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5 big things to watch for in the Broncos game in Minnesota

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Will Brandon Allen keep the door open to starting more games, or will he find himself Locked out?

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Denver Broncos
Can Allen continue to play like a QB1?
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the home slog, Broncos’ Country! With the Bye in the rear-view and just seven games left to play in the 2019 season, the games will get interesting in how they wind up impacting future decisions as much as this year’s. If you missed my Bye Week things to watch for, I’d check that out before diving in. I’m going to try to narrow our focus for tomorrow’s game between the Denver Broncos and Minnesota Vikings.

Let’s get rolling:

Defense

Strength on strength, who wins the battle along the edges?

How does Fangio plug the tackle gaps?

Will Diggs bury Denver?

Can the pass rush make Kirk Cousins uncomfortable?

Going into week nine against the Cleveland Browns, there were plenty of reasons to believe the Broncos could spring an “upset.” The margin for error is much, much smaller against the Vikings.

Dalvin Cook and the Gary Kubiak style offense has proven to be a match made in football heaven this season. The 3rd year pro is nine yards away from a thousand yards rushing and is on the short list for scariest backs in the NFL. The good news for Broncos Country is that the Vikings’ base run design is wide zone, the familiar one cut and run offense Mike Shanahan and Kubiak made into poetry here in Denver.

The Vikings aim for the edges and take what’s in front of them.

As most in Broncos Country know all too well, one of the best parts about the zone rushing attack is how it can aim for one spot on the defense, only to spring the back into another. Even if Von Miller and Malik Reed hold down their edges, the Vikings could find holes off the tackles, as Denver’s had some issue defending them this season.

What truly makes Minnesota so dangerous though is how their run game is so masterfully tied to their passing attack. While Zimmer would love nothing more than to run the ball on every single offensive snap, just about every upset scenario I’ve thought about starts and ends with Fangio disrupting Cousins’ rhythm. There’s little reason to believe Denver can win if they don’t disrupt the Vikings’ aerial attack.

It’s no secret that Cousins had abysmal outings against the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears to start the year, and in those games are a few hints to what the Broncos defense could do to confound the $84 million quarterback.

Managing Kirk Cousins is the Vikings’ biggest task.

Before the snap, the Packers’ defensive coordinator Mike Pettine uses ambiguity to create hesitation in Cousins. There are five different players threatening to come, while Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage are aligned in a way to make a variety of coverage shells possible.

At the snap, Cousins is reading the safety play while both Blake Martinez (50) and Preston Smith (91) drop into hook zones to muddy up the middle of the field. The Packers send just three, and still Kirk Cousins winds up trying to squeeze the ball into traffic, which leads to an interception.

If Fangio can manufacture pressure against Cousins, good things will happen.

Like the Packers in week two, Chuck Pagano and the Bears create some hesitation before the snap. Both linebackers are threatening while the safeties are aligned to be able to move into any number of shells. The edge rusher drops into a hook zone, while Nick Kwiatkoski (44) comes on a blitz. The Vikings are trying to attack the Bears vertically, but wind up facing a third and long after Cousins takes a sack.

Since that loss to the Bears, Cousins has completed more than 71% of his passes for 1701 yards, 15 touchdowns, and just one interception. He’s been sacked nine times as Minnesota has moved to simplify his reads and streamline where he dumps the ball. Over that same span, the Vikings’ passing offense has turned into one of the most dangerous in football.

They’re red hot and very dangerous, and the best way to shock the NFL world starts and ends with exposing Cousins. I’m anxious to see how the Godfather mixes coverages and how he blitzes in an attempt to rattle the Vikings’ passer.

Offense

What will Rich Scangarello do to protect his quarterback?

Two weeks ago at this time, I was willing to stand alone and tell you how Brandon Allen would represent an upgrade over Joe Flacco. It felt like a sort of cheating because the 12-year veteran had badly regressed and something, anything, out of Allen’s legs would probably help every other aspect of the scheme.

Today I’m a lot less confident in the 27-year-old passer. Mike Zimmer is among the better defensive coaches in the league and his double A-gap pressures will create a boat load of issues for the Broncos’ protections. It’s going to be crucial for Allen to find his way out of trouble when the heat does come.

The Vikings will send waves of pressure to disrupt the Broncos’ young passer.

That doesn’t mean Allen has to be some sort of hero. He simply has to avoid negative plays and continue to put the Broncos’ supporting cast in the best position to make plays. Even when he wasn’t perfect, he did that against the Browns.

He needs to continue to play within himself against the Vikings pass rush. Rich Scangarello can also do him a lot of favors by leaning into his strengths and managing the down and distance.

This could lead to some 2nd and long runs that rub analytics nerds the wrong way. It should also mean even more effort to get Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman into the open field. Minnesota's run defense is solid, but hardly impenetrable.

One thing I’m really hoping to see more of from Scangarello is the use of play action bootlegs. Getting Allen outside of the pocket should help alleviate some of the concerns against the rush, and his mobility could threaten the containment enough to open up passing windows.

It’s going to be another game white-knuckling pure passing downs because Garett Bolles and Elijah Wilkinson are squaring off against the best edge duo in the league in Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffin. There are frightening odds that one or both could make game altering plays.

If Scangarello can do enough with a moving pocket, chip blocks, and play action to keep Allen upright, Courtland Sutton could have himself another monster day. The Vikings secondary has had issues with elite receivers all year and Tim Patrick’s return to the lineup should only help the Broncos’ number one receiver.

Final Thoughts

This is one of those games where overreaction is going to feel really tired. If the Broncos play the Vikings close, I’ll be happy, as they have all the makings of a dark horse Super Bowl contender. Drama doesn’t drive the clicks and many won’t want to hear this, but some games offer the possibility of a “good loss.” Playing a backup quarterback in his second start with one pass rusher against a balanced seven win team certainly has that feeling.

There are definitely slivers of hope that Vic Fangio can create a sour Turkey Day for the state of Minnesota, but let’s just hope Denver’s young roster can continue to show growth and flashes of brilliance.