DENVER — Outside of Josh McDaniels’ forgettable tenure with the Broncos from 2009-10, the Patriots pretty much knew what to expect when they traveled to Denver from a scheme and playcalling standpoint since Mike Shanahan arrived in 1995.
It was Shanahan with Gary Kubiak running his offense, and a parade of different defensive coordinators. Then it was John Fox with Adam Gase and Jack Del Rio. Then Kubiak returned with trusted hand Rick Dennison, and veteran defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.
Now, though with first-year head coach Vance Joseph, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what the Broncos are, and that either makes them very dangerous, or out of their depth.
Considering they’re 3-5 to this point, we’re going with the latter.
Not only is Joseph, 45, running a team for the first time, he was only a coordinator for one season last year in Miami. He hired former Chargers coach Mike McCoy to run his offense, but it at least takes half a season for the changes to settle down — and that’s before you get to the lack of consistency (or good play) the Broncos have gotten out of the quarterback position.
On defense, the Broncos have gone from an encyclopedia of defensive strategies (Phillips), to a first-year coordinator in Joe Woods. While Woods has a sterling reputation as a long-time defensive backs coach, running a defense is entirely different.
Throw in that Joseph hired Brock Olivo, who is perhaps best known for running a failed bid for the House of Representatives in Missouri in 2008, to be his special teams coordinator. Olivo is another first-year coordinator.
Now, there are certainly some widely respected veteran coaches on the staff — Bill Kollar (defensive line), Jeff Davidson (offensive line), Eric Studesville (running backs), Reggie Herring (inside linebackers), Fred Pagac (outside linebackers) — but Joseph left himself little margin for error when he hired so green in some power positions on his staff.
This Broncos team doesn’t have time to learn along the way with their coordinators, and there were bound to be some growing pains as a result. But at some point, all that stuff settles down and the group begins to improve. The question for these Broncos is whether or not it’s too late for that.
Here is the scouting report on the Denver Broncos (3-5), gleaned through film study and background discussions with two AFC personnel executives (Note: we are going to skim their offense, because it isn’t good and not a concern in this game):
All things being equal, McCoy would like run his same Chargers scheme that featured multiple tight ends and would spread the field when necessary. He can’t do that with the Broncos because of personnel limitations. So he’s just trying his best to run whatever works best for that game’s starting quarterback. Ideally, they want to be run-first and often, but the offensive line has not blocked well enough. It’s a really remedial passing offense at this point. ... Broncos are 18th in total yards (327.3), 14th in rushing (112.4), 19th in passing (214.9), tied for 22nd in points (18.8) and 20th in third-down conversions.
Brock Osweiler is back being the starter and what he’s shown is that he’s only capable of playing in Kubiak’s QB-friendly system. He processes the game too slow for others, like the one he’s running. Trevor Siemian is the backup Paxton Lynch is healthy but not deemed ready to play.
Demaryius Thomas (71 targets) is uber talented but as soft as bathroom tissue. Teams that play him physical can get him to shut it down early. Most dangerous on screens if he has room to get up to speed.
Emmanuel Sanders (47 targets) has really fallen off this season due to QB issues and chronic injury problems.
No other receiver has more than nine targets.
Former Patriot A.J. Derby (30 targets) is a solid two-way tight end and they’ll look for him.
Virgil Green (12 targets) has been a major disappointment.
C.J. Anderson is supposedly healthy but he looks slower than ever and the line isn’t opening enough holes.
Jamaal Charles, the former Chief, has been OK since coming over the rival, but he’s far from the dominating player he once was.
Devontae Booker is the third-down back and has speed to burn. Broncos would be smart to try to get him matched up with the Patriots’ linebackers.
FB Andy Jankovich is a good player but has only four touches all season.
LT Garrett Boles has bright future with rare athletic ability, but he’s very green.
LG Max Garcia has been awful this season. Not overly athletic and plodding.
C Matt Paradis has been battling injuries, but when he’s healthy, he’s one of the best in the league.
RG Ronald Leary is a bit past his prime but is a powerful run blocker when he’s right.
