Understanding the Denver Broncos’ Passing Game

Due to time constraints these passes only come from the 1st half of the Denver Bronco’s week 1 game against the Jacksonville Jaguars and come with numerous typos.

Their were a few plays when the camera angles make it impossible to tell exactly which routes are being run.  So, I have either left those plays out or have “?” next to the unidentifiable routes.

Also, if anyone was wondering how I am putting these together.  I purchased NFL Game Rewind, which I highly recommend, and then take screen shots which I edit with Paint.

Without further ado here are breakdowns of 14/20 passes from the 1st Quarter of last weeks game.

Understanding the Denver Broncos’ Passing Game

Passes from the 1st half of the Denver Broncos Jacksonville Jaguars Game

all play-by-play data from http://www.nfl.com


1.) 1-10-Den-21 (14:56) 8-K.Orton pass short left to 89-D.Graham to DEN 49 for 28 yards (56-J.Durant).

In this first play Brandon Lloyd starts split out wide left, Jabar Gaffney is split wide right, Daniel Graham is aligned next to the offensive line, Spencer Larsen is the fullback, and Knowshon Moreno is the tailback.

Before the play stars Spencer Larsen is sent in motion from the left of the formation to the right.  This motion further reinforces the strong side of the formation.  The right side of the formation now has both the tight end and the fullback.  The right outside linebacker points to Larsen as Larsen motions right.  The linebacker is most likely doing this for two reasons.   First, he needs to make sure that Larsen is accounted for on the strong side in the running game so that the Broncos cannot just run off-tackle right for an easy gain.  Second, as the linebacker is about to blitz someone needs to be able to account for Larsen in the passing game.  The linebacker pointing out the motion shows that the defense’s primary concern is now a run to the strong side (the right side) of the formation.

However, as we are about to see the Broncos are looking to abuse this anticipating of the defense.  The blue circle is where Kyle Orton will look as soon as he has made the hand-off.  The black lines are the routes that receivers will run.

Here we see Kyle Orton making the play action hand-off.  Notice that Moreno is heading towards the strong side of the formation.  This would seem to validate the fear of strong side run.  All the linebackers are looking at Moreno so that they can stop the run and one of the safeties has even dropped down to assist with run support.

The corner backs seem to be matched up in man coverage with the two receivers.  The corner back aligned over Lloyd is following Lloyd down-field and the corner back over Gaffney is following Gaffney across the field towards the strong side of the formation.  The safety who did not drop down to provide run support is now scrambling to give deep help to the corner back aligned over Lloyd.

The Broncos have set their trap and the Jaguars have taken the bait.  The entire defense is either dropping deep to cover the receivers or is keyed on Moreno as he fakes the strong side run.  Meanwhile Daniel Graham sneaks into the weak side flat zone.

Their are no defenders in the blue circle where Graham is headed.  The linebackers are still keyed on Moreno and the weak side corner back is being pulled across the field by Gaffney’s deep crossing route.

Kyle Orton pulls the trigger.  Orton’s pass leads Graham into the area that has been vacated of all defenders by the combination of the play action and the other receivers routes.

Graham turns his shoulders and heads up the field the only defender who can get a good angle on him is about 14-15 yards away.

The Jacksonville defense makes the tackle after a Graham makes a solid gain of 28 yards.

2.) 1-10-Jac-27 (12:31) DB15 at WR (Shotgun) 8-K.Orton pass short left to 89-D.Graham to JAX 19 for 8 yards (21-D.Cox).

The offense has come out in what at first appears to be a typical personnel package.  It seems as if they are in a 3 WR, TE, and a HB personnel package.  However, instead of splitting a receiver out wide to the right they have lined up Tim Tebow wide right.

I cannot identify Eddie Royal’s route, but it appears that the Broncos are running an All Curls passing concept.  The idea behind this concept is to stretch the defense horizontally.  The quarterback will choose one side of the formation and read the alley between two of the receivers (this is the blue circle on the top of the picture).  In a zone defense (as the Jaguar’s defense turns out to be in) the quarterback will read the corner back and linebacker and then just through the ball where the defenders are not.

Both the linebacker and the corner back are in circled in red.  The passing alley is still circled in blue.  The yellow line is the announcer beginning to circle Tebow.

At the snap the linebacker blitzes (the blue arrow coming from his circle) and the corner back bails deep (the red arrow point deep down the field).  You can also tell that Orton is already eying the left side of the formation.

