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11 things to look for in the Broncos’ game with the Miami Dolphins

Can Vic Fangio dial up an upset?

Prior to the Raiders game, I wrote about the 11 things I’m watching for over the second half of this year. It was a concious choice to look beyond the division game because injuries and performance have already made it clear this roster is about the “now on” and less about “winning.” Then Jon Gruden toyed with Fangio’s defense as Drew Lock bumbled his way through another stinker.

With nine games in the books, the Broncos have the worst offense in football and a battered defense that’s finding it difficult to carry them. They now sit at 3-6 with no realistic chance at the postseason, it’s time to watch the Broncos with an eye on next year. Evaluation mode. That may sound pessimistic, but remember Shelby Harris earned his first playing time on a 2017 Broncos’ team that finished 5-11. Phillip Lindsay shocked the world on a 2018 team that finished 6-10. Alexander Johnson emerged from an 0-4 start to become a building block on defense.

Here’s what I’m looking for against the Dolphins.

Defense

1. Who’s left up front?

2. Can Jewell and Johnson hold down the run D?

3. What happens on the boundary?

4. Could the Run D show up?

5. Will these young guns (finally) get a real run?

The pain meme continues with 12 members of the active roster in different stats across the injury report this week. Such is life in the NFL, but as has been the case all year, who plays and how well with whatever’s ailing them will be a central focus of the game.

Barring something nutty, both the Broncos’ off ball linebackers are expected to start and will probably see every snap. Josey Jewell has seven more games to convince Elway that he can hold down the fort while the Broncos upgrade other areas in the spring. He probably always has issues with the twitchier athletes, but Fangio’s done a masterful job making the most of his skillset. While the team run defense went from marginal to poor over the course of the Raiders’ game, Alexander Johnson was his usual self. I’m watching to see how often they’re used on blitzes, what they look like leveraging gaps against the run, and how the Broncos use them against the Dolphins’ Mike Gesicki. The tight end looks like a huge X-factor for this game as Miami continues to adjust to life without their WR2, who was lost to injury a few weeks ago.

Last week Michael Ojemudia did not play cornerback as Fangio used Bryce Callahan and A.J. Bouye on the boundary. Callahan’s status remains a question, but with De’Vante Bausby back on the active roster it’s bear monitoring who plays where and how much. Bouye hasn’t been good since his return from injury. If Callahan’s injury or Ojemudia’s play gives Bausby a chance at playing time he may wind up stealing Bouye’s job. Keep in mind that since the former Jaguar was acquired in a trade the Broncos could elect to move on from him after this year and save more than $13 million in 2021.

After the last couple of weeks, Miami could be a sort of relief for the cornerbacks. DeVante Parker is dangerous in his own right, but he’s no Julio Jones, and with Preston Williams on Injured Reserve, Chan Gailey leaned heavily on 13 personnel against the Chargers. If that continues, I expect Fangio to answer 13P with his base 3-4 defense.

With all of the shuffling going on along the boundary, it’s almost hard to believe the Broncos’ pass defense is among the 12 most efficient in football. It really is a testament to Fangio that this defense has adjusted so well to the loss of both Von Miller and Jurrell Casey. It also speaks to what Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson have meant to the whole roster. They’re the constants. It’s going to be fun to see how Fangio tries to confuse and befuddle Tua Tagovailoa, and the safeties will be key to confusing the southpaw. While the Broncos have leaned into more man to man coverage, Fangio will still change up from 2-man under to a number of zone schemes. If the Broncos can slow down the run and force the rookie to carry the day, Fangio should overwhelm him.

That’s no guarantee after this past month and time to accept that the run defense could be leaky the rest of the way. It’s frustrating to watch Josh Jacobs chip away at a 6-yard clip, but when the defensive line is down four of their top five players, it’s also inevitable. More 3-4 would help the Broncos secondary, but put additional stress on a depleted line rotation.

DeShawn Williams will be questionable for the game today, and whether he can play or not it’s time for McTelvin Agim to earn real playing time. The 95th pick of the NFL draft has logged all of 66 defensive snaps. While easing him into the lineup makes sense, it isn’t as though Sylvester Williams has been more than a stopga and DeMarcus Walker is a free agent at the end of the year. It’s time to give the Razorback some reps.

The Broncos' run defense is where injuries are hurting most.
The Broncos’ run defense is where injuries are hurting most.

Offense

7. How can the Broncos better establish the run?

8. Does the line gel and/or improve?

9. Will the young players do enough to help the pass protection?

10. Who shines in the receiving corps?

11. Is Drew Lock “the guy”?

For all the talk about how the offensive line’s issues hurt an inexperienced quarterback, we often ignore what it does to the running game. The Broncos gave Phillip Lindsay four carries against the Las Vegas Raiders. It’s an absurdly low amount for the Broncos best runner, and yet it didn’t strike me as odd ‘til I went back over the All22.

