So at the quarter mark of the season I thought it’d be a good time to take a step back and look at all phases of the team across the 4 games so far. Too often we have a habit of zeroing in on the last game and losing sight of the overall performance. At 2-2 with the meat of the schedule coming up, there’s no better time than now.
There’s no way to sugar coat Case Keenum’s disappointing performance so far. Through four games the veteran quarterback’s QBR is better than two benched veterans, Jimmy Garoppolo and Josh Allen. ESPN projects that Keenum’s play has added negative point value. He simply has to improve or Elway will need to move on after the season. Take note that the Broncos can walk away from Keenum after the year with a $10 million cap hit. That’s pretty nasty, but the move would open up $11 million in cap space.
Before the Chiefs game Monday, the Broncos offense was one of the very best rushing offenses in the league per Football Outsiders efficiency statistics. Then the rookie rushers shredded the Kansas City defense. Credit has to go to an improved offensive line and scheme that maximizes their talents, but there is no doubt this pair is very special. Credit to Musgrave & Joseph for minimizing Devontae Booker’s role to emphasize the more productive pair.
With every opportunity he’s been given, Courtland Sutton has proven himself worthy of more. More targets. More snaps. More. Supposedly a raw talent out of SMU he’s been a revelation since the first days of camp and will only get better.
Across from him Emmanuel Sanders has developed a special chemistry with Case Keenum and has done all he can to carry the Denver passing game. Demaryius Thomas has been a bit of a lightning rod. Through 3 weeks he was second in the league in drops to only Viking’s bust Laquon Treadwell but has also done enough to keep the faithful in his corner. Like Keenum, he needs to improve if the Broncos are going to make any real noise this season.
The rest of the receiving corps is promising, but unproven. Tim Patrick had a tremendous game and Jeff Heuerman is steady, if unspectacular. DaeSean Hamilton has had a quiet season so far but has little in the way of opportunity. This will probably change going forward as the Jake Butt injury will mean that Musgrave moves to more 3 receiver sets.
If you can ignore the Mile High Meltdown, Bill Musgrave has done a solid job keeping the team in games. The offensive line has coalesced into a solid unit despite Garett Bolles and Jared Veldheer’s individual weaknesses (and a heavy dose of Billy Turner) and Sean Kugler deserves credit for that. The offensive coaching staff has done enough for the Broncos to contend in each game and that’s really all you can ask for.
Of course, it’s hard to ignore this question.
I suspect that the rest of the season will reveal the Broncos defense as better than they’ve shown so far. Outside of the opening game against the Seattle Seahawks, each opponent Denver has faced looked like a top 10 offense in the league.
Joe Flacco, first 4 games of 2017: 601 yards, 65.0 passer rating— ProFootballReference (@pfref) October 1, 2018
Joe Flacco, first 4 games of 2018: 1,252 yards, 96.9 passer rating pic.twitter.com/nOVbsSaQEV
However, there are still issues, and play action in particular is a big one. Before the Kansas City game Denver faced PA 29% of the time and allowed 12.1 yards per play. Only the Packers did worse. This has to improve as the Los Angeles Rams, Cincinnati Bengals, and Jets all utilize PA a great deal.
The secondary needs to continue the improved play they showed against Kansas City. Yiadom specifically needs to grow up fast as the age of the rest of the reserve corners means he’ll probably bear a larger burden than the coaching staff envisioned before camp broke.
The other corner that really deserves extra attention going forward is Bradley Roby. The 5-year veteran was allowing almost 9 yards per pass in his direction before Kansas City. It’s a contract year and he could make or cost himself millions with the remaining 12 games.
The pass rush has been as good as can reasonably be expected. Through three games the Broncos were a top ten team in FO’s adjusted sack rate and Von Miller and the gang made sure Mahomes noticed them Monday night. Bradley Chubb has shown flashes of real promise and while the Myles Garrett comparisons may be laughable in hindsight he should develop into the kind of primary rusher that helps take focus off Von as he ages. Shane Ray and Shaq Barrett have taken on more of a role as the season’s progressed and done damage in spurts. Without a doubt, the Orange Rush is the strength of the defense.
The run defense has quietly disappointed. Opposing teams have only run for 93.8 yards per game, but far too often Denver fails to stuff running backs in short yardage situations. The issue came to a head Monday Night.
I’ve been highly critical of Joe Woods so far this season and he finally seemed to answer the call against Kansas City. Then the 4th quarter happened. It’s hard to know exactly what went wrong until I get my hands on the All-22, but this report by Vic Lombardi can’t be ignored.
Several Broncos players visibly and vocally upset with the soft coverage on 2nd and 30.— Vic Lombardi (@VicLombardi) October 2, 2018
One player on his way out:
“Where’s the blitz?? What are we doing?!?”
