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11 things I’m watching for in the Broncos’ game against the Steelers.

Can the Denver Broncos beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh? Here are 11 things I’ll be watching for in this game.

Aaron Rodgers famously told Packer Land to “R-E-L-A-X” and I’m here to beg for “P-A-T-I-E-N-C-E” from Broncos Country. Yes, the Broncos started the season 0-1 after a disappointing 16-14 loss to the Tennessee Titans. Yes, 0-2 teams have a notoriously difficult time climbing into the postseason.

It’s okay. Really. I promise.

With a young offense and a tough schedule to open the year, the Broncos are in for a slog to open the 2020 season. Rather than lament the fact, let’s celebrate how battle tested Drew Lock and company will be by the time they face the New York Jets.

Special teams

1. Does Hamler make his debut as a returner?

Last week I was concerned with how Tom McMahon’s special team unit would look. So far, so good. Sam Martin did a terrific job pinning the Titans on their side of the field and the coverage unit looked solid. I’m eager to see how they look against the Steelers.

The big thing I’m wondering today is if the Broncos will use the return game to get Hamler touches or save him for offense.

Defense

2. How will the pass rush look without Von Miller?

3. Can the defensive line own their matchups?

4. How does Josey Jewell hold up in coverage?

5. What do O.J. and Bassey do for an encore?

6. Did the Broncos solve their issues with crossing routes?

In what is sure to be a perpetual question this year, I’m trying to keep an eye on how Fangio operates without his best defensive player. As I expected last week, the Broncos blitzed more and leaned into more stunts on passing downs to try and create opportune matchups.

One player who saw more opportunities to rush the passer last week is Alexander Johnson. On Cover 2 Broncos Jeff Essary pointed out to me that the Dino was sent on a blitz nine different times against the Titans. I’m eager to see if that continues, as Johnson has the skillset to do a lot of damage as a free rusher.

By returning into the backside A, Harris draws the attention of the left guard late. It gives Johnson a freeway to Tannehill.

The results were mixed. That shouldn’t be a huge surprise. What makes an Edge rusher like Von so special is how he can consistently find ways to pressure the quarterback without a ton of help. When teams scheme up ways to get pressure, they’re more susceptible to opponents hitting them with a counter. Credit to Arthur Smith, he’s a good play caller.

This week the Broncos will have another opportunity to attack susceptible opponents. The Pittsburgh Steelers line has been bitten quite hard by the injury bug. Instead of David DeCastro, or even Steven Wiesniewski, the Broncos will face rookie Kevin Dotson at right guard. While the right tackle situation isn’t as dramatic a fall off as Zach Banner won a tight position battle with Chukwuma Okafor, it’s still notable. The third year pro has only played 237 snaps on offense, most of them his rookie season.

A big way the Broncos could turn the game in their favor is by overwhelming a young Steelers line that has had painfully little practice time together. I’m curious to see if Fangio moves Chubb around to try and get him on Okafor or leans on Malik Reed and Jeremiah Attaochu. This could also be another game where we see batted passes by Jurrell Casey, Shelby Harris, or even Dre’Mont Jones.

The Steelers had issues with designed pressure even before the second wave of injuries to their right side.

It’s going to be critical for the line to get pressure to help protect the second and third level of the defense this week. Ben Roethlisberger may not be the same mad bomber Broncos Country remembers, but he has such a talented group of pass catchers it may not matter.

JuJu Smith-Schuster and Eric Ebron are the two who scare me most as far as individual mismatches go. Both are tall and very fast for their positions. The Steelers used both on crossing routes last week to great effect, so we’ll find out quickly if Fangio’s found an answer for Denver’s years old weakness to them.

Beyond the crossing routes both Ebron and Vance McDonald will present a test for the Broncos’ linebackers. Ebron is closer to a receiver than true tight end and has a coach in Randy Fichtner who’s all too happy to take advantage of the athletic mismatches he creates.

James Conner playing is a cause for concern as the Steelers can motion him out into the slot. They did this on 3rd and 1 against the Giants. Look for the Steelers to work to really stress spacing between Josey Jewell, Alexander Johnson, and whoever’s playing the nickel. Roethlisberger has no qualms about stealing yards.

The Steelers found success with quick outs in short yardage against New York.

Don’t sleep on James Washington, Diontae Johnson, or Chase Claypool. Washington had a really nice play after the catch last week and almost came away with a nice slot fade. Spencer is a craft route runner. Chase Claypool isn’t great at separating, but he’s comfortable playing bully ball and will outrebound defenders if given the chance. Essang Bassey and Michael Ojemudia are in for a trial by fire in the second game of their NFL careers.

Pittsburgh found some cracks in the Giants front with their gap runs, so this could be another week Attaochu plays more snaps than Reed. The latter had a few issues with downblocks and kickouts last year. Benny Snell isn’t a household name just yet, but he’s a tough runner who does a nice job finishing runs. That said, all of the injuries to the Steelers line and the Broncos’ talented front leaves me optimistic about the rushing defense this week.

Snell does a nice job against contact and fights for every yard.

