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Lions at Broncos: 11 things to watch for

Can the Denver Broncos get a win over the Detroit Lions?

There are times where a game seems bigger than a game. Days after the passing of Pro Bowler Demaryius Thomas, the Denver Broncos will play host to the Detroit Lions in a game honoring the Super Bowl champion gone too soon.

Such a gesture means emotions are going to be high today, which adds a layer of unpredictability to the matchup. There’s no question that on paper these Broncos should have the talent advantage over their opponent, but how will the underlying tension influence a young roster on third down? Will the energy before kickoff lead to a slow start? What happens among the fans in the stands if the 1-10-1 Lions rumble their way to a first half lead?

Due to D.T’s passing the game between the Broncos and Lions has taken on larger meaning in Denver. Today’s contest has the potential to serve as a cathartic moment for the team and fanbase. It could also serve a powder keg.

Here’s what I’m watching for.

Special Teams

1. Will Tom McMahon cost Denver the game?

The special teams battle is one that clearly favors the Lions and Denver’s propensity for a weekly blunder could cost them dearly against Detroit, especially without P.J. Locke logging snaps. 12 games into 2021 and the Broncos’ special teams are among the worst in football, while the Lions are one of the 10 best. Diontae Spencer’s muff in Kansas City is the most recent mistake, and he’ll have few opportunities to make up for it today against one of the better kick and punt coverage units in the NFL. On the other side of the coin, the Broncos coverage units will have their hands full against Khalif Raymond, who’s averaging 11.6 yards per return this year. The Lions don’t have remarkable block units, but they may not need to. The Broncos issues in protection have led to one field goal,

Defense

2. Who plays?

3. What’s Fangio’s plan?

4. Can Goff withstand pressure?

5. How does the front look against a talented OL?

6. Can the Broncos pitch a shutout?

To be perfectly fair to the Lions, they entered 2021 with an eye on 2022 and 2023. The new regime led by Brad Holmes and Dan Campbell began their tenure trading Matthew Stafford to the Los Angeles Rams in order to acquire a third round pick, two future first-round picks, and Jared Goff’s $104 million contract. Last week’s victory over the Minnesota Vikings was Goff’s first without Sean McVay as his head coach, and a shaky supporting cast has completely exposed his limitations to opponents. With injuries and illnesses taking a bite out of what was already a weak Lions’ offense, I expect Fangio to exploit them without mercy.

After looking like a first round bust with the Rams under Jeff Fischer, Goff found a great deal of success in a McVay system that evolved from the Gary Kubiak offense. Just like Jake Plummer long before him, Goff’s ability to win off play action concepts and a strong rushing attack limited his exposure to dropback situations. When Goff did have to play out of the gun, McVay typically streamlined his progressions, which helped to mitigate his issues with processing. Despite hiccups such as scoring three points against Bill Belichick in Super Bowl LIII, it mostly worked for a time. The former first overall pick threw 106 touchdowns to just 50 interceptions across the four seasons. But his performance in 2020 and the deteriorating relationship between quarterback and coach led to his exile to the Motor City.

Since landing with the Lions, Goff’s been atrocious under pressure and merely below average from a clean pocket. The missing pieces today should leave the Lions vulnerable to games and blitzes because they lack the weapons to punish the Broncos devoting extra attention to disrupting the quarterback. The Lions broke training camp with the worst receiving corps. in the NFL and have since lost Tyrell Williams to a concussion and Quintez Cephus to a shoulder injury.

If Hockenson can’t suit or or is hampered by the hand injury that kept him out of practices this week, Goff’s receiving corps. is looking pretty thin. His remaining receivers are rookie Amon-Ra St. Brown, return man Khalif Raymond, and Josh Reynolds, who joined the Lions at the beginning of November after he was waived by the Tennessee Titans. The dearth of alternatives means there’s a decent chance former Broncos Trinity Benson’s given an opportunity to play against his former team. If Hockenson can’t suit up, it will fall on rookie Brock Wright to have a career game. The 6’4 250 lb. rookie out of Notre Dame has four catches in the NFL to date, but has the kind of athletic tools to find some space in the middle of the field.

