After snatching defeat from the jaws of victory against the Chicago Bears, Vic Fangio’s Denver Broncos fell to 0-2 last Sunday. The last time Denver had a worse start, Mike Shanahan was coming off a 26-10 shellacking to the Kansas City Chiefs in his first post-Elway season. The 1999 Broncos would fall to 0-4 and lose Terrell Davis for the season before squeaking by the Oakland Raiders 16-13 in week five.
You are what your record says you are in the NFL, but many in Broncos’ Country will tell you this year’s 0-2 club feels more encouraging than last year’s 2-0 iteration. If so, they share that view with the Broncos’ GM.
Elways asked about the @Broncos season so far: “I feel better abt 0-2 this year than when we were 2-0 last year because of the direction we’re going on.”— Joe Rubino (@RubinoJC) September 19, 2019
While there’s been some really nice developments in the first two games such as Courtland Sutton’s emergence and Justin Simmons play, questions remain. The Broncos’ playoff odds are on life support, but these are things I’m watching for today that could impact both the long and short term.
1. How does the ground game look?
2. Can anyone slow down Kenny Clark?
3. Will the tackles hold up without flags?
4. How will Flacco navigate Pettine’s third down looks?
5. Will Sutton challenge Jaire Alexander?
If you read GIF Horse this week, you’ll already know the Green Bay Packers run D is an area where the Broncos could gain an advantage. The Packers’ underrated linebacker Blake Martinez has been a limited participant in practice all week, which should only help matters. The line will need to find an answer for Kenny Clark, who’s a complete monster.
What does range mean for an interior DT? Can they make plays to the numbers?— Ben Fennell (@BenFennell_NFL) September 16, 2019
Watch NT Kenny Clark and how far he can chase plays laterally... Stout and mobile = Problems for OL!!@KCBoutThatLife pic.twitter.com/szTBLyNndT
Rich Scangarello would be wise to feature the backs in an effort to protect his tackles from being exposed against Preston and Za’Darius Smith. By Sports Info Solutions’ game charting, the two have 17 pressures so far this season, second only to DeMarcus Lawrence and Kerry Hayder in Dallas.
The Broncos offensive coordinator has come under fire a bit for the team’s failure to capitalize on their red zone opportunities. Even Fangio mentioned some dissatisfaction after Joe Flacco and the offense gained 27 first downs against the Bears, but only 14 points. Another area I’m hoping to see improvement is effective use of play action.
According to SIS charting, the #Broncos have run play action on just 15% of all snaps, which is a bottom 4 mark in the #NFL. On those plays they average 3.5 yards, which is the better than only Pittsburgh.— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) September 19, 2019
Denver averages 6.9 yards on non PA- 12th in league.
Part of the issue circles back to the Broncos tackles. Elijah Wilkinson is playing about as well as you can reasonably hope after replacing Ja’Wuan James in week 1. He had some unsteady moments against Khalil Mack, but nothing like Michael Schofield in 2015.
On the other side of the line, there’s little to say about you haven’t already seen or read this week. Garett Bolles has had 26 holding calls against Elway drafted him 20th overall in 2017. No other offensive lineman has topped 15 since then.
So if holding is up 64% leaguewide... I kind of worry that Bolles is going to break the record this year.— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) September 20, 2019
The concerns on the edges could be damning if the Broncos’ wind up in third and long situations. Much like Paul Guenther in Oakland, Mike Pettine is more of the “kitchen sink” kind of defensive coordinator. He mixes and matches a lot of different looks to confuse opposing quarterbacks and give his personnel the upper-hand.
On the play above Martinez and Preston Smith are threatening a blitz pre-snap. The Packers are playing zone with match principles out of a MOFC shell, which makes it look a lot like man on the boundary. Cousins looks to Stefon Diggs after he “beats” Kevin King and throws the ball into trouble.
The Minnesota Vikings converted just 4 of 13 third downs on the day, and Cousins had his worst performance since he became the Vikings’ $84 million man. Rich Scangarello could do a lot to reward Broncos’ County’s faith in him by helping Flacco find success.
On third and four clinging to a five point lead, Pettine dialed up another 3-man rush and left his boundary corners in match-zone. After threatening to blitz, Blake Martinez jams the tight end to prevent Cousins from finding a quick dump-off, and the Vikings’ QB makes perhaps his best throw of the day.
Jaire Alexander, the Packers blossoming superstar corner is lined up in what amounts to one on one coverage. Adam Thielen gets a step on him after Alexander is a hair slow on his turn. It’s all Cousins needs to squeeze in a 30-yard completion and keep Minnesota’s hopes alive.
