Denver Broncos

Broncos have to rediscover ground game to save offense

18 September 2016: Denver Broncos running back C.J. Anderson (22) runs with the ball. The Denver Broncos defeated the Indianapolis Colts by a score of 34 to 20 at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Denver, CO. (Photo by Rich Gabrielson/Icon Sportswire)
Rich Gabrielson/Icon Sportswire

It would be easy to write off this Denver Broncos outing considering the sideline and scheduling circumstances. Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak being gone removed the quintessential figure for the defending champions’ offensive approach, and this short-rest tilt came on the road against a desperate Chargers team.

But said team possessed a defense depleted by injuries, and one that was a bottom-tier unit entering Week 6, and the Chargers controlled the Broncos’ offense nearly throughout.

Denver does not have enough offensive weapons and over the past two games has seen its quarterback arrangement function like many expected it to. The Broncos’ offensive line could not get out of its own way, officially, Thursday night. But the Chargers’ front seven had a lot to do with the numerous whistles.

An offensive line constructed of buy-low free agents and mid- or late-round draft picks played as such which hindered a befuddled Broncos offense.

With a defense that performed well but only after giving up points early — Denver now leads the league in opening-drive points ceded with 31 — the Broncos may need to supply more offense than they did last season.

Because a defense formerly categorized as the league’s unquestioned alpha stoppage force can’t pull off the kind of rescues it did last season if the Broncos aren’t within striking distance, which they haven’t in the past two games.

The stylistically disparate offenses led by a decaying Peyton Manning last season may have been painful for Broncos fans to observe, given the artistry the previous years’ units crafted, but they did enough to keep games close to where defensive heroics could pick up saves. Manning mostly put the team in position to eke out wins, and last season’s defense was better than this one from a personnel standpoint.

Thursday saw the Chargers keep the Broncos’ defense on the field thanks to confusing Siemian and his linemen with well-designed games up front and continually drawing drive-defining holding penalties. Although, those flags didn’t look to have arrested any momentum since Siemian spent the night checking down to inconsequential targets before Bolts second- and third-level defenders halted them well shy of first-down markers.

The Broncos’ offensive line drew eight of the team’s 12 penalties, and every blocker contributed to the cause. Donald Stephenson was the only one not to be whistled for holding, but he made up for it with a quality night of rule-breaking in other areas. Officials whistled the right tackle for two false starts and an unnecessary-roughness violation that brought some of the best roughness you’ll see.

They failed to open holes for C.J. Anderson, and when they did, those plays were mostly negated — highlighted by Anderson’s dynamic catch-and-run touchdown being wiped out by a Russell Okung hold/tackle on Kyle Emanuel. Other than a three-play Devontae Booker sequence in the third quarter, San Diego’s defense controlled the game when it wasn’t in prevent.

Siemian will have a crucial preparation stretch as Brock Osweiler returns to town in a strange starting matchup featuring last season’s Nos. 2-3 quarterbacks.

He made a couple of nice throws when the Chargers shifted into prevent-type looks late but played like many thought he would coming into the season based on his background. The second-year passer now must hold off Paxton Lynch, who looked just as bad against the Falcons but doesn’t have to face questions about his talent like the current starter does, and prove Thursday night was the aberration instead of an ominous sign.

How the Chargers played Siemian reminded of what happened to Kyle Orton when defenses figured out he could not hurt them deep. Orton guided the Broncos to a 6-0 start in 2009 but found drives much harder to orchestrate during the second half of that season after defenses began squatting on routes. Denver slunk to an 8-8 record and, while that began a sequence to set up arrivals of Manning and Von Miller, the ensuing two years made for some of the franchise’s worst football in a generation.

So, to keep Siemian from suffering this fate and requiring Kubiak to hand over the reins to Lynch early, the Broncos’ line needs to generate space for Anderson and Booker.

Orton had worse running backs than Siemian does and had to attempt to win more games on his own. Siemian is not going to be able to do that after teams continue to gain ground on him through film study, so the Matt Paradis-led line has to perform better to diversify an offense that still doesn’t have a third receiving option.

It’s still Emmanuel Sanders, Demaryius Thomas and a spate of non-threatening auxiliary weaponry.

Denver didn’t have much of a No. 3 last year, but Owen Daniels was more reliable than the current supporting cast is. Denver did not address this in the offseason and can’t continue to rely on Sanders and Thomas just winning matchups. Siemian doesn’t have talent to find them constantly without the benefit of a complementary ground game on which Kubiak’s attacks are built.

Because after two nice games to start the season — when Denver rushed for 148 and 134 yards against the Panthers and Colts, respectively — it’s gone 52, 89, 84 and 84. And Thursday’s lack of a ground component allowed Philip Rivers to stay on the field for most of the first half and make his counterpart play from behind. The second-half rushing production largely didn’t matter as a result since the Bolts were pretty much willing to concede yards.

Ty Sambrailo’s health and performance thus far in the NFL has deprived the Broncos’ front of depth, so it’s on the starting five to figure this out. Stephenson’s return did not supply the tonic fans had hoped. So, the Broncos do not have a lot of options except for hoping Kubiak’s return and additional rest and practice can help the current quintet play better.

As viewers saw Thursday, the Broncos can’t be a one-dimensional offense and maintain their status atop the league.

If the AFC West kingpins cannot rediscover their rushing success, the door is open for a Raiders or Chiefs ascent.

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