Pictures of the Broncos' starting offense and defense, according to the team's depth chart.
On Sunday, the 1-2 Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the 3-0 Denver Broncos at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. It will be the ninth meeting between the two teams and the Broncos first opportunity to visit Tampa in a dozen years (more on that series history). The Buccaneers will try to duplicate their feat from 1999 and defeat Denver in the year following a Broncos Super Bowl win.
To upend the champs again, the Buccaneers will need to shake the impressive composure of the Broncos new starting quarterback, Trevor Siemian. On offense, Tampa Bay will try to slow down the NFL's sack leader, Von Miller. Here's a closer look at the challenges the Buccaneers will face on Sunday in their fourth game of the season.
Gary Kubiak is in his second season at the Broncos' helm. The first one went reasonably well.
Just the fourth person to win a Super Bowl in his first season as a team's head coach, Kubiak is the first to do so since Jon Gruden took the Buccaneers to the top in 2002. Of course, Kubiak does have a much longer history with the Broncos, having played his entire nine-year playing career in Denver. He was drafted by the Broncos in 1983, the same year John Elway was selected first overall by the Colts and then traded to Denver. As such, Kubiak spent his entire career as Elway's primary backup, playing in 119 games but starting just five. Elway brought his former roommate back in January of 2015, reuniting the former roommates.
A look back at all of the match-ups between the Buccaneers and the Broncos.
Elway and Kubiak were teammates for three Super Bowls (XXI, XXI and XXIV), though none of those games resulted in championships. After wrapping up his playing career in 1991, Kubiak transitioned directly into coaching, starting out at Texas A&M for two years before spending one year as the quarterbacks coach of the San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers won Super Bowl XXIX that year, after which Kubiak was hired as the Broncos' offensive coordinator. After a very successful 11-year run in that post, which included two Super Bowl victories and five other playoff seasons, he got his first head coaching opportunity with the Houston Texans in 2006. Kubiak spent nearly eight seasons in Houston, compiling a 61-64 and leading the Texans to the first three playoff appearances in franchise history.
After one year as the Baltimore Ravens' offensive coordinator in 2014, Kubiak returned to Denver and became the first individual to appear in a Super Bowl as both a player and a head coach for the same franchise. Overall, he is 76-68 as an NFL head coach, with a 5-2 record in the postseason. Since he began his coaching career in '92, Kubiak has been associated with teams that have compiled an overall record of 254-152. He is described as a natural leader. Upon his hiring he said his number-one challenge was finding a way to get the most out of every player, repeating an old saying, "You treat players fairly, you don't treat them equally."
It was obviously Denver's top-rated defense that drove the team to victory in Super Bowl 50 last February, but the Broncos' offense still has many of the players that helped it score 30.1 points per game and rank second in the NFL in that category in 2014, including wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders and running back C.J. Anderson. Who they do not still have is quarterback Peyton Manning, or even Brock Osweiler, who replaced Manning for a stretch last season. That's how 2015 seventh-round pick Trevor Siemian has come to be the starting quarterback of the defending champions.
And Siemian has seized the opportunity, producing a 67.0% completion rate and a 95.9 passer rating through his first three NFL starts. The Broncos have not been particularly conservative with Siemian, either, as reflected in his 8.04 yards per pass attempt, which ranks seventh in the league. Despite an Anderson-led rushing attack that has produced 111.3 yards per game, the Broncos have actually thrown on 60.6% of their plays in the first half, which is almost exactly league average. It's not until the second half that Denver has run on 53.8% of their plays, third-highest in the NFL, as they take advantage of early leads.
Siemian has shown uncommon poise in the early stages of his career and that was particularly evident last week when the Broncos beat a strong Cincinnati team in the young passer's first road start. Siemian completed 23 of 35 passes for 312 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions, become in the first player in NFL history to combine 300 passing yards, four TDs and no picks in his first career road start.
Denver's offense has been excellent at sustaining drives, ranking fifth in the league with a 48.5% third-down success rate and tied for second in most drives of 10 more plays. Strangely, the Broncos have been extremely good on long third downs, converting at a 50.0% rate (tied for 1st) from 10 or more yards and a 44.4% rate (tied for 2nd) from six or more yards, but are 28th in the league on third-and-one.
