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I would love to see the Denver Broncos be successful in 2021. But I’m afraid they have a Drew Lock sized problem and with Pat Shurmur at the helm, I am worried they will be unable to fix the problem.
In 2020, only 49% of the passes Lock threw over 15 yards were catchable. Of the 38 quarterbacks with over 30 attempts over 15 yards downfield, Lock’s rate of throwing a catchable ball ranked fifth worst, ahead of only Dwayne Haskins, Mitchell Trubisky, Carson Wentz, and Sam Darnold. Of the 18 quarterbacks with over 75 attempts, Lock was worst. He did improve his rate by 10% over 2019, but still was 10% worse than average.
Deeper throws to his right have been the worst for Lock – his career catchable rate is only 40% and nearly 17% below average. Of 35 quarterbacks with at least 35 attempts to the right beyond 15 yards, Lock’s catchable rate ranked dead last.
Unfortunately, it’s not a variance issue with Lock, where there’s some high-end plays to make up for the poor ones. Lock’s best stuff deep is generally league average. His typical deep throw is well below average, and he gradually drops further below average the deeper down the field he targets.
Lock’s average depth of target was 9.1 in 2020, fourth highest in the NFL. But his average depth of completion was just 6.1 yards. That differential of -3.0 was fourth-worst in the NFL, behind only the two Jets quarterbacks (Joe Flacco and Sam Darnold) and Dwayne Haskins.
A metric that saw big swing as compared to 2019 for Lock was his aggressiveness. Aggressiveness is pulled from player tracking data and measures the rate at which a quarterback passes into tight coverage, where there is a defender within one yard of the receiver at the time of completion or incompletion.
In 2019, Lock’s aggressiveness was 30th of 39 quarterbacks. While there are obviously some terrible quarterbacks that weren’t aggressive, some of the quarterbacks that ranked right around Lock in 2019 were Patrick Mahomes, Derek Carr, Drew Brees, Kirk Cousins, and Aaron Rodgers. It’s important to be able to fit the ball into tight windows, but if you’re doing it frequently, it’s a sign that either you’re not reading the defense well, you’re too overconfident in your abilities, your receivers are terrible at separating, or the offense is poorly designed. It could also be a combination of any of those factors.
In 2020, Lock shifted from 30th in aggressiveness up to eighth as his rate increased by 5.5%. Since the NFL started tracking and sharing this metric, no quarterback has increased their aggressiveness by that rate unless they changed schemes.
Another concern relates to completion percentage over expectation, or CPOE. Lock’s CPOE in 2019 was bad, 27th out of 39 quarterbacks. In 2020, Lock’s COPE fell by 2.2%. He had the NFL’s third-worst COPE in 2020, completing passes at a rate 3.9% below expectation. Only Dwayne Haskins and Carson Wentz were worse.
In addition to being inaccurate, several other factors impacted the Broncos passing game in 2020: drops and coaching.
The Broncos’ on-target catch percentage ranked last in the NFL and they had the highest drop rate in the league. Compare that to 2019, when the Broncos ranked 23rd in drop rate but 10th in on-target catch rate. Almost everyone had problems. Jerry Jeudy, their leading receiver, had an 18% drop rate and K.J. Hamler was at 14%, both were over double the NFL average of 6.6%. Only Noah Fant and Tim Patrick were better than average. As a team, Denver had a 10.3% drop rate in 2020, which was the worst for any team since 2017.
Denver will get back the services of WR1 Courtland Sutton, who was lost early in the season. Sutton is no Diggs, but his presence will help this receiving corps. Lock obviously needs to work on his mechanics. But my biggest reason for skepticism is coaching.
As it relates to coaching, specifically Pat Shurmur’s play calling, there are many problems.
Last year, Denver’s early down pass rate in the first half was fifth-lowest in the NFL. The team was dead last in early down success in the first half, dead last in EPA, and had the longest yardage to go on third downs in the first half as well. They ranked fifth-worst in converting these into first downs. As a result, they rarely drove into the red zone. Only 29.7% of their first half drives resulted in points (second-worst). And when they did drive into the red zone, they were terrible at scoring touchdowns.
