The Denver Broncos don’t have a quarterback controversy—yet. Brock Osweiler is going to start in Week 15 on the road against the Pittsburgh Steelers, but Peyton Manning is back to practicing this week and is getting close to a potential return.
Osweiler has started the last four games for the Broncos while Manning has been recovering from a partially-torn plantar fascia. The Broncos are 3-1 in the games that Osweiler has started, but the offense has not been consistently clicking on all cylinders with the young quarterback at the controls.
Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak would not reveal any future plan for the quarterback position. He commented on how the team was splitting reps between Osweiler and Manning this week in practice:
“Brock is taking all the offensive stuff. Peyton has been taking the defensive stuff for us, and again, a lot of individual. We’ve done a lot of individual with him and stuff. His progression from one day to the next has been good.”
What should the plan at quarterback be moving forward? Let’s take a look.
Osweiler’s Last Stand
The game coming up on Sunday against the Steelers might be Osweiler’s final start. If the team loses and Osweiler performs poorly, the Broncos could go back to Manning as their starter for the Monday Night Football game against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 16.
Kubiak would not reveal if Osweiler would keep the starting job with a good performance against the Steelers:
“I'm expecting Brock to continue to play well, but I'm going to stay focused a week at a time. I'm not going to talk about what's going on three weeks from now or two weeks from now. We're committed to playing Pittsburgh.” Kubiak emphasized, “We're going to have to be really good this weekend. We know who our quarterback is this weekend. We know the other one is out, so we're going to stay committed week-to-week. That's not going to change.”
One way Osweiler can look better is to improve his play on third downs. Since Osweiler took over as the starter, the Broncos have a league-high 18 drives that have ended after only three downs. This poor three-and-out percentage needs to improve for multiple reasons.
The offense needs to give the defense enough time to rest. By getting off the field so soon, the Broncos defense is asked to play with less rest. This can result in gaffes from the defensive side of the ball. The Broncos also need to win the time of possession battle. Short drives don’t help them do that, and it puts their entire team in a bad position as the games wear on.
If Osweiler can sustain drives on Sunday, he can play defense against the Steelers by keeping Ben Roethlisberger and the high-powered Steelers offense off the field. With more time of possession, the Broncos defense should be able to perform at an even higher level.
The Broncos won’t be burned again. Before the game against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 10, Manning kept telling the coaching staff that he was okay to play even though he struggled during the week of practice.
Kubiak commented after the game that he should have done a better job of evaluating Manning’s health instead of just merely taking the veteran’s word:
“I’m disappointed in myself. This is on me. I probably should have made a decision not to play him in the game and the reason, I needed to make that, probably, a tough decision there. He practiced Friday, felt good, came out of practice Friday and Saturday, as you all know, his ribs were bothering him a little bit. I probably should have right there said, ‘No, he’s not going to go this week.’ But he’s a competitor. He wanted to play.”
Kubiak isn’t sure of exactly what he needs to see from Manning in order to trust that he’s healthy.
“I don't know. I think I'm probably taking myself back to when we came off the bye week against Green Bay. I know what I was looking at then and probably that's what I'm looking for somehow, someway to see that again—see that he's feeling very well again and moving around well.” Kubiak exclaimed, “I don't know how to describe that to you, but that's probably what I'm looking for the most as we move forward.”
Manning has looked good in the limited practice time open to the media this week. The team needs to monitor him to see how his body responds to extra work. If he continues to look good and checks out medically, the Broncos may be ready to trust that Manning is ready to start again.
In addition to being better on third down, the Broncos need to improve their red-zone efficiency. The Broncos have gone 23-straight drives on offense without scoring a touchdown. In fact, the last touchdown the offense scored was in the first quarter of the Week 13 game against the San Diego Chargers. Since then, it’s been nothing but punts, turnovers or field goals at the end of their drives.
Kubiak has been evaluating the team’s struggles in the red zone.
“I think you have to look at everything. Obviously as coaches, you’re looking at your plan of attack. That’s what you’re looking at. I’m looking execution-wise, I don’t think we had a positive run in the red zone [against the Raiders]. Whether you’re dominating the game or not, if you’re not making the key plays, you keep people in games.”
The Broncos are facing a Steelers team that has scored 30 or more points in each of the last five games. Even with a great defense, the Broncos should enter the game with the belief that field goals won’t get the win. When the team gets near paydirt, they have to execute better and collect touchdowns.
The whole league is going to be watching what Denver does after the Steelers game. The game is going to be tough to come out with a “W,” as the Steelers have an offense that could be a threat for the Broncos defense. In fact, there’s a chance the Steelers offense is going to force the Broncos out of their comfort zone.
The team wants to have a balanced attack, but the game script may unfold where they have to go through the air more than they planned on. Osweiler needs to look sharp if he wants to stay in the starting lineup. The young quarterback needs to be better on third downs and in the red zone to show that he can improve as a starter.
Regardless of the outcome of the Steelers game, Kubiak will make most of his evaluations off what he sees (or doesn’t see) during the week of practice:
“I'm going to evaluate what I'm watching in practice. Every player wants to play all the time. Every player is going to be positive with you all the time.”
Kubiak pondered, “Sometimes as a coach, you've got to be honest with them and say, 'Well, here's what I'm watching. Let's sit down and watch this film. This is what I'm seeing.' I don't think I've ever come across any player—they're going to tell you, 'I'm ready to go. I feel good.' I don't expect that any different from any player.”
What should the plan be? Whatever is best for the Broncos as they head into the postseason with a championship-caliber defense.
All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/statistical information provided via the Broncos media department unless otherwise noted. Advanced stats via ESPN's employees-only database.