Coming off a rather ugly performance against a division rival and Super Bowl contender, the Broncos are past the toughest part of their schedule. With the 3-10 Lions up next followed by the skidding Oakland Raiders, Vic Fangio has a chance to cap off his first season as a head coach with some positive momentum heading into the off-season.
Here’s what I’m looking for:
1. What does Fangio do to slow down Golladay?
2. Who comes to play and stay?
One of the more confounding issues the Broncos defense has had this year is an inability to slow down opposing No. 1 receivers. That combined with Chris Harris Jr. admitting that he didn’t play at a Pro Bowl level this year, and it isn’t hard to imagine the Lions’ road to victory starts with Kenny Golladay.
Mission one for the #Broncos defense this weekend has to be slowing down Kenny Golladay. Dude is a scary mismatch weapon. pic.twitter.com/ZQkKRdN8L5— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 20, 2019
Fortunately, Matt Stafford landed on Injured Reserve this week, which means David Blough will once again get the start for Detroit. Since shocking the Bears in the first half of the Thanksgiving game, he’s crashed back to earth in a fashion that would make Brandon Allen cringe.
Darrell Bevell is one of the more underrated offensive coordinators in the NFL and will try to protect his overmatched passer with easy reads and run designs. It’s going to be important for Von Miller and what’s left of the Broncos’ pass rush to make Blough uncomfortable, or the Lions will find ways to get Golladay on the overmatched defensive backs.
Which brings me to the other big thing I’m watching for when the defense is on the field - who will make the most of his playing time? Malik Reed, Jeremiah Attaochu, and Justin Hollins have been playing because of Bradley Chubb’s injury. Will Parks because of Bryce Callahan. Isaac Yiadom because of De’Vante Bausby. Guys like Derek Wolfe and Adam Gotsis have been replaced by Kyle Peko and Jonathan Harris. Trey Marshall gets the first crack at replacing Kareem Jackson.
The NFL is a “next man up” league, but I’m looking to see if any of these replacements show something over the remainder of the season. This could carry big implications for the off-season, where Denver has a small treasure chest of draft picks and more than $50 million in cap space.
3. How does the running game look?
4. Will Lock rebound?
5. Can the receivers come through?
Every part of the 2019 Lions have had a really ugly stretch but one: the run defense. Outside of the Minnesota Vikings game back in week 7, Detroit has been one of the more challenging teams to rush on in the league.
I mentioned last week how the Broncos run game has slowed down because of injuries, and this matchup probably won’t help matters a whole lot. Still, it’d be encouraging if Scangarello shows patience in his play calling by mixing up some plays for Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman, especially in short yardage situations where the Lions have had issues.
Phillip Lindsay had one carry for 13 yards and this opener for 10. He had 5 carries for 9 yards outside of them. https://t.co/vRG0FGypWL pic.twitter.com/9lTKPF5Gla— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 16, 2019
Personally I’d also like the Broncos to try to throw more on early downs (whether that be off play action or not) and run on 2nd and 3rd more than they did against the Chiefs. When the Broncos do try tp grind out yards on the ground against the Lions, their best bet is to run behind the left side of the line. This means Garett Bolles could have amply opportunity to prove himself.
The biggest thing to watch is obviously the same as it’s been for the last three weeks. Drew Lock has two more games to gain experience and give Broncos Country hope for 2020 and beyond.
I got some flak after Kansas City for pointing out how it turned into Lock’s worst game of his young career, and I’m still not quite sure why. Yes, the weather was a factor, and yes, the entire offense struggled against what is a criminally underrated Chiefs’ defense, but there is no way to watch the last three weeks and think the rookie didn’t struggle after tearing apart the Texans.
The good news is, Detroit doesn’t have a Frank Clark or Chris Jones, and their secondary has been a shooting gallery over the last few months outside of their week 12 performance against Dwayne Haskins.
Much like Fangio on the other sideline, I’d think Patricia will try to dial up some pressure looks to mask the woeful pass rush. There’s two ways to look at it. If Dalton Risner can’t play, the Broncos will have inexperienced guards on both sides of Conner McGovern and the whole line will probably suffer. It could also leave opportunities for chunk plays if Lock can identify the pressure, hang in the pocket, and make his way through progressions to find the right target.
Maybe I’m just overconfident because Detroit’s secondary has cratered down the stretch, but it would be pretty disappointing if Lock and the passing offense struggle against the Lions.
Barring a collapse by the offensive line, Noah Fant and the secondary receiving options should find opportunities. Courtland Sutton is at a point where I go into every game believing he’ll get his now. Denver should be able to move the ball.
Way back before the season began, I predicted the Broncos would wind up hovering around 8-8 this season. I copped out and gave myself a two-game leeway in each direction, which feels wise now given all that’s transpired to get to here.
They won’t admit it, but the team has been playing for 2020 and beyond since the 0-4 start. With injuries and inexperience up and down the roster, pride and chemistry are the biggest reasons to win out to finish the 2019 season.
Oakland and Detroit represent a clear opportunity to do so. Some in Broncos Country are ready to accept a tank because of draft position, but if Lock is the guy, it’s far more important for a young core to find success around his franchise passer.
I’m excited to see what they can do.