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Chargers at Broncos: 11 things to watch for

Can Fangio slow down Justin Herbert?

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With their bye week in the rearview mirror, the Denver Broncos enter the final stretch of the season in control of their own destiny. At 5-5 they’re currently on the outside looking in at the playoff picture, but six of their final seven games come against fellow contenders, including today’s matchup against the Los Angeles Chargers. If the Broncos want to make something of this 2021 campaign, there’s no more excuses. They need to win.

Here’s what I’m looking for today.

Special Teams

1. Death by inches?

With the bye in the rearview mirror, we’re past the point where the Broncos had time to adjust to a Tom McMahon firing. At this point it looks inevitable that the embattled special teams coordinator will retain his post through the remainder of the season. I have to admit, the decision strikes me as a questionable one, as he’s the embodiment of “death by inches,” something Fangio said his regime wouldn’t allow.

Ten games into 2021 and the Broncos’ special teams are among the worst in football. In their last game they allowed a Brandon McManus field goal to get blocked. 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. 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.

It seems unlikely the Broncos special teams will make some sort of huge improvement down the last seven games. Fortunately, they may not need to in order to gain the upper hand against Los Angeles, as the Chargers are another club with a woeful special teams. They’ve allowed a handful rushers to get within inches of blocking punts in the games I’ve watched, and the Steelers almost sprung an upset because of a block in week 11.

Defense

2. Who plays?

3. How does Fangio attack LA’s pass protection?

4. Can the Broncos make Herbert uncomfortable?

5. Does the New Fly Zone hold up?

6. Who controls the line of scrimmage?

Bradley Chubb will make his first start since week two while Kareem Jackson will miss his first game since a DUI suspension in 2019. The fifth overall pick of the 2018 draft was brought off Injured Reserve earlier this week after surgery to remove bone spurs that have limited him to 19 snaps this season. If Chubb can step in and play at a level resembling his 2020 form, it’d be a monumental boost to a Broncos front seven that is struggling since the Von Miller trade. It’s anyone’s guess if he’ll be able to do so, however, as the 25-year-old suffered a setback during the Broncos’ practice on Thanksgiving and Fangio said he will be on a pitch count during the contest. Jackson’s absence will mean Caden Sterns gets the first start of his NFL career. The former fifth round pick’s played sparingly on the third level so far in his career, but he’s looked solid in Fangio’s dime personnel. It’s also worth noting that Shelby Harris will be questionable for the game with an ankle injury, which brings into question how well he’ll perform if he does gut through the pain.

Whether Chubb and/or Jackson play, Fangio is going to have his work cut out for him against Joe Lombardi and the Chargers’ offense. In Justin Herbert, L.A. has a franchise quarterback with the kind of elite arm to make any throw on the field and a knack for squeezing the ball between defenders. In just his second season he continues to show the mental processing you’d hope for from a four year starter at Oregon, and combines it with the athletic ability to break out of a muddy pocket to either buy himself time to pass or scamper past the sticks on his own. He’s the kind of quarterback who raises all boats, and even if the Broncos’ defense does everything right it may not be enough.

Given the state of the Fangio defense, it probably isn’t realistic to expect Denver to shutdown Herbert and the L.A. offense. I do believe the Broncos have the pieces to give their offense a chance to carry them through the game, however. They’ll need to execute a plan of attack aimed at the right side of the Chargers’ offensive line while Kenny Young and Baron Browning do their part to minimize the damage Austin Ekler causes after dump offs. The secondary also has to minimize the chunk plays to Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, which is easier said than done.

Offense

7. Who plays?

8. What’s Shurmur’s plan?

9. Who wins along the line of scrimmage?

10. How do Gordon and Williams look?

11. Can Bridgewater take advantage of the favorable matchups?

All signs point to the Broncos playing a second straight game without either one of their starting tackles. Garett Bolles has been out since the Halloween win over the Washington Football Team because of a high ankle sprain and now finds himself in the NFL’s Covid protocol. Meanwhile Bobby Massie is officially listed as doubtful for the game because of his own ankle injury. If neither suit up, the Broncos will have three backups logging time along the offensive line against a front led by Joey Bosa.

The good news is Pat Shurmur returns from a Covid-related absence in time to craft what should be a fairly straightforward gameplan against the Chargers: establish the run. Doing so will help protect overmatched tackles from an elite edge rusher and take advantage of a defensive scheme that relies on light boxes in order to better defend the pass. By every measure that really matters, the L.A. run defense is among the worst in football. Opponents are having success running wherever Bosa isn’t, and so long as there isn’t yet another injury to the Broncos’ offensive line they should to. With L.A.’s Linval Joseph set to miss the game because he’s on the Covid-list it’d make a ton of sense for Shurmur to dial up a heavy dose of inside zone and duo to chip away between the tackles.

A run-heavy approach should also make it easier for the Broncos to find success when Teddy Bridgewater does have to go to the air. While the Chargers have done a good job limiting deep passes this season, communication lapses, play fakes, and shaky linebacker play has led to some big days for opposing tight ends. Noah Fant and Albert Okwuegbunam could be in line for some prime opportunities if they’re not forced to chip for Calvin Anderson and Cameron Fleming all afternoon.

There’s been a ton of angst about Teddy Bridgewater’s propensity to take completions short of the sticks in third and long situations, and I suspect they’ll have more ammo after the game. Better for the Broncos to do their part to manage the sticks up ‘til third and fourth down than to throw into the teeth of the Staley system as his defense tends to cap deeper routes in these situations to force a short or risky throw. It’s worked masterfully this year. The Chargers are currently the 8th ranked 3rd/4th down pass defense by Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric.

Final Thoughts

The recipe for success isn’t hard to sniff out today. Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams should find consistent success running the ball while the defensive front should be able to heat up Herbert attacking the right side of the Chargers’ offense line. L.A. has consistent issues blocking on punt and separating from blockers on their coverage units, which mitigates some of the issues Tom McMahon’s own special teams deals with on a weekly basis.

In summary, the Broncos play an opponent with clear and obvious weaknesses the coaching staff should be able to see and the roster should be able to exploit. It’s critical they do so because the Kansas City Chiefs are only going to be more challenging. Thanks to blown opportunities against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Las Vegas Raiders, Cleveland Browns, and Philadelphia Eagles, the Broncos don’t have a margin for error. They’re out of excuses with a slew of must-win games in front of them. It’s time to put up, or shut up.

Will they?