Von Miller remains the face of the Denver Broncos. Like most of the team’s best players, he is a wrecking ball on defense. The Broncos make quarterbacks’ lives miserable, either through Miller’s pass rush or the clingy coverage of the “No Fly Zone” secondary.
The concern centers on the offense and whether the Broncos have a quarterback capable of winning a championship. New head coach Vance Joseph inherited a team that won a Super Bowl just two years ago, calling his challenge a “reboot, not a rebuild.” General manager John Elway and the Broncos assembled a star-studded offensive staff — former offensive coordinators Mike McCoy, Bill Musgrave, Jeff Davidson and Geep Chryst — with hopes of caffeinating an attack that was difficult to watch for long stretches last season. Not only did the defending champion Broncos miss the playoffs, but they also were pushed around. In order to avoid a repeat, Elway added beef along the offensive and defensive lines and drafted players with “attitude, who hate to lose.” The road back to the playoffs for the sixth time in seven seasons begins in the trenches.
The Broncos’ offense was forever developing last year but never emerged. Denver had the fourth-most three-and-out drives and ranked 27th in rushing yards and 26th in red-zone touchdowns.
This season figures to be less futile. The optimism begins at quarterback. Trevor Siemian, 8-6 as a first-year starter with 18 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, underwent surgery on his non-throwing left shoulder but missed no offseason workouts. He earned teammates’ respect with toughness — he was named a midseason captain — and for his ability to digest the playbook and apply information quickly. The belief is that the new offense will benefit Paxton Lynch more than Siemian. However, Siemian remains excited about the attack. “There are a lot of completions in this offense,” he says. There will also be more freedom to audible — a Siemian strength — at the line of scrimmage. Lynch impressed teammates with his maturity in the offseason. After what amounted to a near-redshirt season, Lynch believes he can win the starting job in an offense that has deep ball routes and spread formation concepts more similar to what he used in college.
With less zone blocking and more power schemes, the Broncos will look to “impose their will” up front, according to Joseph. C.J. Anderson, a bowling ball with legs who excels in yards after contact, enters a crossroads season. Can he be a bell cow or just a complementary back along with former Utah star Devontae Booker and newly acquired Jamaal Charles? The addition of Charles, a five-time 1,000-yard rusher in Kansas City, gives the Broncos a veteran who can diversify the offense with his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. Booker injured his wrist early in training camp, but there’s a chance he could be ready to go for Week 1.
The entire offseason makeover focused on fortifying the line with first-round left tackle draft pick Garett Bolles and free-agent signings Ron Leary (right guard) and Menelik Watson (right tackle). The new offensive scheme calls for quarterbacks to release the ball quickly, which will help the line and reduce the number of sacks.
Look for a steady diet of bubble screens to receiver Demaryius Thomas and more motion and varied routes from Emmanuel Sanders. Joseph has challenged Thomas to be a star, and that starts with shrinking his alarming number of drops the past two seasons. Sanders has been the Broncos’ most reliable weapon and says the new offense reminds him of “the wide receiver heaven” approach used in 2014. For Sanders and Thomas to realize their potential — say, 1,200-plus yards receiving — they need help in the red zone. That’s where the selection of Michigan tight end Jake Butt comes into play. If he recovers from his second ACL surgery and returns in October, Butt provides size and mismatches inside the 20 that have been lacking since the departures of Julius Thomas and Wes Welker.
The narrative that the Broncos defense failed to live up to expectations makes for great talk radio, but it doesn’t follow the numbers. The Broncos’ defenders rank as the primary reason Denver finished with a winning record and even sniffed the playoffs. The Broncos produced 50 three-and-out drives and held opponents to the fourth-fewest points. However, room for improvement exists under new coordinator Joe Woods.
The Broncos addressed their primary weakness — porous rush defense. They signed free agents Domata Peko, a nose guard who is attempting to reverse the decline he showed last season in Cincinnati, and Zach Kerr, a meaty lineman who can play inside or outside in the Broncos’ scheme. Last season, only defensive end Derek Wolfe stopped the run with any consistency. End DeMarcus Walker, the team’s second-round selection from Florida State, will be counted on as a rotational player who can provide an inside pass rush on third down and more production than Adam Gotsis delivered last year as a rookie.
Woods and Joseph plan to be less predictable on first drives, where the Broncos allowed a stunning 55 points, tied for second worst in the NFL.
Stopping the run remains paramount. The Broncos need a bounce-back season from linebacker Brandon Marshall, a sound tackler in space who was sabotaged by a hamstring injury. If the Broncos force teams into third-and-longs, it plays into their strengths: pass rush and coverage.
Miller is eyeing NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors after losing by one vote to Oakland’s Khalil Mack. Outside linebacker Shane Ray, who brings elite first-step burst, will be counted on as the retired DeMarcus Ware’s primary replacement, although he is likely to miss the first few games of the season after injuring his wrist early in training camp.
The Broncos will attempt to become only the second NFL team to lead the league in pass defense in three consecutive seasons. As safety Darian Stewart put it, “We are ready to be legendary.” Cornerback Chris Harris provides versatility, excelling at slot coverage, and Aqib Talib is aging like Benjamin Button, producing his best season a year ago as he turned film study and tendencies into turnovers. Safety T.J. Ward, a team leader, provides thump in coverage and can play in the box as a linebacker if needed.
Brandon McManus has been a steady contributor, maybe even a life raft for the struggling offense. He has not missed a kick under 40 yards, converted eight from 50 yards or longer and served as a weapon with booming kickoffs the past two seasons. Punter Riley Dixon overcame a slow start to finish with a 45.7-yard average and the best net average (41.3) by a rookie in NFL history. The Broncos desperately need a boost on punt returns. It was so bad at one point that Talib pushed returner Jordan Norwood off the field. The Broncos loaded up on candidates in the draft, led by shifty Isaiah McKenzie and playmakers Carlos Henderson and Brendan Langley.
The Broncos measure themselves in division titles and Super Bowl crowns. Last season’s disappointment cannot be overstated. To rank among the AFC elite again, they must stop the run and establish a ground attack. The former allows their gnarly defense to take more chances. The Broncos are 9-0 over the past two seasons when they score a defensive touchdown. Offensively, the focus will center on the quarterback. Can either Siemian, the slight favorite, or Lynch take more chances while still taking care of the ball? Joseph wants a physical running game to ease the pressure on the quarterbacks.
Joseph will be counted on to help unify a locker room that showed fissures last year because of the offense’s shortcomings, while also stressing a tougher mentality. He’s not afraid to hold players accountable. He inherits several motivated veterans who are still seething over missing the postseason. The Broncos look like a nine-win team, but the players dismiss such pessimism. “I feel like our urgency is there,” Talib says. “In all honesty, I don’t think our urgency was there last year. We were kind of in recovery mode. Our urgency is back.”