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7 things we learned from Broncos 23-20 win over the Los Angeles Chargers

Drew Lock passes his first test.

Los Angeles Chargers v Denver Broncos
Lock flashed some serious potential today.
Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

Welcome to the Drew Lock era Broncos Country! Here’s what we learned today.

1. Von Miller didn’t play.

By the time Denver kicked off you probably knew about this, but it’s worth a second to reflect on how big a shift that is. Today marked the end of a 95 consecutive start streak.

I mentioned prior to the game that losing Von would probably crater the Broncos’ pass rush. Through 11 weeks he was a top ten player by individual pass pressures with 36 while no other defensive player had more than 13. Bradley Chubb came into Sunday fourth on the team with nine despite playing in all of four games.

With Miller out of the lineup Jeremiah Attaochu got the start. Early in the game he and Malik Reed suffered injuries, and only Attaochu returned in the first half. The injuries led to significant snaps for Justin Hollins.

Even with the injuries, the Broncos’ defense did its part to stymie the Chargers’ offense throughout the first half. Melvin Gordon hit the locker room at the break with 12 carries for 39 yards and leading up ‘til the last three minutes of the half LA had 3 points on the board.

2. Baffling time management hurt the Broncos in the late first.

The last offensive drive of the half Scangarello and the offense went into a shell, running the ball and playing the clock more than trying to drive the field. Initially, I thought this made sense to keep Drew Lock from falling into must-pass situations with the mismatches on the edges with Joey Bosy and Melvin Ingram against Denver’s tackles.

Following a Colby Wadman punt, the pass defense completely fell apart after Justin Simmons and Isaac Yiadom ran into each other and gave Mike Williams a wide open reception. After that Austin Ekeler took advantage of Todd Davis in space and the half empty Mile High Stadium looked up to see the Chargers within 7.

Only after L.A. cut the lead did Scangarello and Fangio let Drew Lock push the ball down the field. The rookie passer moved the chains with his legs, and Brandon McManus had a chance at a very, very long 65-yard field goal with one second left.

Except Fangio decided against it. Maybe John Elway and the Broncos are running a secret tank campaign?

3. Dre’Mont Jones capitalized on some Chargers’ $#!+

It seems like the Broncos-Chargers rivalry is defined in recent years by huge gaffes from Los Angeles. Today was no different.

Following the Broncos’ first touchdown pass, Philip Rivers drops back to pass on third and five looking to dump it off for a screen. He doesn’t set his feet and the placement is off, which gives the rookie third rounder an opportunity to make a huge play and get Denver back into the red zone.

4. The Chargers made an effort to get into space in the 2nd half.

A big adjustment LA made coming out of the locker room on their first drive of the third quarter was a concentrated effort to get Melvin Gordon the ball away from the middle of the Broncos’ defense. Even with Malik Reed returning, the Denver defense was clearly ailing here. The move would also force the inside backers to chase, and the safeties to come downhill.

Multiple times in the third and early fourth, Anthony Lynn used the threat of Gordon or Ekeler getting to the outside to open up rushing lanes inside. For all of the Charger’s issues, I’ve got to give him a lot of credit for squeezing rushing production out of his talent up front.

5. Even without Von, Fangio gets timely pressure.

It’s hard to tell how impressive it is that the Broncos could find a pass rush against the Chargers. On one hand, reread number one again. Minus Von Miller there really isn’t one threat that opposing coordinators are up at night trying to gameplan against. On the other, Los Angeles has one of the worst offensive lines in all of football.

Let’s just call it a happy development.

One of the things I found really encouraging is how Justin Hollins got in on the action against Russell Okung, who’s no slouch of a left tackle. Technically speaking, a forced hold won’t show up in the box score but let there be no doubt, Hollins made a huge play here:

Then following the Drew Lock interception, the Broncos’ forced a third and four where Derek Wolfe got home for yet another sack. The coverage certainly helped, but the 29-year old did his part to pick up the slack Von left.

