Due to their high risk exposure to Covid-19, every quarterback on the Broncos’ roster will not play against the Saints today. If the news broke as late as Wednesday, I would think Pat Shurmur and the coaching staff could scrape together something sort of resembling a functional offense with Royce Freeman, Kendall Hinton, or even Phillip Lindsay. They found out last night.
What’s probably going to happen today is a valiant defensive effort against a very good offense until they collapse under the weight of carrying an inept offense. It’s entirely possible the morale of the team is so down after the NFL didn’t postpone the game that it quickly gets out of hand. It’s hard for me to blame any member of the Broncos for either result. It simply is what it is.
With all that in mind, I thought perhaps this game would be more fun to imagine if both teams came into it at full strength. Obviously we’re delving into fiction quickly here, but back when the schedule came out I had this game as one of the toughest opponents. I was really anxious to see how this Broncos’ roster matched up.
Here’s what I would have looked for.
1. Will they be “special” or $#!+ again?
There’s no doubt Miami was Sam Martin’s best game of the season. If he can continue to do his part and Josh Watson gets elevated to the active roster again, it’d work wonders to mask the shaky coverage units. Even if the return units remain inconsistent two of three phases in special teams getting back to normal would lift all the boats.
New Orleans tends to split duties between two returners. Deonte Harris takes the bulk of the kicks, but we could also see Marquez Callaway.
2. Can Fangio erase Michael Thomas?
3. Will Kamara Cook the second level?
4. Who leads the team in sacks?
Over the last two years it’s been a joy to watch how the Broncos defense took to Fangio’s system. It hasn’t always been easy, especially with Chubb’s injury last year and adapting to the loss of Chris Harris Jr. Today’s going to really test Strap’s replacements in the secondary.
It speaks to how rich the receiving talent is in the NFL that we don’t hear more about the year Michael Thomas is having. Since Vic Fangio usually tries to make his opponents play left handed, he’ll be in the crosshairs. I’ve yet to see A.J. Bouye show anything to suggest he’ll be up to the task alone, so there’s a good chance Thomas does find a way to get his. That said, one way the Broncos could try and do to make it harder to find him is rotate Simmons late so as to muddy the read for Brees. There’s a decent chance it isn’t enough to slow down the NFL’s all-time passing leader. It isn’t like he’s a quarterback making his second start.
Emmanuel Sanders has quietly been a huge addition for the Saints, working to take pressure off both Thomas and the tertiary targets. While Alexander Johnson and the Broncos’ front should leave Alvin Kamara and Latavious Murray running in place, they could feast on checkdowns and choice routes. Look for Sean Payton to try and isolate Josey Jewell on Kamara in space.
I’m not especially worried about the Broncos play against tight ends on a macro level. Darren Waller’s big catch on Michael Ojemudia a couple weeks ago is the kind of thing you hope a rookie learns from. It happens. Guys like Waller and Travis Kelce present issues to every defense. That said, I do think Jared Cook may be an issue today as a way for Brees to mitigate the Broncos’ pass rush. He’ll almost have to.
Contrary to popular belief, Fangio isn’t cooking up anything too exotic on most of his third downs. He still prefers to bring four over five and will use either an Edge rusher or Justin Simmons to replace for a rusher. The Broncos run a number of coverages behind it and usually tend to play out of a 2 high look. They will also mix in man coverage, though I expect less of that today so as to make things harder for Thomas.
Despite all the cries about Bradley Chubb and Von Miller dropping into space, they still lead the league in pressures as a duo. By a lot. It helps when Shelby Harris, Dre’Mont Jones, and Jurrell Casey have been terrorizing people inside. Don’t forget about Malik Reed off the bench. It’s hard to see it in the box score, but I bet he could push for 10 sacks if he was in Von’s role.
5. Can the Broncos establish the run?
6. How do Munchak and Shurmur lean into their winning matchups?
7. Is Drew Lock “the guy”?
Taking out the pin and pull to bludgeon the Miami Dolphins may have been the best decision Pat Shurmur’s made this year. The play works by asking Ja’Wuan James to block down or pin his assignment to the inside while Dalton Risner and others lead around the edge. How they find ways to keep the ground game afloat and dial up play action looks for Lock will probably decide the game.
Odds are this turns into a game I study a ton this summer because Lock has to do more than chuck it up to Courtland Sutton if he’s going to find chunk plays. While I didn’t appreciate it at the time because my heart was in my throat, going back over Lock’s five third downs without 14 last weekend were intriguing. The first three I thought he spent a little too long locked on Tim Patrick playing the X-receiver, but he did a great job working through his progressions on the fourth. I still wish he’d look at Jerry Jeudy more, the rookie is going to be so darn good.
One thing the Broncos’ coaching staff has done more lately that seems to be helping Lock and the rookie receivers is implement more static routes on long yardage. Six of the Broncos’ second half completions went to curl routes. It makes sense given Lock’s issues hitting horizontal leading throws. Unfortunately, it also negates a huge strength of Jeudy and K.J. Hamler.
The Broncos have responded by trying to mix in more rollouts, which has given the tight ends a ton of easy catches when the defense hangs onto the receivers deep. This may not work today because Dennis Allen has the pieces to send heat from unexpected areas. I doubt Shurmur wants Chauncey Gardner-Johnson in Lock’s lap as he looks up off a fake.
This isn’t really the matchup for Noah Fant or Albert Okwuegbunam to blow up, but I just have to say it’s really cool to see Albert Okwuegbunam’s role grow. He’s been so much better as a blocker than I expected given his tape at Missouri and everything Fangio and others said during camp. I try not to sip the Kool Aid, but the skill talent on the Broncos’ offense is going to be so darn good in a year. I hope Lock continues to flash, because it’s hard for playoff teams to get in position to draft a quarterback.