What a Balanced Approach Means for the Denver Broncos' Offense
Last year, the Denver Broncos offense was nothing short of a juggernaut.
According to our Net Expected Points (NEP) metrics, they boasted one of the best offensive units ever.
In terms of Adjusted NEP per play, which accounts for schedule strength, the Broncos added 0.20 points per play, sixth-best since 2000. But the offense was far from flawless, and its modest rushing ability limited the true upside of the 2013 Broncos team.
It sure feels like the Broncos have been more dedicated to the run in 2014, but has it really helped the offense? And has it been more efficient than the 2013 version of the Broncos?
Let's find out.
Tale of Two Teams
As I just mentioned, the Broncos had the top offense in the league and one of the best we've ever seen in the past decade and a half or so. Clearly the top passing offense, the Broncos' struggles running the ball weren't just an illusion.
Here are their Adjusted NEP per play scores and ranks from the past two seasons.
|NEP||Adj NEP per Play||Adj Pass NEP per Play||Adj Rush NEP per Play|
|2013||0.20 (1)||0.36 (1)||0.00 (18)|
|2014||0.16 (2)||0.28 (2)||0.06 (4)|
The passing numbers and overall numbers are down slightly as a result, but their rushing has taken a gigantic leap forward, and they have the fourth-best per-play rushing attack in the league. Considering they were below average - 18th - in 2013, this is a drastically different team.
But despite being more efficient, have they really been more reliant on the run than the pass?
Last year, the Broncos concluded the season with 1,157 offensive plays. Of those, 696 were passes, third-most in the NFL. But in terms of ratio, the team wasn't as pass-heavy as that number seems. Calling 1.51 passes for every rush, the Broncos ranked 13th in pass-to-run ratio.
This year, that number is 1.46, ranking 14th. So, really, they aren't running the ball that much more often. They're just much more efficient, and they're running fewer plays as a result.
Through Week 14, the Broncos have run 867 plays, putting them on pace for 1,067 on the year, 90 fewer than they ran last season.
But how have they gotten to that point? They ran more plays with a lead last year than this year. Of their 1,157 snaps last year, 691 (59.7%) came with a lead, and 370 of those (53.5%) were passes. This year, 437 plays were run with a lead (50.4%), and 220 (50.3%) were passes.
So, they ran more plays while ahead but passed more with a lead than they are doing this year.
Leading or Trailing
Perhaps most indicative of their new approach is their reliance on the run in close games. Here's a breakdown of their attempts when trailing, tied, ahead, or playing in a seven- or three-point game (either leading or trailing).
All splits were found using ProFootballReference.com's Game Play Finder.
They throw just as much when they're trailing than they did last year and have actually ran more plays while trailing this year than they did in the full 2013 season. But other than that, they have been more dedicated to the run when the game is close -- either tied or within seven points.
More important yet, the Broncos aren't abandoning the run early and rushing only with a lead.
Denver is willing to run the ball more in three of four quarters, but their quarter splits indicate that they aren't afraid to open up the pass when it's required.
In the first quarter in 2014, the team passes 1.46 times per every rush, the same as their season-long mark. In 2013, they called 1.65 passes per every rush, up from their 1.51 average on the year. So, the team begins each game more dedicated to the run than they did last year.
The second quarter still sees the highest passes, which is understandable because of the attempt to put points on the board before the half.
Their fourth-quarter numbers, though, are healthier compared to they were last year. The drop is less drastic than in 2013.
The dedication to the run hasn't affected the passing offense negatively. Sure, there's a small drop, but it is, after all, still the second-best unit in all of football. Whether the rushing attack is more efficient because it's less of a grind-the-clock method and more of a legitimate part of the offense or whether running it early is making it more efficient isn't the point.
What's important is that the Broncos are running it earlier, more often, and more efficiently than they did last season, which has allowed them to reduce the number of their plays run and control games in a different way than the record-setting unit of 2013 controlled them.
Whether this helps them take home a Super Bowl ring or not remains to be seen, of course, but this Broncos team isn't the same as it was last year.
And that might make all the difference.