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11 things I’m watching for in the Broncos’ game with the Atlanta Falcons

Can Drew Lock torch the dirty birds? Here are 11 things I’m watching for during the Denver Broncos and Atlanta Falcons game.

There is some reason to believe these Denver Broncos are better than their 3-4 record. They opened the season 0-3 as Lock struggled against the Titans and Jeff Driskel played the majority of the games against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. If you add in the Kansas City Chiefs, all four of the Broncos’ losses have come to teams that lead their divisions.

At the same time, there’s some reason to believe these Denver Broncos are worse than their 3-4 record. The wins have come against the New York Jets, New England Patriots, and Los Angeles Chargers. While only the Jets look like favorites for the bottom of the standings, both the Pats and Bolts have had numerous issues related to injury and Covid-related absences during their games with the Broncos.

This isn’t to ignore the Broncos’ own issues. They are very real. Even still, this year’s roster has mostly played out as expected: it’s a very young offense learning on the fly and a talented defense doing what it can to set the table. We still don’t know how good this team can be. We’ll soon find out.

The Falcons opened their 2020 season 0-5 before a Todd Gurley gaffe cost them three straight wins since Raheem Morris took over as head coach. They’re clawing at relevance and, at least on paper, the Broncos represent perhaps their easiest remaining game.

Here’s what I’m looking for.

Defense

1. How many holes can Fangio patch?

2. How does Denver match up in coverage?

3. What happens when it’s O.J. vs J.J.?

4. Eyes on the pass rush.

5. Who steps up?

Outside of Lock’s own performance, the question that hangs over everything the Broncos do today is how they handle the holes in their starting lineup.

The Chargers averaged seven yards per attempt across 20 totes while Shelby Harris wasn’t on the field, which accounted for 140 of the 210 their total rushing yards. It means their average per rush dropped below four yards when he was on the field. Keep in mind that total rushing yardage doesn’t tell the full story, but it should serve to hint at the kind of loss they’re dealing with up front. He’s also the best interior pass rusher on the roster and one of the best gap shooters in NFL.

Fortunately, the Falcons haven’t been a great rushing team this season. They run a heavy dose of zone concepts which helps to prevent a ton of stuffs, but they’ve struggled in short yardage and Todd Gurley isn’t the same breakaway threat he was the last time Denver saw him. The last three weeks he’s gained just 156 yards across 61 carries.

The other loss is huge in part because of a self-inflicted mistake. Bouye’s importance goes beyond his own play as he struggled in his second game back from injury. I remain cautiously optimistic that he can step in and provide strong play, but losing him hurts because there’s no real replacement.

If it turns out Bryce Callahan can’t play, it will fall upon Michael Ojemudia, Essang Bassey, and Duke Dawson to slow down Julio Jones now that De’Vante Bausby is a member of the Arizona Cardinals. I don’t ever root for injuries, but the fact Calvin Ridley doesn’t look like he’ll suit up really, really helps the Broncos’ defense. Even still, I can’t overstate how big Callahan’s status is: he’s the glue in the Broncos’ secondary.

Ojemudia in particular could be in for quite a ride. After he gave up the long touchdown pass to Chase Claypool in week two, I was hoping he’d show growth in his matchup with another a similarly sized target last week. Instead, Mike Williams sold him a bag of goods for a big grab right before the end of the first half. There may not be a harder cover in football than Jones, as he combines a 6’3” frame with 4.3 speed. Even playing through pain, he’s as explosive as they come and an accomplished route runner.

There’s a rather large chance the depleted interior pass rush and mismatches across the secondary lead to a huge day for Matt Ryan. Over the last three weeks he’s completed 73% of his passes for almost 1,000 yards, five touchdowns, and just one interception.

Ryan has taken six sacks over the same three week span, which leaves me eager to see if Fangio can continue winning the chess matches with his pressure packages.

With McTelvin Agim likely to play, we could see more end tackle stunts up front, as it’d play into the strength of the rookie as well as Dre’Mont Jones. It could make sense to send more bodies like Fangio did against the Jets. As it stands, Alexander Johnson has already blitzed more than he did last year. It’ll be fun to see what Fangio cooks up, and it could decide the game.

Offense

6. Establish the run?

7. Can the Broncos win in short yardage?

8. Tim Patrick’s health.

9. Who wins their matchups?

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

11. Is Drew Lock “the guy”?

Did the Broncos flip a switch against L.A? Right now it’s hard to say. The game was a tale of two halves for the offense. It’s not as if Fangio handed out Michael’s Secret Stuff at halftime.

“I just told them what I always tell them. I think your message has to stay the same. We’re a bunch of fighters. We play hard, we play physical and we play for each other. We are going to play as a team, one for all, all for one, and we had to keep doing that. If we made a couple plays and had a couple stops, we could get it turned and we did that.”

While Lock had two turnover-worthy throws in the second half, he also had a couple of really nice plays making reads and showed off better anticipation, ball placement, and comfort within the pocket. His 3rd and 8 completion to DaeSean Hamilton was a thing of beauty. The anticipation Lock shows is something I’ve been looking for since he left Missouri.

It’s impossible to ignore how Joey Bosa hurt the Chargers’ pass rush in the 4th quarter, but that doesn’t mean Lock didn’t also show hints of grasping the Shurmur offense. Today could do wonders as far as getting a read on where the callow personnel is. Matchups are everything in football, and on paper this Broncos’ offense should win handedly across the lineup. Still, that doesn’t mean they will.

Last week the Broncos struggled to gain any ground running the ball early before Lindsay broke his 55-yard touchdown. Like Gus Bradley, the Falcons play most of their defensive snaps out of a single high shell. They’ll use Keanu Neal around the box and try to outnumber the blocking scheme. Keep in mind that while Atlanta’s defense has been quite poor to start this season, they’re one of the best run defenses in football. Over the last two weeks they’ve shown signs of improving against the pass as well.

In case you were wondering, I’m still not worried about Jerry Jeudy. The rookie receiver looks like he did at Alabama, and so long as Lock can continue to grow into his role, the sky is the limit for this duo. He’ll have a familiar matchup this week in A.J. Terrell. The 1st round pick out of Clemson housed a pass intended for Jeudy in the 2019 National Title game.

Tim Patrick’s status is one to watch. His size and catch radius make him the ideal receiver for isolation routes downfield, and those 50-50 balls could look more like 75-25 this week. His frame could also create issues around the red zone. It’d be huge if he can play, as it’ll be the closest Lock has come to a game with his entire supporting cast (minus Courtland Sutton, of course) since week 1. Regardless, I expect Albert Okwuegbunam and Noah Fant to feast.

How the rookie holds up this week could wind up an unsung turning point. Left alone, Grady Jarrett is going to be a huge issue for Lloyd Cushenberry. His burst is elite and he combines it with shifty hands. He won’t hesitate to swim past the Broncos’ 3rd round pick if the opportunity’s there. It’s a bad game to miss Graham Glasgow.

On paper, the Broncos’ offense hasn’t had so many matchups pointing in their favor since Drew Lock completed 81% of his passes for 309 yards and three touchdowns against the Houston Texans. The only time an opposing passer did not throw for 299 yards against these Falcons? Teddy Bridgewater last week.

Something’s got to give.