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The 5 big things I’m watching for in the Broncos’ Week 5 match-up with the Chargers

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Will the Broncos avoid their first ever 0-5 start? These things will make the difference.

NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars at Denver Broncos
Can Flacco take advantage of the Chargers D?
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

No team in Broncos history has ever fallen to 0-5. If the 2019 roster wants to avoid dubious history, it’ll have its work cut out for it with Philip Rivers and a Chargers team that has a fresh Melvin Gordon. How will Fangio slow the best offense his struggling defense has faced this season? Can the offense carry last week’s first-half performance into a full four quarters?

These are the things that could make a huge difference on the two bigger questions above:

Defense

1. Can the pass rush survive the loss of Bradley Chubb?

2. How does Fangio stop the bleeding run defense?

3. Could the Broncos exploit L.A.’s interior line?

Before the Jaguars game, I got some heat from Brandon Marshall as well as a few other members of Broncos Country for suggesting Fangio’s defense was flailing through three weeks.

But 455 yards and 26 points later, these concerns look prophetic:

Through three games, the Broncos’ defense is disappointing in just about every meaningful stat you’ll find. By Football Outsiders’ efficiency stats, they’re a mediocre team at stopping the run, where they continue to get gashed off left tackle and the between the guards.

Against the pass things look even scarier. The Broncos are a bottom five team stopping passes to the middle of the field, they’re even worse against deep passes, which is concerning when you stop to consider that Fangio’s defense is built to prevent deep shots. They’ve been league average against short passes.

The most obvious question mark facing the Broncos is how Von Miller and the pass defense is impacted by the loss of Bradley Chubb to an ACL tear. Edge depth was a concern after Shaq Barrett chose to chase a starting job last spring, and now significant reps will likely fall on rookies Malik Reed and Justin Hollins, along with newly signed Jeremiah Attaochu.

Reed’s sack was as much constant team effort as any one thing he did.

If you’ve kept up with GIF Horse since last year, you’ll know I loved the Reed signing way back when he was an undrafted free agent out of Nevada. Even still, there’s all but certainly going to be a drastic fall off from Chubb to the rotation Fangio cooks up here.

As big as the pass rush questions are, perhaps the bigger concern after the collapse against the Jaguars is how Leonard Fournette carried the ball 29 times for 225 yards and averaged more than five yards a carry, even after you take away his 81-yard run at the end of the third. He had five other runs that went for 10 or more yards, and the Broncos only stuffed him twice last Sunday. There was a clear issue that stood out when I watched the defensive tape on Friday.

Outside of the 81-yarder, the Jaguars had trouble finding success rushing to their right.

While fans lost in the “woe is me” mindset wanted to blame any and all Broncos defenders for the collapse last week, Jacksonville clearly went after the right side. When they did run to the left, it looked a lot like driving a semi uphill.

The left side of the Broncos defense did their job against the Jags’ rushing attack.

Where the Jaguars found most of their success was attacking the Broncos’ right side. Jacksonville’s offensive coordinator John DeFilippo made a concentrated effort to attack the B and C gaps. This was the case when Denver was in base personnel, as well as lighter nickel fronts.

In the first half the Broncos did a better job slowing down Leonard Fournette.

On the play above, Jacksonville is in 11 personnel, which draws Denver out in the 2-4-5 nickel front. Shelby Harris is aligned between the left guard and center and faces a down block double team at the snap. The guard moves up to meet Todd Davis, who is scraping to leverage the B-gap bubble. Bradley Chubb beats the left tackle inside and the play goes for a minimal gain.

Time and again in the second half, the Jaguars found ways to force a defensive back to come down to make a tackle on Fournette in the alley.

When Parks was on, the Broncos were able to slow down Fournette in the second.

One of the more effective ways the Jaguars did this was how they used misdirection.

On the play above, the blocking leads Todd Davis and Justin Hollins away from Fournette. Luckily Will Parks makes the correct read and flies downhill from his safety position, beats the receiver’s block, and makes the tackle for a minimal gain.

In the second half Jacksonville found ways to outnumber the Broncos at the point of attack.

He wasn’t always so effective. On the play above, DeFilippo pulls a counter out of 21 personnel, which calls upon the right guard and fullback to lead the back into the second level. The Broncos are playing their base 3-4 front, but are quickly outnumbered by blockers. Parks is taken out by D.J. Chark’s block, which leaves De’Vante Bausby to bring down the 228-pound Fournette.

One of the big conclusions Broncos Country came to at a quarter-mark is how Shelby Harris is undersized for a Fangio nose. While this is true, and he has certainly looked better against zone schemes like the Packers, he was nowhere near the run D’s biggest issue.

Even at 289 lbs, Shelby Harris did a nice job fighting double teams.

