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11 things to look for in the Broncos’ preseason game against the Minnesota Vikings

Can the Broncos’ offense impress?

Gabriel Christus

With the strangest offseason in Broncos’ history behind us, we’ll finally get a chance to see the state of the QB competition for ourselves. Drew Lock and Teddy Bridgewater will surely draw the most attention, but there’s a ton of other questions that we’ll begin to see the answers for against the Vikings.

This should go without saying, but the final score isn’t nearly as important in the preseason as individual performances throughout the contest. Making it out of the game healthy should be a priority for the coaching staff, so don’t be surprised if most of the starts play minimal snaps. We already know the Vikings are going to be very cautious with their first string.

Here’s what I’m looking for:

Defense

1. Dime is the new nickel is the new base, or is it?

2. Is Strnad ready to start?

3. Can we glean anything real about the secondary?

4. Who shows up along the line of scrimmage?

5. How does the depth look?

6. Will this defense be “Super” in 2021?

The Broncos used five or more defensive backs on 75% of their snaps in 2020, even as they burned through cornerbacks like toilet paper after a trip to Taco Bell. George Paton made a point to rectify the glaring weakness in the pass defense in his first offseason, and prioritized cornerback over every other position on the roster. He signed Ronald Darby and Kyle Fuller in free agency and followed it up by using the first pick of his career as a general manager on Alabama’s Patrick Surtain II.

Throughout camp we’ve seen reports about Surtain playing with the first team defense when six defensive backs on the field. The flexibility Surtain’s versatility provides could give Fangio answers for the Kansas City Chiefs, who like to deploy 3X1 sets with Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill in various spots across formation to create mismatches.

We have yet to learn how often a linebacker or defensive lineman will give way to a corner. There’s reasons to believe dime is being underutilized at the NFL level, and Fangio’s been at the forefront for modern defense for a long time now. How often will the Broncos lean on six DBs? Will it become the most utilized grouping as nickel was in 2019 and 2020, or will it continue to serve as a situational defense for passing downs and certain matchups?

With Josey Jewell missing significant reps because of a groin injury, Fangio and the coaching staff had every reason to give dime a long look. The injury also created an opportunity for Justin Strnad to make an impression in his first healthy preseason. Defensive coordinator Ed Donatell seemed pleased with the 2020 fifth round pick on Thursday.

“He’s had a good week—he really has. Anytime there’s an injury, someone is the beneficiary. When we lost Josey Jewell, his reps got accelerated, and he’s taken advantage of it. It’ll help our team.”

When I spoke with the Denver Post’s Ryan O’Halloran last week he made a point to mention how Strnad is eating into Alexander Johnson’s reps in the Broncos’ dime, so I’m eager to see how he holds up in game action.

Beyond the basic coverages Fangio will employ against the Vikings, the limited perspective broadcast angles provide make it nigh impossible to make any sort of informed declarations on the Broncos’ pass defense after this game. This will make it tough to get a real idea as to the competition to back up Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson, which is a shame, I’m anxious to study to Caden Sterns after his terrific camp.

The tight cut of the television copy will also make it tough to sort out cornerback play with any real consistency. This means we’ll be left in the dark regarding the ongoing bubble battle. Let’s hope none of the “no-name” corners make it easy for the coaching staff to cut them by turning into a victim on someone’s highlight film today.

Without being able to learn much about the secondary, I plan to focus on the Broncos’ front. Odds are Shelby Harris, Mike Purcell, and Dre’Mont Jones are on a pitch count as Von Miller and Bradley Chubb watch from the sidelines, which means we’ll probably get ample opportunities to see where things stand among guys like Malik Reed, Shamar Stephen, and DeShawn Williams. Today should also provide a glimpse into where things stand in the ED4 battle.

The constant rotations, simplistic scheme, and preserving veterans could make it tough to appreciate the Broncos’ defense for what it will become this season. That said, I’m eager to get my first glimpse at it. Donatell made a great point on Thursday when he said they should perform regardless of the quarterback situation.