It would seem that both of Orton’s receivers will be open.

Orton follows a typical rule for a quarterback, throw into the blitz.  The a defensive player cannot both blitz and cover so their should be an empty area right behind the blitzing linebacker.

Orton throws a dart to Graham into the empty zone right behind the blitzing linebacker.

Graham quickly turns and heads upfield.

He is brought down after an 8 yard gain.

3.) 3-11-Jac-28 (10:58) (Shotgun) 8-K.Orton sacked at JAX 36 for -8 yards (74-A.Kampman, 52-Da.Smith).

This play did not turn out so well for the Broncos.  This is the 1st sack of the game following Beadles holding penalty on 3rd and 1.  The red arrows are what the Broncos are expecting a double-a-gap blitz from two linebackers between the two defensive tackles.  This kind of look was the signatures of the Eagles defense under Jim Johnson and the Giants defense under Steve Spagnulo.

The Broncos decided to use a simple man-on-man pass blocking scheme.  Daniel Graham would block the strong side defensive end.  The right tackle would block the strong side defensive tackle.  The right guard would block the strong side blitzing linebacker.  The center would block the weak side blitzing linebacker.  The left guard would block the weak side defensive tackle. The left tackle would block the weak side defensive end.  Everyone would be accounted for.

However, the Jaguars did not use a double A-Gap blitz.

Instead this is what the Jaguars did (you might need to enlarge the picture, just click on it, to better see my arrows in paint).

The Jaguars only brought one of the two linebackers and Aaron Kampman ran a stunt right into the left A-Gap.  The stunt is what gave the Broncos problems.

Once Kampman began his stunt the left tackle and left guard double teamed the weak side defensive tackle.  When the linebacker bailed the right guard and the right tackle double teamed the strong side defensive tackle.  This left no one to block Kampman.

Here you can see Kampman finishing his stunt and the right guard realizing what has happened.  But it is too late.

Kampman sacks Kyle Orton and ends the drive.

4.) 1-10-Den-7 (7:23) 8-K.Orton pass incomplete short left to 10-J.Gaffney.

This pass play is a simple concept and it works just fine, but for whatever reason Kyle Orton cannot make the throw.  This is pretty worrying because the deep-out is one of the most important routes in an NFL offense and is the standard by which arm strength is measured.

The play is play action pass with an 8 man protection.  Orton has to reads either the receiver on the deep-out or the other receiver on a route I couldn’t determine (typically this route is a skinny post).  If neither route is open he should check down to the tailback.

Notice that before the play Gaffney is motioned across the formation this is so that he ends up matched up against a linebacker if the defense is in man coverage and can’t pass off coverage responsibilities.  Josh McDaniels frequently used this with Brandon Marshall.

At the snap of the ball the defensive backs are playing loose and are not bumping the receivers at the line of scrimmage.  This eventually allows Gaffney to cut under his defender.

The linebackers are frozen looking into the back field by the play action.  This means that none of them can get under Kyle Orton’s pass to either receiver.

Orton sees that the passing lane to the left is empty (the blue circle at the top of the diagram).  The linebackers are still looking at the tailback and the safety on that side of the field dropped down for run support.  Orton correctly decides to throw the ball to Gaffney.  However, his throw is rushed by the defender circled in red who is bearing down on him.

Gaffney has successfully got under his defender and no defender can jump under the pass.

But, Orton’s pass falls short.

5.) 2-10-Den-7 (7:18) (Shotgun) 8-K.Orton pass short left to 84-B.Lloyd to DEN 20 for 13 yards (21-D.Cox).

This time the Broncos run a simple pass concept from a simple personnel package.  This is probably the Broncos most common personnel package, 3 WRs, 1 TE, 1 RB.  In this case the Broncos are keeping the tailback in to block and sending both sets of receivers out in slant/flat combos.

This passing concept is prevalent throughout any level of football.  This concept was one of the staples of Bill Walsh’s famed west coast offense.  Like the shallow cross and mesh concepts this concept is meant to get the ball to your playmaker with space for him to run.

Their isn’t really much to be said here.  The innermost receivers will run flat or shoot routes.  This means that the receivers aim to run to  about the sideline about 2-3 yards past the line of scrimmage.  The outside receivers will run slant routes; they will upfield for 2-3 steps and then head to the opposite pylon at about a 45 degree angle.

