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11 things I’m watching for in the Broncos’ first game with the Los Angeles Chargers

Can Drew Lock change the narrative? Here are 11 things I’ll be watching for as the Denver Broncos play the Los Angeles Chargers.

Even as both the Broncos and Chargers enter today chasing their third win, it’s hard to ignore how they feel like teams headed in different directions. LA hasn’t lost a game by more than a touchdown all year and dragged Patrick Mahomes into overtime in Justin Herbert’s first career start. While it’s very early, their rookie passer has shown all the signs that he will be a very good quarterback for a long time to come. Vic Fangio said as much:

He’s been under center a good bit so obviously he’s adjusted to that very well and that’s kudos to him, especially with no offseason and a shortened training camp. He looks very comfortable under center. Kudos to their coaches for putting in some of the stuff that he ran in college and felt comfortable with and had success with. I think both sides of that coin need credit. Ultimately this guy is just very talented—it looks to me like he’s made up of the right stuff to be a quarterback in the NFL and fortunate for them and unfortunate for us I think they found their quarterback for the next 10 to 15 years.”

On the other side of the coin, the Broncos are trying to regain their footing after a bitter 16-43 loss to Kansas City that could have been worse. Drew Lock completed 60% of his passes against the Chiefs, but threw a pick six and had another ball intercepted when he threw behind K.J. Hamler from a clean pocket. It’s led to a week of questions about his long term viability as the starting quarterback, Pat Shurmur’s aptitude, and plenty of blame for receivers or offensive linemen. Fangio didn’t mince words when asked about his offense:

“I think as a team we just need to fix our entire passing game. We just haven’t thrown it very efficiently the last two weeks. That’s an 11-man operation, that’s us as coaches—we’re all in it together and we have to go to work on that. It has to improve, no doubt about it. As the quarterback, (Lock)’s the main focus as always, but I think we all need to keep in mind that it is an 11-man operation and us as coaches are involved too. We have to make improvements there, there’s no two ways about that.”

Both teams see their schedule ease up over the remainder of the 2020 season. Whoever claws their way to 3-4 could find themselves in position to make a little noise in November and December.

Here’s what I’m looking for today.

Defense

1. Can Fangio cook the Duck?

2. Who wins the line of scrimmage?

3. How does Denver match up?

4. Will Jewell shine through his time in coverage?

5. Has Ojemudia grown since Claypool?

One thing you have to learn quickly when you’re trying to project rookies into the league is that you’re going to be wrong often. I’m not afraid to admit I was wrong on Justin Herbert. While I loved the fit for L.A. when they took him 6th overall, I thought he’d take some time to find his footing as an NFL passer. Never did I think he’d push to be a top ten quarterback in his first year.

Where Herbert scares me most against the Broncos defense is his ability to extend plays and hit the deep ball. The Broncos’ pass rush has been far better than I dared hope when Von Miller went down in part because Shelby Harris and Bradley Chubb are playing out of their minds. It’s also because Vic Fangio has leaned on Alexander Johnson’s talents, attacking the ball and dialing up the heat like I’ve never seen before. When it works, the Broncos have Bradley Chubb running free at Patrick Mahomes, but when they can’t get home, it leaves the secondary open to routes like deep crossers.

There are numerous questions about the Chargers’ offensive line heading into the game. Bryan Bulaga will be questionable for the game, while Trey Pipkins was only just activated off the Covid list yesterday. LA placed right guard Ryan Groy on Injured Reserve on Thursday and may need to rely on Scott Quessenberry after he played the first 9 offensive snaps of his season against the Jaguars.

Fangio’s defense helped the KC passing O to their worst performance of the year last week.

It isn’t as though Denver is without their own questions along their front, however. Mike Purcell’s absence will be felt, especially when the Broncos deploy their base 3-4 personnel and in short yardage. The defense will surely miss his ability to disrupt outside zone.

When Fangio was asked about replacing Purcell, he said it’d be a rotation:

Sly (DL Sylvester Williams) is a guy who can go in there and play that position he’s played. Mike’s been a big part of our defense here since we inserted him in the starting lineup last year and we’re going to miss him. He’s a very good run player for us and he kind of quarterbacks the d-line a little bit on the field. We’ll miss him but we have Sly available, [DE] Shelby [Harris] can play nose (tackle), [DE] D-Walk [DeMarcus Walker] can play nose. We’ve trained them all to be able to play all of the spots there and we’re going to have to do it by committee.

When Herbert has time to find him, Keenan Allen is going to be a problem. A slot machine and elite route runner, he will create a number of mismatches on the Broncos’ second level. With a healthy Hunter Henry also in the mix, it’ll be fascinating to see how Fangio hides Josey Jewell in coverage. So far this year, he’s done a fantastic job of it, as the Broncos are among the five best teams in football defending the middle of the field against the pass. The Broncos have also been a top five team defending running backs through the air, although their only 12th against tight ends.

