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Raiders at Broncos: 11 things to watch for

Are Fangio’s Broncos ready for a must-win game?

Baltimore Ravens v Denver Broncos Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images

It took five weeks for the Broncos to reach their first must-win game of the 2021 season. The loss to Pittsburgh dropped Denver to 3-2 and put them in a precarious spot in the playoff chase. Thanks to the talent around the AFC, there may already be as many as six locks for the postseason. The Buffalo Bills are 4-1 and have the easiest remaining schedule in football, while the Chiefs and Chargers as well as the Ravens and Browns are competing for division crowns in the AFC West and North respectively. When you add in the fact someone has to win the AFC South, the Broncos look like they’re fighting the rest of the conference for the seventh seed barring a collapse in Baltimore, Cleveland, Kansas City, or Los Angeles.

Jon Gruden’s resignation following the discovery of racist, homophobic, and misogynistic emails makes the Raiders unpredictable. Losing their head coach and play caller creates a vacuum that the rest of the organization is scrambling to fill, which makes them tough to game plan for. Rich Bisaccia has never been a head coach before so it’s hard to say for certain what his game and clock management will look like, and while Greg Olson served as a play caller in the league, it was five years ago with the Jacksonville Jaguars. A lot has changed in the NFL since then.

Gus Bradley remains, so Pat Shurmur and the offense shouldn’t be caught off guard, and though the Raiders’ play calls may be unpredictable, Denver’s coaching staff should be familiar with the matchups. After Fangio’s proteges in Sean Desai and Brandon Staley had their way with Derek Carr and the Vegas offense, it’d be extremely disappointing if the defense fails to do its part.

Here’s what I’m looking for today.

Special Teams

1. Can McMahon stay out of the way?

Five games into 2021 and the Broncos have already given up a 102-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, a partially blocked punt, and Devin Duvernay’s career-long, 42-yard punt return. So it didn’t come as any special sort of surprise when Dre’Mont Jones was called for a leverage penalty last week. After all, the Broncos teams under Tom McMahon are among the league leaders in penalties this season. On Thursday, the special teams coordinator shared his thoughts on the penalties and ultimately took responsibility:

“Well three false starts. You’ve got to sit in there. That’s young guys that have got to sit when there’s movement. The holding penalty on the kickoff return, it’s a restriction foul. Then we had the unnecessary roughness foul on the Giants, so it’s just discipline all the way around. With [S] Caden [Sterns’], you should never ever have a false start regardless of your age, but we can’t have after-the-play penalties. Then the last penalty on the field goal, that’s on me. Call-wise I’m willing to take full responsibility for that.”

“That’s all on me. A hundred percent. Yeah, it’s discipline as a coach. You can’t have any penalties.”

The Raiders’ special teams shouldn’t be a huge mismatch for the Broncos. They’ve been extremely average this season outside of kickoff coverage and neither of their return units are anything special. Hunter Renfrow and Kenyan Drake are the primary returners, and while Drake scored a long touchdown with the Dolphins back in 2016, he’s done little since. With that said, Mike Ford landed on Injured Reserve so he’ll miss the contest and — okay, who am I kidding? It’s McMahon. Every time the teams go out there, I’m holding my breath.

Defense

2. Where does Olson make his presence felt?

3. What’s up with the secondary?

4. Will the pass rush be a factor?

5. Can the run D hold up?

6. Turnovers?

Without overlooking Gruden’s poor character and lack of judgement as well as his questionable game management, he’s always been a good offensive play caller in the NFL. Gruden has a knack for setting up and exploiting opponent tendencies. Without him, that falls on Olson and Derek Carr. It could be a huge boon for the Broncos if Fangio brings any sort of wrinkles into the game to build off what the Bears did last week.

I suspect Olson won’t mix and match his personnel with the same kind of frequency down-to-down. Gruden didn’t hesitate to change things up, which puts stress on opponents. Through five games, the Raiders actually used 11 personnel 45% of the time as they’ve mixed in a heavy dose of 12 and 21, which makes sense considering the versatility of Darren Waller and their fullback Alec Ingold.

Ronald Darby’s health and if/how the Broncos utilize him could be a huge X factor today. Throughout training camp, there were reports about a dime personnel group with Darby and Kyle Fuller on the boundary, Bryce Callahan manning his nickel spot, and Patrick Surtain II in the dime. Such a set would give Denver maximum flexibility against whatever the Raiders plan to do with the 6’6” Waller, who’s most dangerous as a receiver. It’s worth noting that while Surtain’s combination of length, technique, and athleticism makes him a worthwhile foil, he’s also a rookie. Waller is one of the two or three best tight ends in the league, so it would make sense to throw a kitchen sink at him as Fangio alluded to Thursday:

“We’re going to use different people on him. We have different tools. We have Pat Surtain, we have Justin Simmons. We want to keep them where it’s not any one thing, to keep it off balance and so forth.”

If Darby is limited or can’t suit up, the Broncos will lean on Caden Sterns to man the dime, but only if Kareem Jackson is active. The 33-year-old safety missed practice Wednesday with a back issue and is listed as questionable. I expect him to play, but if he can’t, Sterns would get his first NFL start and the dime personnel could be tabled.

No Jackson would also put extra focus on Kyle Fuller. Believe it or not, the Broncos pass defense remains one of the best in football defending throws to the right, but opponents have found chunk plays early and often by chucking it deep on the veteran corner. Vegas will surely try to isolate him on Henry Ruggs.

Outside Von Miller, the Broncos pass rush has been completely dependent on games to generate pressure this year, which could prove an issue against an offense and quarterback that can live in quick game. Taking players out of coverage to heat up Carr means one less defender to clean up the dink and dunks.