The shoot and flat routes cause a serious problem for zone defenses.  The corner back or linebacker covering the flat zone (the blue circle in the diagram above)  must either allow the receiver running the slant route a free release (allowing an easy completion to the slant route) and sit in the flat zone or bump the slant receiver and follow him inside a few yards (allowing an easy completion to the flat/shoot route).

Here Kyle Orton immediately decide to look left.  If we look to the left we will see the corner back circled in red bailing deep and the linebacker in red following the flat/shoot route to the sideline.  This means that Brandon Lloyd is not being  bumped on his slant route and can run to the empty area behind the flat defender (the linebacker) and under the deep defender (the corner back) this is the area circled in blue.

Orton sees Lloyd get open and fires a dart to Lloyd between the defenders and into the empty zone.

Lloyd turns upfield and gains 13 yards, perfect execution by everyone involved.

6.) 3-3-Den-27 (5:28) (Shotgun) 8-K.Orton pass incomplete short middle to 10-J.Gaffney.

This play starts off with the typical 3 WR, 1 TE, 1 RB personnel package.  However, the wide receiver who is split to the left comes in motion behind the slot receiver.  This motion is designed to get him matched up against the nickel back when he runs his deep-out route.  This should be a favorable match-up for the offense.

During this passing play the Broncos are running two passing concepts.  On the right they are running the flat/shoot slant concept described above and on the left they are running a variant of the “smash concept.”

The “smash” concept is a simple vertical stretch of the defense.  One receiver will run a deep-out or corner route, another receiver will run a 3-5 yard smash route outside of the deep-out or corner route, and a occasionally a tailback will run a flat or shoot route.  The quarterback will then make a simple hi-lo read in the blue circle on the left of the field.  He will first check the deep-out, then the “smash,” and then the flat route.

The “smash” concept is designed to beat zone defenses while the flat/shoot slant concept can beat both man and zone defenses.

Kyle Orton immediately reads that the defense is in Cover-1 Man look and looks over to the flat/shoot slant route combination.

Since the Jaguar’s defense is in a Cover-1 Man defense and is blitzing their extra defender (4 Defensive linemen+1 safety in deep coverage+5 men in man coverage=10) their are no defenders in the center of the field (the area circled in blue).  So, Kyle Orton counts on Gaffney beating his man and throws a passing leading Gaffney into the center of the field.

As we can see above Gaffeny does not beat his man and the corner back almost makes the interception.  Gaffney cannot successfully beat the bump-and-run coverage and as soon as the corner back realizes that Gaffney is breaking inside after 3 steps the corner back anticipates a slant route.  This makes Orton’s throw particularly dangerous.

7.) 2-11-Den-17 (15:00) 8-K.Orton pass short left to 19-E.Royal ran ob at DEN 40 for 23 yards (20-A.Smith)

In this case the Broncos run a play action pass with a 9 man pass protection scheme.  Kyle Orton just has to decide between two curl routes.

In this diagram we can see that the defender on the right hand side of the field is playing loose coverage on the receiver while quickly back pedaling.  If Orton made the throw to the right hand side of the field the defender would be in a perfect position to make a break for the ball and get the interception or at least cause an incompletion.

Notice in the middle of the field that all of the linebackers are keyed on the run.  None of them should be able to drop back into Orton’s passing lanes.

Also notice that the corner back on the left side of the field is jamming Eddie Royal at the line of scrimmage.  This tactic essentially neutralized Royal last year, but it does not work this time.

Once Royal beats the jam he runs hard up field for 5-6 yards.  In an attempt to not get beat deep the corner back turns his back to Royal and sprints past the 1st down marker.  As soon as the corner back is out of position Royal plants his foot and turns towards Kyle Orton.  Orton throws the pass and the corner back is about 6 yards from Royal and his tripping over himself trying to turn around.

Royal makes the corner back miss and then jukes the next defender.

Here you can see Royal breaking the second defender’s ankles.  Royal also is setting up the third defender to be blocked out of the play.

There is the successful block.

Royal is brought down after a solid gain of 23.

8.) 2-9-Den-41 (13:47) (Shotgun) 8-K.Orton pass short right to 19-E.Royal to DEN 47 for 6 yards (52-Da.Smith) [91-D.Harvey].

