10 games into the 2021 campaign, we know who the Broncos are: They’re a talented offense with a limited quarterback playing behind a banged up offensive line, an underperforming defense due to a litany of injuries at linebacker, and a painfully incompetent special teams. In spite of their issues, the Broncos exit their bye week 5-5 and still in control of their own destiny.
To remain relevant in the playoff chase, they’ll need to find a way to topple the emerging Los Angeles Chargers. It won’t be easy, the Bolts are led by a wunderkind head coach and arguably the best young quarterback in football. But football is a game of matchups, and if Fangio and company can exploit these key weaknesses in the Chargers’ roster, they could emerge from the holiday weekend 6-5 with a showdown in Kansas City ahead of them.
The Chargers’ linebackers
When Tom Telesco traded up to select Kenneth Murray out of Oklahoma with the 23rd pick in the 2019 draft, the Chargers’ general manager surely hoped the 6’2 241 lb. prospect would be able to hone his athletic gits and become a sideline to sideline missile who could erase athletic pass catchers at the second level. So far that hasn’t been the case, and Murray played just 15 snaps in his second game back from Injured Reserve. In his place, L.A. has relied on Kyzir White and Drue Tranquill. Given Murray’s issues with processing and zone spacing, it makes sense, but it also leaves Staley’s defense vulnerable to dynamic athletes.
The Broncos have four such players in Javonte Williams, Melvin Gordon, Noah Fant, and Albert Okwuegbunam.
I fully expect Pat Shurmur to go back to what worked so well in the Broncos game against Dan Quinn and the Dallas Cowboys with a concentrated effort to establish the run. By just about every meaningful measure, the Chargers have the worst run defense in football. A big part of this is by design, as Staley’s defense typically leans on light box counts in order to devote more resources to stopping opponents’ passing attacks. As he did when he was the defensive coordinator with the Los Angeles Rams, Staley leans on personnel groupings that have just one off ball backer on the field. This creates situations where the Bolts are vulnerable at the second and third level, especially with White’s subpar ability to leverage gaps. L.A. also struggles to bring down ball carriers once they’ve built up a head of steam, so Pookie could rip off some real angry runs.
The issues don’t stop with the running game, however. The L.A. defense willingly makes concessions to the short passing game in order to prioritize defending the deep ball and it’s worked as designed so far. The Chargers have one of the 10 best pass defenses in football by DVOA and rank as a top five defense against the deep ball, but are 20th against short passes. Opponents are having consistent success week to week by targeting their tight ends though, and outside Derwin James the Bolts don’t a second level defender to match up.
Javonte Williams's elite contact balance leads to a 38-yard run! pic.twitter.com/T8qooa70Z8— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) November 7, 2021
Chris Harris Jr.
With Asante Samuel Jr.’s availability in doubt after he suffered his second concussion of 2021 in the Bolts win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, L.A. could be short handed in the secondary. That likely means extensive playing time for Chris Harris Jr.
Broncos Country is obviously familiar with Strap Harris, the former cornerstone of the No Fly Zone who left Denver for Los Angeles after the 2019 season. After an injury marred 2020 where he missed seven games, Harris was retained for 2021 in part because of his previous experience in the Staley defense as well as his inside/outside versatility. At 32-years-old, the elder statesman of the Chargers’ secondary looks like a mark for Pat Shurmur and Teddy Bridgewater this week.
11 years into his NFL career, Harris Jr. has the kind of savvy only experience can buy. He does a very good job reading his assignment and remains a willing tackler in run support, but Jerry Jeudy should be able to take advantage of Harris with his separation quickness if Shurmur dials up concepts that isolates the pair downfield.
Storm Norton and Michael Schofield
Thanks to Justin Herbert, the Bolts quietly have one of the most efficient offenses in football. They have the receivers to test the Broncos’ secondary and Austin Ekeler is the kind of water bug that can pose issues for the linebackers in space. In Rashawn Slater they have perhaps the best rookie left tackle since the Cleveland Browns’ future Hall of Famer Joe Thomas.
In Storm Norton and Michael Schofield, the Chargers also start what is arguably the worst right side of any offensive line in football.
Broncos Country probably remembers Schofield, as he’s the very same third round bust John Elway drafted out of Michigan in 2014. Since leaving Denver, Schofield’s become a career journeyman. This is his second stretch with the Bolts, sandwiched around stints with the Carolina Panthers and Baltimore Ravens. He’s remains the weak link for coordinators to run games at, and struggles with quick technicians inside. In fact, he looks like an ideal foil for Dre’Mont Jones to beat up on for a breakout game.
Norton will be more of a wildcard, because the uncertainty about Bradley Chubb’s status. If the former fifth overall pick can return to his 2020 form after playing all of 19 snaps this season, the Broncos should be able to heat up Herbert by embarrassing Norton. At 6’7 and 317 lbs., the former Toledo Rocket plays like a poor man’s Bobby Massie. His height often works against him because he struggles with leverage against smaller opponents who can get into his frame, as he does a marginal job using his length to keep rushers at bey.
Your Broncos’ Links
Will Broncos Country have something to be thankful for?
The offense needs to come out swinging, and the defense has to come to play.
The battles along the line of scrimmage will go a long way towards determining the outcome.
Broncos activate G Austin Schlottmann from Reserve/COVID-19 list, designate ILB Micah Kiser for return
Denver also added an offensive lineman to its practice squad.
Players on injured reserve total about 22% of the Broncos’ salary cap.
The Broncos will return from a bye with a .500 record, but consecutive games against the Chargers and Chiefs will likely knock them further from the AFC wild-card race. They already have just a 22% chance of emerging in the AFC playoff hunt, according to FPI projections.
When evaluating young quarterbacks, “Is this guy a franchise player?” isn’t as neat a question as it may seem. Everyone would have answered in the affirmative with Wentz when he was a second-year quarterback in 2017 and the coulda-shoulda-woulda-been league MVP. Instead, he was traded four years later. Jared Goff, Jimmy Garoppolo, Baker Mayfield all looked like franchise quarterbacks early in their starting careers before the magic faded.
“S---, I didn’t know he was 35,” running back Josh Jacobs exclaimed after the win, via the team’s official website. “He looks so effortless too! He just be gliding, that’s crazy.
Raiders tight end Darren Waller left Thursday’s win over the Cowboys in the second quarter with a knee injury and there should be more of an idea about how long he’ll be out on Friday. Ian Rapoport of NFL Media reports that Waller is going for an MRI and other tests on his knee Friday. He added that Waller was not in a lot of pain, which provides some reason for hope that he’ll be back in action sooner rather than later.
After the season, the Saints will have some interesting quarterback decisions to make - ProFootballTalk
In March, Russell Wilson‘s agent specifically identified the Saints as one of the four teams to which Wilson would accept a trade. Although Wilson’s performance this year has dipped, Payton could be fascinated by the possibilities of constructing an offense around the quarterback who throws the best deep ball in all of football, and who can accurately distribute the various short routes that fuel the New Orleans offense. Aaron Rodgers also could be interested in the Saints. Second-tier options will be available as well, but it takes a lot more effort to coax a player of that skill level into the top tier. Jameis Winston, before his Week Eight knee injury, wasn’t performing like a franchise quarterback — in large part because he lacked the pinpoint accuracy that makes Payton’s short passing game go.