Not a whole lot to be said here, which is actually a great thing. The coverage units have vastly improved on last year’s performance thanks to Tom McMahon. So far the Broncos have a punt
and field goal blocked for a touchdown. Shaq Barrett also blocked a point after attempt against the Raiders that wound up being the difference in the game.
As far as the kickers are concerned, Brandon McManus has been his usual self which is great news. Marquette King, however has disappointed. There are questions circulating as I write this that he may be playing through injury, but if that’s the case Denver would benefit from elevating Colby Wadman from the practice squad.
4 games in the Broncos look like an average team in all 3 phases of the game. An elite running game and pass rush buoying a weak quarterback and secondary. Football Outsiders runs a simulation to project team’s playoff odds. After Monday the Broncos made the playoffs in 22.5% of their scenarios. They finished with a top 5 pick 9.8% of the time. Joseph is on the knife’s edge this week.
Do or Die in New York
In case you haven’t noticed, the Jets offense and especially their aerial attack have been grounded since their week 1 blowout of the Detroit Lions. Remember when reports of Elway’s affection for USC’s Sam Darnold flooded the pre-draft rumor mill? The rookie quarterback has completed 57.5% of his passes for 848 yards, 4 touchdowns and 5 picks so far. I took a look at the picks to see if there was any similarities among the rough throws.
The last rookie QB to throw a pick-six on his first career pass? Jameis Winston.
Darnold did do a better job against the Dolphin’s D as the game went along, but still finished with a QBR of 13.8 for the game.
One reason for that abysmal grade? Throws like the one above. The interception comes on 1st and 10 from the 12. It’s a Verticals concept to the right in a 3 by 1 split. The inside receiver occupies 3 defenders with a run at the J in Jets, leaving both outside receivers one on one. Darnold forces it when he should have simply dumped it down to the back and accepted 2nd down.
The fourth pick was a culmination of a pass rush impacting a rookie quarterback’s internal clock. He felt the pressure and never progressed through his reads. Part of the trial by fire, but something Joe Woods has to take note of.
The fifth pick was excusable as an end of the half chuck-it-and-duck kind of throw, but as I watched the Jaguars game a lot of the same habits he displayed above resurface. Darnold lives up to his pre-draft hype as a gunslinger type who will give his receivers as well as the defense a chance at the ball. He routinely locks onto his favorite target Quincy Enunwa to his own detriment.
Enunwa has 37 targets through four games, more than double any other receiver on the Jets roster. If Darnold is going to continue locking on to his binky, the Fly Zone needs to make him pay for it.
One of the things that is a bit perplexing is how invisible Robby Anderson and Jermaine Kearse have become to their new quarterback. Both had 800+ yards receiving a year ago but have just 14 receptions between them to date. Beyond them the Jets also employ Terrell Pryor who has disappeared the last two weeks, but lit up the Dolphins for a 44 yard gain.
One thing that should help Denver this week is that the Jets do not seem to employ a true X-factor at tight end. Bilal Powell could do some damage after check downs though and he’ll likely get a few targets as Bates tries to help his QB survive the Broncos pass rush.
On the ground the Jets are limited by a below average offensive line that routinely gets their backs stuffed. They averaged 2.4 yards a carry last week, and 3.5 the week before. They have done damage if they can get to the second level, however.
The Jets recipe for success starts with their defense, a unit that looks like it will finish among the leagues elite by season end. Before their game against Jacksonville the pass defense was the most efficient in the league and it is extremely stout on the outside. There is a noticeable hole in the middle, however.
Even when the Jaguars did attack the boundaries of the defense, they favored crossing routes that caught isolated the New York linebackers. This was intentional and something Musgrave the the Broncos need to do if they’re going to move the ball through the air.
I say “if” because the best way to consistently move the ball on the Jets remains running the ball. Not only are the Broncos stronger at that phase of the game, but New York can be had by it. They are susceptible right up the middle and plays like the Lead Draw should find success as well as slow down the second level pass defenders.
As a broad philosophical statement I’ll admit I’m one that thinks the modern NFL game demands even more passing than most teams do. Most of them have proven signal callers under center. For Denver it is crucial they take a page out of Musgrave’s 2012 Viking script and pound the rock early and often. It will work against New York.
The Los Angeles Rams loom large on the other side of the visit to the Big Apple. All but the most devout Bronco backers chalked that one up as a loss before the season and it will likely be the strongest opponent Denver faces this season. Already a game behind Kansas City and with an AFC North that looks like it will feature at least two playoff teams the Broncos need every win they can get between now and Christmas if they’re going to chase the dance.
The coaching staff needs to stick to their identity and manage their veteran journeyman quarterback against a strong defense. Defensively they need to harass their opponent’s rookie quarterback and capitalize on his mistakes. It’s now or never. New York is a must win.