The Broncos finally had success running Football Sunday, with Phillip Lindsay and Melvin Gordon both getting at least 16 porters and over 80 yards on the ground.
This is the result many envisioned when Gordon signed with Denver during the off-season, but offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur and the Broncos were unable to deliver. If the Broncos are hoping for similar success in the future, consider what they did against the Miami Dolphins on Sunday as their blueprint.
What changed? In simple terms, there was a commitment to get the ball out of “Tiger” (two tight end crews) instead of “Zebra” (one tight end, three receivers).
Understanding these personnel groups and how Shurmur likes to use them is key to understanding the balance, or lack thereof, that has existed in the Broncos raid this season.
Gordon is Shurmur’s favorite retreat in Zebra – a staffing group that emphasizes passing play – largely because he sees Gordon as a better receiver and pass protector than Lindsay. Sure, the Broncos often run the ball out of Zebra, and even had some success with it. Lindsay’s 55-yard touchdown run against the Chargers came in Zebra, but it also came against a preemptive defense that protected a three touchdown lead. Aside from that game, the one tight-ended running offense on the field was pedestrian at best, allowing the defense to move the line of scrimmage in the opposite direction.
The problem for Shurmur: It’s hard to avoid putting Zebra on the field when facing a big backlog in the first half – as the Broncos have seen several times this season.
But to take advantage of Lindsay’s skills and create an equal share of the carry, join him in the game in single-tight end sets, which Shurmur doesn’t prefer, or call more Tiger staff, like him Sunday did. .
Tight side Noah Fant saw 49 of the 65 offensive snaps. Nick Vannett looked 41. Troy Fumagalli had 20. That means they did a lot of Tiger. The first game of the game was Tiger, and it was a transfer to Lindsay. Shurmur scripts the first 15 plays, so this was the plan.
Vic Fangio said much of the game plan was dictated by the ancient dolphin defense front. The plan was to counter that with a few old school runs, employing linemen and two tight ends, putting big bodies on their big bodies and moving them backwards. As a result, the Broncos controlled the line of scrimmage and both backs were used equally.
Additionally, the dolphins had shown that they used nickel personnel (five defensive backs instead of four) against Tiger, creating a size difference across the field. This worked in favor of the Broncos. The dolphins couldn’t stop the push.
The goal in the future is to create a similar dynamic – draws in Tiger and Zebra – regardless of the opponent and which defensive front the opponent prefers.
Nate Jackson is a former wide receiver / tight end for the Broncos who lives in Denver. He works part-time for 104.3 FM The Fan.