Neither Courtland Sutton or Emmanuel Sanders are quite the route running dynamo Thielen is. Through two games Broncos second year receiver has shown an improved ability to make catches through contact, though. The 6’3 Sutton will have a large size advantage against the 5’10 Alexander, so it could make sense to give him some shot plays.
Alexander’s ball skills are very good, so it’d be a sign Sutton’s breakout is truly upon us if he can get some wins in the match-up.
6. Could Von Miller and Bradley Chubb get home?
7. How does Vic Fangio slow down the quick passing game?
8. Safety dance.
9. Does Davis suit up?
10. Eyes on the front line.
On Friday I asked if it’s time to worry about Von Miller’s lack of pass rush production. Maybe I’m just a homer, but I don’t think so. That goes double for Bradley Chubb, who’s looked improved outside of his lack of sacks.
None of that means I’m anxious to see if the Broncos’ star duo can start creative havoc today. They should have opportunities. One of the more overlooked aspects of Aaron Rodgers incredible career touchdown to interception ratio is how often he’s sacked despite having one of the best offensive lines in football. So far in 2019 he’s taking sacks on almost 10% of all dropbacks, a top five mark leaguewide.
One reason this is the case with Rodgers is his propensity to overlook safer throws when the defense presents them in an effort to find the home-run. Look for Matt LaFleur to try and cook up a few shot plays behind seven or even eight man protections to give Rodgers time off play action. It’s critical the pass rush gets home against these.
How Fangio baits and combats that aggressiveness will have a huge impact. It’d be encouraging to see the defense start to mix in more of the deception Denver’s Don is famous for. Rodgers will carve them up if they play too conservatively, and he’ll torch them over the top they try and simply man up or press. They need to deceive if they’re going to have a chance.
It will be a lot easier to mix and match coverages on Rodgers if Justin Simmons’ running mate improves.
With Bryce Callahan still working through a foot issue, Will Parks stepped into serious playing time for Kareem Jackson, who has moved into the slot. A return to health by Fangio’s former Bear would move Jackson back to the spot he practiced all of camp which could only help.
Barring that Parks needs to settle in.
Green Bay’s offense went through two distinct phases last week. The Packers’ first three made them look unstoppable. They moved the ball at will and Davante Adams looked like the best receiver in football.
After getting to 21-0, the offense bogged down and got conservative. Even with some questions around their second and third receivers, Green Bay’s offense has been most effective in 11 personnel this year. They attacked Minnesota with this grouping throughout the first quarter, but moved to heavier personnel after securing the lead. The Packers ran 21 of their 29 plays out of 12 and 21 personnel in the second half.
There’s reason to hope if the Broncos can survive Matt LaFleur’s opening script that Fangio will outwit the Packers first year coach over the remainder of the game. For it to matter, the run defense has to do its part.
Through two weeks, it’s looking a lot like one area to focus carries at the Broncos front is the left side B gap. According to Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards, Denver is among the bottom six teams in the league defending runs off the left tackle. This happens even while they’re a top two team off the left end and runs to the right.
With just a two games and all of 51 carries, it’s a pretty small sample size. Still, these issues have led to rampant speculation that Elway erred in passing on Devin Bush. The truth is throwing Corey Nelson into the starting lineup after one week of practice hurt in week one. He looked a little better against the Bears, but if Todd Davis is healthy to play this issue could go from glaring to merely annoying.
One other issue that has seemingly cropped up is Shelby Harris’ fit in the Fangio defense. It will be interesting to see who among the Dre’Mont Jones, DeMarcus Walker, and Mike Purcell trio suit up as depth today. Purcell is the only true “big boi” on the roster, and could help in short yardage situations. Doing so may sacrifice what Jones offers as situational rusher from the interior.
All told, Harris may prove the doubters wrong with his performance today. Green Bay’s left guard is out with an injury and Billy Turner has had an uneven start to the season. Of the Packers’ guards, he has been the better run blocker, but there has been noticeable issues on the teams’ zone plays from both.
On the play above the Packers are looking at an outside zone rush which calls for the line to step playside. The Vikings’ Anthony Barr shoots the A-gap between Turner and Corey Linsley (63) and should have had Aaron Jones dead to rights in the backfield. If Fangio sends a linebacker, or Shelby Harris can abuse his quick get off, the defense could do a lot of damage to the Packers interior.
16 out of 140 teams have made the postseason since the league moved to the current format in 2002. Only six have done it after starting 0-3. There’s no doubt the Broncos face an uphill battle going into Lambeau Field. They’ve never won there, and this Packers’ squad looks like it should hang around into January.
If the Broncos don’t shock the world today, it doesn’t mean the season is over. I know the gnashing of teeth will be hard to tune out, but look beyond the box score to see if Fangio’s team has continued to move in the right direction.
So long as that’s the case, there’s reason to believe better days lay ahead.