How Broncos Have Gotten the Best Out of Bridgewater
The Teddy Bridgewater everyone was promised is not the one we have gotten through three weeks of the season. More often than not, that kind of sentiment means fans and analysts overpromised, only for the player in question to under-deliver. Bridgewater has done the opposite. The former game manager has strangely emerged into one of the league's most aggressive passers and guided the Broncos to their first 3-0 start since 2016.
Now, let's get the obvious out of the way: Denver's schedule has been favorable for Bridgewater. The Broncos offense has faced the sixth-easiest schedule of defenses through three weeks, per DVOA. That does not even account for the fact that the Broncos offense has been in no danger of being outscored thanks to their stout defense, which has gotten to tee off against Daniel Jones and two rookie quarterbacks. Denver's offense, as well as it has played, has largely been in control of the game script and had the freedom to run what it wants.
With that being said, let's get into what has changed for both Bridgewater and the Broncos offense, and how much of their production to this point is sustainable.
A portion of Denver's offensive renaissance still comes from what was promised with Bridgewater at the helm. Bridgewater adds a level of stability, both in decision-making and accuracy, that was never there with Drew Lock last season, or with any of the other Broncos quarterbacks since Peyton Manning for that matter. The speed at which Bridgewater can process information compared to his predecessors in Mile High is noticeable.
This rep is the definition of "checking all the boxes." Truthfully, the concept does not do a whole lot to give Bridgewater many advantages, so the onus is on him to assess the defense from a five-step drop and zip through his progressions. Through the first few steps of his dropback, Bridgewater gets eyes on both curl/flat defenders on the outside, first checking the field curl/flat player to his left handling the motion man before peeking to his right at the boundary curl/flat safety, who rolled down just before the snap and may have been blitzing. Bridgewater also gives a quick look to the field cornerback playing deep and with zone eyes, all of which should tell Bridgewater this is Cover-3.
Bridgewater then reads the concept left to right, getting to the sit route over the middle by the top of his drop before transitioning to throw the curl outside. Before throwing the curl, Bridgewater knows from what he saw during his dropback that Marcus Maye (20) is positioned in the curl/flat area and needs to be moved, which is why he gives a flash fake out to the running back running a swing route to open up the window before delivering the curl.
As mentioned before, earning consistent gains on base downs is not what has pushed the Broncos offense to new heights. Bridgewater's added stability helps, make no mistake, but that's not the X factor. The real key has been his aggression and willingness to stand strong in the pocket, especially on third and fourth downs. Bridgewater's time to throw (3.08 seconds, third) and average depth of target (9.1, tied-seventh) are an easy gauge of that, but it is even more satisfying to watch play out on film.
On the following play, Denver has a fourth-and-7 against the Giants in Week 1, in part because Bridgewater targeted a fairly well-covered corner route past the sticks on third down rather than taking the checkdown and hoping that yards after catch would have gotten the first down. Bridgewater's aggression put him in this fourth-down spot, in a way, but his ability to work full-field reads bailed him out of it.
Denver is running a concept that may be referred to as Cross-Country Dagger. The outside receiver to the left runs a 12- to 14-yard dig route, while the slot receiver runs a deep over that helps clear out that area. The lone receiver to the opposite side of the formation runs a straight vertical to help clear out space for the deep over. From right to left, each route theoretically opens up the window for the next, and the quarterback can work the concept front to back that way. Getting all the way back to the dig can be tough because of how long the quarterback has to hold the ball and adjust to throw opposite of the side he opened up to, but Bridgewater does a fantastic job working to it after the weak safety dropped down to take away the deep over route.
That window was not difficult to hit once Bridgewater got to it, but a quarterback who could be trusted to execute a dropback concept that attacks past the sticks on fourth-and-7 is not something Denver had in their arsenal before. Last year's Broncos probably kick the field goal right then and there. That drive ultimately ended in a field goal anyway, but Bridgewater gave them another chance at the end zone and, if nothing else, an easier field goal attempt. Those chances will matter over the course of 17 games.
To be clear, Bridgewater has not ascended to being an aggressive passer all on his own. Denver's pass protection unit also deserves a portion of the credit. Statistically, the Broncos' pass protection looks middling, as their spot at 20th in adjusted sack rate suggests. That can be partially explained by their aggressive pass concepts, though, as well as Bridgewater's newfound willingness to hold the ball.
