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5 things I think I think after the Broncos’ disappointing 17-13 loss to the Raiders

There’s change in the wind.

Denver Broncos v Las Vegas Raiders
Lock wasn’t the problem today.
Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

The Houston Texans beating the Los Angeles Chargers during the early slate gave the Broncos’ dismal playoff chances a boost before kickoff today. Unfortunately, they didn’t get the job done and lost to a bad Raiders team. The loss leaves more questions than answers about the future of the franchise, but one thing is certain: they’re playing for little more than pride to close the 2021 season.

Here’s a few more thoughts from my first watch through the game.

Drew Lock had a better game than the numbers suggest

I mentioned before the game how the Raiders defense was a decent opportunity for Lock to quiet critics because of their shaky secondary and woeful linebacker corps. I thought he did as much in the first half despite ho-hum numbers: 69% completion for 87 yards and a sack. What I liked most was the way Lock kept his cool in the pocket and found ways to give his playmakers a chance.

The Broncos opened the game with the ball and it didn’t take long for Lock to get a chance to air it out. After a sneak on third and one to move the sticks, Pat Shurmur dialed up what looked like a deep out to Courtland Sutton on first down. The missed connection led to a 2nd down run and a punt shortly thereafter.

The Broncos’ second drive got to about midfield before Shurmur’s affinity for shot plays around the 50 killed the drive. Following a DPI that gave Denver a first down, the Raiders dialed up a game with Maxx Crosby looping from his initial spot over Bobby Massie back inside. The stunt isolated Dalton Risner against the quicker edge rusher and while Lock probably should have gotten rid of it, it looks as if he had nowhere to go with the ball.

Following the Raiders touchdown Drew Lock hooked up with Jerry Jeudy, who was wide open on a deep over. The second year receiver gained 40-yards on his way to the Vegas 35.

After penalties on Garett Bolles and Bobby Massie the Broncos found themselves stuck in a third and 20, the kind of must-pass situation where the Raider pass rush could pin their ears back to pressure Lock. No matter. The third year pro did a good job stepping up in the pocket to buy himself time and found Jeudy to give Brandon McManus a chance to close the deficit to four.

Josh Jacobs’ baffling fumble gave the Broncos the ball back at midfield and the drive ended with another McManus field goal. What stood out was the way Lock dodged the rush to make his way out of the pocket on third down. While the pass was a little high, the quarterback did his part to move the sticks.

Lock’s box score numbers aren’t going to impress anyone. He completed 15 of 22 passes for 153 yards, no touchdowns or picks. That said, I thought he looked better than the numbers on my first watch through. He avoided the self inflicted blunders that have plagued him in his relief appearances this year and took just two sacks despite a notable effort by Gus Bradley to heat him up on passing downs. Lock also dealt with at least three missed completions because his receivers couldn’t haul in the pass, the worst of which an Albert Okwugbunam shot play on Denver’s final possession.

Shurmur was abysmal once again

On the day the Broncos’ offense averaged four yards a play. When you stop to consider the personnel Vegas was missing in the secondary, their weak personnel through the middle of the defense, and their ineptitude on defense coming into today, it gets hard to excuse the pitiful job Denver’s offensive coordinator did today. His one saving grace could be the idea that the backup quarterback so limited his play calling it made the offense easy to stop.

I don’t buy it.

Broncos defense wasn’t perfect, but made enough plays to win

For most of the season the Raiders offense has been extremely reliant on Derek Carr’s ball placement in the short to intermediate areas to stay on track. Without Darren Waller today, Vegas lacked the go-to guy to create chunk plays with any sort of consistency. So it made sense for the Broncos to come into this game with a gameplan built around stopping the passing game, even if it left them soft against the run.

One thing I was eager to see today was how the Broncos’ pass rush would look against a shaky offensive line. It also looked like an important key to the gameplan, because throughout Carr’s career he’s shown time and again that pressure will make him skittish and lead to stupid mistakes. So it was encouraging to see Malik Reed get pressure on the Raiders’ first drive of the game.

Vegas did find a rhythm on the second drive. Following the Broncos second punt of the game the Raiders marched downfield on a 14-play touchdown. Penalties on Shelby Harris and Caden Sterns ruined a third down stand at the Denver 38. Josh Jacobs and Peyton Barber had six carries on the drive, and all but one of them gained three yards or more. The one negative carry happened because Jonas Griffith sniffed out a carry in the redzone.

In the second half the Broncos’ run defense began to bleed yards as the Raiders took advantage of Fangio devoting extra resources to stop the passing game. The philosophy looked shaky at the open of the third with Jacobs and Peyton Barber finding success, but Denver won the long game. After Jacobs was swarmed in the backfield, the Raiders faced a third and long. Fangio dialed up a game and Harris delivered with a strip sack that Dre’Mont Jones recovered.

The 2021 Broncos are now 0-7 in games where opponents score 17 or more points. While there were issues with Hunter Renfrow and the running game today, the defense held the Raiders to 5.1 yards per play overall and came up with two turnovers that provided the offense with short fields. Fangio’s defense did it’s part to win the game. They just didn’t have enough help.

Jonah Griffith played well again

Outside of a play in coverage where he looked like a special teamer, the callow linebacker had himself a second consecutive solid performance filling in for the injured Kenny Young. A stupendous athlete who stands 6’3 and 250 lbs. he routinely showed off very good range and has more impact at the point of attack. We’re quickly reaching a point where it’d make sense to play Griffith over Young down the stretch, even if the veteran clears the NFL concussion protocol.

Bradley Chubb makes the play of the first half

Chubb’s had a rough 2021 season after bone spurs pushed him onto Injured Reserve following the victory over Jacksonville in week two. Since he’s returned he’s looked like an edge rusher trying to regain his burst and fluidity. So it was very encouraging to watch him go airborne to bring down Carr’s pass on the Raiders’ screen call at the end of the first. The 2018 fifth round pick came painfully close to scoring a touchdown and set up a Javonte Williams’ walk-in score.

Final Thoughts (for now)

While this Broncos’ season will go down as the best since 2016, it still wasn’t good enough. Denver is now guaranteed a sixth straight season without the playoffs, a stretch of irrelevance that hasn’t occurred since the 1970’s. While I believe Patrick Surtain II and Justin Simmons were snubbed, the fact Denver won’t have a Pro Bowler for the first time in 40 years hints at the way the rest of the league and NFL fanbases view this team. Until they find a franchise quarterback, they don’t really matter.

Looking ahead there’s a lot of change in the wind. With the playoff talk now dead, the depth chart could be shuffled: young players such as Lock, Griffith, and McTelvin Agim could (and probably should) earn playing time over veterans on expiring contracts. The way the NFL has overhauled the head coaching interview process means there is a possibility Vic Fangio is “let go” as early as this next week so George Paton can begin to speak with his preferred candidates. The Broncos have also reached out to a handful of banks to work out a sale, which means the franchise could be under new ownership as soon as March.

Let’s hope the changes lead to a brighter future.