Why Broncos Can't be So Obvious With Phillip Lindsay's Usage vs. Chiefs
One of the biggest questions heading into the 2020 season was how the Denver Broncos would utilize running backs Phillip Lindsay and Melvin Gordon in the offense. In the season-opener, Denver opted to start both players on the first offensive series against Tennessee.
Since then, Lindsay suffered a turf toe injury that sidelined him for three weeks, while Gordon became the primary ground weapon for Pat Shurmur’s offense. Gordon logged a season-high 23 carries for 107 yards and two touchdowns in the Broncos' Week 4 victory against the New York Jets.
Fast forward through the Broncos' adjusted bye week, and Gordon was arrested for a DUI on the players' last night off. Denver elected to travel without him to Foxborough because of an illness, reportedly strep throat.
But the Broncos' running game wouldn’t miss a beat as Lindsay returned against the Patriots, carrying the ball 23 times for 101 yards and leading his team to a tough 18-12 road win. Lindsay got a lot of help from the leg of kicker Brandon McManus, who went 6-for-6 on field-goal tries.
While the victory in New England was sweet and unexpected, the Broncos couldn’t score a touchdown the entire game. This week, the Kansas City Chiefs travel to Denver and it can be guaranteed that field goals won't be enough to beat the defending World Champions.
The Film Reveals a Tell
As Denver prepares to face Kansas City, the game film reveals glaring tendencies in the Broncos' offense. For example, when Drew Lock operates from under center in a single-back formation, it's a tell-tale sign of an inside hand-off for Lindsay.
Against the Patriots, Lindsay was featured in shotgun formations as well which resulted in power runs towards the perimeter. Lindsay wasn’t targeted a single time against the Patriots in the passing game, though. This trend telegraphs to the defense that when Lindsay is in the game, there’s a high probability of the ball being given to the ‘Colorado Kid' on the ground.
But wait, isn’t Lindsay the most effective when running between the tackles? After all, he was the first undrafted player to post back-to-back 1,000-yards rushing campaigns in NFL history.
The difference between then and now has nothing to do with Gordon's arrival, and everything to do with Shurmur’s offense. The heart of Shurmur’s offense is 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR), which spreads the defense wide across the field. In theory, this allows more passing opportunities for receivers and tight ends.
It wasn’t a major surprise when GM John Elway traded fullback Andy Janovich to the Cleveland Browns last spring because the Broncos have depth at tight end and it was thought that Andrew Beck could become the primary lead blocker for Lindsay in run packages. However, Beck’s game is much more consistent with that of an H-back and Shurmur has opted for 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE) to supplement blocking for Lindsay instead.
Lindsay the Receiver
There were also concerns that Lindsay’s biggest area for improvement needed to come as a receiver, specifically with catching and route running. The narrative that Lindsay can’t catch inspired the Pro Bowler to add weight (10-pounds) and route-running versatility to his game in the offseason.
Lindsay’s always carried a chip on his shoulder, which only intensified this past offseason after his starting position was seemingly given away to Gordon. But how is Lindsay supposed to catch the ball when he’s not targeted?
Against the Patriots, he was literally non-existent in the passing game got all of his touches as a rusher. Without RBs Coach Curtis Modkins on the sideline, who tested positive for coronavirus last week, Lindsay literally put the Broncos' offense on his back against the Patriots.
Some might chalk this up to the rusty return of Lock, who struggled in his progressions and locking onto one side of the field. But to me, it's glaringly evident that the Broncos' running backs aren't being utilized as the dynamic receivers they could be.
In two games, Lindsay has been targeted once, hauling it in for 11 yards. In four games, Gordon has been targeted 15 times, catching 11 passes for 45 yards and one receiving touchdown.
Ideally, the 6-foot-1, 215-pound Gordon should be the short-yardage back. His strength, power, and lengthy frame allow him to run North to South and force defensive backs to play flat on their feet. Lindsay’s 5-foot 8, 190-pound frame allows him to operate in both open and closed spaces.
Lindsay's agility forces defenders to respect his change-of-direction as he can run East to West, end zone to end zone. It’s very frustrating to see Gordon utilized in the passing game, but not Lindsay.
Not Enough Play-Action
As much as the Broncos are running the ball, play-action should be better utilized. But when opposing defenses home in on the limitations that coaches put on their own players, offenses get exploited.
Shurmur and the Broncos should analyze and study the Las Vegas Raiders' victory over the Chiefs two weeks ago. On the road at Arrowhead Stadium, the Silver and Black rushed for 139 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 4.1 yards per carry.
Running back Josh Jacobs saw the lion's share of the carries (23) while ex-Bronco Devontae Booker recorded the longest rush of the game (43 yards). QB Derek Carr kept Kansas City's defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo guessing by passing the ball to 11 different receivers in the Raiders' 40-32 win over the Chiefs.
While the Broncos have faced their fair share of QB controversy, a running back controversy just seems odd. Discipline for Gordon’s arrest has not yet been revealed from the court, the Broncos, or the league, though the new CBA mandates a three-game suspension. The possibility of Gordon playing against the Chiefs is very realistic but I doubt he will start. However, I do believe he will play and split reps with Lindsay.
Lindsay Should be the Starter
Let’s be honest, Lindsay has earned the right to be the starting running back for the Broncos. Not because he’s a fan-favorite, but because he can be more effective with the same number of carries as Gordon.
Lindsay has been consistent in practice and preparation, and he's been there for his team when the chips are down. He’s earned the respect and trust of his teammates through his work ethic and play on the field.
Anytime professionalism and commitment are questioned, as they have been of late for Gordon, that player stands the risk of losing his job to a teammate. In Gordon’s case, that teammate happens to be a Pro-Bowler with a Mile-High-sized chip on his shoulder in Lindsay.
If Coach Shurmur can feed Lindsay the ball — in more ways than one — the Broncos have a shot at upsetting the Chiefs and beating their bitter Division rival for the first time since Week 2 of the 2015 season.