Last season, the Broncos bucked convention by winning the Super Bowl despite their offense. Their 194 yards and 11 first downs in the game were both all-time lows for a Super Bowl winner. Without a significant upgrade at quarterback, an elite defense carrying a mediocre offense was supposed to be the winning recipe again in 2016. But while their defense held firm in the season-opening 21–20 victory over the Panthers, their offense won them the game.
Trevor Siemian made his first NFL start and managed the game about as well as Gary Kubiak could have hoped. He finished 18-of-26 (69 percent) for 178 yards (6.8 yards per attempt), with a touchdown and two interceptions. While no one’s going to throw him a parade, outside of those two big mistakes, Siemian showed the poise and confidence that earned him the job. He was Denver’s de facto point guard: He distributed the ball to his offensive playmakers, spreading passes around to Emmanuel Sanders (five catches for 49 yards), Demaryius Thomas (four catches, 48 yards), and Virgil Green (four catches, 28 yards).
As expected, there wasn’t much aggression in the passing game. But the Broncos’ run game was the real breakthrough. The team put up 148 yards on the ground — not against a sieve-like defense like the Saints, but against the same Panthers front seven that gave up just 88 rushing yards a game last year and finished sixth in rush defense DVOA. Running back C.J. Anderson carried the offense on his back, and finished with 139 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns — one on the ground and one on a screen pass. He consistently picked up yards after contact, plinko-ing off of hits and carrying defenders downfield with him.
Most of the story lines surrounding Denver’s offseason centered on the quarterback competition and Von Miller’s ascent to superstardom, but the additions of bookend tackles Russell Okung and Donald Stephenson in free agency, along with the selection of fullback — yes, fullback — Andy Janovich out of Nebraska in the sixth round of the draft could be steals for a team that wants to do what Gary Kubiak always wants to do: run the ball down his opponents’ throats.
Against Carolina, Janovich was a force in the old-school I-formation looks that Kubiak loves to run, and he showed up on a key third-and-1 early in the second quarter. After Janovich motioned into the backfield, Siemian handed off to him on the dive, which is apparently so rare in the modern NFL that the Panthers defenders didn’t bother to check if he had the ball.
The rookie fullback laid out key blocks on a few of Anderson’s big runs, too. Early in the second quarter, Janovich picked up Thomas Davis, who was filling the hole against the run. This sprung Anderson for a big gain.
In the third quarter, he sealed Davis out of the run lane again on another big Anderson run.
Anderson finished the game with 92 yards rushing on 20 carries — a seemingly inefficient total that’s impressive considering it came against Carolina — and through one game, the Broncos offense looks and feels different than it did the past few years. It’s no longer a marriage of two styles: With Peyton Manning behind center, Kubiak was forced to compromise, mixing his standard wide-zone, run-heavy offense with the three-wide, shotgun looks that Manning preferred.
This season, Kubiak can run as much of his stuff as he wants — like the frequent I-formation zone running coupled with a quarterback bootleg on the backside we saw Thursday night. If the win over the Panthers is any indication, we’ll be seeing some iteration of the ’90s Broncos teams Kubiak coordinated — the ones that ran all over the NFL with Terrell Davis at running back and John Elway at quarterback. No one’s calling Siemian Elway here, to be clear, but Anderson has the potential to be one of the most productive backs in the league this season.
The defense still looks stout, and the unit held Cam Newton and a Panthers offense that averaged more than 31 points per game in 2015 in check. But here’s the scary thought for the rest of the league: The offense already looks like it’s going to be better than it was last year.