Instead, if there’s blame to lay anywhere, it’d mostly fall on the second and third level. Parks has had flashes of strong play mixed with some difficulties in space, while Bausby’s run defense left a lot to be desired.

Once Josey Jewell left the game, it put Hollins and Corey Nelson against a complex blocking scheme. Nelson has improved as he has gotten more comfortable in the defense, but has still shown issues with shedding blocks and leveraging gaps. Hollins is drinking from a fire hose right now. His athleticism continues to shine, but he had issues in both coverage and diagnosing runs against the Jaguars. Next to the younger backers is the veteran Davis, who missed all of the reps in a new scheme because of his injury.

While he wasn’t the biggest problem last week, I did think Adam Gotsis clearly had the most issues of the starting defensive linemen, so the reports yesterday shouldn’t be a big surprise.

Purcell is a natural 0/1 technique nose tackle, and the heaviest defensive lineman on the roster at almost 330 pounds. He had a strong preseason after being out of football in 2017, and has previous experience in the Fangio scheme. His addition to the lineup and Chubb’s absence will make alignments and personnel usage something to watch.

According to Warren Sharp football’s personnel charting, the Chargers have used three receiver sets on 66% of their plays in 2019. To match up in the secondary and still keep some beef on the field, Fangio may mix in more 3-3-5. He did it sporadically over the first four games, but it would allow him to play Harris-Purcell-Wolfe across the line and bring in the smaller Reed or Hollins on one edge.

When the Broncos do utilize their base 2-4-5 personnel grouping, I’m keeping an eye out for Harris’ play and rookie Dre’Mont Jones. While there’s been a lot of speculation that Purcell would mean Harris slides out to end, the reality is he’s already been playing a lot of one and three technique in the nickel packages. The Chargers’ offensive line was weak even before Russel Okung’s health issues knocked him out of the lineup, and they represent an area where the Broncos could find an unexpected advantage.

Offense

4. How do the Broncos adjust to pressure packages?

5. Can Joe Flacco play a complete game?

Lost amid the black (Joe Flacco is garbage) and white (Joe Flacco is not the problem) debate among Broncos Country is “Joe Flacco the quarterback.” Quietly piloting one of the 12 most efficient offenses in football, and yet he’s still hovering right around league average. He’s meeting just about every reasonable expectation fans could have for him, and yet the offense is converting less than 40 percent of its third downs.

His defenders will point to his three touchdowns, top 10 QBR, and the Broncos’ offensive line/tight ends/schedule/coaching staff/defense to say he’s not the biggest problem. His loudest critics will point to the Broncos 0-4 record, their 17.5 points per game, or his individual red zone performance and say John Elway made another bad quarterback gamble.

In reality, both camps have some ground to stand on (though that last point is just the lazy national narrative). Last Sunday’s game against the Jaguars is actually a perfect example. The Broncos offense scored 17 points on their first six drives and looked to have shaken off any and all growing pains that come with a new system and a slew of young pieces.

On the seventh drive, Flacco sailed a pass over an open wide receiver into the hands of Ronnie Harrison. They didn’t move the ball more than 22 yards again until 2:54 remaining in the game.

Unforced errors hang over Flacco’s success.

In between, the Jaguars dialed up more pressure looks and Flacco and the offense missed some prime opportunities to burn them. This left the tired and exposed defense to Gardner Minshew and the Jacksonville running game. No game in 2019 has done a better job proving how performance on one side of the ball is intertwined with the other than Denver’s collapse last weekend.

The Jaguars’ blitzes caused issues in the third quarter.

I want to know if that inconsistency is a sign of growing pains, or a concerning trend for the remainder of 2019.

Los Angeles’ defense is even more decimated by injuries than the Broncos’ defense. Nine players were listed as questionable or worse on the last practice report Friday, in addition to Derwin James, Adrian Phillips, and Tre’Von Johnson who reside on injured reserve. It should be no coincidence that the Chargers are every bit as bad as Denver is at defense.

If Melvin Ingram can’t go, the Broncos can slide protections at Joey Bosa far more often. The pair have been one of the few bright spots on the Chargers’ defense so far this year, with 26 pressures and three sacks between them. Without the threat of a rush, the Chargers’ secondary looks ripe for Courtland Sutton and Emmanuel Sanders to exploit. As I mentioned in GIF Horse this past week, Sutton’s quietly breaking out as an elite receiver.

Sutton could feast today.

I want to see how Joe Flacco takes advantage of that. It’s one of his last best opportunities before the bye with the Titans, Chiefs, and Browns secondaries looming. After Week 8, Drew Lock can be activated off of injured reserve.

If the Broncos are still looking at a likely top 10 pick, there will be immense pressure to see what the rookie can do.