RT is a bit up in the air after the Broncos had to put Melenik Watson on injured reserve. Donald Stephenson and Allen Barbre are the best options of a bad group.
Woods uses a basic 3-4 defense on running downs, and a traditional nickel or dime with some walk-around players in passing situations. They’ll do a lot of blitzing, and almost always operate out of single high safety. A talented group is still up in the stats despite a rough stretch: second in total defense (280.8) fifth in rushing (88.4), fourth in passing (192.4), tied for 25th in points and first in third-down percentage (24.8).
RE Adam Gostis: Big, strong and athletic player who is still learning to play the position.
NT Domata Peko: The Former long-time Bengal who still has a little bit left in the tank, but he has really gone downhill standing up against double teams.
LE Derek Wolfe: Very good two-way end who is the only lineman that will stay on the field in passing situations.
Rush Shelby Harris: An up-and-comer who can being something in the rush game right, and is learning to defend the run. A player to watch in the future.
ROLB Shane Ray: Speedy, finesse player who isn’t quite polished in his pass-rush moves and doesn’t play the run well at all.
ILB Zaire Anderson: Undersized, try-hard middle linebacker but needs the defensive line to keep blockers off him or he’s a non-factor against the run and they struggle.
ILB Brandon Marshall: Wily veteran who no longer has the speed to make plays from sideline and really struggles in coverage vs. tight ends.
LOLB Von Miller: The best edge pass rusher in the game (eight sacks). Unbelievable burst and bend off the end. Strikes with violence. Tough if you try to run at him as well.
Rush LB Shaq Barrett: Second on team with three sacks. Can fly around the field.
RCB Chris Harris Jr.: Knee injury derailed his ascension as one of the game’s top cornerbacks, but he’s still very good and isn’t afraid to get physical. Kicks inside in sub packages.
FS Justin Simmons: Plays the role of middle of the field safety very well as a failsafe.
SS Darian Stewart: Starting to get on the downside of his career, especially in coverage. Still very good at playing downhill against the run.
LCB Aqib Talib: Seems to have put on a little weight and seems even more disinterested at times. However, in big games, he’s excellent. Not as physical and grabby as he once was.
Nickel Bradley Roby: Excellent physical skills and compete level. Would be a No. 1 on a lot of NFL teams.
Nickel LB Will Parks: The safety will play linebacker with Marshall in sub. Big-time coverage and awareness issues. A player to target.
Kicker Brandon McManus has been average this season (13 of 18 this season). Punter Riley Dixon hasn’t been as good as his outstanding rookie season, but he’s still very good. … Devontae Booker is the kick returner and the Broncos rank fifth in return average (24.9). … Isaiah McKenzie has electric punt return potential.
PATRIOTS OFFENSIVE GAMEPLAN POINTS
Run the ball: Whenever the Patriots have trouble in Denver, it’s almost always because the Broncos can cover with seven or eight players because they’re not afraid of the Patriots’ running game. New England needs to build off the Chargers game and run to keep the Broncos’ pass rush at bay.
It’s a TE/RB pass game: The Broncos’ linebackers and safeties can’t cover so there will be opportunities all night if Tom Brady just stays with the short stuff and lets those players make plays.
Give LaAdrian Waddle help: He, along with many RTs, can’t block Von Miller one-on-one, so don’t let him. That’s the quickest way to injure your QB and ruin the season.
PATRIOTS DEFENSIVE GAMEPLAN POINTS
Put everything you have into the run: The Broncos can’t win this game without a viable running game. It’s time, after a bye week, for Alan Branch to have a dominating game.
Let Brock hang himself: Don’t let him break the pocket and pick up cheap yards and confidence with scrambles. Make him throw 40 times from the pocket to beat you. He can’t do it.
Watch the TEs in the red zone: Patriots have been pretty poor against tight ends down deep, and the Broncos have a couple that can catch the ball. Don’t get overzealous. We’re looking at you, Elandon Roberts.
Line: Patriots by 7. O/U: 40. Season: 6-2, 3-5 ATS.
I don’t like this place, and neither do the Patriots. I have a hard time seeing the Patriots’ offense totally going off, so I expect this to be close for a while.
Patriots 23, Broncos 17.