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Broncos at Browns: 11 things to watch for

The banged up Broncos face a make-or-break game on a short week.

NFL: New York Jets at Denver Broncos Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Following a third straight loss, the 3-3 Broncos head to Cleveland to face off against the 3-3 Browns. Both teams are clinging to life support in the AFC playoff picture, with schedules tightening up as we approach the colder months of the year. A win would help keep heads above water, while a loss would be devastating with a mini-bye before the NFL trade deadline.

On a short week with very little time to recover from week six action, availability is going to be huge tonight. As I write this, Teddy Bridgewater is expected to grit through foot and quad injuries to start at quarterback, while Justin Strnad and Micah Kiser will start at linebacker after Alexander Johnson was lost for the year. The Browns chose caution with Baker Mayfield, which means the Fangio defense will get a chance to bounce back against a familiar face in Case Keenum, the former starter Elway traded away to acquire Joe Flacco in 2019. Cleveland will also enter the game with questions about both starting tackles, a receiver, and one of their edge rushers.

Here’s the things I’m looking for.

Special Teams

2. Can McMahon’s crew rise to the challenge?

Six games into 2021 and the Broncos; special teams are among the worst in football. They’ve given up a 102-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, a partially blocked punt, and Devin Duvernay’s career-long, 42-yard punt return. Dre’Mont Jones was called for a critical leverage penalty in the loss to the Steelers, which isn’t a surprise considering the Broncos teams under Tom McMahon are among the league leaders in penalties this season.

After watching McMahon fumble around for years, tonight Broncos Country could get an opportunity to see what one of the best units in football looks like. Cleveland has very good coverage on kickoffs and a rock solid field goal unit. If Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah wasn’t injured, there’d be a ton of concern about blocked punts, as the rookie has been centimeters away on a few attempts this season. I’m curious to see how missing Kareem Hunt, Nick Chubb, and potentially Odell Beckham Jr. impact the return game as the primary returners are Donovan Peoples-Jones and D’Ernest Johnson, who will have expanded roles on offense.

Defense

3. Can Fangio force field goals if the Browns enter the red zone?

4. Can Surtain II erase OBJ or Peoples-Jones?

5. How does Fangio shore up the middle of the field?

6. Will the pass rush show up?

7. Turnovers?

No part of this year’s Broncos has disappointed more than the Fangio defense thus far. Few expected a Pat Shurmur offense led by Teddy Bridgewater to become more than a middling unit, while Tom McMahon’s special teams looked like a bad joke on their best days in the preseason. For the 2021 Broncos to make a serious dent in the playoff chase, they’d need the most expensive defense in football to carry them.

So far they’ve failed miserably.

Among the Broncos’ biggest issues on defense is the lack of a consistent pass rush from anyone other than Von Miller, which makes it far too easy for opponents to dedicate resources to slowing down the future Hall of Famer. It’s been an issue all season as bone spurs kept Bradley Chubb out of the lineup, and one that’s likely to get worse before it gets better because Alexander Johnson’s prowess as a blitzer was a huge part of Fangio’s pressure packages.

The problem could be under a close microscope tonight if the Broncos fail to pressure Case Keenum behind a very banged up offensive line. Both of Cleveland’s starting tackles as well as their center are questionable to play, and in their stead the Browns would play a rookie fourth round pick and two overmatched veterans. If that comes to pass, Shelby Harris and the rest of the defensive line have no excuse if they fail to capitalize.

Offense

8. What’s Shurmur’s plan?

9. How does Bridgewater (or Lock) look?

10. Can the Broncos protect Bridgewater (or Lock?)

11. How will Sutton fair against Ward?

Given the completely tattered offense on the other side of the field, the Broncos’ offense should have a slew of opportunities to put the Browns away. It’s a testament to how poorly Pat Shurmur has called games this season that his game plan is the biggest question facing the offense. To beat the Browns, Shurmur will need to find a way to maximize his players’ strengths and hide their deficiencies better than he’s done the last three weeks.

It starts up front, where Garett Bolles will have his hands full against Myles Garrett, who is on the shortest of lists for best pass rusher in all of football. The former first overall pick combines elite athleticism and play strength with the length to win in a wide variety of ways, and Joe Woods does a good job isolating him against overmatched opponents by attacking the line with games and blitzes. The Browns will also move Garrett around, which means there’s a distinct possibility he rushes against Lloyd Cushenberry, who has no business blocking him.

Jadeveon Clowney’s status bears monitoring, as it could complicate the task in front of the pass protection. Like Garrett, he’s a former first overall pick who has elite athletic tools. Clowney has the length, strength, and burst to be a nightmare when the Browns line him up as a standup rusher between the tackles. If he suits up, it could be a long night for Dalton Risner, as the Broncos’ left guard had issues with Clowney the last time the two faced off.

Beyond the big two up front, the Browns have a capable defensive line headlined by Super Bowl 50 champion Malik Jackson. Through six weeks, Cleveland’s run defense is among the best in the league so it could be slow going for Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams. The good news is the Browns are dealing with a ton of miscommunications and busts in coverage so the shot plays could turn into long bombs this week, but if the offensive line and Shurmur fail to do their part in pass protection the game could devolve into a real slog. Bridgewater’s injury will almost surely sap his mobility, and Drew Lock’s career to date suggests he’ll have a myriad of issues against such a potent pass rush if he gets the nod.

Final Thoughts

Way back in training camp, it looked like this Broncos roster was built for a one-year window. George Paton’s first draft addressed immediate needs rather than long-term concerns, while Von Miller, Kareem Jackson, and the coaching staff were brought back to chase the playoffs. The rationale for a Teddy Bridgewater trade was that competence under center would elevate the offense from the dregs of the league to a passable affair.

If Denver blows their chance in Cleveland, Paton’s first offseason starts to look like a wasted opportunity to set a fresh course. At 3-4 with one of the hardest remaining schedules in the NFL ahead of them, the Broncos will run out the gauntlet with a veteran quarterback on an expiring contract or a second round pick who failed to beat him out. Questions about the long-term plan at the position will start to become deafening.

The NFL Trade Deadline is November 2nd, and if the Broncos approach it without a winning record there’s a decent chance George Paton takes a long look the lame duck coaching staff, the upcoming schedule, as well as the slew of expiring contracts, and decides it’s time to collect draft capital. The first-year general manager’s job is in little danger barring a new owner throwing the franchise into chaos next March.

For everyone else, it’s about as close as it gets to a make-or-break game.