Lacking the time to lick their wounds after a debacle in front of Mike Shanahan’s induction into the Ring of Fame, the 3-3 Denver Broncos head to Cleveland to face the 3-3 Browns on Thursday Night Football. The game marks a crossroads for both roster.
After an undefeated start over three dumpster fires, Fangio’s defense failed to contain Lamar Jackson after the Ravens knocked Teddy Bridgewater out of the game. Since then both sides of the ball are in a state of decline as the coaching staff struggles to adapt to injuries, matchups, and mental errors. Meanwhile, the Browns are reeling after a 37-14 drubbing to Vance Joseph and the undefeated Arizona Cardinals. Cleveland enters the game with an injury report a mile long and their depth looks as if it’s reaching a breaking point.
As always, the Broncos enter the contest with their own questions about availability. After a beating in the Raiders game, Teddy Bridgewater’s status is very much in question and if he can’t suit up, Drew Lock would make the first start of his third season against one of the best edge rushers in football. Alexander Johnson’s season ending injury puts the linebacker corps. and run defense in dire straits. There’s is also the distinct possibility Jerry Jeudy is activated for the contest.
So much uncertainty on a short week makes the outlook unpredictable, but if the Broncos are going to maintain a winning record before the trade deadline there’s questions that need answers.
Can Fangio force field goals if the Browns enter the red zone?
Among the most disappointing aspects of the Fangio defense this season is the rush defense in the redzone, where the Broncos rank as the worst team in the league by DVOA. The season ending injury to Alexander Johnson means the Broncos will start their third and fifth string linebackers in Cleveland. If not for the injuries to Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb along with the questions about both Cleveland’s tackles and center, it’d be a huge mismatch in the Browns favor.
It starts with the way Stefanski dials up play calls. He doesn’t hesitate to isolate and attack an opponents weak spot, and will do so repeatedly. The Browns head coach also does a good job using motion to manipulate angles and draw defender’s eyes. When the line is at full strength or close to it, the Browns also have the personnel to overwhelm the point of attack with heavy personnel. All this was on full display on back to back plays from the one in the second quarter of the Browns ugly week five win over the Vikings.
The first play is on 2nd and goal. The Browns come out in 23 personnel on and motion Harrison Bryant from right to left across the formation. Baker Mayfield snaps the ball as soon as Bryant’s clear of him and hands off to Kareem Hunt heading left. Up front, Cleveland’s pulling left guard Joel Bitonio to lead around the block by Andy Janovich while Bryant blocks out the corner. Jedrick Wills down blocks the 3 technique and Austin Hooper does his part to stall the edge, but Jano’s block and Bitonio’s lead fail to clear out all the Vikings before Eric Kendricks runs Hunt down from the backside.
Following a Minnesota timeout, the Browns set up in 23 personnel for another run off the left tackle, this time with Bryant split wide from the rest of the formation. Once again he motions from right to left and once again, influencing the pre-snap alignment of the Viking’s second level. When Mayfield snaps the ball the left side of the line blocks down as Janovich leads left. Hunt quickly sees Kendricks in pursuit and cuts behind his fullback to fall into the touchdown.
I expect Stefanski to attack the Broncos off left tackle if Wills is healthy. Malik Reed will have issues with the left tackle’s play strength and can be overwhelmed at the point of attack by double teams. Motion and misdirection could also stress communication on the second level, as there’s sure to be a few miscues with Micah Kiser making his first start after signing with the Broncos in late September.Stefanski could also take advantage on this by sneaking a fullback out for an easy completion, as he did for the Browns two point play against Minnesota.
Like the two previous plays, Stefanski dials up motion out of 23 personnel, this time with Janovich heading from left to right. When Mayfield snaps the ball he tucks the ball and Hunt acts out the fake while Janovich sneaks out behind Bryant’s rub route. As Jano breaks free Hunt has the good sense to cut down the edge defender to ensure a clear the passing lane.
Can the Broncos protect Bridgewater (or Lock?)
Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but Joe Woods’ defense is a Jekyll and Hyde affair. The Browns had two strong performances against Minnesota and Chicago’s shaky lines and struggled when the pass rush couldn’t tee off on the quarterback.
While you could get any one of a baker’s dozen answers about who is to blame for the Broncos issues in pass protection this year depending on who you ask, it’s no secret there’s a problem. According to Pro Football Reference charting Teddy Bridgewater’s been hit 21 times in five and a half games this season after taking just 34 hits in 15 games in 2020. After a 17 hits in the loss to Vegas that led to Bridgewater’s limp to and from the podium this week, Myles Garrett and company have to see blood in the water. To escape Cleveland with a win, Shurmur and the offense have to figure out a way to keep defenders off their quarterback.
Beyond the questions about how Munchak’s bunch will handle the blitz, the Broncos need to have an answer for both of the former first overall picks.
