With Peyton Manning on the shelf due to injury, the Denver Broncos are handing the reins to fourth-year pro Brock Osweiler. How will this affect Gary Kubiak's 7-2 team in this Sunday's game against the Chicago Bears -- and possibly beyond? Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks provides his assessment.
What's the book on Brock Osweiler?
The Broncos selected Osweiler in the second round (No. 57 overall) of the 2012 NFL Draft. He was a spectacular playmaker at Arizona State, but scouts viewed him as a bit of a "one-year wonder" based on his limited experience (15 career starts) at the college level. When I evaluated Osweiler coming out of college, I thought he was a talented dropback passer with sneaky athleticism and movement skills. Osweiler, who was also a highly recruited high school basketball star, exhibited exceptional agility and body control for a big-bodied passer. Although he didn't display A-plus arm talent as a passer, Osweiler capably made every throw in the book with good zip, velocity and ball placement. He excelled at working the short and intermediate areas of the field, and he also flashed enough timing, touch and anticipation to push the ball down the field on vertical routes.
From a critical standpoint, I questioned his game-management skills and diagnostic ability, somewhat due to his limited high-level reps. He wasn't tasked with a lot of responsibilities at the line, and he looked like the kind of prospect who would need some time to master the nuances of the position as a potential NFL starter. Additionally, Osweiler underperformed in big games at ASU, leading to questions about his immediate potential as a franchise quarterback. Thus, I placed a second-round grade (a developmental prospect who needs a year before earning starter's reps) on him and compared him to a young Matt Schaub (a two-time Pro Bowler with the Houston Texans).
Over the past few years, I've watched Osweiler, who turns 25 on Sunday, show steady progress as a passer and playmaker. He has improved his passer rating during each preseason: 57.5 in 2012, 68.8 in 2013, 84.0 in 2014 and 94.2 in 2015. Most importantly, Osweiler has shown the ability to direct an offense as a precise passer from the pocket, particularly in Gary Kubiak's system. Studying the All-22 Coaches Film from the young QB's preseason work, I came away impressed with his accuracy, poise and decisiveness while executing the Broncos' passing game. He consistently delivered the ball on time to receivers at every level. Additionally, he showed improved footwork on traditional dropbacks (taken under center) and capably executed the movement-based passes from the Pistol formation. I thought Osweiler had the potential to thrive as a starter in the Broncos' system with a solid supporting cast around him.
How much will the Broncos' offense change with Osweiler under center?
Kubiak undoubtedly will tweak the Broncos' scheme to accentuate Osweiler's skills as a playmaker under center. The fourth-year pro is a terrific quick-rhythm passer with enough athleticism and mobility to thrive in a movement-based passing game that puts the quarterback on the edges. Thus, I would expect to see Kubiak feature some of the basic components of the system that he used in his time with the Texans and Ravens. From a personnel and formation standpoint, I would expect Denver to utilize more traditional (under center) and Pistol formations with multiple tight ends on the field. This will enhance the Broncos' ability to execute the stretch-bootleg run/pass game from Ace (double-tight end sets) and two-back formations, giving the offense a more physical presence in the run game while also creating deep-shot opportunities off boot-action fakes.
When the Broncos elect to trot out spread personnel, I believe they'll operate out of various 2x2, 3x1 and empty formations, with quick-rhythm passes on the menu. These plays will allow Osweiler to not only attack the underneath areas of coverage, but target the seams on a variety of "four vertical" routes down the field. I dug into All-22 Coaches Film of this past Sunday's game against the Chiefs, when Osweiler replaced Manning in the third quarter. Here are a few concepts I expect to see Denver use with No. 17 at the helm:
QUICK-RHYTHM PASS GAME
I anticipate Denver extensively featuring a quick-rhythm passing game to help Osweiler get into a rhythm early. These throws are designed to get the ball out of the quarterback's hands while also allowing the Broncos' perimeter players to make things happen in space.
In the play depicted just below, taken from the fourth quarter of Sunday's loss to Kansas City, Denver runs a "crunch" route (downfield WR screen) to get an easy completion to Demaryius Thomas. The Broncos break the huddle in an empty formation, with three receivers positioned on the right, and Thomas aligned the furthest inside. Denver's dynamic pass catcher executes a quick flat route, with the outside receivers instructed to block their assigned defenders. Thomas makes the grab and picks up a first down on an easy pitch-and-catch (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
A little later in that fourth quarter, Denver runs a double slant concept that you can see just below. The play gives the green signal caller an easy read on the perimeter. Osweiler is assigned to read the flat defender (Ron Parker) and throw to the open receiver. On this play, the Broncos are in a dubs formation, with Bennie Fowler and Thomas positioned on the right. Osweiler is instructed to observe the reaction of the flat defender before making the throw. When Parker drifts outside, Osweiler fires the ball to Fowler for a 17-yard gain (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
In the next play breakdown, the Broncos are aligned in dubs formation, with Thomas positioned outside to the left. He is instructed to run a hitch route. Fowler, who's lined up just inside Thomas, is running a clear route down the seam to hold the flat defender (Parker). Osweiler will simply read the flat defender and fire the ball outside if the defender hangs on the seam. When Parker stays near the hash, Osweiler delivers the ball to Thomas along the numbers for an 11-yard gain (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
These are the kinds of routes Manning was unable to execute, due to his limited arm strength. Osweiler should add a different dimension to the aerial attack with his ability to throw outside the numbers.
The stretch-bootleg passing game is a bread-and-butter concept in Kubiak's playbook. The combination of misdirection and deception creates big-play opportunities down the field, particularly on doubles moves executed by tight ends or receivers between the hashes. Although the Broncos didn't script any shot plays in the game plan for Osweiler last Sunday, it was a vital part of Kubiak's playbook in Houston and Baltimore.
On the following play depiction, taken from the third quarter of the Chiefs' game, Kubiak calls a bootleg to get Osweiler into a rhythm. The Broncos break the huddle in a trips bunch formation to the right, with Thomas positioned on the outside. Osweiler executes a play fake to the left before rolling to his right on the bootleg. Thomas runs a whip route and sprints to the flat. Meanwhile, Andre Caldwell, who was the long receiver on the left side of the formation pre-snap, is running across the field on a deep drag. Osweiler looks off the flat defender, then delivers the ball to Thomas on the run. The big-bodied pass catcher picks up 16 yards on the play (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Can the Broncos win the Super Bowl with Osweiler at quarterback?
Yes. The Broncos remain one of the best teams in the AFC, based on their top-ranked defense and the explosive offensive potential they have with a fully functional quarterback at the helm. Despite Manning's career accolades and remarkable achievements, the 39-year-old passer limited the Broncos' offense with his inability to push the ball down the field.
No, Osweiler has not started an NFL game up to this point. But he is a better fit for Kubiak's offense and gives the wily play caller the opportunity to utilize some of the misdirection movement passes that create headaches for defensive coordinators. Additionally, Osweiler's athleticism will force defensive ends to respect the bootleg, leading to better production from the Broncos' running game.
Given the importance of explosive plays and the running game when it comes to sustained playoff runs, the Broncos are actually better positioned to make a title run with the youngster at quarterback.