It wasn’t necessarily the season Broncos Country hoped for, but it’s hard to complain about how it ended. Since Drew Lock entered the lineup, the Broncos are 4-1 despite starting the youngest offense in football.
Here’s what else we learned today:
1. Carr’s wild ride.
On Oakland’s last first drive as the Oakland Raiders, Derek Carr completed 80% of his passes and marched down to the high red zone. Luckily for the Broncos, he missed Hunter Renfrow on a surefire 3rd and 1 scoring play after the rookie slot beat Isaac Yiadom on a double move.
On the second drive Derek Carr stepped to the line backed into the shadow of his own end zone, but found Darren Waller on third down to flip the field. Jeremiah Attaochu beat the Raiders’ tight end only to find out it was a delayed release.
By the end of the first half, the Raiders had doubled the Broncos’ yardage. Derek Carr was 12/16 for 209 yards. Oakland had all of three points to show for it.
The Derek Carr experience in one play. pic.twitter.com/xrnYC1vrbz— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 29, 2019
Once the Broncos secured a 16-3 lead at the end of the third, Carr found new life in the fourth. To open the quarter he drove the Raiders down into the red zone. Fortunately Jon Gruden’s game management is right out of the 1990’s so he doesn’t even think about going for it on 4th down ‘til it’s an blatantly obvious call (and sometimes even then.)
2. The line had big issues.
One of the big stories out of the Lions’ game last week was how great Austin Schlottmann and Jake Rodgers looked stepping in for their replacements. While it was true, they were also playing against a battered front badly in need of a real edge rusher or two.
They met one today in Maxx Crosby of the Raiders.
Lock was under duress for large parts of the game as Paul Guenther dialed up heat attacking the right side. When Denver wasn’t passing, they found runs in the middle of the field to be a bit like quicksand. Phillip Lindsay had all of 7 carries for 18 yards at the end of the first half and averaged 1.83 yards per carry outside of his one long rush off the right edge.
One of those things that stand out about talented runners is the ability to make something out of nothing. Lindsay does that here with two Taz spins. pic.twitter.com/Ctfmf4nuYU— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 29, 2019
Things were much the same in the second half. I suspect the coaching staff found Clelin Ferrell on Garett Bolles to be a big enough mismatch that they tried to run to the middle and right, but neither of the backups created much room.
Even with all of the struggles up front, Lindsay found a way to make history. He’s the first undrafted player in NFL history to reach 1000 yards rushing in back to back seasons. Pretty glad he’s done it in orange and blue.
3. The Broncos’ red zone D holds it’s own ‘til the bitter end.
One of the big stories of the Vic Fangio’s first year at the helm is how the Broncos defense performed under a crazy rash of injuries. Denver never saw the planned starting unit in the regular season. Todd Davis got hurt in the opening days of camp and missed the start of the year, Bryce Callahan was hurt leading up to the preseason dress rehearsal, etc.
Despite all of the injuries and a couple of low marks against Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs, Denver’s red zone defense held its own. They did this even as Von Miller and Chris Harris Jr. lined up as the only proven players at their positions. Gritty performances when the field got short held things together. That continued today.
Major kudos to the Broncos’ defensive staff.
4. Clutch plays came from all over.
With the defense bleeding yards the game came down to big plays in big moments, and so it was only fitting that unsung backups were key. Trey Marshall first and foremost. It floored me when he made the team out of training camp over Shamarko Thomas, and I was really nervous about him stepping in for Kareem Jackson last week, but he’s had some really promising moments.
On the first drive of the second half Justin Hollins beat Kolton Miller on 3rd and 12 to keep Derek Carr out of the redzone.
Unsung contributors continued to come up when it mattered most for the Broncos. On the Raiders’ second drive of the third quarter it was Will Parks and the pass rush that forced a three and out.
The other Bronco who quietly made himself well known today in big moments was DaeSean Hamilton. He’s had a really rough second season with some bad drops in big moments and getting frozen out by Joe Flacco. There may not be another player on the offense who benefited from Drew Lock’s insertion into the lineup as much as Hamilton did, and he made the most of it today.
Hamilton is a bullet magnet https://t.co/L6QkSBknzt— ThatsGoodSports (@BrandonPerna) December 29, 2019
In the fourth quarter, it was Jeremiah Attaochu coming up huge in the red zone to prevent a touchdown drive.
The end of the game came down to the king of unsung guys. Shelby Harris made himself known to Broncos’ Country back in 2017 with a clutch blocked kick to in a week 1 win over the Chargers. He’s been a secret stud for the last three years, and he came in huge once again today.
Both he and Derek Wolfe will be a free agents this spring, and so this may have been Harris’ last game for the Broncos. I sure hope not, but if it was? He made sure it was a memorable one.