No team scored fewer first half touchdowns (11) or scored less frequently on first half drives (12%) than the Broncos. Part of this obviously was Drew Lock (who had the second highest rate of first half drives end with interceptions at 9.9%) but a large part was Shurmur.
Why is the first half so important? As we know, halftime leads create halftime adjustments for opponents and racing to a first half lead has value beyond the lead itself (teams win 80% of games when leading at halftime). Denver took a substantial drop in halftime margin in 2020.
Denver went from an average halftime lead of three points in 2019 to an average halftime deficit of six points in 2020. That was, by far, the largest swing for any team year-over-year in 2020. In fact, it was the single largest year-over-year downturn of the last five years and the third-largest of the last decade. It was massive.
Continuing to examine poor coaching decisions, let’s dig deeper into the passing game. Denver used play-action on only 30% of early down passes, which was 10th-least of any team. Yet their splits were dramatic:
With play-action: 7.8 YPA, 52% success, 0.00 EPA/att
Without play-action: 5.6 YPA, 43% success, -0.25 EPA/att
No team improved their success rate more with the use of play-action and the improvement in EPA with play-action was second-best in the NFL. Looking only at the first three quarters, the splits were even more dramatic.
If we’re talking about struggling to score in the red zone, particularly in the first half, we might as well look at play action. Look at the first half splits for Lock in the red zone:
With play-action: 5.2 YPA, 73% success, 0.48 EPA/att, and 5:0 TD:INT
Without play action: 1.8 YPA, 23% success, -1.26 EPA/att, and 0:2 TD:INT
The lack of pre-snap motion was also notable. In 2019, the Broncos used the eighth-most pre-snap motion ahead of passes. When Shurmur took over in 2020, they dropped to 28th. This came despite the fact they showed the fourth best improvement in success rate and fifth best improvement in EPA/att when using pre-snap motion ahead of passes.
In 2019, 44% of Denver’s passes came without either pre-snap motion or play-action. Those plays produced -0.07 EPA/att with a 42% success rate. Meanwhile, passes that featured both pre-snap motion and play-action produced 0.25 EPA/att and 58% success. But the Broncos used both on just 10.5% of passes.
If that seems terrible, it is. But under Shurmur in 2020, it got worse.
In 2020, a massive 57% of Denver’s passes came without either pre-snap motion or play-action, an increase of 13 percentage points (and nearly 100 more attempts). These plays averaged -0.14 EPA/att and 39% success. Meanwhile, passes that featured both pre-snap motion and play-action produced +0.19 EPA/att and a 54% success rate. But Denver only used both on 11% of their total attempts (65 in total).
Clearly, there was no way Shurmur studied how much the offense struggled in 2019 without motion, because he dangerously decreased it in 2020 with tragic results. The splits with and without motion are not even close, yet he continued to reject using motion on pass plays.
It was also frustrating to watch the rate at which the Broncos ran into stacked boxes. On early downs in the game’s first three quarters, Denver had a 50% run rate. Denver used heavier sets a fair amount to run the ball as well. Many times, defenses will counter heavier personnel by crowding the box with defenders.
When the Broncos were in any set with less than 3-WRs (such as 12, 21, 13, etc), defenses put 8+ defenders in the box on 55% of these plays. Denver still ran the ball 63% of the time, producing -0.17 EPA/att, 31% success, and 3.2 YPC. Considering how bad Denver was on the ground, they must find a way to check out of runs when defenses crowd the box pre-snap.
Additionally, Denver’s desire to run the ball on second down just to run it was frustrating and highly inefficient. Last year, Denver had the NFL’s longest yardage-to-go on second down. Let’s zoom into the first half to begin this discussion.
Denver averaged 8.2 yards-to-go on second downs, worst in the NFL. No other team was worse than 7.9 yards.
Yet Denver was tied for the third-highest run rate in the NFL.
It made zero sense at all. These runs averaged a paltry and below-average 4.4 YPC.
What good did all of these runs do? Not much. Denver averaged 7.9 yards-to-go on third downs, the worst in the NFL (no other team was worse than 7.5).
Zooming back out to the full game, Denver was still worst in the NFL on second-and-longs, yet they ran the ball at a 46% rate, which was tied for sixth-most in the NFL. This, despite the fact they went 5-11 on the season and were losing most of these games.
