ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Rich Scangarello has seen this running back duo before.
Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman may have made names for themselves in Denver, but they also remind the Broncos’ new offensive coordinator of two running backs he coached in Atlanta in 2015.
The Falcons’ Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman possessed different skill sets that worked in favor of an offense that led the NFL with 34.1 points per game the year after Scangarello left Atlanta.
And while Lindsay and Freeman aren’t the same duo as Coleman and Devonta Freeman, they play to each other’s strengths in similar ways.
“Royce and Lindsay are perfect complements,” Scangarello said Sunday. “It kind of reminds me of Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman in Atlanta. They [have] different skill sets, they’re both talented in their own way, they’ll both be able to [use] their strengths so they can be the best players they can be. Royce is big, he’s physical in pass protection. That’s a big deal in the NFL, that durability that comes with it. As far as running the football in the scheme, they both can do it. One’s just probably going to do it with a little bit more physicality and the other’s going to make you miss.”
Lindsay, who rushed for 1,037 yards and scored 10 total touchdowns as an undrafted rookie, was part of the allure that drew Scangarello to Denver.
“One of the great things about coming to Denver that really excited me from the day I walked in the door, there are very few players in the league like Phillip that have the ability to win a one-on-one matchup at any time,” Scangarello said. “I think that the easiest matchup to create in the NFL is the halfback on a linebacker, and that’s what we try to do in this offense a lot. I think he has that gift and that ability and those traits, so [I'm] excited to try to do that and try to force defenses to put a DB on him and open up other players.”
And that’s before you add in Freeman, who had all five of his touchdowns in the first eight weeks of the season.
“He’s just a physical dude,” Scangarello said. “He’s smart, he’s instinctive and I’ve enjoyed coaching him so far.”
Together, they can make Denver better.
“They’re both different, but they both can do the same things in different ways,” Scangarello said. “But you don’t want Lindsay, a smaller guy, to take A-gap pressure from linebackers on a regular basis. To be able to share the load and put those guys in position to do something they can do better, that’s our job.”
THE VALUE OF 1-ON-1’S
The Broncos’ wide receivers and defensive backs faced off in one-on-one drills on Sunday for the first time, but Head Coach Vic Fangio wasn’t watching.
The 33-year NFL veteran made it clear he has little use for that type of drill.
“To me, one-on-one is a teaching drill,” Fangio said. “It’s really not football. I tell the story — and it’s a true story — in all my years as a coordinator, I’ve never watched a one-on-one drill. I’m assuming you’re alluding to wide receivers/DBs? I’ve never watched it in person nor on tape. Because if you watched that drill, you’d be afraid to ever call man coverage. It’s a drill. It’s a teaching drill. And that’s the way I look at it.”
Fangio said one-on-one drills between offensive and defense linemen contain “a little bit more realistic stuff” and that he watches those drills on occasion.
Fangio’s staff, though, still has use for the drill.
“You’re out there singing a capella,” Defensive Coordinator Ed Donatell said. “There’s no rush. You’re right out there. The quarterback can see his target the whole time, so that’s a little bit of stress on you. What I try to do with our guys is I try to get them to play it straight during that period. Don’t try something out of the ordinary. Use it as a time to work on your trade and don’t listen to the cheering if it doesn’t come out your way. We just want to really dial in on our skill and improve, because that’s about as hard as it can be for us.”
And in the office, Donatell makes sure the clips aren’t shown in meetings in which Fangio is present.
“I just don’t tell him about it,” Donatell joked. “If we watch that drill, he said, ‘I’ll never call it.’”
Joe Flacco has never thrown more than 27 touchdown passes in a season, and he’s gotten to 25 on just two occasions. He’s also broken the 4,000 yard mark just once.
But Scangarello said he doesn’t think those are numbers are indicative of the quarterback’s skill set.
“We’ve got to go out and do it and put it together, but I’ve just got a lot of respect for Joe,” Scangarello said. “I don’t think the numbers truly reflect the player he is — I never have. …. He’s got the kind of ability that allows you to push the ball down the field. He’s tough in the pocket. I think there’s a misconception that he’s not athletic. I mean, you guys [have watched] the guy run around and escape the pocket the last few days. He’s probably more athletic than any guy I’ve been around — Matt Ryan, those guys. He’s got fluidity and he can move. I’m excited. It’s not going to be easy, but we’ll see where we can take it. But I think there’s a great foundation there.”
FANT MAKING STRIDES
Fangio said Fant caught his eye “a few times” during Sunday’s practice as the first-round pick hauled in several passes and added long runs after the catch.
Scangarello has also seen the rookie make strides, especially since the team donned pads for the first time on Saturday.
“It’s the NFL,” Scangarello said. “The game’s faster. We’re asking him to do a lot because we know what he’s capable of. It’s not just him learning the offense, it’s also him learning the nuances of the things we know he’ll excel at. And so that adds to the learning. The fortunate part is we have a few extra practices … to get him going a little bit. He’s a quick learner. He’s got a skill set, and he can do just about anything. I’ll say this, I think one of the things that was most undervalued [about] him coming [out] of the draft that we felt very strongly about is I think he’s an excellent run blocker in this zone system. I’m excited about that. The pads went on, and he’s really shown very, very well.”
WHO’S THE RETURNER?
Special Teams Coordinator Tom McMahon said he needed to “control the guys that are really in that battle” for the team’s punt return position. That means ensuring they get live reps over the course of five preseason games.
That begins against Atlanta on Aug. 1.
“If [the Falcons] punt nine times, we’re going to have nine different punt returners,” McMahon said. “I guarantee it. I guarantee that — a different guy out every time. We’re going to try them all out. We have to find that guy. And you don’t know who it is. You look at [Darius] Jennings last year in Tennessee. Who knew who that guy was? And look what he did. He’s a star. So we’ve got to find the star.”
Jennings averaged 31.7 yards per kick return and scored a touchdown for the Titans in 2018.
Through four days of camp, Scangarello thinks third-year offensive lineman Elijah Wilkinson has been the biggest surprise for his unit.
“He’s lost weight, and he’s very athletic,” Scangarello said. “[A] great scheme fit. I just like the way he works out here. I think [Offensive Line Coach] Mike Munchak’s done a great job bringing out his skill set and really helping him develop. I think he’s a good football player. I think he’s a guy we’re very happy about to this point.”
Wilkinson has appeared in 21 games in two seasons with the Broncos. All seven of his career starts came in 2018.