While the Broncos do not have elite personnel who can win one-on-one blocks versus the best pass-rushers on every rep, they are a sharp unit, running backs and tight ends included, who do not allow many free runners on dropback passes or play-action. Mike Munchak has this unit overperforming in some ways with how well they play as a crew to patch together protection plans.
This is supposed to be play-action. It would normally be the running back's job to take the fake handoff and then scan for any potential late blitz threats from his side of the formation. Giants safety Logan Ryan (23) tips his hand just before the snap, though, and shows the Broncos he is blitzing. Running back Melvin Gordon knows he is responsible for any extra threat off this side and has his eyes on Ryan before the snap. Gordon assumes Ryan will blitz and immediately peels off to the edge to pick him up, abandoning his play-fake responsibilities. Showing the awareness to pick up that blitz in any capacity is solid enough from Gordon, but forcing the blitzer as far inside as he did for Bridgewater to have an open throwing lane to the tight end out wide was the cherry on top.
The Broncos are in another six-man protection with the running back on this snap against Jacksonville, this time without play-action because it is third down. Before the snap, center Lloyd Cushenberry signals he is working to the right and sliding the line that way. Cushenberry's call is a response to that side having more potential rushers with the second-level threat creeping in, not to mention that the 1-technique to his right (Roy Robertson-Harris, 95) is a bigger threat (literally) than the linebacker to his left (Myles Jack, 44). An offensive line generally wants to slide to the side of the defense with more rushers and Cushenberry puts them in position to do so, leaving the running back to read inside-out from the A-gap back to his edge.
The Jags drop out two players from the left side of the formation (Jack and Josh Allen, 41) and send everyone from the right, including the second-level defenders (Rayshawn Jenkins, 2 and Rudy Ford, 5) in an effort to get Denver blocking ghosts on one side and overwhelm them on the other. Thanks to Cushenberry's slide call, as well as Williams' fantastic vision and block on the free runner, the Broncos get this all blocked up with ease and Bridgewater finds Courtland Sutton over the middle for a first down.
Plays like this put on display the perfect marriage between Bridgewater's bold new attitude in the pocket and Denver's ability to pick things up well in protection. The Jets are a defense that likes to bring pressure, and Denver knows that. The Broncos add on both the running back (Gordon, 25) and the tight end (Albert Okwuegbunam, 85) to the protection to guarantee numbers. Since the only inside blitz threat is in the right-side B-gap and the Denver offensive line already has numbers there, Gordon can kick out to meet the blitzer off the left edge immediately. That puts both extra protectors on the edge, allowing the big dudes up front to better block up the interior.
Both "add-ons" to the edge do a good-enough job forcing their players deep around the back of the pocket. Along the interior, right guard Graham Glasgow (61) glues the protection together by giving presence to help his center (Cushenberry, 79), working over to help his right tackle (Bobby Massie, 70) once he gets pushed back, and finally bringing himself back to the middle to pick up the late blitzer (C.J. Mosley, 57) and give Bridgewater enough of a runway in the pocket to work. That is some heads-up ball from Glasgow and commendable efforts from Denver's "extra" blockers to tie this play together.
Unfortunately, some of Denver's heads-up pass protection may be in jeopardy for the short term. Both guards, Dalton Risner and Glasgow, are battling minor injuries and may not be available for Week 4 against the Baltimore Ravens. Netane Muti and rookie Quinn Meinerz are the next men up in that scenario. Both have played this season, including one Muti start in place of Glasgow in Week 2.
Muti and Meinerz are intriguing prospects for the Broncos, but it's a matter of fact that neither of them are as experienced as Risner and Glasgow, and those two vets have been playing smart football despite some ups and downs in one-on-one situations. Denver will be fine in the long run when they get the vets back, but for the time being, things may be a bit bumpier with the young guys both in the lineup, if it comes to that.
That being said, the Broncos have a good foundation moving forward this season. Between good coaching up front, smart players in pass protection, and an amped-up version of Bridgewater, the Broncos have finally found themselves a successful offensive formula after years of searching for one. They will likely fall back to earth and stop producing like a top-five unit, especially if Bridgewater continues to struggle hitting shot plays, but the signs of a capable passing offense are there.
Bridgewater and the fellas up front have proven they have a sound, aggressive approach that can give the team a fighting chance. Now they just need to prove they can execute against the league's best rather than its worst.