With Peyton Manning present for his Ring of Fame induction, the Broncos found a way to claw their way back to .500 against the Washington Football Team. It was a gritty performance by the defense to hold Taylor Heinicke and company to 10 points minus their entire starting linebacker corps. It was also yet another disappointing showing by Pat Shurmur’s offense.
Here’s what I think in the immediate aftermath of the 17-10 victory.
Baron Browning looked like an upgrade on Justin Strnad
Injuries to Alexander Johnson, Josey Jewell, and Micah Kiser left the Broncos in desperate straits at linebacker this week, so George Paton traded a future day three pick to Los Angeles for Kenny Young. As soon as the news broke, it was clear the former Ram would get a start against Washington. He basically had to after the backers completely failed in the Thursday Night loss to Cleveland in week seven.
The addition of Young made enough noise during the week that Baron Browning’s status slipped under the radar. The 2021 third rounder missed most of OTAs, training camp, and a bunch of practice this season, but was cleared to play against the Football Team. With Young on board and Browning healthy, Justin Strnad’s role was minimized. The decision looked like the right one by Fangio.
Browning’s range, play strength, and trigger made him a noticeable upgrade over Strnad, who continued to make assignment errors when he did see the field. The second year backer’s really struggled in recent weeks and that continued today. The rookie was not perfect, of course. The Football Team frequently found ways to take advantage of the inexperience and mental miscues on the second level, but hopefully those get ironed out as both Young and Browning play more.
I suspect Adam Humphries got open on a mesh concept because Bryce Callahan was picked and Baron Browning didn't switch. pic.twitter.com/BbB1YmzRLF— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 31, 2021
The Broncos pass rush beat up on a battered offensive line
Von Miller’s ankle injury meant Jonathon Cooper, Stephen Weatherly, and Malik Reed had to hold down the fort along the edge today and they rose to the occasion. Dre’Mont Jones and Shelby Harris also played a huge role in Taylor Heinicke’s five sacks as they found their way into the backfield time and again. Credit where credit is due, I thought Fangio did a good job mixing in stunts and blitzes to dial up one on one opportunities against an offensive line down three starters by the final bell.
Welcome to the Broncos Stephen Weatherly! pic.twitter.com/545M1MAw2i— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 31, 2021
The run defense was still iffy
Washington’s running backs averaged a little over four yards a carry, which isn’t great. What’s more concerning is how Jaret Patterson and Antonio Gibson both broke free for 10+ yard gains. The Football Team leaned on their ground game to convert six first downs today despite the three backups playing on the offensive line up. With all of Denver’s injuries at linebacker and Mike Purcell’s status a huge question mark, it’s probably unrealistic to expect the Broncos to stonewall opponents on the ground. Still, today’s performance which bodes poorly for Denver’s next game against Ezekiel Elliot, Tony Pollard, and the Dallas Cowboys.
Dre’Mont Jones field goal block was cool
Not a whole lot to say about this other than I’m happy for Jones, he’s been quietly showing out most of the year. It doesn’t hurt to play against Chris Blewitt, who had a kick blocked last week and seems to have a ton of trouble getting any air on his kicks.
Broncos get a blocked field goal for real this time with Dre'Mont Jones getting a hand on the ball. pic.twitter.com/O8ge2aynoJ— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 31, 2021
There’s problem across the Broncos offense
With every one of their opening day starters, the Shurmur offense scored 17 points against a defense that’s allowed every single opponent they’ve faced this year to score 20+. Teddy Bridgewater threw for 213 passing yards and took four sacks against a pass defense that entered today as one of the four worst in the league by DVOA. The Broncos converted seven of the 13 third downs they faced, but also failed to move the sticks on a third and two because of one of the worst play calls I’ve seen this year.
Landon Collins read this the whole way. pic.twitter.com/8IhZ0GXdm9— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 31, 2021
If you’re reading this Pat: your boss traded up in the second round of the 2021 draft so you can run the ball in these situations. For all the talent on the Washington defensive line, they came into the game today with the worst defense in the league in power situations as measured by Football Outsiders. 92% of the plays ran against them in these situations were converted against them.
It wasn’t all completely on Shurmur, though. Perhaps no moment in the game perfectly captured the Broncos issues on offense quite like the mind numbing game ending drive. Following Justin Simmons’ second Hail Mary interception, the offense got the ball up 17-10 with 37 ticks left on the clock. Washington had two timeouts remaining.
- On 1st and 10 Javonte Williams almost fumbles the ball away, but Dalton Risner falls on it.
- Washington calls their first timeout. 32 seconds left.
- On 2nd and 10 Shurmur dials up a play action pass, and the 7th year veteran QB throws a low percentage look. Incomplete. Clock stopped.
- On 3rd and 10 Melvin Gordon fumbles the ball away.
After the game Fangio said the drive was terrible and we writer types can use whatever language we want to describe it. I’ll spare your children the profanity, but just let me say that it was the worst attempt to ice a game that I’ve ever seen.
Luckily for Gordon, Bridgewater, and the rest of the offense Malik Reed was there to clean up their mistakes on the final possession of the game.
Malik Reed with another clutch sack pic.twitter.com/cDvnpyBOwr— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 31, 2021
Final Thoughts (for now)
Following their fourth straight loss, the Broncos barely took care of business against a Washington team that’s lost three in a row. The victory means Denver is not mathematically eliminated from the postseason, though odds are heavily stacked against them. At 4-4, it seems unlikely George Paton makes any sort of groundbreaking move before the trade deadline on Tuesday. While I’ve already argued that the Broncos first year general manager should try and sell off any piece that isn’t a part of his long term plan, I expect Paton to continue chasing the dance.
A quick look at the remaining schedule:
- At Cowboys
- Vs. Eagles
- Vs. Chargers
- At Chiefs
- Vs. Lions
- Vs. Bengals
- At Raiders
- At Chargers
- Vs. Chiefs
Some will look ahead and take a nihilistic view of the 2021 season. If you believe Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes can find a way to save Kansas City, the Broncos still have six games against teams that look like they’ll make the postseason. Outside the Chiefs, every one of those contenders have a better defense than Washington did.
Look a little closer, and there could be some reason for cautious hope. As I write this it looks like Dak Prescott’s status for the Broncos game is an open question. The Philadelphia Eagles have a one dimensional quarterback and a defense that’s struggling to get stops outside of Michigan. The Chiefs made Philly’s one dimensional quarterback look like Peyton Manning.
Regardless of where you land on Denver’s odds at meaningful football in January, they found a way to win in front of the Sheriff today. Good teams beat bad teams badly and the Broncos did not do that by any stretch of the imagination, but a win is a win in the NFL. At 4-4, it still looks like the Broncos still control their destiny after the win today.
Let’s hope for a fun ride.
Now that the Broncos are 4-4, should George Paton sell before the NFL Trade deadline on Tuesday, November 2nd?— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 31, 2021