It’s hard to believe the Broncos’ epic comeback against the Chargers was almost two months ago now. After completing 12 of 23 passes for 93 yards and a pick through three quarters, Drew Lock and the offense came alive in the fourth quarter. Helped in part by the best play of Bryce Callahan’s career as well as a surprising DaeSean Hamilton touchdown, Lock closed the deal in the dying seconds when K.J. Hamler stayed inbounds on a clutch touchdown grab.
Back in week eight, the Broncos defense held Justin Herbert and the Chargers offense out of the endzone for their first four drives of the day while the Broncos offense did nothing and averaged just 2.3 yards per play. I don’t think that’ll happen today as the defense is down to Justin Simmons and prayer. Fangio will try to slow Herbert without four of his top five corners. What could help is there’s a very real possibility Keenan Allen, Hunter Henry, and both the Chargers’ best pass rushers will miss the contest.
Here’s what I’m looking for.
1. Will Fangio try to cook the duck?
2. Does Herbert roast the secondary?
3. How do the cornerbacks influence Fangio’s pressure scheme, if at all?
4. Who wins along the line of scrimmage?
5. Will the run defense hold up when it counts most?
There’s reason to believe we’ve reached the breaking point with this Broncos defense. To their credit, they held up admirably far longer than I expected. Even without reliable help from the offense, they withstood the loss of Von Miller, Jurrell Casey, Mike Purcell, and dealt with a rotating cast at one boundary corner spot for the majority of the year.
The last two offseasons there was a constant debate about how important corners are to this Broncos’ system. If there was ever any doubt, the last two weeks should hammer it home that even Fangio needs capable players. Without Bryce Callahan, A.J. Bouye, Essang Bassey, Duke Dawson, and Kevin Toliver, the pass defense had a putrid showing against the Buffalo Bills. Josh Allen hit 14 10+ yard passes as he sliced up the secondary with surgical precision.
In Justin Herbert, the Broncos now face a historically good rookie quarterback. The sixth overall pick in the 2020 Draft has the kind of arm that leaves no area of the field safe. He’s good throwing off platform and athletic enough to punish the Broncos with his legs, so edge defenders will need to be cognizant of their contain duties as they rush. If the play breaks down and Herbert can buy his receivers time, it’s going to spell trouble. Without Bradley Chubb, points are imminent.
Keenan Allen’s status is going to be a huge x-factor to keep an eye on before kickoff. He’s Herbert’s go-to-guy on third down. With Hunter Henry out and Virgil Green out, L.A. will turn to Donald Parham, who’s shown promise as a receiving tight end. He played a career high 24 snaps last week. He and Mike Williams have the kind of size and length to be issues around the redzone.
3rd and 11, the Chargers motion Ekeler in out of empty then bring Allen down late. His release essentially turns the play into a downfield screen. pic.twitter.com/j0IAhsNBWJ— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 23, 2020
6. Can the Broncos’ gameplan stay on track?
7. How does the workload look?
8. How does Shurmur help the offense?
9. Will the pass pro hold up?
10. Who wins their matchups in the passing game?
11. Is Drew Lock “the guy”?
It can’t be overstated how big a deal Joey Bosa and Uchenna Nwosu’s absence could be today. Sacks aren’t everything, but the two have 12 sacks this year. As a team, the rest of the Chargers defense has 12. Jerry Tillery and Isaac Rochell are the only defenders who have more than one sack. Bosa got knocked out of the first game with the Broncos in the late third quarter. The play after he got kneed in the head, Lock threw an interception. After that he completed 14 of 18 passes for 155 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions, and no sacks. As it stands, Tillery is LA’s best pass rusher today. The 2019 first round pick’s got a quick first step and his heavy hands gave Austin Schlottmann a ton of issues in week eight.
While Lock’s been a rollercoaster ride each week, since the win over the Miami Dolphins the Broncos have shown hints that they’ve found a recipe for success with their callow passer. The foundation’s a diverse running scheme that mixes inside and outside zone with power and pin-and-pull that threatens enough for Lock to eat off play action and boot action. It went off the rails last week against a Bills’ defense content to load up the box and force Lock to beat them with his arm and eyes.
The Chargers defense often draws comparisons to the Seattle Seahawks because they play out of a lot of single high safety looks and lean on Cover 3 variations. They have the corners to play man coverage on the Broncos receivers, but without their two best pass rushers it could lead to some big plays. Don’t be surprised if the Broncos feast out of 3X1 looks because it could dictate favorable matchups for Jerry Jeudy or K.J. Hamler in the slot. LA will concede catches in the middle of the field, even as Kenneth Murray’s started to show hints of progress these last couple weeks.
Without Phillip Lindsay, I’m anxious to see how the Broncos split up their backfield rotation. Melvin Gordon’s played quite well lately, but with the season all but over it may be time to see what the depth behind him can do. If he can hold up in pass protection, now could be a good time to get Levante Bellamy’s feet wet as Royce Freeman’s contract expires after 2021. If Lock can keep L.A. from overloading the box, the ground game should find yards. No Bosa or Nwosu is going to mean there’s opportunities.
Chris Harris’ first game against the Broncos should be an interesting one. The 31-year old got called for defensive pass interference on Nelson Agolor and also picked off Marcus Mariota last week. His comments on Lock this week suggest he’s had his fair share of success against the Broncos’ prospective franchise quarterback last year. The Chargers have been one of the best teams in the league against number one receivers per DVOA, but they’ve struggled elsewhere. There’s reason to believe Lock should have success.
Let's hope Lock doesn't give Chris Harris any gifts. pic.twitter.com/fJHlyeObHO— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 26, 2020
Barring some real Fangio magic or Chargers’ @#%%, this game is going to come down to the quarterbacks. The Broncos defense is down to duct tape and superglue in the secondary and if either Michael Ojemudia or DeVante Bausby miss time, they’re essentially out of boundary corners. Herbert will get his. The question becomes: can Lock?