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11 things I’m watching for in the Broncos’ game against Tom Brady and the Buccaneers

Can the Broncos upset Tampa Bay?

How much does today matter for the Broncos? If they can upset Tom Brady and the Buccaneers on Sunday they’re back from the cliff:

  • Since 1990 12% of teams to start 0-2 have gone on to make the postseason.
  • Since 1980 only six teams have rallied from 0-3 to make the NFL playoffs.

The 2018 Houston Texans are the only team to lose their first three games and make the playoffs this century. Odds are, the Broncos don’t want to try and be the second.

Here’s what I’m looking for today.

Special teams

1. Can they be “special?”

So far this season the Bucs’ special teams looks like one of the five worst in the NFL. After a strong showing against the Titans, the Broncos did so poorly against the Steelers they are too.

Something has to give. Time will tell if it’s Tom McMahon.

Defense

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

3. Does the interior line make some noise?

4. Will O.J. rebound?

5. How do Josey Jewell and Essang Bassey hold up in coverage?

6. Can Chubb break out?

Over the years, Bruce Arians has coached players like Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck, Carson Palmer, and of course Jameis Winston. When Jeff Essary and I spoke with Trevor Sikkema on Cover 2 Broncos this week, he mentioned that it looks like the same downfield passing offense from a year ago. If that’s truly the case it makes sense that Tom Brady is still finding his way in the Bruce Arians offense, as it’s both the first time he’s played in a fundamentally different scheme in his career and he has perhaps the weakest arm out of the premier quarterbacks who have found success in this system.

Still, there’s little doubt that even at 43, the Broncos’ pass rush is under immense pressure to show up in a big way this weekend. It’s easy to point at the miscues and hope Brady’s lost “it,” but the truth is, he’s still among the very best in the league at reading the field and finding an open receiver.

Brady looks like a QB finding his way. He’s still dangerous.

There are multiple receivers on the play above who flash open for Brady. It’s perhaps a testament to where he is as far as comfort within the offense that he doesn’t take the comeback to Mike Evans out of the slot, or maybe he doubts he can squeeze the ball in before a defender breaks. Even still, Brady finds a way to turn away from the incoming looper at the last second for a modest gain.

Over the years, the best way to find success against Brady has been an interior pass rush. Everyone remembers how Justin Tuck ruined the Patriots run at a perfect season, and Malik Jackson was critical for the Broncos to reach Super Bowl 50. If Denver’s going to upset the Bucs, the defensive line is going to need to collapse the pocket with some regularity.

It won’t be easy. Ali Marpet is a criminally underrated guard and neither Ryan Jensen or Alex Cappa are pushovers. The injuries to DeMarcus Walker and Dre’Mont Jones also means the depth behind Mike Purcell, Jurrell Casey and Shelby Harris will be untested. I’m curious to see if the starting trio take on a larger share of the snap counts or if McTelvin Agim gets his first taste of NFL action.

Minus Von, Fangio’s become more aggressive with stunts and blitzes. It’s a risky strategy for Brady.

One of the ways the Broncos have tried to dial up a pass rush this season is through a myriad of games and blitzes. It’s made sense against offensive lines with questions at right tackle and guard, but it was a huge part of Michael Ojemudia’s poor showing against the Steelers. Alexander Johnson crushed Roethlisberger as he let go of the ball, but the veteran quarterback could see how the rookie corner would be locked into 1-on-1 coverage and took a chance.

Since 58 isn’t suiting up anytime soon, Fangio will need to dial up pressure again to try to get Brady off his platform. The only way it will work is if each member of the back seven can do their part to prevent big plays in coverage. It won’t be easy, as Chris Godwin’s return means the Bucs can lean on their mismatch weapon in the middle of the field or turn to Mike Evans to win contested catches on the boundary.

A mismatch that could help to make everything easier is if Bradley Chubb can regain his 2019 form in time to abuse the Buccaneers’ left tackle Donovan Smith. A former second round pick, the 27-year-old had all sorts of issues with both Brian Burns and the Saints’ edge duo.

The Bucs will try to create conflicts in the middle of the field to attack Jewell and Bassey.

Offense

7. Who steps up to fill the Courtland Sutton role?

8. Can Driskel be “the guy” for now?

9. How does Fant get involved?

10. What does the line look like?

11. Will Lindsay and/or Jeudy play?

There is little doubt injuries have dramatically remade this Broncos roster, but it’s especially cruel to the promising offense. Between his shoulder and knee, we’ll only get 31 snaps from Courtland Sutton in 2020. His absence means a huge shift for every other member of the receiving corps. As the best offensive player on the roster, he altered how opponents played, and without him the Broncos’ passing game will need to find recipients for the 100+ targets he was going to receive.

If last week is any hint, it looks like Tim Patrick will now take the majority of the snaps at Sutton’s “X” position. This will be clearest in open trips formations as Patrick will often wind up isolated on the backside.

Most weeks, Patrick's size makes him a mismatch for most corners. That won't be the case against Tampa Bay.
Patrick’s size makes him a mismatch for most corners. It won’t against the Bucs.

As far as the target share goes, it sounds like Pat Shurmur expects a committee approach:

Everybody has to touch the ball and everybody has to do their part. I think it’s way early for people to start talking about one’s, two’s and three’s. Just get open, we’ll throw you the ball, and we’ll keep it at that.”

