It’s imperative for the Broncos’ playoff chances to leave September with a winning record. Their first three opponents went a combined 9-39 last season and the strongest among them will start Daniel Jones by choice today. The sixth overall pick of Drew Lock’s 2019 draft class finished worse than the Broncos’ benched passer in DYAR a season ago, and his propensity for critical errors make him a fine mark to start the season strong.
Here’s what I’m watching for.
1. Can the coverage hold up?
One of the more surprising moves the Broncos made after the 2020 season was to retain Tom McMahon as special teams coordinator. which should put his matchup against one of just two head coaches who made their way to the top spot through special teams stand out like a sore thumb.
The Joe Judge Giants make the forgotten unit a priority and it paid dividends in 2020. Despite talent deficiencies across the roster, their special teams as a whole ranked 12th in the league by DVOA. The Broncos have finished 24th in ST DVOA each of the last two years after they were one of the two worst units in football McMahon’s first year in Denver.
At least on paper, the Giants win the ST matchups quite handily. Kadarius Toney was an accomplished returner at Florida and has game breaking speed and agility, while Jabrill Peppers is among the best punt returners in the NFL with his ability to break tackles. When McMahon spoke to the media on Friday, he made note of the extensive special teams experience on New York’s coaching staff.
They have three special teams coordinators that have been in the league that are on their staff. [It’s] really it’s four with [Giants Special Projects & Situations Coach] Amos [Jones]. They have four special teams coordinators. Between them, I think they have like 87 years of experience in this league as coordinators.
There is one area where Denver could press for an edge. Graham Gano is a reliable field goal kicker, but disappointing on kickoffs. By Football Outsiders’ charting, he had the second lowest touchback rate in football last season. The Broncos have a number of potential returners, and McMahon alluded to “some surprises” Friday. Let’s hope they’re welcome ones.
5️⃣0️⃣ YARD PUNT RETURN TD— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) November 28, 2020
Kadarius Toney puts @GatorsFB on top at the half! pic.twitter.com/yIUBI8Vh98
2. If Chubb plays, how does he look?
3. What does Von Miller and the front look like?
4. Will the linebackers hold their own in coverage?
5. How does the New Fly Zone look?
6. Can Fangio flummox Daniel Jones?
Bradley Chubb enters today questionable on the injury report, and Fangio said on Friday he’ll be a game-time decision. He hurt his ankle in the Broncos preseason finale against the Rams and has missed most of practice since, which raises the question if it’s worth resting him for the remaining 16 games. Vic Fangio said it’s obvious he won’t be full-go if he does suit up.
If Chubb doesn’t suit up, it would mean Fangio has had both his star edge rushers for four of 33 games since he became head coach. Even if the 2018 fifth overall pick suits up, Chubb at less than full strength puts more stress on Von Miller’s return. Can the 32-year-old return to the form he showed 623 days ago against the Raiders? Or will last year’s freak injury mark the beginning of Von’s losing battle against Father Time?
Von Miller is the tide that lifts all boats on the Broncos defense. pic.twitter.com/aO1kglR8Ax— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) August 13, 2020
Less Chubb also means more Malik Reed and Jonathon Cooper, which could be an issue against the Giants’ gap scheme runs, an area where Denver ranked 30th by EPA per play in 2020. The 2021 7th round pick enters his first real game after a promising preseason, but it’s worth remembering that it came against backups on the Vikings, Seahawks, and Rams. While Reed should be a mismatch when New York goes to their drop back game, he’s had trouble with down blocks in the past.
The questions about personnel up front highlights what could be the X factor of the game. It remains to be seen if he’ll have a heavy workload with a Thursday night division game looming large, but Saquon Barkley’s return should improve the Giants sneaky efficient rushing attack. He’s also a chunk play threat on angle routes and screens in the open field. Fangio’s system mitigates Alexander Johnson and Josey Jewell’s athletic limitations. Believe it or not, by Football Outsiders charting they finished 2020 as one of just two starting linebacker duos with a 60%+ coverage success rate. They were an unsung reason Denver was so good at defending the middle of the field.
