The Denver Broncos have started a season 0-4 three times in their 60-year history. Here’s hoping 2019 isn’t the fourth. 0-3 has been a bit deceptive because there are so many promising pieces on this squad, but at the end of the day, you are your record in the NFL and Fangio’s still chasing his first victory.
Fortunately, the Jacksonville Jaguars look like one of the weaker teams on Denver’s schedule and provide a real opportunity to quiet the boo birds. Their best player skipped the better part of last week for a number of reasons amidst his call to be traded. They have a one dimensional offense quarterbacked by a better legend than player.
Here’s what I’m watching for today:
1. Who among Jackson, Wolfe, Jewell, and Jones will play?
2. Can the secondary defend the deep shots?
3. Will Fangio or Minshew look like the rookie?
4. How does the run D hold up?
As I mentioned in this week’s GIF Horse, I’m pretty surprised at how disappointing this side of the ball has been through three weeks. I’ve seen a few in Broncos Country point towards the defense’s top 10 ranking in total yards as a way to move the focus away from the issues cropping up on film.
This argument falls apart as soon as you realize the Broncos offense is dominating the time of possession in their games, which has led the defense to facing just 54 plays a game, the least in the league.
Make no mistake, Fangio’s defense has had issues. The hope has to be a month in the system means the players have started to really pick up the nuances. It should help that the Jaguars represent the least talented offense Denver’s faced so far this season and they’re quarterbacked by a 6th round rookie.
Gardner Minshew has been a huge surprise since taking over for Nick Foles in week one. He’s completed 73.9% of his passes for 692 yards and five touchdowns so far in his nascent career. Peppered throughout his game tape is the exceptional ball placement and accuracy he showed for Mike Leach’s Washington State Cougars.
In the national rush to crown him the next Tom Brady and next big star, many have glossed over the fact that he’s still learning to read an NFL defense. He has a tendency to scramble if his first or even second read isn’t there. Romeo Crennel capitalized on this to sack the rookie four times in the Texans’ 13-12 win in week two.
That doesn’t mean Jacksonville’s passing game isn’t dangerous. Minshew’s not afraid to give D.J. Chark and Dede Westbrook chances on shot plays, and it’s crucial for the Broncos to force the Jags to drive the length of the field. The more Fangio can bring the rookie to read the defense and find an open receiver, the more likely Denver is to force a mistake.
Through three games, the Jaguars have had one of the worst rushing attacks in the league. It’s already eating at Leonard Fournette:
“I’m a running back first. I don’t mind pass blocking and those things but I’m a running back first, so it’s very frustrating at times.”
Jacksonville does utilize more duo concepts and gap blocking than the Packers did, so it could present issues for the Broncos front seven, especially if Derek Wolfe can’t play. Denver’s D has had issues defending the right side B-gap in both base and nickel personnel.
If Josey Jewell can’t play, Todd Davis will probably line up next to Corey Nelson when four linebackers see the field. Either way, there’s pressure on Will Parks to improve his run defense. After a quietly stellar 2018, he’s been uneven in the Fangio D so far.
5. Can the pass protection hold up?
6. What kind of damage will Lindsay and Freeman do?
7. How does Scangarello attack Wash’s defense?
8. Will Flacco turn red zone trips into touchdowns?
Guess who leads the league in Adjusted Sack Rate? That’s right, Jacksonville. It definitely helped to play both Deshaun Watson and Marcus Mariota, They’re among the most sacked QBs in the league this year. They’ve already combined for 29 sacks between them so far this year.
What has to concern Broncos Country is how Joe Flacco’s right behind Watson at 11. While Denver’s offensive line has taken its fair share of blame for a slew of issues this year, their quarterback’s not doing them any favors holding the ball so long. Joe Mahoney pointed out how three of the six sacks Denver gave up to Green Bay fall squarely on 5’s shoulders.
It probably seems like I write this every week, but against Jacksonville, the Broncos will face one of the most talented defensive lines in the league. Calais Campbell was a complete game wrecker against the Tennessee Titans last week, and rookie Josh Allen is probably giving Elijah Wilkinson nightmares.
With reports by KOA’s Benjamin Allbright that Jalen Ramsey will play, the Broncos’ best course of action to protect Flacco is to ride the duo of Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman as much as they can once more.
When the Broncos do have to pass, Scangarello will have to adjust to Todd Wash’s game plan. In Houston, the Jaguars were very aggressive, sending Myles Jack and the other backers on a slew of blitzes to disrupt Watson. This left the middle of their coverage shells weak and the Texans found easy completions, but hurt Watson’s ability to rip them deep.
Against the Titans, Wash was more content to sit back in coverage, forcing Mariota to squeeze the ball into tighter windows. When he wasn’t eating grass, he found a lot of success deep. Tennessee completed six passes for 20+ yards against the Jaguars.
Regardless of their defensive approach, it looks like DaeSean Hamilton or whoever the Broncos move into the slot could stand a chance.
As scary as the Jaguars defense looks on paper, I do fully expect the Broncos offense to find a leg up. The biggest question for me is if they can maximize their opportunities. So far Denver’s been one of the worst red zone teams in the league, scoring touchdowns on only 40% of their trips. It’s a bottom five mark with only Arizona, Tampa Bay, and the winless Dolphins and Bengals behind them.
It’s easy to lay blame for that at the feet of Denver’s first year coordinator, but the truth is, Joe Flacco has been pretty disappointing inside the 20 so far. As I mentioned Friday, the Broncos’ quarterback has completed less than half his passes for two touchdowns, a pick, and three sacks in 10 red zone trips.
If Flacco can start to turn it around today, it’d go a long way towards ensuring Fangio gets his first win. If he can’t, it’s only a matter of time before the calls for Drew Lock become deafening.
The Denver Broncos have started a season 0-4 three times in their 60-year history. They have never started 0-5. With a trip to Los Angeles to play Philip Rivers and a fresh Melvin Gordon up next, what’s the last best chance to ensure 2019 isn’t the first?