You control what you can control. Our job is to get the ball for the offense, stop people and play defense. It doesn’t have much bearing on us.”

Offense

7. Is the line offensive?

8. Is the right tackle spot really up for grabs?

9. How do Pookie and the backfield rotation look?

10. Can we glean anything real about the pass catchers?

11. Is Drew Lock or Teddy Bridgewater “the guy”?

Throughout camp I’ve seen reports about the Broncos’ defensive line dominating the line of scrimmage, and the trend continued this week in Minnesota. After speaking with Daniel House on Cover 2 Broncos, I am concerned about both the pass protection and run blocking. Given what may be a rather shaky quarterback situation, it will be critical for the line to develop into a dependable unit. After a knee injury on Thursday I doubt Dalton Risner plays, which probably means a bigger test for Lloyd Cushenberry when the first team’s on the field. That’s worth keeping an eye on.

The other big question hanging over the line specifically is the right tackle battle. Following Ja’Wuan James injury and subsequent release, the Broncos signed Bobby Massie and Cameron Fleming in an effort to shore up the position. Massie has ascended to the top of the depth chart where he seems to be in a competition with Calvin Anderson, while Fleming’s been relegated to the second team and a rotation as the swing tackle. Given what I’ve seen of each player’s 2020 tape, it’s now hard to imagine a healthy Massie leaves the preseason as anything but the starter.

I’m anxious to see how Javonte Williams looks in his first NFL action. His combination of burst, contact balance, and elusiveness should make him a nightmare on the ground and should only be a matter of time before he starts to eat into Melvin Gordon’s workload on passing downs.

Given the injury to Mike Boone, it will be interesting who totes the rock when Gordon and Williams hit the pine. Royce Freeman remains trade bait, so he could be in line for a big day as the Broncos try to showcase him for the rest of the league. They could also bypass him altogether to give Levante Bellamy and Damarea Crockett a chance to get their ears wet.

The Broncos’ performance up front could impact the box score numbers, but I plan to dig into how the backs made the most of their blocking. Who stood out on gap concepts, and can they also show out when Pat Shurmur dials up a play that utilizes zone blocking? A back’s ability to make the line right is clearly important to Fangio.

“Well, I think our running game has looked pretty good all camp, but you’ve still got to go in the game and prove it. A big part of a running game is the backs running it. If it’s blocked for two [yards], do they find a way to get four? If it’s blocked good enough for five, do they find a way to get seven, eight, or maybe break the big ones? Ultimately, the running backs have got to take command of what’s there and we’ve got to give them opportunities, but they’ve got to be able to turn it into more than what is blocked for them.”

Like the secondary on defense, it’s going to be tough to learn anything of value about the Broncos’ pass catchers. Hopefully they put on a show so replays give us some long looks at routes, but we’ll probably leave today with as many questions as when we entered it. Maybe more.

Unfortunately, the same issues the broadcast angle creates for evaluating the secondary and pass catchers will bleed into the quarterback competition. Without all-22 tape to go back and review the coverages each quarterback saw on their dropbacks, we’ll have an incomplete picture of Drew Lock and Teddy Bridgewater’s performance. Keeping that in mind, I plan to pay particular attention how they look in the red zone and during must-pass situations. I’m also intrigued by how Shurmur will calls bend the play calling to their strengths, as O’Halloran said the Broncos looked like they had two different offenses in camp.

For months now the competition between Lock and Bridgewater has loomed as the biggest position battle on the roster, and understandably so. The 2021 Broncos are a legitimate Super Bowl contender if either one of them is competent enough for the defense to win games.

Reports out of camp and the practices in Minnesota leave a lot to be desired, which adds a level of scrutiny to Paton’s decision to pass on two quarterbacks in the 2021 draft. At his Thursday press conference, he doubled down on his statement that quarterbacks are easier to find than franchise corners, and it seems fair to surmise he believes Lock or Bridgewater have a better chance to develop into a franchise quarterback than the Bears’ Justin Fields or the Patriots’ Mac Jones.

Let’s all hope they’re up for the challenge.

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