Offense

7. Will Sutton play?

8. What’s the plan?

9. How does Shurmur protect the tackles?

10. Can the line pick up all the different looks?

11. Is Drew Lock “the guy?”

Throughout all of the quarterback changes last year the Broncos passing offense ran through Courtland Sutton, so it was a dramatic change to play without him Monday night. The loss meant Shurmur and Lock leaned on Noah Fant and Jerry Jeudy making his first start. It forced Lock to win with his eyes more than he’s had to do ‘til now in his NFL career.

I expect the Broncos to be cautious with Sutton’s injury, so don’t be shocked if he sits again. The Broncos want their star receiver close to 100% so they can run their offense through him. They also know these first couple of games are could into an acclimation period for such a young offense after no preseason, so it hardly makes sense to rush 14 into action too soon.

With Sutton’s status uncertain and K.J. Hamler working his way back from injury, I’m really curious to see if and how Shurmur adjusts. Last week he played with three receivers on the field more than 60% of the time, even if it meant Diontae Spencer had to act as a decoy.

With more time to prepare for potential life without his number one receiver, I hope the Broncos can mix in more looks with heavier personnel against the Steelers. Saquon Barkley had a historically bad rushing performance against Pittsburgh’s front last week, but New York did find success passing out of three tight end sets. Even considering Daniel Jones’ pick, the 13 personnel usage was effective and played a critical role in Darius Slayton’s long touchdown.

Throughout Monday Night, the Giants did a nice job using their tight ends to get receiver open out of 13 personnel.

Regardless of the personnel grouping, Shurmur and Mike Munchak have their work cut out for them this week. T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree are huge mismatches for the Broncos tackles. What’s worse Keith Butler is one of the most aggressive coordinators in the NFL and won’t hesitate to bring five rushers after the quarterback. He’s also a big fan of nickel blitzes and does a masterful job creating free runners to the passer.

It may not be possible to stop Watt and Dupree, but the Broncos will need to try.

The Broncos’ offensive line did good work keeping the quarterback clean against the Titans. I found Garett Bolles play encouraging and the Broncos helped Elijah Wilkinson with chips in spots. Melvin Gordon also did solid work picking up the blitz. All these things will be critical again. If the offense falls into obvious passing situations there will be a ton of pressure on Lock to make the right read.

Don’t be surprised if Pittsburgh throws a look at Lock he hasn’t seen before.

Which brings us back to the biggest question facing the 2020 Broncos. Even if Sutton plays this will be a really tough game for Drew Lock. In the opener he had issues reading the field, delivering passes on time, and stepping up in the face of the rush. Some of this is to be expected given Lock was playing his 6th start without his number one weapon against a talented front. He also needs to improve.

Lock’s best plays came outside of structure Monday.

It’s easy to look at Lock’s counting stats and conclude he had a good game. After all, completing 66% of your passes for 216 yards, a touchdown, no picks, and no sacks is pretty good. It also hides the fact that Lock’s best plays came on either short passes where Noah Fant or Jerry Jeudy made big plays. Some of his biggest gains came at the end of each half when the Titans relied more on the clock than their secondary to keep Denver out of the endzone.

Among my biggest knocks on Lock coming out of Missouri is that he tends to be a “see-it, throw-it” quarterback. This cropped up in a big way last Monday. Yes, he dealt with drops. Some of them quite bad. Lock also played a role in one of them because he was late to delivering the ball. I mentioned on Cover 2 Broncos that I had no problem with Jake Butt dropping this ball.

Shurmur is dialing up plays to get Lock good looks.

Plays like this are a perfect example of how Lock still needs to grow. He had Butt on an easy pass in the middle, but because he took so long to get the ball out the defender had sniffed it out and began closing. Butt would have paid dearly to catch the pass.

Lock needs to do a better anticipating.

Lock also put the ball in harms way, which could cost him dearly against an opportunistic Steelers’ defense. He’s still working out his reads both before and after the snap, and it could make third and longs a roller coaster this year.

Lock chose perhaps the worst potential option on this 3rd down.

My hope is Pat Shurmur mixes Melvin Gordon runs with the quick game as much as possible. This should take the burden off Lock to win with his eyes and help him to deliver the ball to receivers with space to work. All the better if Denver uses more empty personnel as spreading the Steelers’ defense out will make it harder for them to disguise their intentions.

Final Thoughts

There’s a ton of bad matchups in this game for the Broncos. Pittsburgh is strong at both edges and have the range on the second level to run with Noah Fant. Offensively they’re really loaded at receiver and have an athletic tight end of their own to attack the middle of the field and make plays after the catch.

In July all of Broncos’ Country agreed that Drew Lock throwing to Jeudy, Hamler, Sutton, and Fant with Gordon and Phillip Lindsay behind him made for an exciting show. Most also saw the need for patience with a young offense still finding their footing. Now that the Broncos are facing their second of three opponents with Super Bowl aspirations it’s time to remind ourselves that the sky is not falling if the Broncos struggle early this season.

Win, lose, or draw, I’m excited to watch this team play football.