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7 things we learned in Drew Lock’s first “Elway game” as the Broncos beat the Chargers

The Denver Broncos found a way to comeback late to win 31-30 over the Los Angeles Chargers. Here are 7 things we learned.

Los Angeles Chargers v Denver Broncos
Lock had ice water in his veins.
Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Fangio’s squad came into today looking to fight history. No Broncos’ team has ever opened a season 0-4 at home. Never. Along the way, they watched Justin Herbert tie a record for most touchdowns through a player’s first six games in NFL history. Along the way for most the Broncos played right up to their expectations until Drew Lock flipped all the narrative on its head.

Here’s what we learned.

Bryan Baluga was active.

The Chargers offensive line came into the game with a ton of questions up front. Trey Pipkins was only just activated off the Covid list yesterday. LA placed right guard Ryan Groy on Injured Reserve on Thursday and had to rely on Scott Quessenberry after he played the first 9 offensive snaps of his season against the Jaguars. It was quietly huge that their starting right tackle was able to suit up and definitely helped to slow down the Broncos’ rush.

The Broncos’ defense stood alone for most the game.

On the Chargers first drive of the game the Broncos pushed Justin Herbert into a third and long and he proceeded to look like a rookie. LA comes out with trips to the right and a nub tight end to the left. Herbert has a clean platform thanks to Bulaga holding up on the right side, but never looks off his first read. Interception.

Even minus Ed Donatell, Fangio and the Broncos defense did their part. While the offense started the game averaging 2.3 yards per play through their first four drives, the Chargers were ripping off just under 4 yards a play through their first 26. Even better, they had no points to show for the efforts thanks to a huge play by Kareem Jackson on third down and a clutch stop on 4th down.

It wasn’t ‘til their fifth drive of the first half that the Chargers found a way to make it into the endzone. Herbert helped LA convert a 3rd down before he found Keenan Allen on 2nd and 8 for 34 yards. He capped the drive off with an easy pitch and catch to Allen from the 9-yard line.

Before the game I said I’d be watching to see how Michael Ojemudia has grown since week 2. He had issues with Chase Claypool’s physicality in the Steelers game and Mike Williams presented many of the same issues with his size and physicality. Neither gave O.J. problems in the first half, but he gave up a huge catch when Williams came back to the ball. It set up a second Chargers touchdown and put the Broncos in a 14-3 hole.

While both the Chargers’ last two drives were discouraging, it’s impossible to ignore how the Broncos’ offense gained two first downs on their first six drives. L.A. almost doubled the Broncos’ first half play count: 41 to 24.

The third quarter was more bad than good for the Broncos’ defense as the Chargers continued to get crack after crack at the end zone. One player who stood out during this was Bryce Callahan, who had a nice play coming up to make a stop before he made a one handed pick in the red zone while covering the 6’4 Mike Williams.

L.A. prioritized run defense.

It made sense for the Chargers to focus on stopping Phillip Lindsay and Melvin Gordon. If the Broncos couldn’t lean on their rushing attack it meant more true dropback passing attempts from Lock, where he’s struggled most. Shurmur tried to keep the run game a focus even as the Broncos’ backs averaged .5 yards a carry across their first six totes.

The Broncos screen game’s still stuck in the mud.

Earlier this week, Vic Fangio was asked about adding more screen passes to the offense as a way to help Drew Lock. As has typically been the case, Fangio was painfully honest.

Screens are always a good weapon for the offense. The Chargers use it well, they do a good job with their screen game. Ours hasn’t been real successful yet the few times we’ve done it and like anything else when it hasn’t worked you’re a little reluctant to call it. It’s definitely something that we’ve looked at each and every week.

When the Broncos dialed up a screen today it went nowhere.

A.J. Bouye got picked on. Then he got hurt.

I’ll have to go back over the All-22 to really see what happened on a number of the plays because it’s hard to tell on the broadcast cam without replays, but Justin Herbert completed a number of passes with Bouye in coverage. The one that’ll stick in everyone’s mind is the touchdown pass to Mike Williams.

Keep in mind that neither Mike Williams or Keenan Allen are easy to cover. One is among the best bully ball receivers in the league while the other is an elite route runner. No DB is perfect, and it’s a testament to Bouye that he kept fighting.

In the 4th quarter Herbert zeroed in on the Williams vs. Bouye matchup again and it led to catastrophe for Denver. The Chargers’ receiver caught the pass and Kareem Jackson took out Bouye. The injury immediately cast light on the fact Denver cut boundary corner De’Vante Bausby before the Chiefs game. He’s now a member of the Arizona Cardinals. Without him, Fangio had Essang Bassey enter the game and Bryce Callahan moved from his nickel spot back outside.

Phillip Lindsay is still the key to the Broncos’ offense.

Melvin Gordon does fine grinding out yards little by little, but with the way problems in the passing game Pat Shurmur’s best hope for big plays is giving it to his RB1. I know it was ugly today, but it’s why the Broncos need to establish the run. It may not sound good until you realize Drew Lock is one of the worst quarterbacks since 2015 on 3rd and long.

Locked In?

After last week’s issues checking down to the open man, the Broncos seemed to come into the Chargers game with a focus on getting the ball out of Lock’s hands. It helped to boost his completion percentage early and protected him from Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, but didn’t help Denver convert third downs when penalties forced a number of drives to start behind the 1st and 10 marker.

It’s worth noting that Drew Lock mixed in a couple of nice throws. I’d say that we didn’t learn much from them, however. We know Lock has a nice arm and can zip a throw in when he’s decisive with his first read.

There will be those who point blame at the Broncos running game, but when your quarterback’s been as bad as Lock has he needs to do just enough to keep opposing coordinators from stacking the box. It didn’t happen today. What’s worse, he continued to throw troubling interceptions and failed to consistently find receivers after his first read.

When things began to look bleak is when Lock seemed to find the most life. Following the interception by Callahan, Lock and the Broncos’ offense drove 80 yards. Lock found four different receivers (including Jerry Jeudy on a huge 43-yard catch and run on 3rd and 16) before hitting Albert Okwuegbunam for the first touchdown of his career.

Lock and the Broncos were quick to score on their second drive. Lindsay ripped off a big run for 20 yards before Lock led DaeSean Hamilton on a pass across the middle about 20-yards downfield and the 3rd year pro did the rest.

Following the Chargers drive and field goal, Drew Lock got the ball back down 30-24 with 2 minutes and 24 seconds left in the game. The Broncos had 1 timeouts. On their first play of the game Lock dumped it down to Melvin Gordon for six. On second and 4, Shurmur dialed up a run play to Gordon. The Broncos gained all of 9 yards in 24 seconds.

On 3rd and 1 the Broncos called a run with Melvin Gordon. Lock rushed to the line and dumped off to Gordon on first and 10. He got out of bounds to give the Broncos a 2nd and 8 with 1:35 on the clock.

Lock converts 3rd and long after the Chargers commit a penalty on Albert O. 1st and 10 Lock finds Hamilton for 14. Then five yards on two passes to the running backs before Gordon makes a nice catch on 3rd down to cross the sticks and Denver has to use their timeout. The Broncos had 27 seconds down 30-24 to get the ball into the end zone from just outside the redzone.

Following the completion to Noah Fant Lock throws the ball out of the endzone. 4th and 4 with 7 seconds left in the game. Lock looks to his college roommate.

With one second left in the game, Lock channels his inner Elway. He rolls out to his right and finds K.J. Hamler in the endzone. The rookie receiver makes the catch falling down and after a small dispute between the zebras, it’s a Broncos’ comeback victory.