Sanders leads the team with 17 receptions and two TD grabs. The 5-11, 180-pound receiver is quick and sure-handed and excellent at working the middle of the field. Thomas is the prototypical big-and-fast receiver of the modern era, a 6-3, 229-pounder who is also one of the league's best deep threats. He has two fewer receptions than Sanders but a team-leading 15.9 yards per grab, a category in which he owns an excellent career mark of 14.6. Before the Broncos' passing attack lost much of its downfield element in 2015, Thomas had posted double-digit touchdown totals for three consecutive years.
Sanders and Thomas have combined for all but eight of Siemian's 40 completions to wideouts, but that has been sufficient to succeed on both high-percentage and downfield throws. Denver ranks second in the league in percentage of passes that gain four or more yards on first down (65.1%) but also first in passer rating on throws that travel more than 21 yards in the air (156.3%).
Many expected Anderson to be the Broncos' breakout offensive player in 2015, and he did average 4.7 yards per carry, but he topped out at 720 rushing yards overall. He's off to a good start in 2016, however, with 203 yards and a pair of touchdowns through three games, setting an early pace for nearly 1,100 rushing yards. Anderson has also scored a third touchdown on one of his eight receptions, and despite a per-carry average that's down to 3.8, he's tied for second in the NFL with eight runs of 10 or more yards. As that might suggest, Denver has been a little bit all-or-nothing in the ground game, ranking 30th in the league in percentage of runs that get at least four yards. The Broncos used a fourth-round pick on Utah running back Devontae Booker but so far have only given him 16 carries to Anderson's 54.
Since Pro Bowler Julius Thomas left for Jacksonville following the 2014 season, the Broncos haven't really found a new dynamic threat at tight end, trying Owen Daniels and Vernon Davis last year. Sixth-year man Virgil Green, who had 12 catches last year, is getting a shot as the number-one tight end in 2016 but has just seven grabs for 74 yards so far.
The Broncos' offensive line has been in a state of transition for the last couple years. None of the primary starters from 2014 remain, and only one of last year's five starters is back and in the same spot in 2016. That would be center Matt Paradis, a former a sixth-round pick in 2014 who stepped into the Super Bowl champs' starting lineup last year. Michael Schofield, a third-round selection in that same draft, remains a starter but has moved from right tackle to right guard to make room for former Chief Donald Stephenson, a free agent signing in March. The Broncos also used free agency to fill their left tackle spot, grabbing former Seahawk starter Russell Okung. Former Florida Gator and 2015 draft pick Max Garcia is the new full-time starter at left guard.
That new-look offensive front has allowed five sacks of Siemian through three games, ranking 12th in the NFL in sacks allowed per pass play. Denver's 4.02 yards per carry in the ground game puts the team right in the middle of the league rankings. According to the offensive line analysis of Football Outsiders, the Broncos' O-Line has ranked 13th in both run and pass-blocking so far.
If there's any area in which Denver's offense has not been a pleasant surprise so far, it's in and around the red zone. The Broncos' 44.4% touchdown rate on red zone drives is tied for 25th in the league and Siemian's passer rating inside the 30 drops to 70.3, making the team 26th in that category.
As is often unavoidable for star-packed Super Bowl teams, the Broncos had a few defections from their defense after their big win in February. Linebacker Danny Trevathan went to Chicago while defensive end Malik Jackson signed with Jacksonville. In addition, linebacker DeMarcus Ware, who had 7.5 sacks last year, has been out since suffering a forearm fracture in Week Two.
Nevertheless, Denver still fields perhaps the most feared defense in the league, in large part because the franchise tag allowed the team to make sure Super Bowl MVP Von Miller didn't depart, as well. Miller, who had 11 sacks last year and another five in the playoffs, already leads the league in 2016 with five more. Perhaps the league's best edge rusher and a leading candidate for this season's Defensive Player of the Year award now that J.J. Watt is out, Miller is the kind of defender who can single-handedly disrupt an offense for an afternoon.
Pictures of the Top 10 Broncos in Week 3, according to their Pro Football Focus player grade.
Miller plays the SAM linebacker position in Denver's defense, usually rushing the passer from a standing position. The Broncos identify as a 3-4 team, with three down lineman and four linebackers on their starting depth chart, but their usage of "under" fronts means they really present more like a 4-3 on most snaps. Highly-respected Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips believes in keeping his scheme simple for his players but adaptable enough to be unpredictable to opponents. Because the Broncos can bring a wide combination of players at the quarterback, they are often thought to be a heavy-blitzing team but Phillips disputes that, noting that a "blitz" indicates extra rushers and the Broncos are often still just bringing four. That allows a full complement of players in coverage, and Denver makes heavy use of a six-DB package with four cornerbacks on the field at once.