I’m curious to see if Shurmur tries to find ways to force Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler onto Carlton Davis. While Davis is quietly emerging, he’s had noticeable issues with the Carolina Panthers’ speedy trio last week. Both of the Broncos’ rookies have put opponents into a blender with their route running this year.

Hamler will get open today if Driskel can stay upright long enough to find him.

I’ve written about Jeff Driskel at length this week and plan to keep an eye on his performance against a very aggressive Todd Bowles’ defense. He had crippling issues identifying pressure last week and if it doesn’t improve the Broncos’ offense could find themselves in quicksand.

When Drew Lock went out against the Steelers Shurmur really turned his play calling towards concepts Driskel was comfortable with. I’m curious how that will impact the looks Noah Fant gets. The media’s made a lot about how he “disappeared” in one half of each of the first two games, but a bunch of Fant’s looks are coming as a secondary or tertiary option. Which makes it all the more ridiculous how the Broncos’ 2019 first round pick is on pace for 72 catches, 1104 receiving yards, and 16 touchdowns

Drew Lock found Noah Fant on this 3rd down as a response to pressure.
Drew Lock found Noah Fant on this 3rd down as a response to pressure.

There’s no way to sugarcoat Lloyd Cushenberry’s struggles so far. He’s been bad enough that his play has thrown a bit of a lead weight around both of the guards. Graham Glasgow’s handled it better than Risner, who’s had a tough start to the year.

In week one, the Tennessee Titans attacked something I noticed as I went over Risner’s tape last summer: he struggles with twitch inside. Last year it showed up most in week 3 against the Packers’ Z’Darius Smith and when Risner matched up with Ed Oliver in Buffalo. Between Mike Vrabel and Keith Butler, the last two weeks gave him Jadeveon Clowney and Bud Dupree on a number of inside rushes.

What’s even more troubling with Risner’s play last week is how he mistimed handoffs to Bolles on stunts. The most glaring is the play that knocked Drew Lock out of the game.

The line’s four biggest issues so far have been stunts, right tackle, center, and quarterbacks rolling into trouble .

Garett Bolles has been the Broncos’ best lineman so far. While I do believe he’s benefitting from the league’s decision to call holding at a historically low rate this year, Bolles’ penalties have never been my biggest issue with him. I’ll gladly take a flag over a broken quarterback. What’s always concerned me with Bolles’ play until now has been how little growth he’s shown. He’s always had the athletic tools to eventually blossom into a Pro Bowl caliber player if only he ironed out his kick slide and figured out where to place his hands.

Keep in mind it’s only been two weeks. Bolles hasn’t been perfect, but the hand placement is noticeably better than last year. The play to play consistency has been good. When Bolles gets beat he does what he has to do to prevent contact on the QB. If he can keep up his current level of play, Bolles will make himself a lot of money in 2021.

Bolles looks like a Pro Bowl tackle so far.

It’s no secret Elijah Wilkinson’s been a huge liability. Dating back to last summer it looked like Wilkinson was best served as the Broncos’ sixth lineman and utility guy. As a starting tackle his feet will always be exposed against speed. When that speed is also the best healthy edge rusher in football, it will look a lot like last Sunday.

Fortunately, the Buccaneers do not have anyone near Watt’s level of athleticism. Shaq Barrett is a savvy rusher who knows how to win, but so long as the coaching staff keeps Wilkinson in mind I do not believe he will take over the game. It took until the second half for the Broncos to really lean on Noah Fant, Jerry Jeudy, or Tim Patrick to chip with regularity. They may want to go to route early today.

Last thought on Wilkinson and I know it may be a controversial one. I trust in Munch enough to know he’ll know if Demar Dotson’s an upgrade. When I watched him last summer I saw an aging tackle who still had the athleticism to slide and protect on third and long. I also thought he could be a noticeable downgrade as a run blocker. Trevor Sikkema also brought to Jeff and my attention that there’s a real possibility Dotson came into camp lighter than expected. It’s possible that it’s taking time for him to get back into real game shape.

While the Buccaneers defense will blitz and play games with almost as much regularity as the Steelers, they subscribe to a different theory in the middle. Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh are both notable pass rushers who can also tie down blockers for the linebackers. It helps to maximize Lavonte David and Devin White’s range and keep them clean to run sideline to sideline.

In an effort to protect Jeff Driskel, I expect Shurmur and the Broncos to give Melvin Gordon touches regardless of the box count this week. Don’t be surprised if the numbers look ugly. This Buccaneer run defense is among the best in football.

Final Thoughts

An 0-2 has meant NFL Draft talk starts early this year, but it makes little sense for the Broncos to actively tank. This perhaps the most critically injured team in the NFL. Chances are their best offensive and defensive player will play just 31 snaps for them all year. They signed and activated Blake Bortles to the active roster this week.

It’s also a roster with a very young nucleus. Most of whom are still learning what it means to play in the league. The best road forward is to fight like hell.

An 0-3 start gives new significance to the Thursday Night matchup in the Meadowlands. Right or wrong, it will cast doubt over the coaching staff and the decisions Elway made this offseason. It will garner hype as the Trevor Lawrence bowl.

But this year is about so much more than the next game on the schedule. The day to day drama matters little if the core continues to grow and improve. It’s about winning from now on.