ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The Broncos' offense has not lacked in explosive plays.
Through four weeks, Denver is tied for eighth in big plays, which counts runs of at least 10 yards and passes of at least 20 yards. Perhaps more impressively, the Broncos are tied for second in those big passing plays.
Against the Raiders, the Broncos had five such passing plays, including a 55-yarder to KJ Hamler that kept the Denver's chances alive.
The Broncos have also seemingly turned a corner in the red zone, as Denver has scored touchdowns in three of its last four red-zone trips after starting 0-of-6. That turnaround has come, in part, because of an increased commitment to running the ball inside the 20-yard line, according to Offensive Coordinator Justin Outten.
"It's something that we're going to lean on, it's something we believe in, not only in the open field but going downhill at these guys and having more of an opportunity to break a tackle because it gets muddy down there," Outten said. "The more passing you do, the tighter the windows get. The defenses are getting better with zero coverage and hiding it. There's nothing better than running it and then having the opportunity to pass off the same formation and motion."
Yet while the explosive plays and red-zone success suggest heightened offensive efficiency, the Broncos still struggled for portions of Sunday's loss to the Raiders. Denver gained just one first down and seven net yards on three possessions in the third quarter, and the unit had three consecutive three-and-outs at one point in the second half.
In Sunday's game, those struggles may have resulted from several early down plays in which the Broncos lost yardage or were penalized. Denver gave up a nine-yard sack on second down on its second third-quarter possession, and they were penalized for holding on a second down on the ensuing drive. The Broncos were able to overcome a first-and-30 on a fourth-quarter touchdown drive, but the early negative plays were often too much to overcome.
"We call them GBOTs — get back on track plays," Outten said. "[They're for] any time you're behind the sticks, and we've been leaning on that section way too much. Whether it's negative runs or penalties [like] false starts — whatever it may be, it's something that's self-inflicted. We want to get away from that as much as possible. Whether it's more simpler plays or better on the cadence where we're not behind the ball, we're treading mud right now. We've got to start getting that traction so we can get rolling."
The Broncos clearly have potential on the offensive side of the football. What they'll seek on "Thursday Night Football" against the Colts — and beyond — is consistency.
"There's been some really good explosive plays," Head Coach Nathaniel Hackett said. "There's been some opportunities for big runs, all kinds of different stuff. I think it's just the consistency. We just don't want to hurt ourselves. We want to be sure that we're continuing moving the chains. We've had a good third-down week, and then we've had a bad third-down week. We've had a good red zone and then a bad red zone. It's about putting it all together and not just doing one of those situations good. Not just the run game, not just the pass game, but consistently doing it throughout a game.
"Looking at our entire team, we haven't played our best football as a team in all three phases, whether it be defense, special teams or offense. I think that there's still so much more to improve on. All the guys are getting used to each other, and that's just something that we're going to have to continue to grow, and the best football is still ahead."
Ultimately, though, the Broncos' red-zone success rate or third-down percentage pales in comparison to Denver's top priority against the Colts.
"Winning," Russell Wilson said of what progress looks like. "That's it, that's all that really matters. I think we want to be great on third down and be great in the red zone, but at the end of the day, we put on the pads and cleats to win."
IMPROVING AGAINST THE RUN
The Broncos entered Sunday's game in Las Vegas with one of the NFL's top rushing defenses, allowing just over 80 rushing yards per game.
Denver didn't find that same success against the Raiders, as the Broncos' rival ran for 212 yards. Josh Jacobs, who finished with 144 yards and two touchdowns, led that charge — but the Broncos are confident they'll be able to respond in Week 5.
"I think the biggest thing for us is just not trying to do too much, playing our core fundamentals, and I think sometimes as coaches and players, you have a tendency to want to make a play to win the game and press," Defensive Coordinator Ejiro Evero said. "We've just got to trust the process, one play at a time, stay disciplined with our fundamentals, stay disciplined with how we're calling the game, all those things, and we'll be just fine."
Outside linebacker Bradley Chubb admitted that he was among the players who was so desperate to win that he tried to play beyond the defense.
"It's a division game, so I'm trying to do too much," Chubb said. "Thinking it's play action, but I get out of my gap and boom, it hits right there. Just being more disciplined when it comes down to what we're seeing."
Even if All-Pro running back Jonathan Taylor doesn't play, the Colts will likely still try to establish the run.
"We know they like to run the ball to get started and try to outmatch you physically and stuff like that, so our main thing is we're just going to have to match their intensity," Chubb said.