So the Broncos perfect season has come to a close. That sucks the fun out of today, and I’m sure the way it went down has plenty of you running to buy a pitchfork and storm Dove Valley.
Take a deep breath.
Try to remember there’s still 13 games to go. It probably wasn’t ever fair to expect this banged up Broncos squad to finish the year unblemished. It’s also reasonable to look across the sideline at that Ravens team and see a legitimate Super Bowl contender. If things go as hoped, the Broncos will probably get a chance at revenge. After all, Denver came into today with something like an 80% chance at the postseason and while that will probably slide down a little, it isn’t time to abandon ship just yet.
With that in mind, here’s my immediate thoughts following the 23-7 drubbing that wasn’t as close as the score suggests.
Teddy Bridgewater isn’t Ryan Tannehill, but he’s still QB1
Through three games, Bridgewater looked like a different quarterback. He came in to today having completed 76.8% of his passes for 827 yards and four touchdowns, zero picks, and a career high 8.7 yards per attempt. During the Broncos 3-0 start he seemed to have found something resembling a perfect balance between aggressive play and taking what the defense gave him, all while managing a pocket that often saw him dodging a rusher to get a pass off. The veteran looked so good it had some corners of Broncos Country whispering that perhaps George Paton found his own Ryan Tannehill, a former first round pick who simply needed the right fresh start to turn into a franchise guy.
Broncos touchdown!— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 3, 2021
Fant gets wide open running an arrow underneath a pick. pic.twitter.com/n3TBe2uNnm
That narrative came to a screeching halt today as Bridgewater struggled to move the ball before a concussion knocked him out of the contest. Before he left the game, Teddy completed 7/16 passes for 65 yards and Denver’s only touchdown. Outside of the scoring drive, Sam Martin finished six Bronco first-half drives with a punt as Bridgewater was under constant siege.
It turns out all the hits made a difference, as we learned during halftime Bridgewater would leave the game with a concussion. Drew Lock would finish the contest. After studying his play throughout 2020 and the preseason, let’s just say I wasn’t exactly confident we’d see a storybook comeback.
Dare to dream.— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 3, 2021
I think the Broncos are screwed. https://t.co/x2uT8aamXb
After what was reportedly a very, very close QB1 competition in training camp and the preseason, Teddy’s disastrous start left the door wide open for Drew Lock to come in and lay his claim to the starting job. Instead of taking the bull by the horns, the Broncos third year quarterback looked like a backup version of Bridgewater. He struggled with pressure, finding the right read on time, and throwing the ball to open receiver.
Simply put, Denver’s offense did close to nothing until the garbage time drive to end the game. Lock’s final statline hid the fact he did nothing until the Broncos final drive that ended in a meaningless turnover (more on that below).
With Bridgewater in concussion protocol and his status for the Pittsburgh game in serious doubt, I expect we’ll hear about why Lock will be a different player with a couple days to prepare if he’s forced into action. We’ll probably hear that learning under the veteran starter has him ready to handle the aggressive Keith Butler defense led by a formidable pass rush. Forgive me if I scoff when the reports break, because I just haven’t seen it. Here’s hoping the 2019 second round pick can prove me wrong, because the alternative currently looks like another Broncos’ loss.
Broncos face a 1st and 15 after the penalty on their 5th string WR.— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 3, 2021
2nd string QB air balls a pass to Tim Patrick. pic.twitter.com/5H13S8hkc1
Pass protection struggled, as expected
As far back as Friday we knew Graham Glasgow wasn’t going to play against the Ravens. His absence meant Netane Muti would make the third start of his NFL career and face off against who may be his perfect foil in Calais Campbell. Where the second year guard is a stumpy, powerful man, the veteran defensive linemen is almost 6’7 and 300 lbs. He looked capable of matching Muti’s power with the length and savvy to negate the guard’s strength. Hours before the contest we learned Dalton Risner wouldn’t suit up either. His absence meant Quinn Meinerz would make his first start after logging 25 meaningful snaps since 2019.
First play of Drew Lock's 2021.— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 3, 2021
Netane Muti gives up pressure and the rushers drags the QB down. pic.twitter.com/TQUmcMe8d7
Since Risner and Glasgow’s status first came into doubt, I was extremely pessimistic about the Broncos’ chances if both backup guards would have to play. This isn’t because I believe either is a bad player. It’s because the Ravens pressure scheme and run defense under Wink Martindale is the kind of mad house that tends to eat young linemen alive. It also tends to free up rushers for clean lanes to the QB.
