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Washington at Broncos: 11 things to watch for

Is this the end of the Von Miller era?

With Peyton Manning set to enter the Ring of Fame at halftime and the NFL trade deadline less than 48 hours away, the 3-4 Denver Broncos are facing bigger questions than how they’ll match up against an equally hapless Washington Football Team. As the losses mounted in embarrassing fashion and the Broncos’ playoff hopes disintegrated, fans are once again left with little more than memories of the times Denver competed in meaningful games.

It’s been six years since the Sheriff rode off into the sunset. Since then, the Broncos have a 35-52 record and haven’t sniffed any whiff of the postseason since 2016.

This year was supposed to be different. After years of blurred lines between ownership, management, and coaching, John Elway hired a new general manager. Throughout the offseason Broncos Country heard about how George Paton’s vision for the team would wake a sleeping giant. Instead, the Broncos are among the worst teams in the league on all three sides of the ball.

Across the field, Denver will face off against an opponent well steeped in dysfunction and disappointment. Congress is now getting involved in the investigation into Dan Snyder’s team. Following an exciting wildcard loss to Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2020, the Football Team signed Ryan Fitzpatrick to lead the offense as Jack Del Rio’s defense carried Washington back to the dance. Instead the 39-year-old hasn’t played since week one and the vaunted defense is akin to a shooting gallery.

Beyond the issues on the field are questions about the trade deadline. Both the 3-4 Broncos and 2-5 Football Team are so far out of the playoff race they ought to make moves ahead of Tuesday. As of now it is not a certainty they will do so, but there is a distinct possibility this is the last time Broncos Country gets to see core veterans such as Von Miller, Melvin Gordon, Tim Patrick, and others in orange and blue.

Here’s what I’m looking for today.

Special Teams

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

Seven 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, Devin Duvernay’s career-long, 42-yard punt return, and they’ve had two punts come painfully close to getting blocked. 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. On top of all that, Diontae Spencer is among the least effective kickoff return men in the NFL.

Today they’ll see what the other side of the coin looks like. Outside of Chris Blewitt’s kicking field goals, the Football Team has one of the best special teams in the league this year. The left footed Tress Way is averaging 49.7 yards per punt while DeAndre Carter is one of the most dangerous kickoff returners in the NFL. The Football Team also blocked the Packer’s Mason Crosby in week seven.

Defense

2. Does Von Miller play?

3. Can Fangio dial up a pass rush?

4. What does the New Fly Zone look like?

5. How does the run defense look?

6. Turnovers?

Few in Broncos Country expected the special teams to look better in Tom McMahon’s fourth year at the helm and only the most optimistic among us expected better than average play from the Teddy Bridgewater offense, which makes Fangio’s defense the most disappointing unit on the team. Instead of becoming the envy of the league, they’re an injury plagued mess currently trending towards fielding a historically inefficient run defense.

With Von Miller ailing, they could look even worse today. The 32-year-old suffered a sprained ankle early in the loss to Cleveland last week and missed the entire week of practice. It’s safe to assume that should Miller play, he won’t be at or near 100%. There’s an argument to be made that it makes very little sense to risk the future Hall of Famer in such a pointless game, especially if Paton and the Broncos front office is fielding calls to trade him.

If Miller doesn’t play, the Broncos edge rotation will depend on Malik Reed, rookie seventh round pick Jonathon Cooper, and backups they’ve picked up since the season began. There is Aaron Patrick, who Denver signed off the Jacksonville Jaguars’ practice squad, and then Stephen Weatherly, who was acquired via trade last Saturday, and who Paton is no doubt familiar with after both their time with the Minnesota Vikings. To call the pass rush a concern is a bit of an understatement, as they’ve been extremely dependent on Miller to create pressure all season.

Odds are Fangio mixes in games and blitzes to try to help his overmatched front and manufacture a rush. This could put additional pressure on the player’s left in coverage and lead to big plays going both ways. It should be a boon to Denver’s chances that Washington tackle Samuel Cosmi will miss the contest and Saahdiq Charles looks set to fill in. The 2020 fourth round pick’s played four snaps this season, and he looks like an obvious mark.

Should the pass rush falter, it will fall on the back end to hold up. The good news is the individual matchups should favor the secondary in a big way today because both Dyami Brown and Curtis Samuel will miss the game, leaving the Football Team dependent on Terry McLaurin, Adam Humphries, and Cam Sim in their base 11 personnel. McLaurin is the only dynamic threat of the trio and he should draw a heavy dose of Patrick Surtain II.

