Anatomy of a broken play: How the Broncos first fake of the season went wrong

De’Angelo Henderson knew his rookie season would involve a heavy dose of special teams work. Almost all first-year players drafted in the later rounds are asked to make an impact on those units. It’s often their first real shot to show what they can do.

Still, Henderson didn’t count on his first NFL carry coming out of a punt formation as it did last Sunday at Buffalo.

“That’s not how I drew it up in my head going into the season,” he said.

The Broncos running back lined up six yards behind the line of scrimmage on 4th-and-2. The Broncos trailed 20-16 late in the third quarter and were searching for a spark.

But a play the Broncos had prepared the entire week to run fell apart from the start, and Henderson was tackled after a 1-yard gain. It was a key momentum switch in Denver’s 26-16 loss. While breaking down the play this week, the Broncos were reminded just how much has to go right in order for such risky plays to pay off.

“We didn’t execute the way we should have,” Henderson said. “We had everything schemed up properly. Before the snap came off, the ref was over the center telling us to ‘hold on’ because we had a late guy coming to the field. That kind of gave them the chance to diagnose what we were doing and gave them a head start to try and stuff the fake.”

The Broncos had their starting offensive line on the field for the fake. That was by design, special teams coach Brock Olivo said Friday.

“You create a mismatch by sending your starting offensive line back on the field,” Olivo said. “If they are lined up with their punt return personnel, there’s an obvious mismatch there. Even with our player reporting late on the field, we still had the mismatch because they didn’t match personnel. They were even trying to call timeout, but the ref didn’t see it. We still had the look, and that’s why we ran it. We just didn’t execute it.”

Olivo did concede that the late arrival of Lorenzo Doss torpedoed the “element of surprise.” Two Buffalo players attempted to call timeout as Doss ran to his position to the left of the formation, but the referees missed those signals.

Broncos coach Vance Joseph considered calling off the fake at that point.

“I thought about it,” he said. “I watched their guys. They had one guy with his hand on the ground. They had two guys calling timeout, which they (weren’t able to) do. We still had a great play. I didn’t want to waste it by saying, ‘I’m watching. I’m watching, OK. Should I bail this team out?’ I didn’t want to do that.”

The Broncos still had the matchup they wanted, but then two more critical breakdowns sank the design. First, Henderson had to stretch his arms to his left in order to retrieve the snap from Matt Paradis, a subtle movement that stalled his timing. More importantly, Buffalo linebacker Deon Lacey wasn’t picked up. He lined up on the right side of the Bills’ line, off the left shoulder of Denver’s Casey Krieter, the normal long snapper, who was lined up as a tight end to the left of left tackle Garrett Bolles.

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