Vic Fangio wants Broncos’ passing game to gain more rhythm. Big plays is best way to achieve that

The Broncos’ 20-play, 88-yard drive last week at Kansas City that included one third-and-long and two fourth-down conversions was admirable in its depth and the offense’s ability to churn out rushing yards in all down-and-distance situations and location of the field.

It was also an indictment.

Despite a collection of skill-position talent respected around the NFL, the Broncos needed all of those plays because they couldn’t get eat up a chunk of yardage with a single snap, which is partly why the drive ended with no points in yet another loss to the Chiefs.

Try as they might — and the Broncos tried last week — this is an offense that enters Sunday’s must-win game against the Detroit Lions with a maddening inability to complete downfield passes.

The Broncos (6-6) are ranked 18th in passing yards per game (225.9), tied for 23rd in touchdowns (16) and tied for 25th in completions of at least 20 yards (31).

Shouldn’t an offense with receivers Jerry Jeudy, Courtland Sutton and Tim Patrick, and tight ends Noah Fant and Albert Okwuegbunam, be more explosive?

Yes.

“Our whole passing game needs to improve a little bit,” coach Vic Fangio said. “We never got into a rhythm last week. The week before (against the Los Angeles Chargers), we didn’t have a lot of yards either (155).”

Only one team has allowed more yards per completion (12.6) and has fewer sacks (19) than Detroit’s defense, so, in theory, the Broncos should have opportunities to probe matchups downfield. On the flip side, the Lions could be excited to face a sometimes toothless offense.

A dig into the numbers shows the Broncos are throwing passes downfield, so all of the criticism shouldn’t be tossed at offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater must be more accurate on those deep-field calls.

“Obviously, I would love to throw the ball downfield, but it needs to be there and you need to complete it,” Shurmur said during an interview with The Denver Post before practice Thursday. “If they take it away, you outlet and move on.”

Every play has many layers

The thing about a successful vertical pass is that so many things must go right.

“Finding a rhythm in the passing game, there are a lot of people involved,” said Broncos running backs coach Curtis Modkins, who has previous offensive coordinator experience with San Francisco and Buffalo. “It’s not just the receivers and quarterback. We have to protect him up front, we have to protect him as running backs and we have to run good routes. It’s a lot.”

And by a lot, Modkins means basically everything.

Exhibit A was the first play of the Broncos’ third drive against the Chiefs. Down 10-0 after two three-and-outs and two Kansas City scoring drives, the Broncos needed some kind of spark. They got it on Jeudy’s 36-yard catch.

A review of the play revealed nine components:

The set-up: 1. The play-action fake by Bridgewater and running back Javonte Williams froze linebacker Anthony Hitchens. … 2. Cornerback Mike Hughes’ blitz was accounted for by left tackle Garett Bolles. … 3. Tight end Andrew Beck and receiver Tim Patrick served as the sixth and seventh pass protectors and combo-blocked end Mike Danna. … 4. Left guard Dalton Risner blocked end Alex Okafor. … 5. Right guard Quinn Meinerz and center Lloyd Cushenberry double-teamed tackle Derrick Nnadi. … 6. Right tackle Bobby Massie blocked tackle Tershawn Wharton.

(A bonus: Chiefs havoc-wreaking defensive end Chris Jones was on the sideline.)

Did the seven-man protection set up the deep shot?

“Tim stayed in to help (Beck) and if there was no work for them, they outlet and Teddy can check it down to them,” Shurmur said.

The pay-off: 7. Receiver Courtland Sutton ran a post route to occupy safety Tyrann Mathieu, who assumed Hughes’ coverage responsibilities. … 8. Bridgewater lofted a fine pass 18 yards downfield to Jeudy, who had run an “over” route, with room for him to turn up the field. 9. Jeudy secured the catch and turned up the field for additional yardage.

All nine things executed, the Broncos had the explosive play they needed and it led to a field goal.

Did Sutton run a clear-out route to create room for Jeudy?

“In fact, Courtland was first in the progression and later on, we ran the same play and we threw him the deep post,” Shurmur said. “In that situation, we call it a ‘two-down-the-field route’ — the ‘post’ with the ‘over’ and the back (Williams) in the flat.”

It was the first of seven downfield attempts (at least 16 “air” yards) by Bridgewater, but as Fangio pointed out post-game, it was the only completion within the flow of the game.

Shots are being taken

Shurmur says of the downfield shots, “You get four or five in a game, right?” Pretty much.

Using 16 yards as the benchmark for a downfield shot, 62 of Bridgewater’s 379 attempts (16.4%) have traveled at least 16 “air” yards. He has 31 completions for 709 yards, but only two touchdowns plus two interceptions.

According to The Denver Post’s game charting, Bridgewater has at least five passes of 16 “air” yards in eight of the 11 games he has completed. He was 4 of 7 for 110 yards against the New York Jets, 3 of 5 for 87 at Pittsburgh, 3 of 5 for 80 against Washington and 3 of 7 for 89 at Kansas City.

The Chiefs game had three missed opportunities — 48 yards deep middle to Sutton and 27 and 25 yards down the sideline to Patrick and Sutton, respectively.

Bridgewater must pick up his game when throwing up the field.

Stats, Inc., uses 21 “air” yards as its metric and Bridgewater’s passer rating of 56.0 on those attempts is 26th out of 28 quarterbacks.

In the last five games Sutton has only nine catches, Patrick has 13 and Jeudy 22. The Broncos don’t mind throwing along-the-line-of-scrimmage passes to Jeudy, but prefer finding Sutton and Patrick on medium-to-long routes.

“Our objective is to win the game, it isn’t to get Courtland Sutton a lot of targets,” Sutton said. “Wins are the things that matter.”

Obviously, Sutton is correct — the Broncos’ objective is to score points and win games no matter the process to success. But potential solutions may include more play action to get linebackers to stay put, freeing up room in front of the safeties — “marrying” the run and pass games as Fangio calls it.

The data points out Shurmur is calling enough shots. It’s the execution that must improve.

“Eventually, if we keep taking (downfield) chances, they’ll fall in our favor,” Bridgewater said. “You just do it within the system. Teams are aware of the guys that we have and their skill sets. We’re just trying to create ways to get them the ball and allow them to do what they do best.”

20-yard completions

The league leaders in completions of at least 20 yards entering Week 14’s games per Stats, Inc.

1. Las Vegas60
2. Tampa Bay52
T3. Rams/Minnesota49
T5. Dallas/New England47
T25. Broncos31

*League average is 38.

Downfield efficiency

Passer rating on passes that travel at least 21 “air” yards per Stats, Inc.:

1 Atlanta120.1
2 L.A. Rams110.8
3. Chargers/Seattle110.4
5. Kansas City109.4
30. Broncos56.4

*League average is 91.4 | Broncos’ two touchdowns on these attempts are tied for second-fewest.

Downfield receptions

Using the metric that 16 yards is an explosive pass play, a breakdown of Broncos catches on passes that have traveled at least 16 “air” yards per The Denver Post’s game charting:

Courtland Sutton9 (1 TD)
Tim Patrick6 (1 TD)
Jerry Jeudy5

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