slot Receiver

Once in a while Thomas lines up as a slot receiver for the Broncos. This helps to create a mismatch, and Thomas will usually see a safety or large cornerback lined up opposite him when he’s in the slot. Thomas is tough for linebackers to cover because he’s too fast, but he’s also tough for safeties/cornerbacks to cover because of his speed and athleticism.

In the picture below we see Thomas lined up in the slot on the right side of the formation. He quickly runs to the pylon on an out route, and Manning zips the ball into his hands for the score.

NFL.com - Game Rewind

The Broncos can use Thomas like a chess piece and change the way a defense is playing them merely by moving Thomas around.

Out Wide

Thomas is incredibly athletic for a big man, and the Broncos will split him out wide in certain formations. While many tight ends can’t run “go” routes effectively, Thomas can. Even with a cushion, linebackers find it difficult to keep up with Thomas on a downfield route. He has enough speed to gain separation once he forces a defender to turn his hips and pursue in coverage.

That’s what happened on this play against the Colts. Thomas is given a 10-yard cushion, but that doesn’t stop him from hauling in a pass that went for over 30 yards.

NFL.com - Game Rewind

Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas doesn’t see any changes in the way defenses play him now that Julius Thomas has missed time.

“I can’t even really tell because we’ve still got weapons. We’ve got [RB] C.J. [Anderson] running the ball, we’ve got [WR] Emmanuel [Sanders] on the other side; you’ve still got [WR] Wes [Welker] in the slot. It’s really hard to tell.”

Teams are left defenseless to the power of Julius Thomas when the Broncos mix up the way he’s being used.

Summary

The Broncos need Julius Thomas back as they go into the postseason. Thomas is one of the most dangerous tight ends in the league because of his versatility.

He creates mismatches every time he’s on the field. The Broncos can line him up in line, at the slot or even split out wide depending on the mismatch they want.

The team has wisely been cautious with Thomas as he deals with this ankle injury. Instead of rushing him back, they’ve taken the time to allow his ankle to properly heal.

With a healthy Thomas, the Broncos can make another deep postseason run in 2014.

All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/statistical information provided via email from the Denver Broncos unless otherwise noted. Contract and salary-cap information provided by Spotrac.com. Transaction history provided by ProSportsTransactions.com.

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