Finding success against the Denver Broncos defense might not be find-the-needle-in-the-haystack hard, but it’s close. Since the start of that playoff run last winter, some of the best offenses on earth have tried and failed to put up big numbers against Denver.
Ben Roethlisberger’s Steelers mustered only 16 points against Denver in January. Tom Brady’s Patriots scored 18. In two games — the Super Bowl and season opener — Cam Newton’s Panthers put up 30.
During the nine-game win streak dating back to last year, no team scored more than 20 points against the Broncos. That changed in a 23-17 loss to the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday. Not only did the Falcons push past that 20-point mark against Denver; they might have provided a blueprint for the rest of the league on how to do so in the future.
Denver’s two biggest defensive flaws this year are stopping the run and limiting running backs in the passing game. Atlanta offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan clearly knew that going in. Asking Matt Ryan to constantly drop back and find receivers downfield is a death sentence, given Denver’s pass rush and secondary. So instead, Shanahan called runs right up the gut and quick passes to his running backs, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.
The Falcons started off the game feeding Freeman and Coleman on the ground. In the first half alone, they carried the ball 17 times for 78 yards and a touchdown. Then in the second half, Shanahan began dialing up more plays that pitted his speedy backs against Denver’s linebackers in passing situations.
Coleman in particular burned the Broncos when he was lined up as a slot receiver. He roasted linebacker Brandon Marshall on a 31-yard touchdown that made it 20-3. Here’s what the play looked like before the snap. Coleman and Marshall are circled in red.
Now click to watch Coleman zoom right past Marshall.
In the fourth quarter, Coleman pulled something similar when he ran past another Broncos linebacker, Todd Davis, for a gain of 49 yards.
That big gain eventually led to a field goal, all but putting the game away considering how Paxton Lynch and Denver’s offense was playing.
Coleman caught four passes for 132 yards. Together, Atlanta running backs had 180 yards through the air, which was the most receiving yards by any backfield in football since 2013.
The Broncos do an excellent job of taking great receivers out of games. Their corners are phenomenal, and their pass rush even better. One way to combat that, however, is to match speedy running backs against bigger linebackers. Atlanta did so, and it resulted in the most points against the Broncos defense since Dec. 20, 2015.
Now the question is will the rest of the league follow suit? And what will Denver do if it does?