Ware, he of the 136.5 career sacks, is supposed to be the bookend edge rusher to Miller but his injury has opened the door to more playing time for second-year linebacker Shane Ray. Ray had three sacks last week in Cincy and also has four quarterback hits, two tackles for loss and a fumble recovery. The Broncos are sacking opposing quarterbacks on just over 10% of their dropbacks, third in the league, and rank second overall with 12 QB takedowns. Young linebacker Todd Davis, starting now in place of the departed Trevathan, has provided a good rush from one of the two inside-backer positions. The other ILB spot is occupied by Brandon Marshall, who became a starter in 2014 and since has racked up 178 tackles, fifth-most in the league in that span.
Denver's effective pass-rush has consistently put opposing offenses in difficult positions. The Broncos are allowing only 3.62 yards per play on first down, the second-best mark in the league. They have been particularly good against the pass on first downs, allowing a passer rating of 50.0, second in the NFL and far below the league average of 91.3.
If the Broncos have struggled, relatively speaking, in any way on defense it has been stopping the run. Opponents who run on first down have seen more success, gaining at least four yards on 52.3% of their tries, which puts Denver 30th in the league in that category. The Broncos have allowed 127.7 rushing yards per game so far, sixth-worst in the NFL, and 4.7 yards per carry, eighth-worst.
Behind that pass rush, the Broncos also have one of the best collections of cornerbacks in the league. The starters are Pro Bowlers Aqib Talib and Chris Harris, but Kayvon Webster and Bradley Roby play a lot, as well. Not only does the extremely-athletic Talib have 31 interceptions in nine-plus seasons – more than any other NFL cornerback in that time – but his pick-six against Indianapolis in Week Two was the ninth defensive touchdown of his career. Harris, a former undrafted free agent, has developed into a star, making the last two Pro Bowls and already leading the team in 2016 with five passes defensed.
Safety T.J. Ward has been to two Pro Bowls, as well, and he's a hard-hitter who can also blitz the passer, as indicated by his four sacks over the past two seasons. Ward has 19 tackles for loss since 2013, fourth-most among all of the NFL's defensive backs in that span.
That swarm of talented defensive backs has made it difficult for opposing quarterbacks to push the ball down the field against the Broncos. When Denver opponents try to throw the ball more than 20 yards in the air they wind up with a cumulative passer rating of 47.8, as compared to the league average of 98.1. As such, Denver has allowed only eight plays of more than 20 yards this season, second-fewest in the NFL. The Broncos' five takeaways through three games represent almost exactly the league average, but they have efficiently turned those into 29 points, third-most in the NFL.
Only half of the kicking duo from the Super Bowl-winning team returns in 2016, as incumbent punter Britton Colquitt lost a preseason battle with seventh-round draft pick Riley Dixon, though that likely had something to do with the difference in the two players' potential salaries. Colquitt is now the Browns' punter while Dixon is one of only two rookies holding down that job in the NFL right now.
The former Syracuse punter is off to a reasonably good start, ranking 11th in the NFL in both gross (46.9 yards per punt) and net (41.3) average. Obviously, Dixon has the advantage of the thin air at home, but in his first road game last Sunday he put up a 46.2 gross and a 41.4 net. Only four of his 10 punts have been returned, for a total of 16 yards, suggesting very good hang time.
Brandon McManus does return for a third season as the Broncos' placekicker. He has made five of his six tries so far, making the last five after an initial miss from 54 yards. In his career he has made 44 of 54 field goal tries for a success rate of 83.3% that is just a hair below the league average of 84.2% in that span. McManus also handles the kickoffs and is eighth in the league with a 72.2% touchback percentage, including four touchbacks in six tries away from Mile High last Sunday. Last year, he made all 20 of his field goals from 39 yards or closer but wasn't as strong from 40 and beyond, making 10 of 15. He has missed one extra point in eight tries this year from the new longer distance.
The Broncos' return game has been strong so far this year, albeit in very small sample sizes. Wideout Jordan Norwood has handled the punts, averaging 12.6 yards on five tries, and with only a long of 15. Fellow receiver Cody Latimer is the kickoff returner, getting just three tries but average 27.7 per runback.