After Michael Ojemudia’s performance against Chase Claypool, today’s matchup against Mike Williams is going to be fascinating. The 7th pick of the 2017 NFL draft is 6’4 and 220 lbs. with the kind of ball skills to bully anyone. While some have called Claypool’s touchdown an uncalled OPI, it’s on the rookie to adjust to the physicality of the NFL instead of depending on favorable calls from officials. O.J. has played well lately, but he hasn’t had anyone close to Williams’ skillset and talent to deal with.

It's a good game to see how much Ojemudia's grown this season.
It’s a good game to see how much Ojemudia’s grown this season.

Offense

6. Establish the run?

7. Can the Broncos win in short yardage?

8. Do the rookie receivers show up?

9. Will Lock do enough to help the pass protection?

10. How does Shurmur cater to his available personnel?

11. Is Drew Lock “the guy”?

It speaks volumes about the state of the Broncos’ offense that my biggest complaint after re-watching the Kansas City game is that Pat Shurmur didn’t run the ball enough. We’re at a point in Drew Lock’s development where there’s a clear and obvious need to manage the down and distance. Phillip Lindsay’s status remains a mystery as I write this: it could have a huge bearing on the game.

Phillip Lindsay gives the Broncos offense a weapon that can thrive in spite of Drew Lock's struggles.
Phillip Lindsay gives the Broncos offense a weapon that can thrive despite the passing game.

Until last week, there’s been a vocal concern among large swaths of Broncos’ Country with the dropped passes. Albert Okwuegbunam, Jerry Jeudy, and DaeSean Hamilton let four separate touchdown passes hit the grass in Foxboro. While no pass but Hamler’s went through a receiver’s fingertips against Kansas City, it’s because Lock’s misses were so far off the mark that no one had a chance at them. It remains to be seen if Jeudy has made his drops a thing of the past.

We do know the right side of the Broncos line is undergoing another change today. Graham Glasgow will be unable to play due to a positive Covid test. Just as it has done all over America, the virus has struck Dove Valley and hung around. Curtis Modkins had to miss last week’s contest, while Mike Munchak has been absent since Wednesday.

When Glasgow’s results first came back positive, there was concern both Demar Dotson and Austin Schlottmann would also miss today. As I write this, they’re in the clear. So long as that remains the case, the Broncos will start Schlottmann at right guard in place of Glasgow. If both are forced to miss the game, Jake Rodgers or Calvin Anderson would take over at right tackle while I believe Patrick Morris would start at right guard. It does not appear likely Netane Muti will receive his first start.

The good news is it looks like Demar Dotson and Garett Bolles can play, which is huge as the Chargers rely on Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram for their pass rush. Pro Football Focus currently ranks Bolles as the best tackle in all of football, and his improvement over last year is obvious. Bosa presents a test like few can, while Ingram could ruin an overmatched tackle.

The bad news is every coordinator in the league has enough of Lock’s tape to build a real game plan against him now. Jeff Essary and I went over his performance against the Chiefs at length on this week’s Cover 2 Broncos. In a word, it was “ugly.” Before Lock’s return from injury, I wrote at length about what I want to see from him going forward.

First among them are Lock’s issues seeing the field and his decision-making. Part of this stems from his inexperience, but it doesn’t excuse his propensity to lock onto a pre-determined target when the throw isn’t there. While part of me wonders how much of this issue is tied to Lock’s familiarity with the playbook, it’s been a consistent issue across his games in the NFL and crops up across his Missouri tape.

Lock is what I call a “see-it, throw-it” passer. Which is to say, he rarely throws with what I’d consider ideal anticipation. It creates issues for Lock on passes outside of the quick game because it gives pressure more time to alter his mechanics, which hurts his placement. This makes the receivers’ jobs harder because they’re often forced to catch a pass after defenders have broken on the ball.

Far too often Lock’s reaction to the rush is to drift in the pocket. This often leads to him creating pressure on himself because he shows an affinity for bouncing out to the right. Other times this pushes him farther away from his targets and makes life harder on his tackles, as the edges can push upfield to get past them. There are instances where he’ll drop his eyes from downfield to see the pass rush. Even worse: Lock will frequently fall out of what would have been a clean pocket if he’d only stepped up. Fans routinely point out how he’ll try to make throws off his back foot, but all these issues are interconnected.

Every one of these issues was on display in the Chiefs game. Gus Bradley knows Lock has struggled to move off his first read this year. He knows Lock will bail out of clean pockets, deliver late passes, and put the ball in harm’s way if he starts to press.

L.A. typically leans on single high shells and a mix of Cover 3 variants with some Cover 1 added for good measure. While the Chargers don’t typically blitz as much as Steve Spagnuolo does with Kansas City, I expect we’ll see it on passing downs today. There will also be quite a bit of match zone, as Lock has struggled to read coverages.

Let’s hope he’s up to the challenge ahead of him.