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5 big things to watch for in the Broncos second game with the Chargers

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Denver Broncos v Buffalo Bills
Does Von Miller suit up?
Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

When neither team has a snowball’s chance in hell at the postseason, the game takes on a different meaning. Such is the case when the 3-8 Broncos host the 4-7 Chargers today.

Denver looks to be pivoting to a new era under center, while Los Angeles is facing the real possibility that theirs is closing. It won’t have the same stakes as Peyton Manning’s off the bench finish in 2015, but I for one am pretty excited.

Here’s what I’m watching for.

Defense

1. How many coin flips land on active?

2. Can the pass defense hold up?

3. Will the run D rebound?

Four starters on the defensive side of the ball are listed as questionable for today’s game. Duke Dawson and Shelby Harris could miss the contest, while Vic Fangio said on Friday that both Von Miller and Alexander Johnson are 50-50 bets to play. What makes this an even bigger deal is backup linebacker Josey Jewell is also hurt and could sit.

With Denver clearly playing for next year, I’m all for caution regarding the core players. If there’s any chance Von could do further damage to his knee by playing through the pain, it’s probably best for both he and the Broncos to shut him down. Even if you’re riding the “Trade-Miller” train, it doesn’t make sense to watch him blow up his knee and destroy any potential value he’d have on the market.

If for whatever reason he can’t go or is badly hampered, expect the pass defense to turn into a shooting gallery. During the middle point of the season Fangio created a lot of favorable matchups through scheme to hide the loss of Bradley Chubb in week four, but since the bye teams have started to really capitalize on the Broncos’ lack pass rushers. Consider this: according to Sports Info Solutions’ charting numbers Chubb is still fourth on the team in individual pass pressures with nine. Only Von, (36, a top ten mark in the league) Malik Reed, and Derek Wolfe (tied at 13 apiece) have more.

Even assuming the starters all suit up, there remains some big questions about the defense. Leading up to the bye week Davontae Harris had begun to earn some love for the admirable way he stepped in for Isaac Yiadom during the first Chargers game and how he held up in coverage. In the off week I went back to put every snap of his three starts under the knife and came away with more questions than answers. Since then, he’s been had some struggles in Minnesota and Buffalo.

He is now ceding the starting boundary spot back to Yiadom.

It’s fair to wonder if the move is merely swapping Band-aids on a broken bone. The 2018 3rd round pick showed promise in the preseason after he was tossed into the fire as a rookie, but went into a shell once the lights came on in Oakland. Perhaps his time on the pine helped him get a better grasp on the defensive scheme, but its probably more likely that he’s the best of a bunch of questionable options for the Broncos. Fangio said as much when asked about the decision to start Yiadom on Friday:

“It’s been a little shaky, that position. On Wednesday, [CB] Davontae [Harris] didn’t have a good practice and Ike did and has been practicing good. I just felt like Ike deserved to play.”

The last big question that cropped up in Buffalo is all of the leaks that sprang up in the run defense. I’ve got to fall on a sword for underestimating how many issues the Bills’ power running game would cause.

Last Sunday was the first time since the loss to Jacksonville their run D looked like a huge liability.

A key aspect of Buffalo’s rushing offense is getting one or more offensive linemen on the move to lead at the point of attack. This caused a number of problems for the Broncos. The guards movement is a key for Todd Davis and Alexander Johnson, so misdirection by them (such as play action) misled the linebackers. Blockers in space were also a mismatch against the defensive backs.

Los Angeles does not have anywhere near the talent up front that Buffalo does, but their pin and pull game out of the shotgun could present issues. Especially if Denver’s banged up front seven defenders are unable to play at peak form. It could provide the Chargers a way to protect a slumping Philip Rivers as well as their questionable pass protection.

The Chargers have a way to abuse the Broncos on the ground.

Offense

4. How committed will Scangarello be to the rushing attack?

5. Can Drew unLock the passing game?

It’d be easy to look at last week’s box score and wonder why the Broncos didn’t stick to their running game. After all, Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman combined for just 15 carries while Brandon Allen completed 40% of his passes and took four sacks. That question was at the forefront of my mind when I pored over the offensive tape last week and it became clear how untimely penalties effectively neutered the rushing attack.

First it was Dalton Risner’s rookie penalty on the first drive that killed a scoring opportunity, and then Garett Bolles joined in the fun. Discounting long yardage situations where the Broncos’ had to pass to try and catch up the chains, they finished the first half with a 9:11 run pass ratio.

Denver came out of the locker room with three straight runs before a boneheaded delay of game pushed them into throwing downs. As the game got further out of hand Allen’s issues reading the field and evading the pass rush on first down snowballed.

To be clear, I don’t think the Broncos’ offensive coordinator should be absolved of all blame in this. With how badly Allen was struggling it would have probably helped the offense to ride Lindsay and Freeman as much as they could in the second half, even if it was to just get more third and medium opportunities. With that said, Lindsay averaged a little under 3.5 yards a carry outside of his 16-yard scamper and the Bills lack of respect for the passing attack was clearly impacting all phases of the offense.

Which brings the biggest thing to watch for today. The quarterback position.

All week speculation’s run rampant that Drew Lock would get his first start in the NFL. I made a point to study Drew Lock’s preseason All-22 as well as reach out to two fellow film junkies to provide as much insight as I could on the matter, so I’d recommend checking those out for more:

3 things to watch for in Drew Lock’s first start for Denver Broncos - Mile High Report

1. How does Rich Scangarello build a gameplan around him?

2. How do his mechanics and decision-making look?

3. How does Lock’s arm change the offense?

What should the Denver Broncos expect from Drew Lock? - Mile High Report

He’s going to make a lot of big time throws and have a lot of big time plays, but that’s going to come with some boneheaded, head scratching plays. We just are banking on him growing out of those mistakes with practice, experience, and consistency in coaching.

3 & Out with Derrik Klassen: A deep dive into Broncos’ QB Drew Lock - Mile High Report

Denver should be looking for a quarterback until they know they have one. Lock would have to play out of his mind to secure the spot for certain and that almost certainly won’t happen. That being said, Lock can show a few things to dissuade Elway (or whoever) from picking another quarterback. Lock needs to prove he is up to snuff in managing NFL pockets, that he can be accurate enough in the 1-10 yard area to run a stable offense, and flash a fair amount of the play making ability that got him drafted in the first place. There will be interceptions, misfires, and mistakes, but if Lock can show some semblance of stability in the pocket and quick game while still having some of those flashy plays, he’ll have done everything that should be expected of a second-round rookie quarterback.

Back with me? Here’s the most important thing I’m looking for in Lock’s first start: does he show areas of improvement from the preseason, and can he settle in to where there’s room to grow going forward. Five games is such a short amount of time that it’s unrealistic to expect him to completely answer the big question, but it took three games before serious cracks were showing in Joe Flacco’s game, and by the third game Brandon Allen was clearly a backup doing his best to hold down the fort.

I’ll be looking beyond the stats to see how Lock’s processing the field. If he shows signs that he can eventually acclimate to NFL speed as a decision maker while flashing the arm talent that had him as a first rounder in most pre-draft Mocks, I’ll come away happy.

Final thoughts

Right after the Bills game last weekend I made a point to ask Broncos’ Country their thoughts on this matchup.

I firmly stand with the 86% percent. Honestly, the game could go any which way and I’ll still be reasonably happy so long as Lock shows hints that he can grow into the first homegrown franchise quarterback since John Elway.

Fingers crossed.