Unfortunately, the linebacker corps. remains such a mess that Surtain’s individual brilliance may not be enough if Taylor Heinicke lives in the quick passing game. Alexander Johnson, Josey Jewell, and Micah Kiser landing on Injured Reserve leaves Justin Strnad as the elder statesman in the middle of the defense. All signs point to a significant role for Kenny Young, who was acquired from the Los Angeles Rams on Monday. Today could also mark the first defensive snaps of Baron Browning’s career after injuries limited him through Denver’s OTAs, training camp, and the season to date.

The issues with the edge rotation and linebacker corps. doesn’t only impact the pass defense, of course. The front has been so bad the last two weeks they’ve made Josh Jacobs and D’Ernest Johnson look like Hall of Famers. Kevin Stefanski and the Browns drew up a blueprint for how to run on Fangio that I’m sure the Football Team will try and emulate: run at Reed, Strnad, and Surtain. Mix in jet sweep motion and/or misdirection to get flow working the wrong direction, forcing the linebackers out of position. Their job could be made easier today because of the absence of Mike Purcell.

Offense

7. What’s Shurmur’s plan?

8. Can the Broncos line hold up?

9. Who wins the passing game matchups?

10. Does Bridgewater (or Lock) find the open guys?

The Broncos offense is a bit of an enigma. Since Pat Shurmur was hired as offensive coordinator they’ve scored one opening drive touchdown. They’re among the offenses in the league at converting third downs, and they rank as one of the least efficient units in the league around the redzone. Despite this, they currently rank 14th in Football Outsider’s DVOA and do enough in the second half to make most of the Broncos’ losses look close.

Among the more bewildering issues that plague the Broncos offense is the woeful performance up front. Teddy Bridgewater’s among the most pressured quarterbacks in the league and Fangio continues to say opponents “extreme measures” are stymieing the rushing attack despite no real evidence that that’s the case. Today they’ll face off against arguably the most talented defensive fronts in the league, and how they fare probably decides the game.

Chase Young is the big name, but presumably the Broncos have a competent foil in Garett Bolles. The matchups are scarier across the rest of the line, where Da’Ron Payne, Jonathan Allen, Matt Ioannidis, and Montez Sweat all have the athleticism, power, and technique to challenge the Broncos offensive line. It’d be a surprise if Denver finds a lot of room to run, which means it lands on Shurmur and Bridgewater to do their part getting the ball out quick, because failing that Denver’s going to struggle.

If the protection holds, the Broncos’ offense could find it easy to move the ball. Del Rio’s scheme is coming under fire because it’s failing in spectacular fashion despite hefty contracts and big names logging significant minutes on the back end. William Jackson III looks like a free agent bust while Landon Collin’s a sieve in coverage. It could be a tough day for Noah Fant as Washington does have the speed on the second level to keep up with him, but Jeudy, Courtland Sutton, and Tim Patrick ought to eat.

Management

11. Is this the last time the Broncos aim to compete in ‘21?

The Broncos have until 4 PM EST on Tuesday to decide if they’ll make any more trades. We’ve already watched as Paton used late round picks to bring in Stephen Weatherly from the Vikings and Kenny Young from the Rams, but should Denver lose their fifth straight game it may be time to sell.

One player that will almost surely be dealt is cornerback Kyle Fuller, who lost his starting job to Patrick Surtain when Ronald Darby returned from Injured Reserve before the Raiders game. In the two games since Fuller’s played all of two snaps and while he disappointed in the Fangio system, his versatility to play inside or out could make him a valuable role player to a contender.

Outside Fuller, there’s little indication Paton will make any significant moves, even if he should. About a third of Denver’s current roster is comprised of expiring contracts, and if the Broncos do not plan to extend key pieces like Melvin Gordon, Tim Patrick, Eric Saubert, Kareem Jackson, it’d make sense to trade them now. As painful as it’d be to see, the same is true for Von Miller. Credit to Mile High Report reader Ozark Orange for bringing this to my attention, but should the Broncos elect to carry Von Miller through the trade deadline to play the compensatory pick game down the road, they should expect to receive no more than a fifth round pick for him, as he’s accrued 11 seasons in the NFL.

Selling off core veterans at the trade deadline would make the rest of the 2021 season a test of endurance, but it’s also the last best option in front of George Paton. The cold, hard reality facing this Broncos team is they aren’t good enough to compete with the best teams around the NFL. The first year general manager has a six year contract, the kind of job security that should provide him time to use whatever capital he accumulates to build the Broncos’ next Super Bowl contender.