It’s remarkable what a week can do for perceptions in the NFL. This time last week, optimism was running rampant through Broncos Country as some dreamed about an outside shot at the playoffs. The 30-6 debacle against the Chiefs started all off the “tear it down and rebuild” talk anew.
In reality, the Broncos remain the same team that were two iffy calls away from 4-2. Still, this doesn’t mean there aren’t huge questions to sort out. There are plenty.
Let’s dig in:
1. Will someone step up to help Von?
Losing last week set off more talk about trading Von Miller. Those who support this idea overlook the fact that A) it’s fiscally irresponsible, and B) would create a leadership vacuum on a team with a first year head coach.
It also misses the biggest problem with the Broncos’ pass rush: Miller is still wrecking havoc and drawing the attention of opposing coordinators and protection schemes. When the other defenders make the most of the opportunities he provides, it looks a lot like the first half of the Jaguars’ or Titans’ games. When they don’t, it looks like last Thursday.
I've been asked more than once why Von Miller is "slumping" and his numbers are down. This is a good example as to how Von and the #Broncos coverage often play a large role even when they aren't getting the stat. pic.twitter.com/Reup9TV2hl— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 26, 2019
2. Could the Run defense slow down the Colts?
Quenton Nelson gets all of the ink when talking about the Colts offensive line, and for good reason. He’s legitimately one of the 20 or so best players in the entire league. The Colts under Frank Reich also average a little more than 30 rushing attempts a gain. So it may blow your mind when I tell you how the Broncos’ running game as a whole has looked better than Indianapolis’ on a per carry basis this season.
Since Alexander Johnson, Mike Purcell, and Kareem Jackson started in their respective roles, the Broncos run defense has looked like one of the very best in the entire league. Today, Vic Fangio’s rebuilt unit will have a chance to make a serious statement. Can do they do it?
3. Davontae Harris: lucky or good?
Back when the Broncos picked up Davontae Harris, it was completely overlooked. Duke Dawson was far more exciting with his 2nd round pedigree, and there were a slew of other moves going on. Now it’s fair to wonder if he’s slowly growing into one of the most underrated defenders on the Broncos’ defense.
By Sports Info Solutions game charting numbers, Harris is allowing a measly 4.6 yards per pass in his direction. The sample size is small, but it places him among the 20 best cornerbacks in the league.
I’ve had an eye on Harris’ charting stats for a few weeks because his numbers have jumped out since he started playing. Andy Reid definitely schemed up some looks to test him.
The play above is Matt Moore’s first pass of the game. The Chiefs are facing third and one at the one. Reid dials up a bunch look to the left. One of the reasons teams utilize these kind of groupings is to cause hesitation and confusion among the coverage players. It works to perfection here as Harris chases a ghost inside while Hill is wide open.
Fortunately, the play turns into an incomplete pass after Moore double clutches, is rushed, and then throws the ball at the feet of Damien Williams.
Davontae Harris probably owes Shelby Harris a beer or something. pic.twitter.com/rQpFu3s8pg— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 24, 2019
There were a couple of plays Reid called that could have really hurt the young corner. Through luck and the help of others, he hasn’t been burned on any of them yet. Harris is near the top of my single player film study list, because I have liked a lot of what I’ve seen.
He does a solid job in the two plays above holding down his assignment and coming up against the 6’5 260 lb Travis Kelcce for a tackle. Harris weighs a buck ninety.
I’m very curious to see how he plays against the Colts, as Reich is another one of the best play callers in the league.
1. How does the tackle situation shake out?
I really wish this hadn’t been prophetic.
JoRo: This is the “put up or shut up” year for Garett Bolles. Fans have made excuses for him since he was drafted, but with Munchak on board and his fifth year option looming he’s got to perform.
Jeff: I’m with the others on Garett Bolles. This will be his third year in the league and I think many are expecting him to finally put it together and improve. I hope that’s the case, but I worry he could trend the other way.
This past week, the Broncos have started to give Elijah Wilkinson reps at both tackle spots with Ja’Wuan James returning to practice. I’m not really sure he’s any sort of miracle cure, but with the way Bolles has played in 2019, it just seems like a matter of time before he’s riding the pine.
2. Is it possible for Flacco to rebound?
If you’ve missed the first two parts in our series looking at Joe Flacco’s plays on passing downs this season, I’d check it out for more of my thoughts (here and here). Simply put, he’s had a lot of trouble locking onto his primary read, dropping too far back in the pocket, and holding the ball too long. It’s a lot to fix, but perhaps the addition of James and a long week to prepare (or the pressure of Drew Lock coming off Injured Reserve?) helps the 12-year veteran settle into average play for the Broncos.
3. Can Courtland be the Broncos’ Lebron?
From a philosophical or team building standpoint, I’ve long held to the idea that a receiving corps is a lot like a basketball starting five. The best offenses all have a legitimate number one threat who can demand doubles and extra attention, as well as do significant damage in a number of ways.
Through the first half of the season, we’ve quietly seen Courtland Sutton make a big leap from last year. He has all of the tools, and his growth as a route runner and pass catcher have been encouraging.
With Emmanuel Sanders traded to the San Francisco 49ers, the emerging 2nd year star now faces a critical test. When he became the de facto number one as a rookie, Sutton caught all 56% of his targets for 146 yards and one touchdown over the Broncos’ last four games.
Can he prove he’s a true alpha now?
4. Who steps into E’s void?
Trading Sanders creates opportunities for other young players on the roster. Even after you consider that the 32-year-old missed the second half of the game with Tennessee, he was second on the Broncos’ offense in targets with 44.
I suspect it will be a committee approach with Hamilton and eventually Patrick getting a chunk, with a spattering of additional looks for Noah Fant and the tight ends. Hamilton especially is one player who has gotten open more often than he’s received opportunities, so it will be interesting if Flacco now gives him more chances.
One player that can’t be over looked though? Royce Freeman. He’s shown plenty of growth as a route runner in the first half of this year and I’d look for that to continue.
Before the Sanders trade, he was third on the team with 31 targets and Rich Scangarello made it clear early and often this season how much he wants to get the running backs involved in the passing game. It’s a big reason why Theo Riddick remains a contender to emerge off of Injured Reserve.
There is no doubt the Colts represent another one of the tough match ups on the 2019 Broncos’ schedule. There’s certainly areas they can exploit to a victory, but I’d consider it a pretty big upset unless Flacco and the passing game make serious strides since last Thursday.
While 2-5 has the boo birds throwing in the towel on this season, there remains nine games to play. Don’t forget that the Broncos have one of the youngest rosters in the entire league, so many of the little victories in the games could certainly lead to brighter days ahead.