On this play the Broncos ran the Four Verticals concept.  Four of their receivers ran deep routes while the fifth ran a quick curl.  Even though the name would imply that this pass will always lead to a large gain this concept often actually results in a simple check down.

As Kyle Orton drops back he starts out looking deep down the field at the safeties.  Judging by his decision the safeties must be playing sound deep coverage because he then checks down to Eddie Royal on the curl route.

Orton can see one defender heading off to the flat zone and another defender dropping to about 7-8 yards deep in his hook zone responsibility.  This means that Royal’s curl route should slide under the zone defenders.

We can see that their is no one between Orton and Royal (the blue circle is empty).  This makes the check down an easy completion.

Royal catches the ball and is tackled immediately for a gain of 6 yards.

9.) 3-8-Den-42 (12:36) (Shotgun) 8-K.Orton pass short middle to 19-E.Royal to JAX 47 for 11 yards (21-D.Cox) [74-A.Kampman].

In this play the Broncos are in their typical 3 WRs, 1 TE, 1 RB personnel package.   They are running a double curl combination on one side of the field and a go route on the other.  We have already covered the double curl concept in a previous play (the pass play where Tebow was on the field).  The go route acts a control route.  By this I mean that having a receiver run directly down the field prevents the defense from sitting in shallow zones and stopping the curl routes.  Instead the safeties need to drop back deep, this should allow the curl routes to be run against single man-to-man coverage or allow the curl routes to get under the zones.

As Kyle Orton drops back the defense blitzes.  Quickly looks down field and sees that the receiver running the go route is single man to man coverage and the second closest defender is sprinting deep to get into position (see the black arrow).

Orton takes a chance and throws the deep ball, but it is tipped by the blitzing defender (the top defender circled in red).  As soon as the ball is tipped both Eddie Royal and the Jaguars defender begin to converge on the ball.

However, Royal gets their first and is able to adjust to the ball before any defender closes in on him.

Royal catches the ball for a gain of 11 and keeps the drive alive.  This was a fluke play and was only successful because of a heads up play by Eddie Royal.  I think that if Kyle Orton had thrown to the inside curl route the Broncos could have also gotten the 1st down, but it is hard to see that when you are being blitzed.

10.) 2-7-Jac-44 (11:12) 8-K.Orton pass short middle to 27-K.Moreno to JAX 40 for 4 yards (52-Da.Smith; 55-K.Morrison) [74-A.Kampman].

Here the Broncos are going to run another play action pass.  The idea behind the passing concept is to freeze the linebackers near the line of scrimmage with the play action allowing the receiver who is running the deep dig route to slide in behind the zone coverage.  If the linebackers drop deep to stop the deep dig route the tailback is suppose to get underneath the linebackers for an easy check down.  This is a very typical concept that is a simple vertical stretch of the defense.  The defenders cannot guard both the top and bottom of the area circled in blue.

As Kyle Orton makes the play action hand off two of the linebackers are keyed in on the tailback.  The third linebacker is dropping deep.  This third linebacker forces Kyle Orton to ignore the dig route.

Also notice that the corner back on the right side of the field is staying a flat zone and is watching the quarterback.

With the corner back on the right side of the field staying in a flat zone Orton cannot risk throwing the curl route because the cornerback might be able to jump it.  Orton also cannot throw the deep dig route because the linebackers are right underneath the receiver.

In dropping back to defend the deep dig and the curl route the linebackers are too deep to defender the quick throw to the tailback.  The closest defender (excluding defensive linemen) is 4 yards away.  Orton throws the check down to Moreno.

Moreno barely has time to turn upfield before he is tackled for a gain of 4 yards.

11.) 2-10-Den-27 (4:45) (Shotgun) 8-K.Orton pass incomplete deep right to 10-J.Gaffney.

Yet again the Broncos are running a simple passing concept out of their typical 3 WR, 1 Te, 1 RB personnel package.  One one side of the field they are running the usual flat/shoot slant passing concept on the other they are running a variant of the curl-flat passing concept.

The curl-flat concept is perhaps the most common passing concept in football.  One receiver runs a flat or shoot route and the other receiver runs a curl route at a depth of about 10 yards.  This forces the defender covering the flat zone to either drop deep to cover the curl route or stay low to cover the flat route.  However, in the variant the Broncos are running the receiver running the curl route has the option to not turn around, but instead continue up field as if he running  a go route.

