It’s Week 2, and already the Broncos are facing a critical crossroads for their 2019 campaign.
Win today and they’re right back to .500 heading into Green Bay next week. Lose and the Vic Fangio era makes some dubious history - the Broncos’ first 0-2 start since the year after John Elway retired.
Here’s what I’m watching for against the Bears:
1. Look “Special”
The kickers did their part. Now it’s time for the coverage units to do theirs.
Broncos special-teams coordinator Tom McMahon was very honest when asked about the 72-yard kickoff return by Oakland's Dwyane Harris: pic.twitter.com/foHszQvKOo— Nicki Jhabvala (@NickiJhabvala) September 13, 2019
2. Can the Broncos run game get going?
3. Does Flacco improve on a deceptively average performance?
4. Is Rich Scangarello’s play calling up to the task?
5. Sanders’ and Sutton’s routes and receptions.
6. Who else steps up in the passing game?
7. Will Wilkinson survive?
8. How does the interior hold up?
9. Can Bolles improve?
For this week’s GIF Horse I wrote about how the Broncos run game is critical to this match. Scangarello will need to manage the down and distance effectively to help the Broncos stay out of predictable passing situations against the incredibly talented Bears front.
For most NFL offenses, play action is a cheat code to steal easy yards. But according to the Sports Info Solutions’ game charting against the Raiders, Denver defies reason here.
Last Monday, the Broncos offense utilized run fakes on just 11% of all of their plays, a bottom five mark across the league. Even more troubling is how those play action plays led to 1.8 yards on average. While Flacco’s experience in the Gary Kubiak offense brought hope that he’d serve as a natural fit in the Scangarello offense, he looked bad on boot action last week. I want to see if he can improve.
If he can’t, the Broncos become easy to defend against and there’s even more pressure on Courtland Sutton to repeat his third down heroics. Last week he looked like a budding superstar.
Against a talented Bears secondary, I’m very curious how the Broncos’ receivers are deployed. Sutton showed a lot of promise on post routes, and Flacco trusted him enough to squeeze the ball between man coverage and a robber lurking over the middle.
When I studied Sutton’s rookie tape, one of my biggest concerns for him going forward was his ability to create separation. I don’t know if he’ll ever be able to create space for himself like Emanuel Sanders has, but last week gave me a lot of hope for year 2.
Speaking of Sanders, it was amazing to see him thrive so soon after his Achilles injury. The preseason is one thing, but a 53-yard catch in week 1 is another altogether. Hopefully a
real better field will help him keep his footing a little better today.
What makes the Broncos’ passing game so intriguing this year isn’t just Sutton and Sanders though, it’s the young supporting cast around them.
Tight ends are notoriously slow to develop, so any and all flashes from Noah Fant will be welcome. DaeSean Hamilton got a ton of flak for the dropped touchdown, but he was necessary for Sanders’ big play. If the Broncos are going to squeak by Chicago, I suspect one or both will need to come up with a critical play or two.
Yesterday, Joe Mahoney and I wrote about the Broncos offensive line. I’m anxious to see how they perform today against a much more difficult test than Oakland presented, particularly Elijah Wilkinson, who will face the toughest match up of his young career with Khalil Mack.
On the other side, my expectations are a bit muted. I hope Garett Bolles can look competent. I don’t mean for this to sound like piling on. Believe me when I say I hope Bolles can turn things around, but it’s impossible to ignore how he looked against the Raiders.
It’s even more concerning when you look across at his competition. Arden Key may be one of the more soft match ups he has this year. Look at the Broncos upcoming schedule and he’ll face off against Leonard Floyd, Za’Darius Smith, Calais Campbell, and Melvin Ingram over the next month.
Bolles’ defenders will point to the fact that he only received one penalty last Monday, a hold that was declined. What’s even more concerning is how he’s still late with his hands, which leads to catching rushers off the edge. Far too often in Oakland, he looked lost as a run blocker and could be found not blocking anyone.
Fangio and the Broncos are going to defend Bolles until they can’t anymore because there’s simply no other alternative on the roster. As it is, if he or Ja’Wuan James gets hurt, Dalton Risner is sliding out from guard. There is no upgrade in free agency and Elway isn’t about to trade meaningful assets for Trent Williams. Remember, he passed up acquiring Joe Thomas when the team was a lot closer to realistic contention.
