Perhaps one of the most important players to the Broncos’ win on Sunday was a guy who didn’t even play.
But he was in Drew Lock’s ear all game.
Backup quarterback Brett Rypien gave Lock some pointers on how to play his game but still be a game manager.
And it paid off in dividends on Sunday.
“Ryp’ tells it to me every single week,” Lock said of his backup who is also one of his closest friends. “He goes, ‘Hey, you’re a special player. But do your job here these first couple quarters, maybe in the third quarter the big play needs to be there and you’re good enough to make the big play. Make it when it’s there. Check these balls down if it’s not there. If it eats you up or you know it’s going to be a close one, if you try to press something, get it down.’”
That’s exactly what Lock did - even audibled the 37-yard touchdown play to KJ Hamler at the start of the third quarter.
“The first touchdown, we kind of audible the play a little bit,” Hamler said after the game. “Drew gave me a certain look and told me to run the nine ball. I just took my release off the line, ducked my head and beat him with speed. Next thing I know the ball’s in the air. My dad always said, ‘Every time you touch the ball and every time you get an opportunity, you’ve got to take advantage of it.’ You don’t know when you’re going to get a catch or when you’re going to get a touch.”
Hamler definitely doesn’t take it for granted, either, and he noted how much extra work he put in after last week’s game against the Chiefs and his third-down drop that killed a potential game-winning drive.
“K.C. kind of ate me up for a little bit. I dropped that ball in the middle and I took it very hard. A lot of my teammates knew I felt like that game was on me. I worked extra hard in practice just doing the right things, asking more questions, getting extra catches after practice and before practice. Just trying to do the little things right because I didn’t want to drop that ball again. As a team, we collectively did a great job today. We came out with a win, that’s the most important thing.”
With four touchdown passes and only six incompletions, Lock spent his day throwing a lot of short throws early and some very successful deep balls later.
“It was just about me coming in and doing my job. Knowing that if I just play my game and let it come to me, then the big ones will come,” he said, adding that QB coach Mike Shula and offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur stressed that throughout the week. “We worked on it in practice. In my opinion, it’s just me starting to feel things and seeing it and knowing where to get the ball when it’s just not perfect.”
Although Denver didn’t score on its first two offensive drives, the Broncos did get some good runs and a few first downs to move the ball. With a punt return for a TD by Diontae Spencer in the first quarter, the Broncos had a little breathing room at the start of the second, and Lock put together a drive with multiple short passes to the running backs and tight ends.
The drive ended in a forced fumble on a sack to Drew Lock that Carolina picked up and ran to inside Denver’s five-yard line and ultimately scored on, the drive itself got the Broncos’ offense - particularly Lock - into a rhythm to set it up for success later.
But it wasn’t just Hamler with the big catches. Both Jerry Jeudy and Tim Patrick added some deep balls on the day. And every other wide receiver out there had at least one catch - Nick Vannett, Troy Fumagalli and DaeSean Hamilton.
To head coach Vic Fangio, the compliments on his quarterback’s play were mostly about Lock’s efficiency - no interceptions, just a few incompletions, a lot of different targets.
“It was really good to see, and we spread the ball around. It was nice to see KJ come up with some big plays. We believe that he can add that to our offense. Jerry had a 31-yarder, Tim had a 32-yarder,” Fangio said. “Big plays are huge, and we were able to run the ball well enough to keep running it—27 carries—that’s big too in making some first downs.”
The coach noted that the offense rolled It was a good game all the way through till we hit that stretch there where we couldn’t slow them down in the passing game in particular, but we did answer the bell there late with the four and at the end of the game.”
Lock, who did shut up the naysayers for at least a day by showing improvement in his ability to read the defense and make the right call, finished the day with the third-highest QB passer rating in team history.
And some perspective about when to be - or not to be - aggressive.
“That’s the toughest thing to learn, for me at least. I don’t know about others, but that’s the toughest thing for me,” Lock said, adding that John Elway has definitely “preached” to him about doing his job and not forcing the play. “Once you force it, those are the ones that you want back. It sucks, because the ones you end up forcing are in games that you want really, really bad. You want to win so badly that you end up doing some things out of character. It’s all about being calm and focused in those games. That’s when you make the right decisions, and I’ve been getting preached that quite a bit here these last couple weeks.”
Broncos QB Drew Lock (21-27, 280 yds., 4 TD, 0 INT) today posted the third-highest passer rating (149.5) for a game in team history.— Patrick Smyth (@psmyth12) December 13, 2020
His passer rater today trailed only performances by Peyton Manning (157.2 vs. SF, 10/19/14) and John Elway (156.0 vs. AZ, 11/5/95). https://t.co/NDNiibH0EG
Of course, the offense’s big day could not have happened without a heckuva performance from the offensive line. A line that did not have its best player this year - left tackle Garett Bolles - because he was out with an illness he contracted game day morning.
Calvin Anderson, Netane Muti, Elijah Wilkson and Austin Schlottmann all filled in along the line to help keep the quarterback mostly upright and give the running backs some lanes. All in all, they hung together well.
Lock took some shots and was under a lot of pressure, but it was a good test for all involved, and they passed.
“It’s amazing what those guys can do up there,” Lock said, highlighting the play of each of his lineman, beginning with the rookie Muti who had to take on first-round defensive lineman Derrick Brown.
“Muti, I call him ‘Muto Muto’, but Muti, he’s playing smart. They lined Brown up in front of him. That’s a top-10 pick, and [Muti] way more than held his own,” Lock said. “Same thing with Calvin. Calvin slotted at right tackle and played in the Raiders game at right tackle, and we had to move him to left tackle. Elijah comes back in from getting a few reps here and there and bounced back from that injury. It just shows how resilient that group is. I think Dalton Risner does an amazing job of leading that group and getting those guys ready. Same with Garett and same with ‘Cush.’ I’ve seen Garett step into a big role as a leader on our offensive line group. It speaks a lot for how young they are and how well they play together.”
The Broncos’ defense allowed 27 points, but that shouldn’t overshadow the outstanding play by many of the defenders - including a required corps of backup cornerbacks in Michael Ojemudia and De’Vante Bausby.
While Teddy Bridgewater connected with Robby Anderson and Curtis Samuel for some big plays and Mike Davis and Anderson also had some big runs, for the most part, Denver’s bend-don’t-break defense prevailed. At least enough to keep the late-surging Panthers from getting more points than the Broncos.
Safety Kareem Jackson gave a little huddle speech before the Panthers’ last drive to remind his teammates that it was all about having the same intensity as at the beginning of the game.
“We just wanted to pick it back up as a defense,” Jackson said. “Early in the game, we played with great intensity. For us to be out there in that situation and in that time, we just wanted to pick up the intensity, get a stop and put the game away.”
On the previous two drives the Panthers had scored quickly and easily. Jackson didn’t want that happening again.
“Those two drives, I felt it was self-inflicted,” he said. “As a defense, I felt like we got a little lax on those two drives. Early in the game and up to that point, we were dominant. To relax like that and they go right down the field, it’s definitely something that we didn’t want to happen. ...To pick it back up on that last drive just shows that if we do things right and all 11 of us communicate and we’re all on the same page, we can go out there and execute and play the way we played earlier in the game.”
Next week’s test will be much harder when the Broncos host the 10-3, current AFC East leading Buffalo Bills, and red-hot Josh Allen.
But building on what the Broncos got right against the Panthers and fixing what they got wrong will go a long way in making that game a good one.
“Drew had a heck of a game today. We can do that every week,” Hamler added. “I think he was on-point today. He’s doing his thing, I’m not going to lie about that.”