At the snap of the ball Kyle Orton realizes the defense is blitzing.  The defense is blitzing one more than the offense can account for.  So, Orton knows he needs to make a quick read.  He immediately looks deep and sees that their is only one safety in a deep zone (the safety is in a black circle) and he is sitting in the middle of the field.

The offensive line correctly blocks the blitz allowing only the outermost defender to come free.  This gives Orton the chance to take a chance against the single high safety and throw the deep ball.

We can see that Orton made the right choice the safety (circled in red) was out of position to make a play on the ball.  However, the corner back did a good job in coverage and Orton was unable to place the ball where only his receiver could make the catch.  The result of the play is an incompletion.

12.) 1-10-Den-26 (:40) (Shotgun) 8-K.Orton pass deep left to 84-B.Lloyd to JAX 33 for 41 yards (37-S.Considine).

Here the Broncos are running the Three Verticals passing concept out of their 3 WR, 1 TE, 1 RB personnel package.  This means that three of their receivers will run go routes right down the field and attack the defense deep.  The theory is that the defense can only have enough defenders to cover either the go routes or the shallow crossing route and flat route by the TE and the tailback.  The defense cannot cover both the deep go routes and the shallow routes.

The Jaguars have come out in a Cover 2 defense which I have shown above with paint.  The two safeties are responsible for all the deep passes.  This defense is at a clear disadvantage against the Three Verticals passing concept.  Their are only two defenders covering the deep part of the field to cover three deep routes.  This means that the weaknesses of the Cover 2 defense will be even further exaggerated.

I have marked the weak spots of the Cover 2 with red stars.  This is the area above the corner back and below the safety.

Here we can see that Brandon Lloyd has managed to get over top of the corner back.  The safety is also even further out of position than he normally would be because he had to account for two deep routes.  This allows Orton to drop the ball into Lloyd for a huge gain.

13.) 1-10-Jac-33 (:32) (Shotgun) 8-K.Orton pass deep middle to 19-E.Royal to JAX 8 for 25 yards (36-C.Greene

The Broncos are running three verticals again.  They are using the typical 3 WR, 1 Te, 1 RB personnel group.  The TE is lined up next to Orton rather than next to the offensive line.

The tailback’s crossing route is acting as a control route.  With the threat of an easy check down the defense cannot drop back to far to defend the go routes.

Here We can see the defense not adequately cover the area circled in blue.  The right side corner back is play deep coverage so he can defend the streak..  The defender circled in black is jamming the inside receiver.  The defender circled in red is the only one can defend the streak being run by the slot receiver.  However, the defender is not immediately sprinting into the blue area because he is worried about the tailback who is about to run a crossing route.

Orton takes advantage of this defender and throws the ball over the defender’s head (the defender is still circled in red).  Notice how open Royal is.

14.) 2-8-Jac-8 (:20) (Shotgun) 8-K.Orton pass short middle to 10-J.Gaffney for 8 yards, TOUCHDOWN.

Guess what personnel package the Broncos are in.  That’s right 3 WR, 1 Te, and I RB.   They are going to just run a series of vertical stretches against the defense.  On the left the out route and the deep dig force the defense to choose between dropping down to cover the out route or staying deep to cover the deep dig route.  The Broncos are doing the same thing with the curl and deep dig on the left side of the field.  Lastly, the tailback is running a quick out route as a safety valve in case the Jaguars blitz.

The Jaguars are playing a Cover 2 Man defense.  This means that each receiver is in single man-to-man coverage and their are two safeties responsible for deep coverage.  These safeties are the ones who will have to choose between dropping deep to cover the deep digs or staying low to cover the out route or the curl route.

In the picture above we can tell that the safety (circled in red along with the corner back) decided to stay low to cover the out route.  This leaves deep dig open (see how open the blue circle is).

Gaffney just runs into the open area of the end zone (the blue circle) and by the time the safety (circled in red) realizes what is going on it is too late. TOUCHDOWN Broncos.

Thanks for reading.

I apologize for the progressively shorter explanations.  I do have a lot of other work to do.

If anyone notices some typos (I am sure their are plenty I typed + uploaded the pictures all in about 2 hours) please point them out and I will make the changes.

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One Response to “Understanding the Denver Broncos’ Passing Game”

  1. gus Says:

    great post really taught me a lot keep it up man

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