6. Hamilton and Yiadom earn some trust and then soil it.

All season I’ve been saying how the 2018 4th round pick was getting open but simply wasn’t receiving looks from the Broncos’ quarterbacks. He’s a tertiary option who probably won’t ever be a primary receiver on a design, but serves as an outlet and option when the coverage falls asleep on him. So it should come as no surprise that with Lock under center he caught a couple passes.

Unfortunately he had either the biggest or second biggest drop (Oakland?) of his sophomore season today.

Isaac Yiadom’s day went much the same. He had some really encouraging plays including a couple nice plays against the run and really solid coverage on the Chargers 3rd and long shot on their final drive.

Unfortunately for the 2018 3rd round pick, people are going to remember two plays where Mike Williams got huge catches while he was in coverage. The first at the end of the half, and the second the last gasp fourth and a mile shot where Williams just bodied Yiadom. While I do believe he may be overmatched as a starting boundary corner on a good defense, try not to let these two plays lead you to believe he couldn’t still have a future as a contributor to a rebuilt Fangio defense.

7. Drew Lock shows a ton of promise.

The biggest reason most in Broncos’ Country were excited for today’s game, the 2019 2nd round pick did not disappoint. After his first drive ended in a three and out, he really got the offense rolling.

Following the interception by Jones, he did something neither Joe Flacco or Brandon Allen did: he provided the offense stability in the red zone. He avoided negative plays and gave Denver’s playmakers chances to do their jobs. He floated a nice pass to Noah Fant that wound up incomplete before avoiding a rush to find Courtland Sutton for a second score.

The touchdowns will dominate the highlight reels this week, but Lock had a couple of other throws I found encouraging. On 2nd and 2 the Broncos called a play action rollout and Lock immediately had a pass rusher in his face. Earlier this season Joe Flacco tripped over himself in these situations, but the rookie showed poise in trying to get the ball out against pressure.

Which speaks to one of the things I found really encouraging in the first half. Lock did a nice job navigating the pocket and moving around to stay clean. Until the last drive of the half he wasn’t looking to become a runner so much as he was weaponizing his mobility to buy his receivers time. It’s definitely something the offense can build on.

There were a couple of big takeaways I noticed from the play calling with Lock as well. Scangarello made liberal use of empty gun, as I anticipated. This made sense as a way to spread the Chargers out and clarify some of the reads for his rookie passer. It’s harder to disguise a blitz when a defense has five receiving threats on the line of scrimmage, but with less players in to pass block it requires a quarterback who will get rid of the ball.

Another package I expect the Broncos’ to expand on going forward is their pistol game. This started last week with Brandon Allen with a couple plays where Royce Freeman and Phillip Lindsay were on the field together, but today other variations started to appear.

In the second half many in Broncos’ Country became outraged because the offense took the ball out of Lock’s hands and got conservative. I get it, especially after he had so many exciting plays.

Try to remember how he’s had very limited reps as a starting quarterback and the coaching staff probably wanted to give him plays he’s had a chance to rep in practice. Also keep in mind how Garett Bolles and Elijah Wilkinson were squaring off against perhaps the most dangerous edge duo in the AFC. LA also had both of their starting safeties back in the lineup. It made sense to try and limit his exposure if Lindsay and the running game could do enough.

Things got really tight after Rivers lead a tying drive at the end of the fourth, but kudos to the first year coaching staff for playing without fear in the waning seconds. Made for one heck of a fun ride.

Final Thoughts

As always, these aren’t in any particular order, and they aren’t completely exhaustive as I need to get a real look at the endzone angle to have a clear idea who did what along the offensive and defensive lines. With that in mind, these 11 Broncos’ impressed me today.

1. Drew Lock

2. Courtland Sutton

3. Phillip Lindsay

4. Derek Wolfe

5. Justin Hollins

6. Alexander Johnson

7. Dre’Mont Jones

8. Kareem Jackson

9. Shelby Harris

10. Jeff Heuerman

11. Malik Reed

I suspect the hype train is going to roll off the tracks this week right in time for a nasty matchup with the Houston Texans. Totally understandable, a certain rookie quarterback flashed a ton of the promise that made draft analysts consider him a Lock at 10th overall.

Let’s hope he can continue to grow from here.