Win, lose, or draw, today will be the last game both Vegas and Denver play in 2020. Any realistic shot at a Broncos’ playoff game died with an 0-4 start, while the Raiders’ saw their playoff hopes die the last two weeks. The rivals will trade blows in a game that means little to the NFL at large. Some would say a win is great for momentum into the new year. Vic Fangio isn’t among them.
“I’m a believer in that it will make Sunday night and Monday feel a whole lot better, but I think each and every season is its own entity. Teams change as everybody knows. Teams that have great records—their roster changes. Our roster will change somewhat obviously. So, I think each and every season is its own entity.”
Both teams are playing for pride first and foremost. The matchup will also serve as a crucial opportunity for a number of players to make an impression. With injuries long past the point of comical proportion, the Broncos are in for a battle with the Raiders.
Here’s what I’m looking for.
1. Does Chubb play?
2. Who wins along the line of scrimmage?
3. Does Carr cruise between the 20s?
4. Will the red zone defense hold up?
5. What does the run defense look like in short yardage?
Bradley Chubb’s status could turn into a hidden turning point in the game. Chubb’s 57 individual pass pressure leads the Broncos and currently ranks third among every linebacker in the NFL. As I write this, Chubb has a coin’s flip odds at playing in the game thanks to an ankle injury. If the Pro Bowl edge rusher can’t suit up, the Broncos’ pass rush will become dependent on Malik Reed, Jeremiah Attaochu, Dre’Mont Jones and Alexander Johnson to make Derek Carr uncomfortable.
It’s worth noting that even minus Chubb last week, the Broncos found a way to get hits on Justin Herbert as they held LA to 19 points. While Austin Ekeler’s 23-yard gain gave him a respectable box score stat line, without it he averaged just 2.4 yards per carry. No area showed the Broncos dominance along the line of scrimmage quite like their money down performance, however. The Chargers converted just four of their 13 third and fourth down opportunities.
With the Broncos cornerback room is down to Michael Ojemudia and three corners who have played for two different teams this year, so I expect the Raiders to move the ball between the 20s. Like last week, the defensive performance looks as though it will come down to the redzone. As bad as things have gotten elsewhere amid all the injuries, Fangio’s continued to dial up magic when his back is against the wall.
If the Broncos are down Chubb and Harris, there’s little doubt the run defense will suffer a bit of a fall off. That could hurt against a Raiders rushing game that excels on carries off the left end where 55 normally lines up. Vegas hasn’t been all that strong running in any other direction this year, but Chucky is going to try and establish the run.
The Broncos red zone defense has allowed touchdowns on just 47% of drives this season. No other defense is below 51%— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 30, 2020
6. Can the game plan stay on track?
7. How does Shurmur help the offense?
8. What happens on obvious passing downs?
9. Will the pass pro hold up?
10. Who wins their matchups in the passing game?
11. Is Drew Lock “the guy”?
The Broncos’ meltdown in Week 10 remains one of the more troubling moments in Lock’s second season. As a unit, the defense ranks among the five worst in football. It got so bad Jon Gruden fired his defensive coordinator after the Raiders’ 44-27 loss to Philip Rivers and the Indianapolis Colts. Rod Marinelli has made tweaks here and there in the two weeks since, but this remains an abysmal unit. The offense should be able to move the ball.
To do so, it will fall on Shurmur to play to the strengths of the roster. When I went back over the Broncos’ game against the Raiders it struck me how different the passing game looked. Drew Lock had seven snaps alone in the shotgun against the Raiders, he’s had just two such snaps since. Since week 10 the Broncos have moved away from the horizontal leading throws that Lock struggles to connect with towards even more hitches, sit routes, and comebacks.
Starting in Miami and in the games since, the Broncos have turned towards their ground game and and Gordon’s rewarded them with more big plays. Through the first seven games of Gordon’s career in orange and blue, Shurmur gave him less than nine carries three different times and he averaged 4.09 yards per carry. In all three games, the Broncos fell behind early and Shurmur’s response was to go to the air, so the commitment to Lindsay and Gordon in the Buffalo loss hints at the philosophical shift. Both backs received 11 carries in the contest, even as the Bills ran out to a 25-point lead through three quarters.
Sticking to a ground and pound game plan could do wonders for the offense today. The Raiders aren’t a strong rushing defense and have allowed a 20+ yard run in every game since their victory over the Jets. They’re especially weak defending runs to the left, so we could see Graham Glasgow or Netane Muti spring some runs pulling around Garett Bolles.
If the Broncos can leverage Gordon as a running threat, it should help to set up play action passing opportunities. By my count, the Broncos only dialed up 10 run fakes in their loss to the Chargers. Part of this comes down to the early 13-0 deficit, but the way Lock depends on boot action and run fakes to simplify his reads, it’s puzzling how Shurmur abandoned play action.
With the 12-37 final, it’s easy to forget how close the Broncos kept the game through most of the first half. Lock’s red zone pick in the dying ticks of the second quarter killed off a potential three-point lead. By the time Denver got back into scoring range, Vegas had 30 points. When the Broncos wind up behind the sticks today I expect Rod Marinelli to dial up similar looks to what caused Tua Tagovailoa last week. They’ll bring bodies down late or move someone out of the look to make Lock make two reads: one before, and one after the snap.
It’s no secret Lock struggles against the blitz and simulated pressures. Hurrying Lock’s process could prevent him from finding Jerry Jeudy, Noah Fant, and Tim Patrick, who should abuse their matchups. Today represents a good litmus test to see how Lock has grown where it matters most.
Over the past month, Drew Lock has dramatically improved his performance when blitzed. His passer rating was 41.3 when blitzed as of Dec. 4th, it's now up to 70.3. Still not great, but significant improvement. https://t.co/93YS106bbb https://t.co/ncYrDfMH5r— Joseph Mahoney (@ndjomo76) December 31, 2020
While the Broncos season will come to an end regardless of the final result, there’s little doubt the Raiders’ game could have monumental influence on the direction Elway takes this offseason. Thanks to all the injuries and A.J. Bouye’s suspension, it looks like at least nine players in their first or second season will start against Las Vegas. Today marks an opportunity for them to make a lasting impression with months ‘til free agency and the NFL Draft.
Let’s hope they’re up to the challenge.