Let’s take a quick trip in the fantasy time machine to the days immediately after the Von Miller trade. Outside of the true blue homers in Broncos Country, it’s unlikely you’d find a soul who believed the 4-4 Broncos would find a way to win both of their games before the week 11 bye. The optimists among us thought 5-5 was certainly feasible because the Philadelphia Eagles looked sorry, but if Dak Prescott returned for week nine the Broncos game against the Dallas Cowboys looked like it could turn ugly.
Two weeks later and the Broncos find themselves at 5-5. While the road here looked a lot different than most of us expected, the end result is .500 with seven games remaining.
The bye week will give a banged up roster some much needed time off to try and recuperate before the home stretch. It’s worth a reminder that the Broncos have only played one divisional matchup so far. If Fangio and company find a way to right the ship, the AFC West is still in front of the Broncos.
At the same time, the extra time will also mean the media and fans have seven extra days to chew on whatever bile’s left in their mouths after a meltdown loss to the Eagles. There’s no sugar coating it: today’s performance was disgusting from the top on down, so much so that I want to take a look through the 11 things I was watching for before the game.
1. Death by inches?
That the Broncos allowed a blocked field goal today should come as no surprise as they’ve had one of the worst special teams in football since John Elway and Vance Joseph hired Tom McMahon in 2018. Ten 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.
At this point the fact McMahon remains employed suggests he has some sort of blackmail on Joe Ellis, or something.
The Broncos special teams under Tom McMahon have allowed a blocked punt, a kick return TD, 40-yard punt returns, a backbreaking penalty on field goal block, and this blocked field goal.— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) November 14, 2021
Fire the man already @Broncos pic.twitter.com/EkBXZoGRsu
2. Who plays?
Outside of McTelvin Agim, all of the Broncos questionable defenders played today, though Baron Browning left the game in the first half. Curtis Robinson came into the game in relief and looked like an undrafted rookie from what I gathered during the broadcast.
Broncos run D just getting gashed. Again and again. pic.twitter.com/yYRO4NRdzN— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) November 14, 2021
3. What’s Fangio’s plan?
It looked like Fangio’s gameplan for the Eagles was similar to what he used against the Cowboys, with a couple wrinkles to respect Philly’s read game.
I want to take another look through the all-22 if/when I get an opportunity, but it looked like the Broncos leaned heavily into man coverage and had no hesitation bringing extra bodies down around the line of scrimmage. They mixed in blitzes and stunts as they have all season. It didn’t work, as the Eagles found consistent space between the tackles and the secondary struggled in coverage because the pass rush wasn’t getting home.
Jalen Hurts finds Dallas Goedert for an easy first down on 3rd and 11.— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) November 14, 2021
Broncos send 5 and no one gets close. pic.twitter.com/pXYFYjtX8v
4. How does the run defense look?
This was one of the biggest questions hanging over the game as the Eagles averaged over five yards per carry out of their primary personnel groups. After the statement game in Dallas, it seemed reasonable to hope the young Broncos’ front could hold up, but it ignored the circumstances that played such a huge role in the Cowboys game, chiefly the way their tackles struggled in new roles as well as Ezekiel Elliott’s injury during the game.
Today Eagles running backs averaged 6.76 yards per carry and they were able to control the game. They found consistent success attacking Malik Reed and forced Curtis Robinson and Kenny Young to make consistent run fits. The Broncos came away with a few stops when Jalen Hurts kept the ball or Jalen Reagor received a sweep, but they had no real answer for the Eagles’ bread and butter inside zone.
Before the game I wrote that the Broncos ought to consider Cooper and Weatherly because they've been better against the run all year.— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) November 14, 2021
Jordan Howard finds green grass because Reed got decleated. pic.twitter.com/ZXNsejmqq2
5. Can the Broncos contain Goedert and Smith?
The box score numbers can be a bit misleading here because the Eagles are about as far as it gets from a prolific passing attack. The last two weeks Hurts didn’t attempt more than 17 passes. So what I was really looking for with this question is how the secondary held up in situations where the Eagles did have to pass. It wasn’t great.
Denver’s pass defense got a big break when a Justin Simmons tackle on Dallas Goedert knocked him out of the game with a head injury, but didn’t capitalize. Hurts couldn’t miss in the first half as he found DeVonta Smith for two touchdowns. The rookie receiver caught four of his six targets during the game.
When Fangio began to turn to more zone in the second half it seemed to throw Hurts off, but the second year passer still finished 16/23 and moved the sticks with his arm 10 different times.
DeVonta Smith with another touchdown, this time on Kyle Fuller. pic.twitter.com/jOHsdRkllm— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) November 14, 2021
6. Who wins in short yardage?
By my count, the Eagles found themselves needing 3 or less yards on 2nd or 3rd down seven different times in the game. They converted five of those. While three of the drives eventually got bogged down and turned into kicks, Philly also found a way to turn five different offensive drives into points.
As for the Broncos, it’s something that deserves a longer breakdown. There were a couple of nice conversions as well as a DPI call. With that said, overall their work in short yardage around the goal line was horrific. There was the Eric Saubert hold on Javonte Williams 20-yard touchdown, and Melvin Gordon’s fumble on fourth and one.
