Broncos Film Room: What’s missing in Denver’s air attack?

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In the early part of the season, we’ve focused much of our film analysis on the run game and new offensive coordinator Mike McCoy’s use of heavier formations, but Denver is also featuring a healthy amount of spread looks where the tight ends and receivers need to step up.

The Broncos are built to dominate on the outside with Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas, but it’s in the slot, where teams like the Kansas City Chiefs and New England Patriots dominate opposing defenses, that the Broncos could use some more production.

“When a team is forced to play single-high, and it gives us fair coverage outside, those two guys will show up more,” explained head coach Vance Joseph after the Broncos Week 4 win over the Oakland Raiders. “Right now, it’s basically bracket coverage. That’s where [A.J.] Derby has to make plays for us; Bennie Fowler has made some plays. When you see Bennie catching three or four balls, you see Derby catching seven balls, that’s where it has to affect the defense.”

As coach explains, Fowler and Derby have had some opportunities, and they’ve shown up at times. They’re not the only ones relied upon to counter two-deep safety looks, but they’ve certainly been the biggest contributors.

That’s why we went back to see what Fowler and Derby are doing, while also trying to gauge what's missing to propel Denver’s offense to yet another level.

Bennie Fowler

No one has been able to take advantage of the added attention dedicated to DT and Sanders as Fowler has out of the slot. The slot is where Fowler's done most of his damage as he's really blossoming into a real NFL wideout. Leading to him being featured more than expected this year appearing in 53 percent of the offensive snaps.

After a 2016 season with some positive spurts, Fowler won the third receiver job this past offseason without much debate. His progression this year in McCoy’s offense has been impressive as he’s already close to besting his totals from a year ago in receptions and receiving yards.

Fowler’s been at his best finding pockets in coverage underneath and has shown some real skills on contested catches. A combination that's made him a favorite target of Siemian’s in tough spots. This has led to some clutch grabs on third down but also some forced throws from Trevor to Bennie—three of Siemian’s four interceptions this season have come on targets to Fowler.

Fowler looks long, and he’s shown reliable hands. He’s been effective in short to intermediate routes where he can use his body to shield defensive backs away. That said, he's somewhat of a  limited receiver as he’s all strength and hands. He doesn’t create separation and is constantly forced into making tough contested grabs.

Fowler’s a solid pro who, as he develops running crisper routes and in his body adjustments on 50-50 balls, can continue to be a contributor. Though it also feels like he might not have the "juice" that the offense is looking for in that third receiver.

A.J. Derby

Picked up from the Patriots in a mid-season trade back in 2016, Derby was acquired for his receiving skills which he showed in Week 4 against the Raiders. Despite plenty of athleticism, Derby’s remained the second tight end on the roster as Virgil Green’s superior blocking ability have kept him as the top dog on the depth chart.

No. 83’s appeared in 116 snaps this season, and 83 of those have been passing plays making him the predominant receiving tight end in the offense. His production has been underwhelming, but he’s also only been targeted 13 times this year. Where Derby’s seen the majority of his success is in spread looks, where he and Fowler have worked nicely in zone-beating high-low route concepts.

In those looks, it’s evident what a mismatch Derby is for linebackers who can’t handle his speed or safeties who are undersized. It’s obvious how fast he is off the line, but he’s not the savviest route runner, especially when having to go deep.

Against the Raiders, things changed, as the majority of Derby’s success came in two tight end sets where he was able to exploit Oakland’s struggling linebacking unit on wheel routes.

His speed is his greatest asset with his acceleration and size, but he remains frustratingly raw. In a tough divisional race, the Broncos can’t wait for him to develop.

As we saw against the Raiders the talent’s all there with some great hands too; Derby just needs to find more consistency in getting open.

What’s missing

After having watched the tape on both Derby and Fowler, it’s fair to say that there is something left to be desired. There’s no denying their importance to the offense, but there are certainly some plays that are missing.

With Jake Butt’s return from injury and more snaps for another rookie in Isaiah McKenzie the last two weeks, there are some players who could emerge out of this group.

Butt has plenty of talent, and it’ll be interesting to see how he’s used in the receiving game. His best asset coming out of Michigan was his well-rounded game and pro-readiness.

McCoy used rookie Hunter Henry well a season ago in lots of two tight end looks, could Butt be a similar weapon? That’s probably wishful thinking as the rookie is bound to be rusty. However, when at his best in college, Butt showed some nice skills as a receiver, utilizing his big frame on contested grabs and showing himself to be a savvy route runner. That might be just what Denver needs as Derby and Heuerman haven't always made enough plays.

Speaking of Heuerman, I was surprised to see him lined up outside on a good amount of spread looks this year. He’s also been used on more vertical routes than I expected. Watching the coaches tape, it appears as if he’s probably due for a few more targets than he’s currently getting. Don’t discount his ability to step up and make a bigger contribution as some looks have been there but Siemian's missed them.

Outside of Fowler, Denver’s options at receiver with Cody Latimer and Carlos Henderson out are somewhat limited to the aforementioned McKenzie who’s seen his snaps increase the last couple games.

The rookie's speed put in motion opened up space for Derby to be isolated on his one-handed touchdown against the Raiders.

You can see he has unreal burst, and McKenzie’s speed definitely stood out on tape as he’s able to create separation with ease. He’s been used as a decoy primarily this year but look for him to contribute more as the season moves along. The speed element he brings makes him unique to this group, which has been lacking a bit in the big play department.

One aspect in all of this that shouldn’t be neglected is that Sanders can be a tough cover especially when moved around in the slot. His pre-snap motions can be key in opening up secondaries. Heck, that’s what the Chiefs have been doing with such great success. As much variety as we’ve seen out of this offense, more production from Sanders in the slot is another thing to watch for.

Ultimately, though, all these guys need to step up like Derby did against Oakland or Fowler did with some clutch third-down grabs against the Chargers in Week 1. They just need to do it on a consistent basis; the opportunity is theirs for the taking.

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