At 0-2, it’s fair to ask if the Denver Broncos are dead in the water. There are just 30 teams to start 0-2 and make the playoffs, and none lost their best player on both sides of the ball as well as their starting quarterback.
Rather than dwell on the relative hopelessness of the Broncos’ postseason dreams, I hope to share some positive developments I see on the film. Fortunately NFL Gamepass released the All-22 early this week, so I’ve now had a chance to go back over the Broncos game against the Pittsburgh Steelers three times. Here’s what I’ve found.
1. KJ Hamler
Back before the NFL Draft I spent countless hours poring over this wide receiver class. I was as excited as I was nervous for Penn State’s KJ Hamler and had concerns when the Broncos drafted him in the second round over players like Josh Jones from Houston.
At least so far, Elway’s making me eat my words. I expected KJ Hamler’s waterbug quickness to be electric in the NFL as he’s so darn quick in a phone booth that opposing defenders will have huge issues with him in space.
What’s surprised me so far is how good he’s looked with his hands. His tape with the Nittany Lions had me concerned about his hands, but at least so far he’s shown consistently good form. My hope going forward is Shurmur uses Hamler in motion to help the run game. I’d also like to see more routes where Hamler can get the ball on the move. Crossers and slants would also help to prevent Jeff Driskel from having to place the ball on a diminutive 5’9 target as often.
2. Justin Simmons
Jeff Essary did a great job going over the Broncos’ problems with crossing routes and mentioned how Simmons struggled as Fangio tried to stop the bleeding. Well this week Simmons got dialed up to make plays and delivered in a huge way.
Even beyond the interception, what really impressed me is how Simmons came down from the alley against the run. He also got the rare safety blitz called for him. The 2019 Broncos blitzed their defensive backs less than everyone, so it was cool to see Simmons get a chance to hit Ben Roethlisberger.
Check out the Broncos coverage on the Justin Simmons pick pic.twitter.com/sk8Dr8OZdh— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) September 22, 2020
One of the big knocks I had on Melvin Gordon when he signed is how he’s routinely averaged less than four yards a carry in the NFL. I say this because I don’t give too bits of %@#% that he averaged less than four against the Steelers. Before Drew Lock got hurt Flash had five carries for 44 yards as he took advantage of the respect Pittsburgh gave the passing offense. One play in particular that jumped out to me is how Shurmur ran Jerry Jeudy in motion, which dragged Vince Williams out of the box.
Where Gordon really awed me is his play on the touchdown reception. I loved the play call by Shurmur to isolate Gordon on Vince Williams in space. While the Steelers’ defense is loaded with talent, their linebackers aren’t infallible in coverage.
On first and 10 inside the red zone the Broncos came out with trips bunched to the left and Tim Patrick alone on the right. 81 ran a post to drag the coverage towards the middle of the field while DaeSean Hamilton ran a crosser underneath to dump off in case of heat. Patrick’s route pulled the secondary away from Gordon and left a susceptible Williams alone.
Even as he faced heat down the pipe Jeff Driskel delivered a catchable ball, and Gordon made a difficult snag over his shoulder to bring in the touchdown. The fact he’s a good enough receiver to pull off the route gives the Broncos options against the weaker linebackers on their schedule.
4. Shurmur’s adjustments for Driskel were encouraging
I’ll have more about this later in the week, but fact is Jeff Driskel came in about as cold as a quarterback can last Sunday. Drew Lock was entering his 7th game after a Monday Night game, so I’d bet the backup quarterback got ten reps tops this week.
When he got thrown into the lineup Shurmur had to quickly adjust his playcalling towards what he believed his young QB2 could handle. It led to things like a 3x1 Verticals concept with Noah Fant on a backside drag getting called five different times, but if that’s what it takes for Driskel to move the ball I’m all for it.
Stop me if this looks familiar. pic.twitter.com/ZGc5a2tPhY— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) September 22, 2020
5. Tim Patrick
Box Score scouts won’t get this one because Patrick “only” caught two of his five targets for 24 yards. What’s lost is how one of the misses is 100% on Driskel, and Patrick also drew two DPIs from a very physical pass defense. The first one happened when Lock was still in the game and converted a 3rd and 3. The second one happened on 3rd and 11 with only 3:19 left in the game. It went for 17 yards and set up the TD to Gordon.
6. Noah Fant
The only “B” word to describe Fant this year is “break out.” He’s currently on pace for 72 catches and 1,100 yards as well as 16 touchdown receptions. While I’d expect his touchdown pace to come down, if Shurmur makes a real effort to feed him the ball with Courtland Sutton out he could exceed those target numbers.
7. Third Down Defense
Credit has to go to Joe Mahoney for bringing my attention to this, but even with the struggles the Broncos defense is doing alright. They’re the 4th best third down defense in the league so far and have only allowed a conversion on 32.1% of all third downs. Only Baltimore, Chicago and Vance Joseph’s Arizona D have been better.