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11 things I’m watching for in the Broncos’ Thursday Night game with the New York Jets

A loss and Trevor Lawrence looms over everything the Denver Broncos do from there forward.

Full disclosure: I don’t think if I’ve felt so conflicted about a game since I started writing for Mile High Report. Since last week’s loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, I’ve gone back and forth between two trains of thought:

  1. With a young roster that’s still learning how to be professional football players, I want the Broncos to fight like hell and win as many games as they can. Drew Lock won’t be gone all year, and maybe they can put on a show as they go and give hope for a bright future.
  2. A loss against the Jets puts Denver into the driver’s seat for the top of the 2021 Draft order. With Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs actin as roadblocks to any success out of the AFC, perhaps the best chance to win from now on is securing the best quarterback prospect since Andrew Luck?

I know that for some, even raising the possibility that there’s a bright side to losing this year is sacrilegious. I’ve already received hate mail for so much as suggesting it, and I know there’s a vocal part of Broncos’ Country casting shame on anyone who so much as considers the 6’6” Clemson QB.

All this is to say tonight’s game between the Jets and Broncos looks like a crossroads of sorts. A win gives the PR team something to cling to and paint as progress before a matchup with the New England Patriots. A loss means a long week with Trevor Lawrence casting a long shadow over everything.

Here’s what it’s got me looking for:

Special teams

1. Can they just be normal?

It feels like too much to ask for “special” teams. Since Elway took over as General Manager, the Broncos’ special teams units have only been better than league average twice by DVOA. Right now they’re the worst in the league.

In week one, Sam Martin played well enough for it to look like Tom McMahon had finally helped them turn a corner. Last week a blocked kick emphatically reminded us that it’s folly to hope for more than mediocre. It makes sense for them to be inconsistent from week to week with so much uncertainty due to injuries, but man, I’d love to have a chance to go back to where I don’t notice how awful they are.

Yikes.

Defense

2. How will the pass rush look without Von Miller and Jurrell Casey?

3. Will the Jets attack Josey Jewell?

4. If Becton plays, how does Fangio counter him?

5. Could the short week hurt the secondary?

6. Can the “studs” continue to perform?

With Jurrell Casey joining Von Miller on I.R. it’s going to be fascinating to see how Fangio tries to make chicken salad out of the remaining pieces on the front 7. I’d expect an even heavier dose of stunts and blitzes with Alexander Johnson to try to make Sam Darnold uncomfortable, but it will leave second and third level exposed if he isn’t pressured.

It wouldn’t surprise me to see the Jets go after Josey Jewell as often as possible. He was a frequent target by Tom Brady and the Patriots and hasn’t shown the quickness or anticipation to be more than a liability in coverage.

Keep an eye on the status of Mekhi Becton leading up to the game. He’s listed as questionable with a shoulder injury, and his status could dramatically impact the Jets’ ability to move the ball. Turn on the tape and you’ll see a behemoth just owning his opponents, so it’s no surprise the Jets are one of the best teams in football when they run to the left. With Jeremiah Attaochu out, that could be a huge problem, as Malik Reed gives up close to 130 lbs. to Becton.

In many ways, the Jets view Sam Darnold in a similar way to how the Broncos currently see Drew Lock. The hope is he can build on the flashes he’s shown and grow into a reliable quarterback for the franchise. So far hope is all he’s given, but he clearly has the arm talent and athleticism to make magic out of broken plays. If the pass rush can’t get home, they need to at least keep him from running around to create favorable passing angles.

All of the injuries and poor quarterback play has done a good job hiding the strong play by a few of the players on defense. Bryce Callahan has quietly done a really solid job. Justin Simmons has mixed in some spectacular play and a few of the shots against him look like the fault of a lackluster pass rush. Bradley Chubb has been better than his sack numbers suggest. Shelby Harris has looked like he should have received a $10 million APY type of contract in the spring. I’m looking forward to seeing if they can keep it up tonight.

Harris has been a stud the last couple weeks.

Offense

7. Can Brett Rypien run the offense?

8. Does the line improve?

9. How does Fant rebound?

10. Could we see a rookie breakout?

11. Will Lindsay play?

Jeff Driskel struggled so badly against the pressure Todd Bowles brought that it became nigh impossible to fairly evaluate the play around him. More than anything else, that’s why it was such a relief when Pat Shurmur benched him for Brett Rypien. There’s no doubt the Broncos’ third string quarterback has his own issues, namely his poor arm talent, but if he can step in and merely give his teammates a chance, he’ll be an upgrade.

This will be the fourth week in a row where the Broncos’ protection scheme is matching up with a blitz heavy coordinator. Expect Gregg Williams to mix in some weird looks in an attempt to throw off a young quarterback making his first start, especially on third down. There’s plenty of jokes about how Williams deploys his free safety (the deeper the better), but he also mixes in nickel blitzes and stunts to try to make up for his lack of pass rushers. That could leave the Jets susceptible to big plays if the protection holds.

If Rypien can keep his cool, there should be open targets.

I’m eager to see if Lloyd Cushenberry can start to show growth after all his struggles the last two weeks. At 0-3 my hope is the rookie’s safe to continue to fight through his issues, but he’s been so bad that it’s dragging down both Graham Glasgow and Dalton Risner, who’s also had problems all his own. Coming into the season I expected the interior line to be a strength, and that hasn’t been the case at all so far.

Elijah Wilkinson’s struggles haven’t been a surprise, so I’m curious to see why he’s been playing over Demar Dotson. Strictly going off last year’s tape, I’d think the 34-year-old to step in as an upgrade on the pass protection Wilk provided, even if he isn’t as strong on downblocks.

While there’s struggles at every other spot on the line, Garett Bolles has been rock solid so far. The 2017 first round pick has made huge strides in his footwork, hand placement, and down-to-down consistency to start this season. The Jets don’t really have anyone to test him without throwing the kitchen sink, but I do want to see if Bolles lets up. All told, it looks like Elway will need to explore a contract extension with his left tackle in 2021.

If the line can hold up and Rypien looks as good as he did on his one drive against the Jets, we should get an opportunity to really focus on the Broncos’ pass catchers. After a hot start to the season Noah Fant crashed back to Earth last week and I want to see how he responds. I’d also like to see if Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler can make some plays.

Final Thoughts

Denver will suit up in New York without:

  • Von Miller
  • Jeremiah Attaochu
  • A.J. Bouye
  • Davontae Harris
  • Justin Strnad
  • Mark Barron
  • Drew Lock
  • Ja’Wuan James
  • Elijah Wilkinson
  • Courtland Sutton
  • Jurrell Casey
  • Dre’Mont Jones
  • DeMarcus Walker

To call the Broncos’ injury situation “poor luck” is a bit of an understatement. They’re the most injured franchise in professional football. All of the injuries cast a rather gloomy light over the remaining schedule. Lock’s eventual return should help, but there’s a very realistic possibility the Broncos will enter every game after tonight at a talent disadvantage.

This may be the last best chance at a victory in a long season and even then it won’t be easy. Flying to New York on a short week means very few practice reps for Rypien. Remember, Drew Lock was earning the lion’s share until week 2 only for the coaching staff to need to devote all the reps to getting Driskel up to speed. On top of that most, if not every player will be feeling the impact of jet lag.

I’m past the point where wins and losses impact my view of this young Broncos’ team. I want to see them perform. I’d really like to see them improve. More than anything else, I hope the players who suit up tonight make it out unscathed.