I don’t want to pile on any single player on the line on this side of a review of the endzone copy, but it shouldn’t be a surprise the Broncos gave up a bunch of pressure today. Some will point a finger at Bobby Massie or Garett Bolles as both had their own troubles, but try to keep in mind that the need to try and slide the line or protect the interior may have left the tackles in bad situations. Losing Bridgewater only made matters worse, as Lock’s answer to any hint of pressure tends to be an escape to his right.
On 3rd and 9 the Broncos come out in a 3X1 to the right.— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 3, 2021
Drew Lock scrambles right and tries to dump off to Noah Fant. pic.twitter.com/OlQHbMBGLl
Pat Shurmur’s play calling should come under some scrutiny
Before you run to the comments to yell “FIRE SHURMUR” I want to throw out a couple pieces of context to remember:
- Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler’s injuries meant the Broncos had Kendall Hinton, Diontae Spencer, and David Moore rotating at WR3 today. One came into the game with one career catch, one is a 5’9 163 lb. return specialist, and Moore joined the roster on Tuesday.
- Muti and Meinerz being so inexperienced meant protection would be stressed.
- Bridgewater’s injury meant most of the week’s game plan probably went out the window.
Now with all that in mind, I want to say during the game it seemed Shurmur did not do enough to play to his strengths. While Denver had huge issues with their 11 personnel because of the shakiness at WR3 and how that’d impact hot routes, both Noah Fant and Albert Okwuegbunam posed as mismatches in the Broncos’ favor. On both episodes of Cover 2 Broncos this week I made note of the Ravens issues with tackling in space. I strongly believed Javonte Williams could take advantage of that on schemed touches in the passing game and as a ball carrier, and he proved my point on his 31-yard scamper at the end of the first quarter.
Even if you take out Pookie’s longest rush, Broncos backs averaged 4.86 yards per carry across 15 totes. When you consider the fact Denver entered the second half with Lock down 10 points, there’s no excuse for going so pass-happy. Shurmur had to have known his backup quarterback would struggle. After all, he did make adjustments to better suit Lock’s strengths with the passing concepts he dialed up. He simply didn’t do enough to protect him or the guards with a rushing attack when he could have.
Feed Pookie damnit. pic.twitter.com/zjnKqz9W5M— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 3, 2021
The defense bet on stopping the run and lost
I’m going to need to really dig in on what the secondary was doing on the sideline view to come out of the defensive performance with any sort of hard conclusions on individual performance, but it seemed obvious that Fangio made stopping the run a priority. This makes sense, as it’s the strength of this unique Ravens offense. If memory serves, during Fangio’s first season with the Broncos Tony Romo once remarked that the Broncos head coach was among the best in the league at taking away what an offense does best. While the raw statline makes it hard to believe at a glance, the defense did just that today by making Lamar Jackson and the Ravens offense win through the air.
Early in the game it looked like the decision was a sound one as Baltimore’s first three drives went nowhere. Given the strength of this Raven running game, it’s pretty impressive that the Broncos held them 3.4 yards per rush. The decision also nerfed the pass rush as both Von Miller and Malik Reed were often left responsible for Jackson breaking the pocket. On the fourth drive, Greg Roman dialed up a shot play and the Broncos’ commitment to stopping Jackson’s legs left them completely helpless as the quarterback set up in the pocket and delivered the longest completion of his career.
Broncos give up a touchdown when Hollywood Brown splits the safeties.— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 3, 2021
Worth noting: Von Miller didn't rush the passer. pic.twitter.com/90vI2ht2Wi
As the game progressed and the Ravens found themselves milking a lead against a struggling offense, I thought it made sense for Fangio to stop the run first and foremost. This kept Baltimore from bleeding the clock and gave Lock’s offense five drives to try and score points of their own.
It’s also worth remembering that across the third and fourth quarters the Ravens had five drives outside of the final kneel and found six points to show for it. It’s also worth noting that the Shurmur offense never had a drive that lasted longer than eight plays. The defense was put in an impossible situation and mostly held it’s own. I plan to look back at the chunk plays later this week once (if?) I get the all-22.