Las Vegas reshuffled their offensive line before week four to disastrous results, and there’s individual mismatches up and down the front Denver should be able to take advantage of. Miller on Brandon Parker is so one-sided that the Raiders almost have to throw tight bunch sets, chips, read plays, and pullers at Von to try to slow him down. Dre’Mont Jones’ burst and rush repertoire could also lead to a breakout performance against Alex Leatherwood.

How Vegas attacks Denver on the ground could be telling. Josh Jacobs, Peyton Barber, and Kenyon Drake are averaging a combined 3.25 yards a carry this year and the Raiders’ rank among the five worst teams in football by Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards metric. For all their issues against the Ravens and Steelers, the Broncos remain one of the eight best run defenses by ALY, but they’re a bottom three team at stopping runs aimed at the left end, and Pittsburgh repeatedly found success running at Malik Reed, Justin Strnad, and Patrick Surtain II.

Offense

7. What’s Shurmur’s plan?

8. How does the protection account for Crosby, Ngakoue, and Nassib?

9. Who wins in the passing game?

10. Pound the rock?

11. Will Bridgewater and co. capitalize in the redzone?

For the second consecutive week, Pat Shurmur’s play calling has come under scrutiny. Deservedly so, as there’s been a ton of issues. The Broncos haven’t scored a touchdown on an opening possession since 2019 when Rich Scangarello was the offensive coordinator. They are converting just 28.57% of their third downs, which ranks last in the NFL. Even worse, they’ve averaged 20.4 points per game this year, less than dominant offenses like the Giants, Falcons, Colts, and yes, the Raiders.

There’s a lot to unpack when it comes to Shurmur’s issues and what’s plaguing the offense. Injuries to Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler has made the passing game extremely dependent on Tim Patrick and Courtland Sutton, two x-receivers who aren’t consistent separators. Concerns about opposing edge rushers the past two weeks took Noah Fant out of most of the downfield passing concepts because he was asked to help Bobby Massie. The 50-50 split in the backfield lead to a boom/bust running game because of Javonte Williams’ usage and decision-making.

These personnel problems aren’t excuses, mind you. Shurmur’s decision to move away from more heavy personnel groups and re-emphasize 11 (3WR, 1TE, 1RB) happened right after Hamler’s injury, so Kendall Hinton went from the practice squad to playing 65 snaps the last two weeks. Abandoning the run game when Drew Lock entered the Baltimore game remains bewildering when you remember Denver was only down 10. Then there’s the red zone offense, which I wrote about at length yesterday.

On a day when Mike “The Mastermind” Shanahan is getting inducted into the Broncos Ring of Fame, all eyes should be on the current offensive coordinator. Gus Bradley’s defense has been a bright spot in the Raiders season and could take over the game if Shurmur drops the ball. Like the old Legion of Boom Seahawks where Bradley had success, Vegas leans heavily on cover 1 and 3 out of single high shells. They aren’t necessarily trying to fool anyone. They do what they do and do it well. If you aren’t prepared, they’ll simply outplay you.

Raiders coverage isn’t effective because they’re fooling people.
Ryan Weisman / The Kneel Down

To move the ball against the Raiders, Shurmur and Mike Munchak will need to have an answer for the Vegas edge rushers. Maxx Crosby, Yannick Ngakoue, and Carl Nassib are perhaps the best edge trio Denver’s faced this season. Crosby has given Bolles issues in the past and has the kind of freaky athleticism and play strength to find success against Bobby Massie. Ngakoue doesn’t have the same power but is still very fluid and has the kind of bend to run the arc. Nassib lacks the same kind of bend or repertoire as his counterparts, but he’s long and strong, which makes him a nasty matchup for Massie. He also brings the versatility needed to threaten the interior line on stunts.

Don’t be surprised if the passing attack is more methodical than explosive this week. The additions of free agent Casey Heyward and rookie Trevon Moehrig are paying dividends, and Bradley’s scheme asks Johnathan Abrams to serve in a Kam Chancellor type of role patrolling the intermediate zones, which limits his exposure to deep coverage where teams can find chunk plays. By DVOA, the Raiders are a top five defense against deep passes this season, but only 25th against short passes. It’d be a good week for “Teddy Checkdown.”

Melvin Gordon’s status is going to be something to watch for today as it would behoove Shurmur to feature the ground game, and the veteran is his most consistent ball carrier. If Gordon can’t go or he’s limited in some way, the Broncos will probably lean on Mike Boone to compliment Williams. Vegas is having a ton of issues defending wide runs in both directions, so Boone’s vision and explosiveness could be very effective on outside zone. Vegas is also down their best run defending lineman in Johnathan Hankins, so there should be room to run between the tackles.

Final Thoughts

With Mike Shanahan in attendance, the Broncos will play their most important game of the young 2021 season. The two-time Super Bowl champion had a 21-7 record against the Raiders, a team he had a personal vendetta against. It would be a pockmark on franchise history to induct him into the Ring of Fame during an embarrassing loss.

There’s no predicting how Jon Gruden’s emails and the fallout of his resignation will impact the Raiders’ roster. Some players surely feel betrayed by their former head coach, while others will either rationalize or even empathize with the man. The reports out of Vegas all week have suggested “professionalism” is the message in the locker room, which means the Broncos could face a galvanized team out to prove they can win without Chucky. Like Denver, the 3-2 Raiders’ postseason chances depend on it.

Let’s hope Vic Fangio and the Broncos are up for it, or the rest of the season could tailspin.