After weeks of a back-and-forth QB1 battle between Drew Lock and Teddy Bridgewater where reports out of camp suggested neither was inspiring, the Broncos’ quarterbacks were nearly perfect in their first live action of the preseason. The news came at a perfect time to inspire hope that a franchise quarterback could emerge and suggests Broncos Country is about to witness a magical run to the playoffs that eventually ends with confetti and a Lombardi trophy. Context may look like a downpour on such an optimistic parade.
After reviewing the Broncos’ preseason game at length, here’s my thoughts.
There was a clear talent disparity before kickoff
With weeks to go until the games count, every team in the NFL is juggling what they need to see from the roster with limiting the risk of injury to their most important players. We saw that today with the Broncos’ decision to rest their entire starting defense as well as select members of offense, specifically:
RB - Melvin Gordon, Mike Boone
TE - Albert Okwuegbunam
WR - Courtland Sutton, Tim Patrick, DeVontres Dukes, Diontae Spencer
OL - Garett Bolles, Dalton Risner
DL - Mike Purcell, Shelby Harris, Dre’Mont Jones, Marquiss Spencer
ED - Von Miller, Bradley Chubb, Pita Taumoepenu
LB - Alexander Johnson, Josey Jewell
DB - Justin Simmons, Kareem Jackson, Ronald Darby, Kyle Fuller, Mac McCain III
As news trickled out over the 24 hours leading up to the game about who would sit, I received questions on multiple occasions about how sitting starters could impact the Broncos’ ability to evaluate Drew Lock and Teddy Bridgewater. In the end there’s no perfect solution as the coaching staff has to prioritize the right individual situation or every player on the roster, all 90 of them.
Meanwhile, Mike Zimmer and the Vikings were working through a similar situation and decided to approach the first preseason game even more conservatively. Before kickoff ESPN’s Courtney Cronin shared 30 players who wouldn’t suit up for Minnesota:
QB - Kirk Cousins, Nate Stanley
RB - Dalvin Cook, Alexander Mattison
FB - C.J. Hamm
TE - Irv Smith Jr., Tyler Conklin
WR - Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen, Dede Westbrook, Chad Beebe, Blake Proehl
OL - Garrett Bradbury, Brian O’Neill, Olisaemeka Udoh, Ezra Clevleand, Christian Darrisaw
DL - Michael Pierce, Dalvin Tomlinson, Sheldon Richardson
ED - Danielle Hunter
LB - Eric Kendricks, Anthony Barr
DB - Patrick Peterson, Bashaud Breeland, Xavier Woods, Mackensie Alexander, Harrison Smith
Sitting 30 players before kickoff led to a situation where the Broncos had perhaps as many as seven starting offensive players squaring off against the Vikings’ second and third string defense. Minnesota was completely outclassed on paper throughout the first half and it would have reflected poorly on Pat Shurmur if the offense fell flat. Fortunately, Lock and Bridgewater took advantage.
Broncos’ starting offense for #DENvsMIN:— Aric DiLalla (@AricDiLalla) August 14, 2021
QB: Drew Lock
RB: Javonte Williams
WR: Jerry Jeudy, KJ Hamler
TE: Noah Fant, Eric Saubert
LT: Calvin Anderson
LG: Netane Muti
C: Lloyd Cushenberry III
RG: Graham Glasgow
RT: Bobby Massie
There was also rather large disparity between the Broncos’ young defenders and the Vikings’ second string offense that became evident very quickly. Minnesota’s starting quarterback Jake Browning never had much of a chance to settle in because Malik Reed, DeShawn Williams, and Shamar Stephen were able to create consistent pressure.
The fact the Broncos had a clear advantage across the lines of scrimmage and elsewhere shouldn’t detract from standout performances. I’ve been anxious to finally get an opportunity to watch this year’s team and some players really impressed.