Since taking over the play calling duties against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Dan Campbell’s made a concentrated effort to establish the run and it’s probably in their best interest to try and do so today. With so few capable receivers the Lions may lean into heavier sets with extra offensive lineman, they found success with this against the Steelers. Detroit’s at their best rushing off left tackle, and they could find success as it’s been a sore spot for the Broncos’ front all year. With Deandre Swift injured and Jamaal Williams on the Covid-19 list, it will fall on rookie seventh round pick Jermar Jefferson and career vagabond Godwin Igwebuike to tote the rock today. Jefferson’s at his best on zone concepts and could find success between the tackles with his good vision and solid contact balance. Igwebuike was recently a member of the XFL’s Seattle Dragons has eight NFL carries since he entered the league as an undrafted free agent with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2018.

Offense

7. What’s Shurmur’s plan?

8. Can the offensive line win consistently?

9. Who shows up when it matters most?

10. Does Bridgewater do enough?

In spite of Aaron Glenn’s best efforts as defensive coordinator, this Lions’ defense is pockmarked with holes at all three levels. Numerous big play opportunities should present themselves. It’s on the Broncos’ to capitalize.

Teddy Bridgewater’s recent struggles raise questions about his health going forward. Today’s a chance to quiet some doubts in the short term. Julian Okwara is out with an ankle injury while Charles Harris will try to gut through an illness that dogged him all week. There should be minimal concern about the edge rusher with Garett Bolles and Bobby Massie healthy, which means Teddy should have time to connect downfield. No Tracy Walker will impact communication in the Lions’ secondary, and a steep drop off after Amani Oruwariye and rookie Jerry Jacobs leaves Detroit with no good answer against the receiving trio of Courtland Sutton, Tim Patrick, and Jerry Jeudy.

The Lions best players along the front are Levi Onwuzurike and Alim McNeil, and the rookies will be critical if Detroit’s going to have any chance at stopping Javonte Williams today. Onwuzurike is a gap shooter who could give Dalton Risner and Quinn Meinerz issues with his burst off the snap, while McNeil is a 331 lb. bowling ball who could bullrush Lloyd Cushenberry into the backfield. The Broncos will enter the game without Mike Boone because he tested positive for Covid-19, which puts stress on the backfield if Melvin Gordon’s hampered or inactive.

After a 178-yard performance in Kansas City, Williams’ chunk plays could come via pass today. A shaky rushing defense overall, Detroit isn’t bad at bottling up rushers at the second level, and they’re top ten run defense against open field runs. The linebacker duo surprised me on tape. Each offers more range than I expected. Derrick Barnes is a sledgehammer at the point of attack and his running mate Alex Anzalone is good in pursuit. Both can be had in pass coverage, however. Anzalone’s done a good job keying opposing passers lately, but makes mistakes with his zone spacing, Barnes’ could see his burst and lateral quickness exposed against Pookie.

Regardless of the final score, situational offense should be under the microscope today after last week’s 20-yard drive ended in failure. That flub cost the Broncos a touchdown in a critical game against a divisional rival, and also cast a spotlight on three huge issues. The first and most concerning is ad hoc approach to third and fourth down by Vic Fangio, which impacted Pat Shurmur’s approach to third down and left players clearly confused on 4th down. The other is a troubling season long trend: Denver’s converting just 36.84% of their third downs this year and they’re among the worst redzone offenses in the league by FO’s DVOA metric.

Final Thoughts

11. Will Denver escape the game unscathed?

The Lions have one win, one tie, and ten losses across their 2021 slate. On paper, they’re completely outmatched because injury and illness leave them woefully short handed on both sides of the ball. With that said, there’s no reason to believe Dan Campbell will have his team prepared to lie down and wait for the loss. Detroit’s come within nine combined points of four more wins this year. They’ve shown a willingness to steal possessions when they can with fake punts, onside kicks, and the like. If the Broncos enter the game distracted they could quickly find themselves staring up at a deficit on the scoreboard.

Today’s game offers Denver a respite from their sadness over the loss of Demaryius Thomas. Emotions will run high in remembrance of the 33-year-old who scored an 80-yard walkoff touchdown from Tim Tebow to beat the Steelers in 2011. They’ll remember his 134-yard game against the New England Patriots in the 2013 AFC Championship. They’ll remember his smile. Beating the Lions won’t bring D.T. back, but it will help the orange and blue honor him. It will also help these Broncos remain alive in the playoff race.

Let’s hope they’re up for it.