A few days before Denver’s game at Cincinnati, cornerback Aqib Talib declared that this Broncos defense is “10 times better” than the one that won the Lombardi Trophy last season. While the hyperbole—10 times!—is incorrect, the general sentiment might not be. Denver’s pass rush is deeper with youngsters Shaquil Barrett and especially Shane Ray continuing to rise. Thanks largely to the underappreciated improvements of 2013 first-round nose shade tackle Sylvester Williams, the run defense has not tailed off after losing Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan in free agency. And, of course, that secondary that Talib himself is a part of remains far and away the best in football. No defensive backfield is more disciplined and cohesive in matchup coverages.
And so when you gaze over at Denver’s offense, you assume that unlikely starting quarterback Trevor Siemian, a 2015 seventh-rounder from (maybe you’ve heard) Northwestern, is merely caretaker. To a certain degree, probably even a large one, that’s fair. Caretaking is what you need from an inexperienced quarterback who plays with a great defense and an extremely well-coached zone running game.
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But NFL success cannot be sustained with a strictly down-to-down caretaker. Every game inevitably has a handful of situations where the man under center must make a play. Most of these come on third down.
Two of Siemian’s four touchdowns Sunday came in such scenarios. The last—a 55-yarder to Demaryius Thomas—sealed a Broncos victory and perfectly illustrated how much help Siemian is getting from head coach Gary Kubiak and his veteran coaching staff. On that play, depth chart bottom feeder Chris Lewis-Harris had come in at cornerback for Cincy, in place of a cramping Adam Jones. The Bengals don’t have their corners switch sides; Kubiak knew Lewis-Harris would be aligned outside to the offense’s left. And so Kubiak called a formation that put his best wide receiver, Thomas, out there. And he called a play that had Thomas running straight downfield. Imagine you’re Lewis-Harris. With no warning, you’re coming in cold off the bench in the fourth quarter in an obvious passing situation. And on your first snap you’re forced into isolated downfield coverage against one of the league’s most prolific receivers.
Presumably, Kubiak also told Siemian before the play to be alert for some sort of pressure, which Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther is not averse to bringing in critical moments. Sure enough, Guenther called a zone blitz (not all the Bengals up front were completely set). That presented one-on-one coverage mostly across the board. Utterly prepared, Siemian calmly stayed in the pocket and floated a perfect ball to his best target.
One of Siemian’s best traits these first three weeks has been his willingness to play from a pocket that’s collapsing. More often than not, an inexperienced QB will follow his instinct and try to vacate a crumbling pocket. Rarely does that work in the short-term, and never has it worked in the long-term. When Siemian knows where he’s going with the ball, he traverses crumbling pockets with dexterity and poise. When he hasn’t known where he’s going, the results have been very mixed. But the willingness to still hang in there has mostly remained, which suggests he has a legitimate chance to get better.
Siemian’s other third down touchdown at Cincy, a 41-yarder to Emmanuel Sanders on a third-and-five in the first half, was very similar to the Thomas one. On it, Siemian knew where he was going with the ball and remained poised from the pocket, moving gradually to his left to stay square behind his offensive line’s designed slide. Interestingly, it was a seven-step dropback with no play-action fake. No play-action is expected on third down, but that deep of a dropback is not. Not in today’s NFL, anyway.
But this gets to the other thing Kubiak has done these first three weeks: putting Siemian in deep dropbacks. He’s often done it on first downs and, like we saw Sunday, not always with the help of play-action. These deeper drops aren’t what most define Denver’s passing game; play-action zone concepts are. But it’s what has given Denver’s offense dimension and forced its young QB to find his comfort zone. On deep dropbacks, Kubiak is the parent letting go of the bicycle. Siemian is the boy with no choice but to keep pedaling. The fact that Kubiak has called these deeper drops mostly on early downs, when defenses are more predictable, equates to him giving Siemian a smooth, flat surface to bike on.
Naturally, the kid on the bike has wobbled at times. Leading up to the Bengals game, Kubiak even publicly stated, “He’s made some poor decisions. I know that sounds kind of crazy, but it’s just learning that, ‘Trevor, That guy can make that play. You’re not in college anymore. You’re not going to throw that ball through that guy.’ I think some of the speed-of-the-game factors that he’s beginning to understand a little bit is going to make him better each week.”
Siemian’s poor decisions haven’t pertained only to his two interceptions against Carolina and the one he had on a receiver screen against Indy. (Siemian did not have a turnover Sunday against the Bengals.) He was also talking about the completions that Siemian has had available downfield but has failed to even target. Often times, shoddy quarterbacking is exhibited in the throws that aren’t attempted. Entering Week 3, just two of Siemian’s passes had traveled 20 yards or more through the air. That was a league low, and it says more about him than Denver’s passing attack, which is controlled but not dink-and-dunk. Siemian, like many young QBs, doesn’t yet have a refined sense for how routes correlate with his coverage reads. And at times he’ll lock in on bad reads, waiting for them to break open. (In the NFL, they never do. Not before the pass rush becomes a factor, anyway.)
If Sunday’s performance at Cincinnati is an indication, Siemian will make strides. Because what was most encouraging about that game was not the way Denver helped its young QB schematically. It was the way that young QB found his own rhythm in the second half after a first half that was marred by inaccurate throws. Siemian has an attractive and compact release, yes. But more important than how a ball leave’s a quarterback’s hand is how it finds a receiver’s. Precision accuracy is near the top of the list of things Siemian must improve.
The good news is Siemian’s inconsistencies—ball placement, field reading—are mostly correctable. For a sound-minded and well-coached QB, experience alone can clean it up. And so the Broncos and their young quarterback will keep working. And all the while, they can keep winning. Through Siemian’s growing pains, the Broncos have beaten the defending NFC champion Panthers, the popular AFC South favorite Colts and now, the defending AFC North champion Bengals on the road. What will this team look like if its quarterback continues on the track he found in the second half on Sunday?