The Chicago Bears will look to right the ship after their season opening loss to the Green Bay Packers on Sunday when they travel west to take on the Denver Broncos. The game will be a reunion of sorts, as former defensive coordinator Vic Fangio is now the head man in Denver. Much like quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, we will move on from last Thursday night and instead focus on the Broncos’ offense
Denver has not only a new head coach, they have a new quarterback in Joe Flacco. The former Baltimore Raven was not exactly inspiring in the season opening loss to the Oakland Raiders. He completed 21 of 31 passes for 268 yards and a touchdown, but the Broncos were forced to settle for field goals on three other possessions, and the failure to end drives with touchdowns made the difference in the 24-16 loss.
So what can the Bears take from this offensive performance to apply to their preparation for Sunday afternoon?
Let’s start with what the Broncos offense wants to be, when things are going well. The Broncos also have a new man in charge of the offense, in offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello. Scangarello took a long path to this job, including stints in the collegiate ranks at FCS schools such as Idaho and Wagner, as well as some NFL stops in Atlanta and San Francisco under Kyle Shanahan. Scangarello considers himself a devotee of the Mike/Kyle Shanahan offensive system.
What does that offensive style look like? You can look to what Kyle Shanahan did both in Atlanta with the Falcons in 2016 and more recently with the San Francisco 49ers, to what Mike Shanahan did with the Broncos years ago, or even to what Gary Kubiak did with Flacco during Kubiak’s time as the Ravens’ offensive coordinator. You can expect a heavy dose of zone run schemes, with play-action passes built off those designs.
When things are going well, Scangarello wants the Broncos to run the football much like they did on this play against Oakland:
On this 1st and 10 play from the third quarter, the Broncos come out using 13 offensive personnel and putting Flacco (#5) under center. After sending tight end Troy Fumagalli (#84) in motion from a wing alignment on the left into the slot on the right side of the formation, the Broncos run an outside zone play to the right with Philip Lindsay (#30). They are able to get the ballcarrier to the edge, and Lindsay rips off an easy eight-yard gain.
What this sets up is what Flacco perhaps does best. Dating back to his days in Baltimore the veteran passer loves to utilize boot-action plays off these outside zone looks:
Here the Broncos fake the outside zone running play to the left, booting Flacco back to the right. They flood that side of the formation with a vertical route and two crossing routes for the QB to choose from. Flacco buys some time here before finally hitting rookie tight end Noah Fant (#87) for a nine-yard gain.
So this is where Denver wants to be as an offense, using the outside zone running game to establish the run and then throwing off those looks on play-action designs. But last week the game got away from them, and trailing by 14 at the half they were forced into more of a pure passing team.
In that mode, what did we see from the Broncos’ offense?
Reduced splits and condensed formations.
Take a look at this play from late in the first quarter. The Broncos face a 3rd and 6 on their own 44-yard line and line up using 11 offensive personnel. Flacco is in the shotgun, flanked by tight end Jeff Heuerman (#82) and running back Royce Freeman (#28). Courtland Sutton (#14) is the single receiver to the right. Look at the split he uses:
Sutton uses a reduced split, and aligns just a few yards from the right tackle. You might expect to see this when the wide receiver is going to run a route working to the outside, but here Sutton runs a quick Bang 8 post route, and Flacco squeezes in a throw between two defenders to move the chains:
These reduced splits were a component of Denver’s passing game throughout Monday night. Late in the first half Flacco looks for Emmanuel Sanders (#10) on a crossing route, and you will notice again he operates out of a tight split from the left side of the formation:
In the second half, Denver hit on perhaps their biggest passing play of the night again using a reduced split and a condensed alignment. Facing a 2nd and 10 at their own 25-yard line in the fourth quarter, they align with Flacco under center and a tight bunch to the right:
Look at the right side of the formation. DaeSean Hamilton (#17) is in the slot, aligned on the line of scrimmage, just a few yards from the right tackle. Sanders is just a few steps outside of Hamilton, aligned off the line of scrimmage. Heuerman aligns in a wing next to the right tackle.
Denver runs a variation of the Mills concept - or some might say a variation of NCAA Mills - sending Sanders on a deep post, Hamilton on a curl route and Heuerman on a shallow crosser:
As Sanders releases vertically he widens his stem a bit to the outside, and cornerback Trayvon Mullen (#27) widens as well in response. That gives Sanders the angle to break inside to the post. As this is unfolding,safety Karl Joseph (#42) is biting on the curl route from Hamilton in front of him. That gives Sanders an opportunity for the big play, and Flacco hits him in stride:
The reduced split on this play helps set up Sanders’ route. He bends to the outside, forces the cornerback in that direction, and then uses the ensuing leverage advantage to break open behind the defense.
Denver even used this reduced split philosophy to get their rookie tight end involved. On this play Fant aligns in a wing and then releases vertically, and with the space afforded to him by his presnap alignment he can work towards the sideline and get himself open:
In their ideal game script, the Broncos’ offense will look much more like the first two plays we say. A heavy dose of outside zone running plays with play-action designs built off of them. But if the Bears are able to get ahead in this game and turn Denver into more of a one dimensional team, you can expect to see looks such as these, with condensed formations and reduced splits a big part of their passing attack.