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8 things we learned from the Denver Broncos 32-27 victory over the Carolina Panthers

Drew Lock has perhaps his best day as a pro.

Denver Broncos v Carolina Panthers Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Two 4-8 teams came into today trying to avoid their fourth losing season since Super Bowl 50. Only the Denver Broncos emerged to avoid such a dubious finish.

Here’s what we learned.

The Broncos aren’t afraid to bottom out.

With hours before kickoff we learned Garett Bolles, Demar Dotson, and Austin Schlottmann would not play against the Carolina Panthers. In their stead, Netane Muti would make his first start and both Elijah Wilkinson and Calvin Anderson would make their returns. The early news was reason to celebrate as Muti is held in high regard by most of the scouting community and fell to day three in the 2020 Draft in no small part because of a lengthy history of injuries. His tape was that of a top 50 player. News with Bolles came attached to an illness, but Dotson sitting came without explanation. He wasn’t listed on the practice report this week and was active, but sat.

The news means that the Broncos accept that they’re out of the playoff picture and it’s time to see what they have for “now on.” Dotson is 35 years old and playing on a contract that expires at the end of this season. While he’s definitely played well enough to hang around, there’s no guarantee the Broncos or Dotson see him as the ideal backup to Ja’Wuan James with 2022 and beyond in mind. He may also wish to ride off into the sunset.

Elijah Wilkinson began the season over Dotson on the depth chart, it had more to do with the timing of the latter’s arrival. Anyone with eyes can see Dotson’s been the best right tackle to play this season. Multiple times over the last two years we’ve heard about how much the Broncos’ coaching staff likes Wilkinson, but the fact is he’s also on an expiring contract and he’s played with Munchak for two years, taking snaps in 20 games over that time. Perhaps the Broncos are looking to see if he’s worth bringing back as a utility lineman next year, but I would think the Hall of Fame line coach probably knows what he has in Wilk.

So in the here and now, the Broncos willfully weakened their offensive line against a pass rush that features the exact kind of speed rusher that’s given Elijah Wilkinson fits in the past. While Burns isn’t quite as strong, there’s plenty of Von Miller in his game. The 2019 first round pick has even developed his own version of Miller’s ghost move.

Maybe I’m crazy, but knowing all this leaves me with one conclusion: Vic Fangio and John Elway both know that Drew Lock struggles under pressure and still chose to play a weaker tackle by choice because 2021 matters more than 2020.

Diontae Spencer made a splash in his return

The Broncos’ defense opened the game by holding the Panthers to their 11th three and out of the 2020 season, and Spencer ducked the initial tackler and broke left to open grass. It marked the first touchdown in Spencer’s NFL career after scoring seven in Canada.

Fangio kept bringing heat.

I was eager to see if Fangio would stick with the pressure packages he’s shown all season or take a foot off the gas to protect the corners. Time and again on key downs he brought extra bodies to make Bridgewater uncomfortable, even if it meant some scheme completions.

The Broncos’ pass defense didn’t fall off a cliff.

The Panthers came into the game without D.J. Moore and Christian McCaffrey, but it wasn’t like Teddy Bridgewater didn’t have weapons. Joe Brady has found ways to unlock Curtis Samuel and routinely weaponizes Robby Anderson’s speed. The duo looked like they could present quite a test to the secondary minus A.J. Bouye, Bryce Callahan, and Essang Bassey. The Broncos conceded catches as Fangio’s done all year, but they held up when it mattered most, even after losing Duke Dawson to injury. Bridgewater finished the first half with just 66 passing yards as a result of all his quick game work, and he still took 3 sacks.

No drive better sums it up than the Panthers two minute drive at the end of the first half. Carolina took the ball over down 13-7 with no timeouts and 1:33 left in the quarter, and the Broncos defense gave up two easy completions on second and third downs. They also managed to keep both Ian Thomas and Mike Davis in bounds, so by the time Bradley Chubb jumped offsides there was only 48 seconds on the clock. Between the yards and time lost, Will Park’s sack effectively killed any chance at points.

The second half saw a lot more bending to the Panthers as Curtis Samuel settled in and Bridgewater found a rhythm. Fangio still found a way to force the Panthers to fight the clock on the two-minute drive, and it made the difference. After an eight-yard completion to Pharoh Cooper, Teddy Bridgewater rushed to the line on 3rd-and-8 and got the snap off before the two minute warning. The rushed pass fell incomplete and led to a critical fourth down crosser that couldn’t convert.

Netane Muti shows promise

If you’ve watched the Broncos’ running attack over the last two years, you already know their best plays lean on Dalton Risner’s ability as a lead blocker. This year we’ve seen Lloyd Cushenberry, Garett Bolles, and both Graham Glasgow and Austin Schlottmann also get in on the pulls. So it should come as no surprise that the Broncos asked Netane Muti to do it early and often in his first start. What’s awesome is how good he looks doing so.

I’ll need to go back over the end zone angle to get a real clear picture as to how he held up over the whole game, but what I saw on the broadcast was very encouraging.

Let there be no doubt: Jeudy is going to be a superstar.

Broncos Country as a whole spent too much time talking about Jeudy’s twitter account and too little time discussing why Drew Lock’s had so much trouble finding him this past week. Let’s learn from our mistake.

Lock took the layups early, hit some long balls late.

With two new tackles and a rookie guard making his first start, Shurmur’s game plan leaned hard on the rushing attack and quick passing game this week. It helped Lock find seven different receivers across 16 completions for 85 yards in the first half, with one long ball to Jerry Jeudy for 31.

On the first drive of the second half, it looked like more of the same until Shurmur dialed up his weekly go-route from the front zone. The Panthers blitzed a linebacker at the left side of the line, and Lock surely felt the pressure, but he stood tall and found a flying K.J. Hamler. It was Lock’s second touchdown in three pass attempts.

After the Panthers brought the score within 10, the Broncos drove the length of the field for a touchdown pass to Tim Patrick. Lock’s two long completions on the play came on a screen and coverage bust. The way Jeudy drew attention on the 32-yard pass to Patrick, it’s hard to believe he isn’t a WR1 in the eyes of defenders.

With the Broncos clinging to a five-point lead in the fourth quarter, Lock put the game away when he hit K.J. Hamler on a post for the receiver’s second touchdown of the day. It was a great play by the whole offense as the protection held to give the quarterback time, and the route concepts underneath sucked up the safety to give Hamler a runway to the endzone.

Denver out-coached Carolina

Fangio owned Matt Rhule in terms of game management while Shurmur outfoxed Phil Snow. The Broncos found a way to incorporate three new offensive linemen and three new corners into the game. On top of that, Jermaine Carter drew the kind of penalty that calls his discipline into question.

If it wasn’t crystal clear to you after the Broncos almost knocked off Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs last week, it ought to be now. They may need more pieces and some time for all the young players to put it together, but this is a good coaching staff.