Fangio’s biggest mistake came late in the game
When the Broncos didn’t use their timeouts on the Ravens penultimate drive, it looked like a white flag. I’ll admit I had no problem with it as the game looked well in hand barring the sort of historic meltdown you aren’t going to see a John Harbaugh-led team commit. So when Denver’s offense took the field down 23-7 and used all three timeouts to march down the field for a shot at the endzone, it struck me as a bit stupid. That the garbage-time drive ended in a pick doesn’t bother me, but this is a team battered by injuries to key positions and the Broncos are chasing a score to make the final result look better for the newspapers.
Perhaps my biggest complaint about Vic Fangio today is that he risked the Broncos starters to injury so Drew Lock could close the game with a meaningless redzone interception. pic.twitter.com/biNamBrBl0— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 3, 2021
Caden Sterns looked legit
One player who definitely showed up in a big way today was the rookie safety out of Texas. Sterns came in to today with 28 defensive snaps as he stepped into the dime role with Patrick Surtain II moving outside. When Fangio went with dime personnel today, he didn’t hesitate to use Sterns as a rusher and twice the rookie made his way to Lamar Jackson.
Patrick Mekari let Von go to pick up Sterns.— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 3, 2021
Also want to mention Malik Reed, who is doing a good job on Villanueva which squeezes Jackson's escape route. pic.twitter.com/VyoSyT3WOf
Caden Sterns sacks Lamar Jackson! pic.twitter.com/KTGxn3kboK— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 3, 2021
While it wasn’t as flashy as the sack, the broadcast play of Sterns that impressed me most came in the third quarter. Jackson scrambled out of the pocket to his right to buy himself time and launched a ball for Sammy Watkins, who looked like he caught the ball in traffic. The rookie reached in past the receiver’s arms to break up the pass and secure a third down stop.
That’s my dog!! @CSterns_7 is always around the ball. https://t.co/UqyPC3owsx— Adam Harvey (@coach_harvey18) October 3, 2021
I really want to look back through everything before I feel comfortable expanding on these, but I want to share a few things I noticed.
- On the line: Shelby Harris, Mike Purcell, and McTelvin Agim all stood out at various points. It was a collective effort to stop this rushing attack, and I’m excited to see who else showed up.
- Alexander Johnson is at his best stopping the run and rushing the passer. Fangio seemed to use the threat of him on stunts really well today.
I like the way the Broncos are using the threat of Alexander Johnson rushing. Also check out Simmons coverage. pic.twitter.com/MUcsIfRDLA— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 3, 2021
- Albert Okwuegbunam’s drop is the second touchdown he’s cost the Broncos’ this year.
Can't blame Teddy Bridgewater here, Albert O needs to catch this. pic.twitter.com/2oaZkKlH9u— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 3, 2021
- Justin Strnad looked like he held his own against the ground today, but I need to see what he did in coverage.
- Not at all ready to panic over the New Fly Zone as Jackson was the best quarterback they’ve faced all year by far. He’s a much better passer than given credit for. I do want to dig into the coverage once (if?) I can get the all-22. One thing I know on this side of it is the deep over to Mark Andrews was going to happen, as it’s a perfect call to use against cover three, especially when an edge rush is so concerned about a running QB.
- Sam Martin had to punt 10 times today and to his credit, he did a pretty solid job. I’m not a fan of touchbacks in any situation, but Martin also landed a punt at the four and the two. The first led to a Ravens three and out Teddy Bridgewater capitalized on with the touchdown to Fant. The second gave led to another Baltimore three and out and gave Drew Lock the ball at the 47.
Money punt by Sam Martin.— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 3, 2021
Broncos pin the Ravens deep. pic.twitter.com/Xh5qogQj3b
Three constants I’m sick and tired of
- If the NFL is serious about player safety, hits like the one that injured Diontae Spencer need to draw a flag 100% of the time.
- I’m ready for Denver to put the injury bug to rest. Things are getting ridiculous. Again.
- If Tom McMahon is the Broncos special teams coordinator in 2022, we riot.
This week's Tom McMahon special. pic.twitter.com/OJxGxEvvcJ— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 3, 2021
One thing I love
Javonte Williams is flashing every week. There’s things to correct, but I am sky high on the rookie running back. Be sure to let Good Morning Football’s Kyle Brandt know about Pookie’s angry beast mode run.
What happens when Javonte Williams elite contact balance comes up against a Ravens defense that struggles to tackle?— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 3, 2021