SHELBY!!!!!— Derek Wolfe (@Derek_Wolfe95) December 30, 2019
5. Lock and the offense come alive in the second quarter.
I mentioned coming into the game today that there would be opportunities for big plays if the Broncos’ line could hold up. It took a little time for Lock to settle in, but once he did in the second quarter he made up for lost time.
After Trey Marshall’s clutch forced fumble in the waning minutes of the second the rookie made sure the Broncos’ last drive of the half would have a shot at points.
He proceeded to find DaeSean Hamilton on a slant to get the offense into the redzone. From there Oakland’s rookie corner Trayvon Mullen got slapped with a DPI on Courtland Sutton, which set Denver up on the doorstep. Scangarello, Lock, and Andrew Beck did the rest.
All told, it was weird game for Lock and one I’m excited to go back and study once the All-22 hits. He made some really nice plays with his feet and after things began to break down, but the offense also sputtered a bit after Courtland Sutton was knocked out of the game.
On the day he finished 17/28 for 177 yards, a touchdown and 2 sacks. With the way the line looked it’s pretty impressive that last number wasn’t higher, but I do still hope he puts in a ton of work this offseason to improve his quick game. It’ll also help matters if his supporting cast gets an infusion of talent.
I’ve been called a Lock hater because I’m not running out to compare him to Elway, but the truth is he’s done enough to hit camp as the guy in 2020. There’s a lot he needs to improve on, yes, but the arrow is still pointing up. This time off will be huge for him.
Let’s hope he surpasses all hopes and expectations.
6. The run defense stood cold and stout.
Since Derek Wolfe’s injury a few weeks ago the Broncos run defense has been bleeding out, so it was a big concern coming into today how they’d hold up. Richie Incognito was quietly one of the best left guards in football this year, and Josh Jacobs was in the running for Offensive Rookie of the Year. With both out, the playing field was leveled and Denver held its own. This was never more apparent than on the 4th and goal stop in the second quarter.
In the second half DeAndre Washington had one big run for 36 yards that set up a Raider field goal after he skirted by Isaac Yiadom. Beyond that, he averaged a little over 2.5 yards per carry on the day.
7. Von Miller needs to retire in orange and blue.
In case it still needs to be said, the NFL’s sack leader of the decade defines this era of Denver football. While his sack total was down this year, he will finish among the top five players in pressures and he was the glue that kept Fangio’s defense afloat. He’s a class act and the kind of leader that can only set up the Drew Lock era for success.
If there’s any doubt of what the veteran’s meant to him, take the quarterback’s words for it.
I thinks it’s hard to put into words how much Von’s meant to me from the first time he talked to me on draft night to the first day I stepped on this facility. Even him—like it said on the jersey—how much confidence he instilled in me. Whether or not he actually believes it or actually meant it, I felt that he meant it. That gave me the confidence to go out and do what we’ve been doing since I took over. If him doing a little fibbing or maybe telling me the truth was worth it, then I really, really appreciate him for doing that. Those veterans in our locker room have been holding this team together, showing us young guys—out of playoff possibilities—how to keep pushing, how to keep playing. Without those old guys, we wouldn’t be the team that we are right now.”
Here’s praying Elway knows that and ensures he’s a Bronco for life.
Von Miller with his 8th sack of the year! pic.twitter.com/xelPYEX0Mp— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 30, 2019
The 11 who impressed.
These are the 11 players who really jumped off the screen to me on first viewing.
1. Shelby Harris
2. Von Miller
3. Trey Marshall
4. Drew Lock
5. DaeSean Hamilton
6. Jeremiah Attaochu
7. Justin Hollins
8. Phillip Lindsay
9. Alexander Johnson
10. Mike Purcell
11. Chris Harris Jr.
Wanted to take a quick second to thank everyone for their support through what’s been quite the roller coaster campaign. It’s been a blast writing about the Broncos through it all and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
The first two months of the regular season felt like they were dragging, but these last five games flew by. Going 4-1 since Drew Lock took over moved the Broncos from the top five of the draft order to right around the middle. Tank Commanders may not be too pleased about that, but if Elway found the heir to Peyton Manning, it was completely worth it.
Depending on how the front office handles Joe Flacco, Ron Leary and a couple of other veterans the Broncos could have more than $60 million in cap space to add talent to the roster.
Due to the Emmanuel Sanders trade and last year’s move to bypass Devin Bush for Noah Fant, they’ll have more than 10 draft picks to add more to the young core as well. Throw in the return of players like Bradley Chubb and Ja’Wuan James to a strong offseason and a push for the playoffs could be within reach.
I don’t know about you, but I’m already stoked for week one of the 2020 season.