So Broncos Country is stuck with Bolles, at least until 2019 ends. Let’s hope Mike Munchak can help him improve, but I just wonder if he could, wouldn’t there already be signs? Elijah Wilkinson’s nowhere near the athlete Denver’s 2017 first rounder is, but looked much more refined since last year.
At the risk of sounding cliche, I think it’s fair to wonder if Bolles wants it.
10. Can the pass rush get home?
11. How does Trubisky respond to his shaky performance against the Packers?
12. Could Fangio mix in more wrinkles?
13. If Kareem Jackson’s in the slot, how do the safeties look?
14. Will Yiadom rebound?
15. Who stands out along the defensive line?
16. What does Todd Davis contribute?
17. Will the Broncos slow down Chicago’s running game?
18. Can the Broncos shut down Tarik Cohen?
As shaky as the offense was in spots last Monday, at least most of it was expected. What really shook me was how hapless the Broncos defense looked against Jon Gruden and the Raiders.
I didn’t expect the quick game to effectively neutralize Bradley Chubb and Von Miller like it did. It was an oversight on my part, as the Broncos almost lost to Carr’s “death by thousand paper cut” approach last year when he had a lot less talent around him. One of Carr’s strengths as a player is his ability to read the field pre-snap.
Meanwhile, one of the biggest knocks on Trubisky in his young career is how poorly he reads the field. If Matt Nagy tries to follow Gruden’s game plan to counter Chubb and Von, it will be a poor imitation the Broncos front can capitalize on.
Trubisky also has a habit of locking on to one side of the field and never getting to the backside where opportunities may arise. Fangio surely knows this and should bring some deception to capitalize.
I suspect another week for the secondary in their respective roles will help. As Jeff Essary mentioned in Tales of the Tape yesterday, it was probably naive to expect Denver to hit the ground running without any hitches. After all, all but two members of the 2018 Bears had multiple years in Fangio’s scheme, which is among the most complex in the league.
Still, it won’t be enough if Isaac Yiadom doesn’t play better. In Monday’s first half, he was attacked relentlessly as Oakland got off to their 14-0 lead. Some of that’s just going to happen when you’re the weakest link in a secondary with Chris Harris and Kareem Jackson.
This isn’t meant as an indictment so much as a statement of fact. If you’re designing a play for your 6’6 receiver, it makes sense to go after a second year corner over any of the alternatives.
That’s just what the Raiders do on the play above. Yiadom’s jam goes awry because he’s late to get his hands on Darren Waller, who’s releasing outside. He winds up missing the playside shoulder and doesn’t slow the Raiders’ tight end. Yiadom does a solid job keeping up in trail, but he’s out of position to challenge the incoming pass.
What was more troubling is how his early mistakes seemed to haunt him and cause hesitation. Ed Donatell seemed confident this week that Yiadom would come out ready to play against the Bears. He’ll certainly need to, as I expect Matt Nagy will try to isolate Yiadom on the 6’4 Allen Robinson as much as he can. The 6th year veteran was targeted 13 times against the Packers, more than double any other Bears receiver.
It would certainly help Yiadom and the secondary if the Broncos’ can stop the run game and force Trubisky into the same kind of passing situations Denver’s O needs to avoid.
Nagy received plenty of criticism after the Bears’ opening night loss because of his reluctance to run the ball in a close game. I expect him to dial up more carries for Mike Davis and David Montgomery in this one. It would be huge if Shelby Harris, Derek Wolfe, Adam Gotsis, and the Broncos’ edge rushers can stop it cold.
Todd Davis would be a big help here, if he can return to 2018 form. Fangio mentioned he’ll be on a snap count, so it may be wise to temper expectations. Still, it’s hard to imagine he won’t be an upgrade over what Corey Nelson showed in Oakland.
The other big mismatch weapon Chicago brings to the table is the diminutive Tarik Cohen. Against Green Bay, he saw most of his action in the slot, but he’s a weapon they like to isolate in space by any means necessary. They’ll also highlight him in their RPO game. With Davis’ status up in the air and questions about the other linebackers’ abilities in space, he’s a scary threat.
I mentioned yesterday how I close expect this game to be. The surest way to victory is to play the game close to the vest on offense and force Trubisky to carry the Bears. Even then, the Broncos may come out on the wrong end of it, but at least they’ll have a fighting chance.