Eagles convert on 3rd and short when Hurts finds Watkins on a crosser. pic.twitter.com/bbXGTw3ryR— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) November 14, 2021
Justin Simmons came up with an interception off Jalen Hurts because Shelby Harris generated pressure. They also had what may or may not be a strip sack by Dre’Mont Jones that did not lead to a turnover. It’s hard to really tell if Jones had a huge impact on Hurts’ arm from the broadcast angles. Patrick Surtain II almost came away with an interception, but couldn’t bring the ball in.
Really clutch play by Shelby Harris worming his way into the backfield and getting up to force a bad pass. pic.twitter.com/DIve1ZlnPF— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) November 14, 2021
8. What does life without Shurmur look like?
Six different quarterbacks have completed 80% or more of their passes against this Eagles secondary and they entered today among the worst run defenses in football, which makes it fair to suggest Mike Shula had a pretty easy test in front of him. He failed it miserably. On the day, the Broncos offense converted one of their 11 third downs, neither one of their fourth down attempts, and converted one of their five red zone. The individual play calls themselves didn’t look much better.
9. Can the Broncos’ line hold up?
All things considered, I thought this was one area where the Broncos didn’t completely embarrass themselves. With Calvin Anderson, Quinn Meinerz, and Cameron Fleming all playing in relief of starters, the Broncos still averaged more than five yards a carry. While Bridgewater did take a sack and was under some pressure, more often than not it came because he was trying to find a receiver downfield. There’s plenty of blame to go around after this one, but both Shula and Bridgewater deserve flak before the offensive line.
Can see Bridgewater is still looking downfield when the tackle gets into the backfield here, he never looked at the checkdown.— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) November 14, 2021
Philly did a good job lining up their edge rushers wide to isolate Lloyd Cushenberry and Dalton Risner in pass pro. pic.twitter.com/d3sAoWuizQ
10. Who wins the passing game matchups?
By design, the Eagles defense played to limit explosive plays to the perimeter and survive a steady diet of short passes. So it wasn’t a huge surprise Courtland Sutton only had three targets while Tim Patrick caught three passes. All told, up until the fumble touchdown I thought Bridgewater did a pretty decent job taking what was in front of him on my first watch through. Jerry Jeudy, Albert Okwuegbunam, and Noah Fant were reliable targets today and helped the Broncos get to the doorstep on five different occasions for things to bunker down and eventually bungle in the red zone.
Teddy Bridgewater with a clutch checkdown to Albert Okwuegbunam, who rumbles for a big gain. pic.twitter.com/kx8oQVpECW— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) November 14, 2021
11. Will Bridgewater shred a weak secondary?
The box score numbers suggest Bridgewater was fine today. He completed 61% of his passes for 226 yards with a sack thrown in. The numbers miss the situational failures as well as the questionable effort after Gordon’s fourth down fumble. Shula taking over for Shurmur didn’t help, of course, but when you consider the issues Philly’s against the pass it was a very disappointing afternoon for the Broncos’ starting quarterback.
Broncos call a low percentage iso shot for Tim Patrick.— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) November 14, 2021
I am shocked it didn't work pic.twitter.com/h0ngvzr488
So what went right?
I know for some this Broncos seasons feels like an exercise in futility at this point, which makes it a bit painful to bleed orange and blue. To you, I’d recommend clinging to the little successes. As bad as things went against the Eagles, there were a few young Broncos who did look like they had strong performances during the broadcast:
- Javonte Williams continued to show off the elite contact balance and explosiveness.
- Albert Okwuegbunam’s long reception showed off how dangerous he is post-catch.
- Quinn Meinerz held his own against a tough matchup in his second career start, and
- Jonathon Cooper continues to look like the Broncos’ best edge.
Broncos come out in 12 personnel and call power for Javonte Williams off left end. Pookie rumbles for a first down pic.twitter.com/EmchamEPLE— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) November 14, 2021
Final Thoughts (for now)
With the Broncos on a bye this coming week, it’s a good time to take a step back and look at the season for what it is. The Von Miller trade is a clear sign from George Paton that the Broncos front office recognizes the Super Bowl isn’t in the cards this year. Rather than sell off every part they could before the trade deadline, Denver’s first year general manager chose to keep the team together. So with seven games to go, fans will get an opportunity to see a very young roster battle week in and week out.
Before the season began, it looked like 2021 was “playoffs or bust” for Vic Fangio, so a .500 record after losses to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Philadelphia Eagles, and short handed Cleveland Browns looks damning. With that in mind, 5-5 is the Broncos’ best result after ten weeks since the No Fly Zone carried Trevor Siemian in 2016.
While I’m certainly frustrated with the last two months of Broncos’ football and have a laundry list of beefs, perspective is warranted. It could also be necessary if the roller coaster continues all the way to an 9-8 or 8-9 finish. The looming uncertainty over ownership makes the Broncos’ future very murky. If the team is sold a new owner won’t be approved by the NFL until March, so there’s a possibility Vic Fangio remains the head coach regardless of these final seven games. Let’s hope he wins enough games to justify it.
Broncos will sit at .500 through the bye week.— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) November 15, 2021
Their remaining schedule
How many games can they win?