The game today was more about the future than anything. With neither team still in contention for the playoffs and a combined 31 players on Injured Reserve, the things that mattered most went far beyond the scoreboard.
Still, a 27-17 win feels pretty darn good.
Here’s what we learned.
1. The Broncos safety depth mostly held up
When word came down that Kareem Jackson would be suspended two games for a DUI, the Broncos decided to give Trey Marshall the starting job. This meant Will Parks would stay at the nickel corner spot over Duke Dawson, which made sense in that Parks has looked far more comfortable there than when he played on the third level early this year.
It did leave a pretty big question at safety coming into today. Marshall was one of the biggest surprises out of training camp as he looked noticeable worse than Shamarko and Dymonte Thomas in the preseason.
With the Lions offense built around vertical shots there was pressure on Marshall to hit the ground running. He was a liability on Detroit’s first drive.
I was concerned about Trey Marshall coming in. I'm still concerned about the #Broncos replacement for Kareem Jackson... pic.twitter.com/iL6IQQtRoA— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 22, 2019
I basically forgot he was playing over the rest of the first half, which is a good thing. He’ll have a bigger test next week with Derek Carr and the Raiders, but I’m optimistic this season’s worth of coaching from Fangio and Ed Donatell will really help him down the road.
Trey Marshall doing his best Kareem Jackson impression #Broncos Country. pic.twitter.com/00OmUQ5whE— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 22, 2019
2. The Broncos’ pass rush abused the Lions protection.
When the secondary did it’s part David Blough was an easy target for the rush. The Lions have allowed 2.7 sacks per game across 2019, but Denver had 3 by the end of the first half.
One of the things I found really encouraging in the sack party was how many people participated. Malik Reed has been quietly doing work for most of the year since stepping in for the injured Bradley Chubb.
#Broncos Sack! Malik Reed gets his second of his NFL career. pic.twitter.com/By6BtIinkp— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 22, 2019
What also became obvious early on is how the Broncos rush was impacting plays even when they were bringing Blough to the ground. After Marshall’s blown coverage Von Miller came up big to force a field goal on third and goal. Throughout the game the Lions were sending extra bodies at him,and all of that attention helped to free up others.
Plays like this make you appreciate the impact @VonMiller has, even when he isn't the one getting the sack. pic.twitter.com/cA1k2o4Ful— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 22, 2019
3. Drew Lock looked comfortable early.
One of the big things I was looking for in this one was how Lock rebounded after the loss in Kansas City. As expected, it didn’t seem to phase him. In the first quarter Lock completed 4/6 passes for 39 yards and you could argue both of his misses should have been completions.
I've wanted Lock to speed these throws up for a couple weeks now. pic.twitter.com/43f8Ekuv8J— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 22, 2019
His first miss of the game was on the first play, a play action rollout where he was late to dump the ball down. Because of this Courtland Sutton couldn’t haul it in and stay inbounds.
Nice design by the #Broncos, good placement by Lock.— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 22, 2019
Dropped pass by Devontae Booker. pic.twitter.com/g2YUBgh3eN
His second miss was a great pass that Devontae Booker dropped. I had high hopes for Booker coming into the year, but it’d be surprising if Elway and the front office make any sort of real effort to resign him after next week. I would think a pass catching running back is a sneaky need for the 2020 roster.
4. The $#!+ team strike again.
Generally speaking, I try not to be the guy calling for another man’s job. But Tom McMahon has to go. Holy cow. By just about every measurement the Broncos’ special teams have been among the worst in the league this year.
There have been 7 punt returns for touchdowns in the NFL this year.— Andrew Mason (@MaseDenver) December 22, 2019
Carolina has given up 3.
Denver has given up 2.
The rest of the league as a collective has surrendered 2.
5. The Broncos rushing attack was very right handed early.
Way back in the day, NFL offenses were built to run to the right. For this reason most teams tried to find a road grader right tackle. They’d then get a left tackle who could pull and lead and run plays like power and counter.
I couldn’t shake that thought today. Even when Wilkinson left the game, Denver continued to try and attack the left side of the Lions’ front. Coming into the game I noticed that by Adjusted Line Yards, Detroit was among the worst teams in the league at defending off of left tackle.
Maybe it was to avoid the Garett Bolles-Trey Flowers (who typically lines up at right end) matchup, or maybe it was because of Dalton Risner’s illness, but it was definitely noticeable.
One question I can't help but ask, with a 3rd string tackle and backup guard... why aren't the #Broncos running left? pic.twitter.com/7iDO0pudiq— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 22, 2019
6. The run defense will be an issue in Oakland.
Following halftime the Lions came out and ran the ball eight times to march down the field for a touchdown. It wasn’t really surprising given the tattered defensive line, but it was alarming all the same. Even with Todd Davis and Alexander Johnson doing their best to clean it up, without Wolfe or Jackson in the lineup Detroit found plenty of success.