Trinity Benson is making a push for WR5
While the Broncos have one of the best receiving corps. in the league if Courtland Sutton comes back to his 2019 form, they’re light on experience after their “big four” of Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, Tim Patrick, and K.J. Hamler. Tyrie Cleveland’s the only other receiver who’s caught passes in a regular season game, and he’s had some rough moments in camp which leaves the door wide open for another pass catcher to emerge.
One player who made a big impression today is third year pro Trinity Benson. After spending the last two years on the Broncos’ practice squad, the undrafted free agent out of East Central University really showed up as a route runner and displayed consistent hands securing all four targets in his direction. Diontae spencer’s absence today also led Tom McMahon to giving Benson, Lavante Bellamy, and K.J. Hamler return snaps.
The “new” Shurmur offense?
One thing that caught my eye the first watch through the game that could bear monitoring over the remainder of the preseason is the Broncos’ emphasis on using heavier personnel groupings. Most of Lock and Bridgewaters snaps came out of 12, 21, and 22. We even saw a run out of 13. There was also concentrated effort to dial up play action, which is encouraging given the way it can make life easier for a quarterback.
Keep in mind Sutton, Patrick, and Dukes missing the game could have had a huge impact on the personnel groupings. They’re probably the three best X-receivers on the roster, so without them it paid to take the opportunity to get a long look at Eric Saubert, who’s probably the primary blocking tight end this year.
Drew Lock shows promise
Throughout camp we’ve heard about how the competition between Lock and Bridgwater is too close to call. That combined with bouts of inaccuracy left me concerned about Lock’s development since we saw him in 2020. So it was encouraging to see him reset his feet and deliver a strike out the gate.
A few things I really like on this play.— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) August 15, 2021
1&2: Check out how pulling Glasgow sells the PA
3&4: Check out how Lock resets his feet to deliver a strike pic.twitter.com/wMXeoJE2ma
Lock’s first drive ended in a 4th down redzone incompletion to a well defended Jerry Jeudy on a slant out of 22 personnel, but it didn’t take him long to get on the board. On the Broncos’ next possession Shurmur dialed up a play action shot and Lock hit a wide open K.J. Hamler for a long bomb.
Easy 80-yard touchdown from Drew Lock to K.J. Hamler pic.twitter.com/b9pC3eBbm7— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) August 14, 2021
Lock’s third and four miss to Hamler from the 21 was also encouraging. Lock shared that one area of emphasis from his time with Peyton Manning was doing a better job with his protections, and his ability to recognize and adjust to pre-snap looks was on full display. He then stood tall in the pocket with heat coming off the blind side. He also displayed anticipation for Hamler’s break, which isn’t an easy ask with physical coverage disrupting the receivers stem. If I have one complaint on the play, he could have probably done a better job setting the hallway.
This could all sound like picking nits since Lock’s bark drew a Viking offside before the snap.
It led to perhaps my favorite play of Lock’s day, the 3rd and four bullet to Jeudy that let the 2020 first round pick make hay after the catch.
Really dig how Lock snaps off his initial look and holds up under duress to find Jeudy on the sit route. pic.twitter.com/cuGu5DOA1a— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) August 15, 2021
Due to the Vikings’ depleted line we didn’t get much of a chance to see if Lock can perform better under duress, which means bigger tests remain. It was encouraging to see Pat Shurmur dial up a few screens throughout the game. It was an underutilized part of the playbook in 2020 and could be a huge help to the pass protection. It’s also an easy way to get the ball in Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon’s hands for easy yards. One thing that stood out to me about Lock is how he held up with the rushing bearing down, which bought Cushenberry and Freeman time to set up.
Shurmur’s redzone play calling could leave meat on the bone
This is one of those complaints where I’m throwing out there fully aware of the fact it’s just the preseason as we’re looking at a stripped down version of the offense. There’s multiple reasons for this, starting with the fact it creates a way to evaluate players up and down the depth chart. It’d also be stupid for the Broncos to show their hand in the first game of the preseason.
With all that said, I wonder about how often Shurmur will rely on endzone fades and isolation routes. Both were heavily emphasized last season and makes the offense reliant on individual players winning their matchups instead of creating high percentage looks for Lock or Bridgewater. I’m particularly concerned about how many fades we saw reported during camp when you consider how inefficient it is.