Vegas was ready for Phil’s first run.

Lindsay’s first carry came on 2nd and 1 after Noah Fant’s first reception of the day. The Broncos are using 11 personnel with Tim Patrick and Noah Fant to the left of the formation. K.J. Hamler and DaeSean Hamilton are to the left. Shurmur brings Patrick in to a nasty split next to Fant, which brings Erik Harris screaming off the right edge. Bringing Patrick close to the formation can only mean one of two things. The play is either a run, as it was above, or it’s a rollout pass to the right. The design, Shurmur’s play calling tendencies, as well as Lock’s affinity for rolling to his right begged for a nickel in the backfield. When you add to that a fifth string tackle making his first start, nothing good can happen.

The Raiders knew if Lindsay ran, it’d be going right.

Let’s quickly discuss some of my favorite stats. Right now the Broncos rank 27th in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards metric. That’s really bad, obviously. They’re also:

  • 12th in Running Back Yards.
  • 7th in Open Field Yards
  • 7th in Second Level Yards

When the Broncos line isn’t getting Phillip Lindsay and Melvin Gordon stuffed in the backfield, great things happen. Unfortunately they allow more stuffs than any other line in football. Getting Demar Dotson back for the Dolphins game should prove huge.

On the play above the Broncos are facing 2nd and 10 after Drew Lock threw a fade into the endzone for Jerry Jeudy from the Vegas 32. Shurmur’s surely calling second and long runs in an attempt to protect his struggling quarterback. Gaining any yards helps to make third down more manageable. The Raiders knew this and Arden Key skirt past Lloyd Cushenberry to make a tackle at the point of attack.

Maxx Crosby things.

The play above happens near the end of the first quarter with the score 7-3 Raiders. Lock and Gordon converted the last two third downs and the Broncos face 1st and 10. Shurmur brings out 12 personnel and Vegas stays in two high shell. At the snap everyone to the right of Garett Bolles takes a step in unison to help Lindsay follow a track behind Calvin Anderson and Nick Vannett. If Maxx Crosby doesn’t work against the grain and into the backfield, Lindsay gets into the third level.

Lindsay’s last carry of the game comes at the end of the third quarter with the Raiders up 20 to 6. Lock is about to throw his third of four interceptions and the Broncos won’t be within a two touchdown margin the rest of the way. Whether you agree with Pat Shurmur or not, the Broncos prefer Melvin Gordon and even Royce Freeman to Phillip Lindsay when the offense moves into what’s essentially “must pass” mode. Neither here nor there, but I suspect Devontae Booker would thrive in this role.

Lindsay’s longest run of the day.

Before the two minute drive at the end of the first half, Pat Shurmur called 18 passes and 11 runs, which is right around his run/pass split for the whole season. Lindsay didn’t receive carries because Melvin Gordon did, which has been par for the course this year. We now have four games where both of the Broncos’ “RB1s” are available. Over that time Gordon has 42 carries to Lindsays 27. He has 14 targets to Lindsays 7. Part of it’s time on the field, where Melvin Gordon saw 166 offensive snaps to Phillip Lindsay’s 92. Shurmur builds his game plan around the pass first, so Melvin Gordon is RB1 to this Broncos’ coaching staff.

Miami built their pass defense from the back up and have both Byron Jones and Xavien Howard to man up on receivers. This will be a good test for both Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler. It’s hard to believe we see Lock suddenly become a maestro navigating against a rush scheme that is setting trends around the league. Expect a heavy doze of amoeba fronts on passing downs and all sorts of chaos after the snap. Who comes is tied directly to the opposing protection call. It’s going to be a nightmare for Cushenberry. They gave Justin Herbert his worst day as a pro.

Things could get even uglier for the passing attack this weekend.
You could argue it makes sense to sacrifice Brett Rypien to the Dolphins over an ailing Drew Lock, even if it’s a little inhumane.

Final Thoughts

There is a road to victory against the Miami Dolphins. Fangio builds his defensive game plans around taking away an opponents number one option and the Dolphins don’t have many passing game weapons beyond Parker and Gesicki. Even if the run defense is leaky, it should do enough to give Tagovailoa a few real passing downs. If the Broncos can win here, they have a chance. From there it comes down to Tom McMahon staying out of the way as a struggling offense finds a way to limit mistakes and scrape points together.

Not impossible, although I’d definitely call it an upset.