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GIF Horse: Can the Broncos win with Jeff Driskel starting?

Will the backup QB provide a spark? Let’s break down how the Denver Broncos might utilize Jeff Driskel while Drew Lock recovers from injury.

On Sunday the Denver Broncos will start their 4th quarterback since drafting Drew Lock in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft after another battle with the injury bug will leave 2nd year passer on the sideline.

As far as replacements go, Jeff Driskel’s resume is closer to Brandon Allen’s than Joe Flacco’s with just 315 attempts in his NFL career. If the Broncos can pull off an upset over Tom Brady and the Buccaneers it would mark just the second time in Driskel’s career he’s won as a starter. It’s an open question if he can pull it off, but Driskel did show hints of a functional quarterback against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

What did Driskel do well?

When Driskel entered the game the broadcast crew made a ton of noise about how he isn’t an athlete and my eyes rolled so far into the back of my head I had to dig them out with a spoon. He’s no Kyler Murray or Lamar Jackson, but Driskel’s a 4.5 athlete and he scrambled for almost 300 yards across his 12 games with the Bengals and Lions.

One area where Driskel was noticeably different than Lock in the Steelers’ game is how he handled pressure. Early in the contest and again on the play Lock got hurt, he bailed out away from the rush rather than find space within the pocket to throw downfield. Driskel wasn’t perfect in this regard, but he showed admirable poise.

If Driskel can withstand the heat, there should be receivers open.

The Broncos only ran 2 snaps of Empty personnel against the Titans, so I was curious to see if it’d become a bigger part of the gameplan against a Steelers D very keen on blitzing from the second and third level. Spreading out the Pittsburgh defense would make it harder to disguise replacements for blitzers, and I thought it could help Drew Lock read the field.

I found encouraging is how Shurmur trusted Driskel enough to open it up with Empty considering how few snaps he’d have had to work with it. There is more stress on a quarterback to help himself against the pass rush out of Empty because without a back the opposing defense can “tee off” on the offensive line.

Driskel didn't waste time delivering the ball out of empty.
Driskel didn’t waste time delivering the ball out of empty.

Against an aggressive Steelers’ defense it felt as though Driskel rarely had a clean pocket to throw from. On the rare opportunities he had to set up in a clean pocket I thought Driskel looked solid. He connects his upper and lower body and his feet looked efficient. With so few snaps this is something I plan to keep an eye on going forward, especially against Todd Bowles’ aggressive scheme.

I’d still like to see more from Driskel before I feel comfortable grading his arm talent. It’s nowhere near Lock’s ability to throw off platform or from different arm slots, but Driskel found ways to deliver the ball to his target’s vicinity even when he found himself in a tight pocket and unable to swing through his hips. Odds are he’ll need to do so once more against the Bucs.

After seeing Drew Lock’s struggles with the deep ball through the first two games, it’s necessary to admit Driskel looked like an upgrade there in week 2. His accuracy looked pretty scattershot after 10 to 12 yards with the Lions, but I thought he looked pretty good on the throw to Hamler and Jeudy downfield last week so I want to see more here.

Driskel found a way to give Fant a chance without stepping into the throw.
Driskel found a way to give Fant a chance without stepping into the throw.

Where did Driskel struggle?

My biggest gripes with Jeff Driskel dating back to last summer remain. Most notably, his ball placement leaves a lot to be desired. If Shurmur can’t help him improve here, Driskel’s going to make the young receiving corps work harder for their receptions. Last Sunday it led to a couple of big drops, most notably the misses to DaeSean Hamilton and K.J. Hamler.

I’ve seen too much Driskel tape to blame this on being “cold.”

One concern I have for the Broncos with Driskel at the helm is how his issues with ball placement will limit the opportunities to make plays after the catch as it did against the Steelers. Hamler, Jerry Jeudy, Noah Fant, and Melvin Gordon are all weapons in space, but they need to get the ball without having to stop.

It’s necessary to remember how little practice time Driskel must have had leading up the game against Pittsburgh. As a team completely devoted to their prospective franchise quarterback, the Broncos wouldn’t be giving (m)any reps to their backups in practice. On top of that, Denver had just played the Tennessee Titans the previous Monday and were on a short week.

With all that in mind, the first area that really jumped off the page about Driskel’s issues were his reads. He struggled to identify the pressure before the snap which left him exposed to free rushers in the protection. Joe Mahoney’s already talked about how big a role he played in all of the sacks the Broncos gave up last Sunday so I won’t beat it to death, but it is a significant concern this week. The Buccaneers are every bit as aggressive as the Steelers and won’t hesitate to mug the linebackers or bring a nickel blitzer.

Driskel had a way to convert the Broncos’ 4th and fail play.

I thought Driskel looked overly reliant on his first read in 2019 and believe that carried over in Sunday’s loss. Again, this isn’t all that surprising with how little time Driskel’s had to operate the offense. It cost the Broncos a touchdown against the Steelers and could be a huge issue against defensive coordinators who can bait him into mistakes as Bowles and Gregg Williams of the Jets can.

There was some debate after the loss about Pat Shurmur’s play calling late in the game, and especially on the last two offensive plays. Above you’ll see the 4th and 2 play. It should look very familiar. While motion hid the play until right before the snap, it was the same concept Drew Lock found Phillip Lindsay on against the Titans.

The key difference between the two play calls is how the nickel blitz by Pittsburgh meant Driskel HAD to deliver the ball to the crosser hot. He didn’t. Ball game.

We didn’t have to wait long for Pat Shurmur to bring back the “pony pass” play.

Final Thoughts

With injuries and losses mounting, the Broncos 2020 season looks like it’s in free fall. On Sunday the Denver Broncos will start their 4th quarterback since drafting Drew Lock in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft. Odds are, he’s not the heir to Peyton Manning.

Maybe Pat Shurmur can rediscover a bit the Minnesota Magic he found with Case Keenum?