Teddy Bridgewater finds Trinity Benson on a fade for a TD. pic.twitter.com/uvIe2azujm— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) August 14, 2021
Obviously, the fade worked today. Teddy Bridgwater’s pass to Trinity Benson worked against Dylan Mabin, who is trying to make his first active roster. I love the result, but I hope Shurmur provides hints as to a better process against the Seahawks.
Teams may poach some Broncos DL cuts
I wouldn’t be surprised if general managers across the league are keeping an eye on the numbers game along the Broncos’ interior defensive line. Four spots are secured with Dre’Mont Jones, Shelby Harris, Mike Purcell, and McTelvin Agim. Shamar Stephen looks like a lock for the roster with his quickness, length, and play strength. Ed Donatell made it sound like DeShawn Williams is safe. That’s already six spots and could leave guys like Jonathan Harris and Isaiah Mack on the outside looking in.
Ed Donatell made it pretty clear DeShawn Williams is going to make the Broncos. pic.twitter.com/4aJqDCtpZc— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) August 13, 2021
Patrick Surtain II looks as good as hoped
The pick six will get most of the attention and deservedly so, it’s awesome. Surtain also had a really nice break up playing off his man where he displayed the patience and athleticism that makes him so special. It almost led to another interception.
Netane Muti won’t be down long
Muti’s talent has never been a question, in fact he only fell to the sixth round of last year’s draft because injury concerns limited him to just five games over his last two seasons at Fresno State. The inexperience cropped up across his rookie tape, and makes him a prospect who should play a bunch this preseason. I’d recommend keeping an eye on 52, as his play strength creates comical moments where he simply outclasses the opposition.
The Texas tandem on defense made an impression
No Justin Simmons or Kareem Jackson meant an extended opportunity for P.J. Locke and Caden Sterns to prove they’re the next men up and they certainly made the most of it. From what I could see on the broadcast they did their part in coverage, were quick to trigger, consistently helped in run defense.
At various points in camp we heard glowing reports about Sterns and it was nice to see him live up to the hype. I was pleasantly surprised by Locke. If he can keep it up, the Broncos may need to carry five safeties to protect Jamar Johnson from the rest of the NFL.
Caden Sterns prevents a touchdown pic.twitter.com/Pphy1XQT0s— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) August 14, 2021
Cameron Fleming may have been an expensive mistake
After Ja’Wuan James was cut the Broncos went after two veterans to shore up the right tackle vacancy. Early on I thought there would be a competition between Fleming and Bobby Massie. I was wrong, throughout camp Massie’s looked like the favorite to start the season at right tackle while Fleming’s fallen behind Calvin Anderson on the depth chart.
After one game it’s easy to see why. In addition to Fleming’s costly penalty that negated a Teddy Bridgewater touchdown, he wasn’t able to stay in front of a backer that wound up creating at tackle for a loss. Anderson isn’t perfect and his play strength and hands could cause him some issues against better edge rushers, but I suspect his quickness and potential make him the more appealing swing tackle.
Javonte Williams is going to be a star
Pookies first two carries showed different aspects that make him such a promising back. On the first he cut back behind Netane Muti and Calvin Anderon’s combo block up through the second level to gain an easy 11 yards. On the second the Broncos came out in 12 personnel against the Vikings nickel and Williams outran two DBs on his way to a 13-yard run.
Broncos motion to 12 personnel. Javonte Williams with an 11-yard rush on his first NFL carry. pic.twitter.com/WDJPo6yrOE— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) August 14, 2021
The box score will tell you he finished the day with 29 yards on five carries and doesn’t include Williams’ first touchdown, arguably his best run of the day.
A holding call on Jerry Jeudy ruled the touchdown dead, but not before Pookie broke two tackles. His combination of elite contact balance, explosiveness, and play strength is going to make Broncos Country ecstatic this season.