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Broncos at Raiders: 11 things to watch for

Can Drew Lock put it all together in his first start of the season?

Cincinnati Bengals v Denver Broncos Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

After five straight years of meaningless December football, two AFC West rivals meet the week before New Years Eve with a snowball’s chance at a trip to the postseason on the line. The Denver Broncos have a chance at revenge following three straight losses to the hated Las Vegas Raiders, the last being a humiliating 34-24 defeat in the days after Jon Gruden’s resignation over racist and homophobic emails. The game will also provide Drew Lock his 19th start as an NFL quarterback, and how he performs probably decides the game.

Here’s what I’m looking for.

Special Teams

1. Death by inches?

The Broncos’ issues on special teams played outsized roles in their losses to the Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs this year, but have avoided monumental gaffes like muffed punts and leverage penalties the last couple of weeks. Today gives them a chance to capitalize on an opponent. Outside of Daniel Carlson and A.J. Cole’s strong season, the Raiders’ special teams have been below average this year. Cole has a big leg and will outkick his coverage from time to time, so Diontae Spencer should have opportunities to create splash plays. Tom McMahon means the Raiders could as well.

Defense

2. What’s Fangio’s plan?

3. Does Waller play?

4. Will Renfrow pop off?

5. Can the Broncos pressure Carr into mistakes?

6. How does the red zone D hold up?

One of the big questions hanging over the first matchup was Greg Olson, who would be calling his first game since 2016. He got the better of Vic Fangio in week six with a blistering start. The Raiders averaged 8.2 yards per play in a first quarter and their first three possessions all led to scoring opportunities. A missed 43-yard field goal helped the Broncos keep it with three until Derek Carr found Kenyan Drake on a wheel route for a long bomb. Denver never inched back within 10 points the rest of the way.

This offense is going to look a lot different in the rematch in Vegas.

Henry Ruggs finished the first tilt with three catches for 97 yards and a touchdown. Since then, he’s been charged for a Nov. 2 traffic crash that killed a 23-year-old Las Vegas woman and is no longer on the roster. The Raiders have tried to fill his absence with the 35-year-old Desean Jackson, who’s caught seven passes for 184 yards since week nine. Drake is on Injured Reserve after a controversial tackle ruined his season, which leaves Peyton Barber to backup Josh Jacobs. Darren Waller also hasn’t played a down since week 12 because of a knee and back injuries. He’s listed as doubtful for the game and it’s anyone’s guess what he’ll be able to contribute if he plays.

What’s left after all the absences is a weak offense with a leaky offensive line. There’s a decent chance Fangio has the Broncos playing a ton of cover 1 because of their favorable matchups across the board in the passing game. If the secondary holds up in man, it’d give Denver a chance to devote extra resources to stymie the run game and make Carr uncomfortable.

Since Gruden’s resignation, Vegas has moved towards more passing out of three receiver sets, even without Ruggs around. Waller’s injury has pushed Hunter Renfrow to the top of the pecking order and he’s on pace for 135 targets this season. Primarily a slot receiver, Renfrow’s a very good route runner with the grittiness to hang onto the ball through contact anywhere on the field. Carr’s at his best in the quick game, which mitigates the issues with the pass protection. Odds are Olson leans on this to try to help Carr get into a rhythm.

Offense

7. What’s Shurmur’s plan?

8. Can the offensive line slow down mad Maxx and Yannick?

9. Does the ground game find traction?

10. Will replacing Bridgewater open up the passing game?

11. Will Drew Lock rise to the occasion?

How Pat Shurmur adjusts his game plan to best suit the needs and strengths of his backup quarterback will probably decide the game today. If he draws what Drew Lock showed last year, it will mean more boot action rollouts to the right, less horizontal leading concepts, and no empty gun sets. A second string quarterback should also push Shurmur to lean heavily on Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams, which would be wise considering they’ve been the most consistent part of the offense for over a month now.

With Jonathan Abram joining Trayvon Mullen on Injured Reserve, the Raiders may push rookie slot Nate Hobbs out to the boundary less than 24 hours after he left the Covid reserve list. While Vegas is pretty soft between the guards and Yannick Ngakoue has issues setting the edge, they’ve been a halfway decent run defense for most of the year. Maxx Crosby is a game wrecker in all phases, while Johnathan Hankins is a load that could be tough to move in the running game. The Raiders have done a pretty decent job creating stuffs and Denver’s allowed them on almost 20% of their carries. If that continues, it could snowball into a huge problem.

Before Gruden hired him to call the Raiders’ defense, Gus Bradley was the defensive coordinator of the Chargers, and since 2018 he’s sent five+ after the Broncos’ quarterbacks on less than 10% of all snaps. With that said, the Vegas pass rush could turn the contest in their favor, much as they did in week six. Crosby and Ngakoue have combined to notch 114 pressures this year by Sports Info Solutions’ charting. They’re one of the best edge duos Denver faces this year and will be a problem for Bolles and Bobby Massie on passing downs. In limited action this season, Lock still looks like he’ll get rattled into colossal mistakes by any hint of pressure, and preventing that has to be Shurmur’s number one priority on passing downs.

The good news is the Raiders have played out of single high shells more than just about anyone this year and lean on cover three shells more than just about anyone. Shurmur can attack it with spacing concepts, a simple read, and easy throws. Lock should be also be intimately familiar with Bradley’s defense after playing three games against the Chargers while he was defensive coordinator. The bad news is Jonathan Abram’s season-ending injury and Lock on the docket could push Bradley up to get more creative with his coverages.

To this point in Lock’s career, he’s who I thought he’d be when he left Missouri: a painfully inconsistent passer who has the physical traits to make every throw in a playbook with the mechanical and processing issues that will lead to highlights for both teams. I believed he was a prospect who desperately needed consistency around him to have any realistic hope at ironing out the rough edges to his game. Injuries and covid-19’s impact on the 2020 offseason led to a snake-bitten career to date. Years from now, corners of Broncos Country will still be chatting about what could have been with Lock’s potential.

None of that matters so much as what Lock’s first start of his third season will mean for the remainder of this season. Bridgewater’s performance the last five weeks was already shaky enough to warrant questions about his future with the Broncos and his inability to consistently feed Courtland Sutton, Tim Patrick, and Jerry Jeudy was a big reason for Denver’s losses to the Philadelphia Eagles, Kansas City Chiefs, and Cincinnati Bengals. Lock’s arm should lend itself to more chunk plays, and if he can find a way to capitalize on the Broncos’ advantages in the passing game against a banged up Raider secondary, there remains a sliver of hope for a postseason appearance. If Lock can find a way to light up Las Vegas like a Christmas tree, he’ll probably find more playing time waiting for him.