Woods will move Myles Garrett around to stress the protection over the course of the game, but he spends most of his time over the left tackle. This means Garett Bolles has a national spotlight to prove he can still recapture the form that earned him an All Pro nod in 2020.
Denver also needs to have a suitable answer for Jadaveon Clowney. The 6’4 266 lb. edge rusher wins with power out wide and has the frame and strength to give Bobby Massie fits, but can also slide between the tackles and become a standup 3 technique, which is something Clowney did against Dalton Risner to great effect when he was a Titan. The Browns will also dial up stunts for both with no hesitation as they’re dangerous penetrators who also have the lateral mobility to threaten every gap when looping.
Can either CB1 put the clamps on?
Like Denver, Cleveland’s pass defense is underperforming relative to the individual talent scattered across their secondary. Both teams are giving up chunk plays in bunches due to communication breakdowns. Where the Broncos are the worst team in football at defending opposing WR1s by DVOA, the Browns are the worst defense in football at defending passes to the right. The stats raise questions about the CB1s on each defense.
The Browns committed a top 5 pick in their secondary when they selected Denzel Ward a pick ahead of Bradley Chubb in the 2018 draft. After a Pro Bowl rookie season and two strong encores, he’s having a down year so far. According to Sports Info Solutions charting, opposing quarterbacks are completing 60.9% of their passes against him for 8.1 yards a target, both career highs. Despite the so-so production to date, Ward has the tools to erase Courtland Sutton or Tim Patrick. He has the long speed and savvy to keep up with either deep downfield and contest a catch point, as well as the click and close and trigger to disrupt a pass from off coverage.
Denzel Ward's one of those corners who will be able to battle with Courtland Sutton and Tim Patrick at the catch point. He also has the trigger to jump a misplaced pass.— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 19, 2021
Franchise corner. pic.twitter.com/S5za6oAE2C
The Broncos committed a top 10 pick in their second when they selected Patrick Surtain II in the 2021 draft and Sunday marked the rookies ascension to the top spot on the depth chart when he took over the left corner spot for Kyle Fuller. Like Lamar Jackson before him, Derek Carr didn’t hesitate to test the rookie. His assignment on Thursday will heavily depend on Stefanski’s plan of attack, but expect to see a shot or two dialed up for Odell Beckham Jr. or Donovan Peoples-Jones.
One matchup I'm looking forward to is Patrick Surtain II vs. Donovan Peoples-Jones. The second year receiver is well on his way to becoming a household name. Explosive athlete who can win above the rim or through contact with very good hand-eye coordination. pic.twitter.com/QdixsHSNH7— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 20, 2021
How does Fangio shore up the middle of the field?
Before Jewell and Johnson landed on IR there were questions about the Broncos ability to defend passes to the middle of the field. Opponents have used misdirection, rubs, and play action to great effect this season and the issues with Denver’s pass rush has given quarterbacks a chance to set up shop and attack the vacant space between the second and third level when the Broncos are playing zone. With Strnad and Kiser in the lineup, things could get worse before they get better, which could prove devastating against the Browns.
I’m no doctor, but Baker Mayfield’s torn labrum seems to be sapping his deep accuracy. One thing he and Stefanski are doing to compensate is leaning on the tight ends on easy completions more often. Austin Hooper and David Njoku are tied for third on the team with 19 targets behind Peoples-Jones and Hunt. The Browns will use them to split the space between two high coverages, and both have the frame and hands to hold onto catches through contact.
Can anyone stop Von Miller?
Both Jedrick Wills and Jack Conklin missed practice on Tuesday and their status for Thursday is an open question. When neither played last Sunday the Browns gave rookie fourth round pick James Hudson his first career start at right tackle while journeyman guard Blake Hance played on the blind side. It went horribly and played a direct role in Mayfield’s ugly afternoon.
Regardless of the tackles, expect Cleveland to lean on the kind of tactics teams have thrown at Miller all year, such as tight bunch sets to disrupt a clean arc and force the future Hall of Famer to keep his eyes open for a crack block. There will be chips from tight ends and backs as well as a pulling guard on play action here and there. Stefanski will also dial up a few screens. After Von’s presser Tuesday I’m not sure any of it will matter.
I have played in all types of games, and I have performed well in all types of games. I have to play well in this game. I will play well in this game. I’m going to go off. It’s going to be a good game for me. I don’t want to guarantee a win for my teammates, but I don’t want to put the pressure on those guys. I want to put the pressure on me.
I’m going to have a great game. I’m going to go out there and play well and get a couple of sacks. If I can do that, then we will win. If you look at this season, in the first three games, I had a couple sacks, and we won those games. These last three games, I didn’t do as much. If I can play well, get sacks and find a way to disrupt the game, we’ll win.
The pressure is on me to play well. I will play well. I don’t know who the tackle is that I’m going against, but I’m going to kill him. I’m going to kill him and the other guy on the other side. I’m going to play extremely well. I’m going to make plays for my team. I’m going to set us up to win this game.”
Will the Broncos beat the Browns on TNF?
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