Next week the Broncos will face what’s quietly been one of the best offensive lines in the league instead of the banged up Lions’. It could be ugly.
7. Remember when Vic Fangio hated analytics?
Way back in training camp the Broncos’ first year coach was asked about his view on analytics and the
nerd analytics community got mad about his response. I said that it was an overreaction then, and with a game to go Denver is 11/16 on 4th downs this season.
Love the decision to go for it by Vic Fangio, and love this playcall by the #Broncos pic.twitter.com/mr199TLQtd— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 22, 2019
8. Backups over-performed along the offensive line.
Before kickoff Austin Schlottmann was playing for a concussed Ron Leary. Jake Rodgers came in for Wilkinson in the first half, Patrick Morris came in for Dalton Risner in the second because the rookie guard was really sick. Even with all of that and facing an underrated Lions’ front, Phillip Lindsay averaged 5.7 yards per carry.
Pretty impressed with the #Broncos offensive line today. Backups at three spots and Lindsay is still finding room to run. pic.twitter.com/SOg2TmFoSe— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 22, 2019
I did not mention any part of the Broncos’ run game as needing to prove themselves over these last two weeks. I got a few questions about it, specifically because Royce Freeman and Phillip Lindsay’s numbers are down from a year ago.
Big reason why I’m not worried about either is because the injuries. Denver had issues last year as well, but it is very rare for a backup tackle/guard to come in and wind up becoming a priority free agent like Billy Turner did. This year’s result with Wilkinson is far more common.
Which makes today’s performance from all of them as well as Lindsay even more exciting. Both Rodgers and Morris got their first regular season snaps ever and Denver still found success rushing.
Great play design by the #Broncos and one hell of a run by @I_CU_boy pic.twitter.com/JiJH7ByVo9— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 22, 2019
9. Shelby Harris is a keeper.
Last week I mentioned how Harris may not be playing in orange and blue next year. I’d heard through the Twitter grape vine that he and Fangio didn’t see eye to eye and he’d try to find a bigger offer on the market.
While that last part may still be true, it seems necessary to follow it up with what happened on Tuesday. Harris mentioned on Twitter that those reports were a lie.
This feels a bit like reporting a lot of he said, he said, but I just want to say I hope Shelby comes back. He’s been a small sample size star his entire Broncos career. It’s been a blast to watch him these last three years and make the most of the opportunity when it finally came.
Shelby Harris with his 8th pass deflection. He good #Broncos Country pic.twitter.com/NadXqfcpo9— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 22, 2019
10. Drew Lock quietly has a really strong game.
I know the numbers were definitely better in the Houston Texans’ game, but I found Lock’s fourth start to be the most impressive of his young career. He looked poised in the pocket and managed the game at a level that we haven’t seen yet. Even with the tattered offensive line, Lock did not take a single sack or throw a pick today.
Heck of a play design by the #Broncos here. Kudos to the line and Lock. Great execution and another lead! pic.twitter.com/3miU4DHdhy— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 22, 2019
In particular, I really liked how Lock was willing to move off his primary read. He wasn’t falling out of the pocket on “fadeaways” too often and routinely took what the defense gave him. It meant some missed third downs conversions, but it showed growth in the rookie passer.
Great decision by Lock to buy time and eventually check down to Heuerman. pic.twitter.com/IyQexWcNQT— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 22, 2019
This wasn’t a strong Lions’ secondary, but after the punt return touchdown Denver faced a 0-10 deficit. At that moment there was definitely a bit of a “here we go again” feel, but the Broncos stuck to their gameplan and kept chipping away. Lock was poised and didn’t throw the game away channeling his inner Favre.
Nice play by Drew Lock here. Worked off his first read to get the ball to Sutton. pic.twitter.com/H0IzgKubDn— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 22, 2019
The 11 who impressed
Obviously Lock makes this. This game has me really excited to see the Oakland matchup. Beyond that though, there were some really strong performances on both sides of the ball. As always, this list could change once I get a chance to pore over the All-22, and it’s not necessarily ranked from most to least impressive.
1. Drew Lock
2. DaeSean Hamilton
3. Andrew Beck
4. Isaac Yiadom
5. Von Miller
6. Dre’Mont Jones
7. Conner McGovern
8. Phillip Lindsay
9. Jake Rodgers
10. Austin Schlottmann
11. Todd Davis
Let’s finish strong with a win over the homeless Oakland Raiders.