Pat Shurmur isn’t helping his offense by trying to set up third and manageable by running on second-and-long at a high rate. This is dinosaur thinking.
Imagine interviewing for an offensive coordinator position and saying “I’ve got a strategy. On first downs, we’re going to run the ball over 50% of the time, even though we’ll put up bottom-five yards per carry. Then, facing the longest yardage to go on second down, we’ll run at one of the highest rates in the NFL to try and set up a third and manageable for our young, struggling quarterback.”
No offensive coordinator would say that in an interview because it’s idiotic, but that’s what Shurmur did.
No head coach would hire that guy and sign up for such a plan, but Fangio didn’t change anything that Shurmur was doing.
In fact, Denver’s run rate on first half second down from Week 12 onward skyrocketed from an above average 42% all the way up to a borderline insane 57%. Denver won just one of their final six games with this strategy.
Clearly, there is a lot to be concerned about from Denver’s quarterback and offensive coaching situation. The question is, is there enough elsewhere to still produce a successful season? If the Broncos added Aaron Rodgers, they would improve in a heartbeat. But they still would be handicapped (in a smaller capacity) by Shurmur.
A few things I love about Denver: their schedule and their offseason.
As much as I anticipated a huge drop in 2020 production due to a huge increase in schedule difficulty, the opposite is true for 2021. I predict Denver will have the third easiest increase in pass defenses faced this year compared to last, and will play the NFL’s easiest schedule of pass defenses in 2021. I also predict they will face the easiest overall schedule of defenses. On the defensive side of the ball, I show them facing the biggest jump in ease of schedule for any team in 2021, moving from the third-toughest 2020 schedule of offenses to the fifth-easiest.
Out of their AFC West division, Denver will play five games against the seven teams with the worst record in the NFL last year: the Jaguars, Jets, Bengals, Eagles, and Lions. Denver also faces the rest of the NFC East, which won’t be as bad as it was in 2020 but still isn’t as good a division as it’s been in recent years. Denver will surely struggle vs the best teams from the AFC North, but the good news is most of those games are on the road, saving the opponents Denver stands a better chance of beating for home games. Denver also plays the Chiefs in Week 18 at home. If the Chiefs have as good a year as some expect, that game could be meaningless for Kansas City. In terms of total strength, Denver is playing the second easiest schedule in the NFL through the first 15 weeks.
Denver also ranks 12th in net rest edge, has a rest disadvantage in only one game (when the Chiefs are coming off of a bye), and play zero short-week road games. The only thing hurting the Broncos is the fact they play Week 1 and 2 on the road. Home games at Denver’s elevation the first couple weeks of the season have been close to automatic wins over the last 20 years.
I’ve also been very impressed by Denver’s offseason. Between one of the best drafts in the NFL to the additions of Kyle Fuller and Ronald Darby in free agency to getting Von Miller back from his ankle injury suffered before Week 1 last year, this Broncos defense should be improved. The team added Teddy Bridgewater, who has substantial flaws, but remains one of the best underdog quarterbacks we’ve ever seen in the NFL. When he was in Minnesota, people credited his great ATS cover rate to Mike Zimmer’s defense. When he was in New Orleans, people credited his great ATS cover rate to Sean Payton’s offense. People joked about my mentioning Teddy’s cover rate before he went to Carolina, crediting Teddy’s other coaches and suggesting we’ll really see how good he is in Carolina, only to see Teddy cover 67% of his games as an underdog in 2020 in Carolina. He’s now 24-8 (75%) ATS as a dog.
I would love to see the Broncos start Bridgewater but it’s too early to tell it that will happen. Absent starting Bridgewater, Denver is priced as a longshot +155 to make the playoffs (at PointsBet) despite their easy schedule. Denver is expected to have a winning record, with over 8.5 priced at -135. But a 9-8 record is unlikely to ensure the playoffs in the AFC, where it certainly won’t win a division like the AFC West, and a 10-win Dolphins squad missed the playoffs last year. You can have a great defense, an improved offensive line, and great skill players, but if you have a liability at quarterback and an offensive coordinator who doesn’t have answers, it severely limits your upside.
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