Week 4 looks like a prime opportunity for the Denver Broncos to find a way out of the world of suck they’ve occupied so far in 2019.
Even if you can look past the lack of sacks by Von Miller and Bradley Chubb, there’s little doubt Vic Fangio’s defense has failed to come remotely close to the expectations everyone had for it. At this point, it’s hard to completely blame fans for reminiscing about the Vance Joseph era because at least last year the Broncos mixed huge gaffes with exciting play.
So far, things have looked...vanilla.
Not vanilla bean, not Ben and Jerry’s, just a soupy store-brand generic.
Through three games, the Broncos’ defense is disappointing in just about every meaningful stat you’ll find. By Football Outsiders’ efficiency stats, they’re a mediocre team at stopping the run, where they continue to get gashed off left tackle and the between the guards.
Against the pass things look even scarier. The Broncos are a bottom five team stopping passes to the middle of the field, they’re even worse against deep passes, which is concerning when you stop to consider that Fangio’s defense is built to prevent deep shots. They’ve been league average against short passes.
The fact remains that the Broncos aren’t playing the full version of Fangio’s defense. The foot injury to Bryce Callahan caused a shakeup in the secondary with Kareem Jackson moving down to the slot. Todd Davis came back last week in time for Josey Jewell to leave the Packer game with injury.
Callahan being out really screwed them up because it forced Jackson to play a whole new position and Yiadom to play more than he should've + a backup ILB, I think he was really just trying to hold on and survive on defense these last few games.— Jeffrey Essary (@JeffreyEssary) September 25, 2019
Still, it’s concerning the Broncos’ Don didn’t better prepare for life without Callahan. After all, his foot issues are well documented and he first suffered the injury in the middle of August. The Broncos were hardly caught by surprise with him.
It’s a similar story on the linebacker front. Todd Davis missed all of training camp and the preseason. Corey Nelson has settled in as a viable backup, but playing him 46 snaps after all of a week to learn the defense was begging for disaster.
Which brings us to a true crossroads game for the Broncos’ rookie head coach.
Jacksonville is in the middle of Minshew-mania, a craze only enhanced by a rookie sixth-round pick stretching in his jock strap. The fanfare and adoration has already gone to such lengths that Gardner Minshew the player has been buried under his mustachioed persona.
Fangio and the Broncos won’t worry about the fanfare though. What they’ll see is surgical precision in an offense where the coordinator isn’t afraid to dial up deep shots and 50-50 balls.
On the play above, John DeFilippo called a Yankee concept which you can read about here. Needless to say, it was the kind of ballsy play call you hope to see in an uphill battle. Even better is how Minshew delivered on his coordinator’s faith.
Since then, the Jacksonville Jaguars offense has deftly mixed max protect three receiver routes to challenge secondaries vertically and spread looks to dink and dunk. Minshew’s accuracy and ball placement has helped the offense sing, even as DeFilippo tries to hide his quarterback’s inexperience.
Watching the Jaguars three games over the last couple weeks, I kept coming back to the fact that Houston’s defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel did a masterful job of baiting Minshew’s eyes. He took advantage of the fact that the rookie quarterback is still learning how to read NFL defenses.
On 2nd-and-19, the Jaguars line up in an empty 3x2 spread look with the Texans leading 3-0. Houston’s safety Justin Reid is threatening the left side edge and Phillip Gaines (29) is lining up over the trips side of Jacksonville’s formation. Immediately before the snap Reid bails back as the Texans defense morphs from what looks like a MOFC coverage to a Cover 2 shell.
Minshew looks right to try and get the ball to his tight end Darren Fells, but he’s now covered in the flat. The rookie quarterback double clutches, sees nothing, and then bails on the pass to get whatever he can on the ground. His scramble nets two yards and sets the Texans up to crowd the sticks on 3rd-and-very-long and force a punt.
In so doing, they exposed a weakness Fangio and the Broncos can take advantage of.
For all of his strengths as a thrower, Gardner Minshew is still very susceptible to pre-snap to post-snap changes. He also shows a tendency to lock onto his first or second read for an extended period of time and run rather than scan to the backside.
One of Fangio’s calling cards as a defensive play caller over his career has been how much he confuses opponents mixing and matching with his coverage calls. While the Broncos have pared it down in the early part of this season, the best way to expose a rookie quarterback will be baiting him into mistakes.
It won’t be easy. Since Callahan is out another several weeks, the Broncos will once again have to rely on Will Parks, Trey Marshall, or a heavy dose of Isaac Yiadom. All three have been disappointing so far. Look for the Jaguars to try and get a shot play or two off play action in early to try and test the Broncos’ communication on the back end. It’s a key part of their offense.
The Broncos will have a real chance to get off the snide at home this week. They’re facing the weakest offensive line they have faced to date and reports suggest Jalen Ramsey won’t play, which can only help the offense.
No Broncos’ team has ever opened 0-5, and it’s crucial for Fangio’s defense to answer the call if they want to avoid matching the worst start to a season in franchise history.
The team hasn’t looked good enough to overlook anyone in 2019. There are no “gimme” games on the schedule. Both D.J. Chark and Dede Westbrook are dangerous vertical threats that have to be accounted for. Combine that with Minshew’s ball placement and they could embarrass the secondary. If the pass rush can’t get home and the secondary sticks to vanilla coverages, they’re begging for trouble.