After a dominating victory over the Dallas Cowboys, the Broncos find themselves 5-4 in an AFC where 5 wins is the standard. Today’s game against the 3-6 Philadelphia Eagles is Denver’s last before the bye. After the week off, they start divisional play with the Chargers and Chiefs in weeks 12 and 13. The extra week looks like it could lead to the return of Bradley Chubb, who should give a big boost to both the run and pass defense right in time for Justin Herbert and Patrick Mahomes. Everything remains in the front of the Broncos if they take care of business against the Eagles.
With Pat Shurmur out for the game, there’s a huge wildcard being thrown into what’s been the Broncos’ most consistent part of their roster so far. That could hurt against an Eagles team that looks better than their record. Jalen Hurts hasn’t thrown more than 17 passes the last two weeks and the Eagles beat the Lions 44-4 and lost to the Chargers by 3. They’ve turned into a run-heavy attack that could be tough to stop with a young linebacker corps. While their secondary is weak, there’s enough talent up front to disrupt a Broncos offensive line starting three backups. The Eagles almost blocked a punt in Detroit, as well.
Here’s what I’m watching for today.
1. Death by inches?
Four years into Tom McMahon’s run as the Broncos’ special teams coach and I can’t help but look back on what sold John Elway on Vic Fangio in 2019.
“Those inches add up, and when those inches add up, you’re in a losing program,” Elway said. “[Fangio] says, ‘I promise you, we will not kill ourselves by inches.’ And I thought that was the best thing that he said in the interview.”
Since McMahon took over as the Broncos’ special teams coordinator in 2018, they have not finished above the eight worst team in the league in DVOA, a metric that measures efficiency and does a good job quantifying the natural advantage Denver’s altitude gives to the kicking game. While issues with a young roster during an injury-plagued rebuild no doubt hurt, the Broncos have churned their special teams roster and prioritized specialists across all four years. That the Broncos haven’t finished among the worst teams in the league despite Brandon McManus and Sam Martin’s extra distance over eight home games a year suggests there is a real problem with coaching. So, it should come as no surprise they remain a weekly issue in 2021.
Including specialists, the Broncos currently roster 11 players whose primary contribution to the game day roster is what they provide to special teams. Despite this, they’re currently the 29th ranked special teams unit by DVOA. Nine 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 three punts come painfully close to getting blocked, so it shouldn’t be a shock that the Dallas Cowboys blocked a punt last week. 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.
Like it or loathe it, the Broncos’ choice to retain Tom McMahon this season suggests “death by inches” was just talk.
2. Who plays?
3. What’s Fangio’s plan?
4. How does the run defense look?
5. Can the Broncos contain Goedert and Smith?
6. Who wins in short yardage?
This would be a good week for the Broncos to bring back their gameplan for the Ravens. While the Eagles lean heavily into 11 and 12 personnel which will mean more nickel snaps than Denver used in week four, it looks like a strong answer for what the Eagles want to do.
20 quarterbacks have thrown the ball more than Jalen Hurts this season, and the Eagles call more screens than anyone in the league. Their offense is built around a heavy dose of inside zone with receivers in motion to threaten the edges. They’re also good on trap plays, which they could use a decent amount of in an attempt to slow down Dre’Mont Jones and Shelby Harris.
Despite season-ending injuries to both of their guards, the Eagles’ offensive line has done a good job opening running lanes this year, ranking seventh in Football Outsider’s Adjusted Line Yards. They’re at their best attacking between the tackles. With Harris slowed by a non-Covid-related illness this week, there’s a decent chance he’s playing through a bug on Sunday. That on top of Purcell’s broken thumb and Baron Browning’s back could put a lot of stress on a very young defensive front.
Regardless of Malik Reed’s status, it’d make sense for the Broncos to lean on Jonathon Cooper and Stephen Weatherly today. They’ve done far better than I expected against the Washington Football Team and Dallas Cowboys. Cooper in particular has really stood out, and the rookie looks like a seventh round steal.
If Browning can’t play or is gritting it out today, the Broncos are down bad at linebacker as Justin Strnad is on the Covid list and will miss the contest. It could be better to go heavy on dime personnel and lean on Caden Sterns.
When the Eagles do take flight, their best weapons are DeVonta Smith and Dallas Goedert. Brownin’s status raises some questions about how Denver will hold up against Goedert, while Surtain’s does the same against Smith. The rookie receiver combines the fluidity, savvy, and route running to create consistent separation against Kyle Fuller if the veteran corner can’t get physical with him at the line of scrimmage. Ronald Darby should fair better, but the Eagles will try to isolate the mismatch on Fuller where they can. Goedert’s could be a problem due to his combination of size and quickness. At 6’4 and 256 lbs., he’ll be able to bully ball the smaller Kareem Jackson and Caden Sterns. He’s also quick enough to pose issues for Baron Browning, Justin Strnad, and Kenny Young.
8. What does life without Shurmur look like?
9. Can the Broncos’ line hold up?
10. Who wins the passing game matchups?
11. Will Bridgewater shred a weak secondary?
On Friday, we learned Pat Shurmur will miss the game today because of a positive Covid test, so Mike Shula will call plays for the first time since 2017. Because Shurmur’s illness came so late in the week, it’s hard to imagine there’s significant changes in the Broncos’ gameplan. The big question is how Shula adjusts to any wrenches the Eagles throw his way.
Given the state of matchup for the front, it’d make sense to lean on easy completions and a heavy dose of Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams. With Graham Glasgow on Injured Reserve and both Garett Bolles and Bobby Massie out for the game, odds are the Broncos use the same line we saw in the second half of the Cowboys game. Cameron Fleming will play right tackle next to Quinn Meinerz, who is making his second career start. Calvin Anderson will hold down the blind side. Lloyd Cushenberry will continue to serve as the one constant at center. The big question ahead of the game is Dalton Risner, who’s questionable with a foot injury. Should he miss time, Netane Muti will fill in. Should Denver suffer an injury up front during the game, it could be trouble, as Quinn Bailey is the emergency guard due to Austin Schlottmann’s positive Covid test.
The Eagles have the personnel up front to challenge the offensive line, specifically in long yardage situations where Teddy Bridgewater needs to hang on to the ball. Like Shurmur did in the Cowboys game, Shula should make running the ball a priority. Philly’s ranks among the worst teams in the league against the run and could be missing Josh Sweat, their best edge defender. This would be a good week for the Broncos to lean on their one back power run game to combat the Eagles’ 3-3-5 personnel, as they deploy it like a 5-1-5. With Fleming in for Massie, they’ll have more heft at the point of attack and can depend on Meinerz as a puller. If the human bowling ball can take out an overmatched linebacker, Williams and Gordon are into the third level.
When the Broncos do go to the air, Bridgewater should find completions easy to find. Under Jonathan Gannon, the Eagles have allowed six different quarterbacks to complete 80% of their passes so far this season. Philly relies heavily on zone coverage in an effort to protect a shaky secondary. They rarely send five or more rushers and don’t use a lot of line games. They did blitz more in the Chargers game and could carry that into this matchup to try to attack the new O-line.
If the banged up Broncos can find a way to beat the Eagles today, they’ll enter the bye week in control of their playoff destiny. To do so, they’ll need “the replacements” to step up in expanded roles. They’ll also need to do the little things right and avoid beating themselves. If they do so, they’ll find themselves 6-4.
I like their chances.