Barkley’s also huge as a potential crutch, since all the injuries, issues at tackle, and a quarterback who struggles against the blitz will tempt Jason Garett with a run-heavy attack. Kenny Golladay missed the entire preseason after he injured a hamstring on August 3rd. Golladay’s lack of reps could put a serious cramp on the Giants passing game as Garett’s offense typically relies on a reliable X-receiver. Between Covid-19 and an undisclosed injury, Kadarius Toney also missed most of the preseason.
Injuries could also limit New York’s personnel flexibility. Evan Engram will miss the game with an ankle injury while Kaden Smith and Kyle Rudolph will suit up after being limited participants in practice all week. The Giants did not elect to promote any of their practice squad tight ends and enter the game with just Smith and Rudolph. Whether he’s using 11 or 12 personnel, I expect Garett to make liberal use of 3X1 sets with the isolated receiver in a tight alignment. If Golladay’s close to 100% Ronald Darby will be tested.
The Broncos should be in great shape if they can push New York into must-pass situations. A lack of practice time with his primary receivers is only going to exacerbate Daniel Jones’ weaknesses. The former Blue Devil tends to struggle when the defense changes up the look post-snap, a Fangio specialty. He’ll linger on his primary read too long and leave yards on the field. He also goes through periods where he’s completely oblivious to pressure, which has had a direct role in his 29 fumbles in 27 career games. When he gets heated up his poise falters and he’ll bail out of plays too soon, which has to be part of the plan today. Jones is a solid athlete, but he shouldn’t be able to win the game with his legs.
7. Will the interior hold up?
8. Can Munchak win on the edges?
9. How are the backfield duties divvied up?
10. Who creates wins in the passing game?
11. Does Bridgewater do enough?
While New York’s defense only ranked 19th by DVOA in 2020, Patrick Graham is on the short list for NFL head coaching jobs in 2022 and he has a group that should be a good first test for Pat Shurmur’s offense. The Giants defense is a bit of an enigma as Graham’s unit evolved around his personnel last season. He could use a 3-3-5 nickel and send extra rushers, or utilize a 4-2-5 look with a lineman replaced by a blitzer. Graham’s also shown he’ll dial back on man coverage for zone look to protect his secondary while he mixes in trap coverages to create havoc for opponents. Expect Teddy Bridgewater and Lloyd Cushenberry to have a lot on their plate pre-snap.
The Giants were able to deter teams from rushing between the guards with their tite front and massive defensive line last year, but lost Dalvin Tomlinson in free agency. I’m curious if this leads to less inside zone for Melvin Gordon, as Leonard Williams and Dexter Lawrence remain and could overwhelm Cushenberry with their play strength.
Given the strength of the interior and state of the edges, it could make sense to run more power and variations of counter. If the Giants elect to stay in their tite front, it’d leave them susceptible to pin-and-pull runs where Javonte Williams could get an escort into the third level. His elite contact balance has to make that a scary proposition.
I’ll admit I’m eager to see if Shurmur’s creativity from the preseason continues into week one. After running 11 personnel (three receiver sets) on 66% of the offensive snaps last year, the Broncos mixed in more heavy sets against the Vikings, Seahawks, and Rams. With Noah Fant, Albert Okwuegbunam, and Eric Saubert heathy, Denver is in an ideal situation to mix in some nasty play action shot plays.
When Denver has to pass, we’ll see simulated pressure and games. Both Leonard Williams and Dexter Lawrence are capable pass rushers and we’ll see them take part in tackle and end-tackle stunts. I expect Garett Bolles to hold up to the challenge, but Lorenzo Carter did give Bobby Massie some problems when the right tackle was a Bear last season.
If the line does its part, Teddy Bridgewater should be able to find ways to get rid of the ball. James Bradberry could put the clamps on his matchup, as he has the length, physicality, and savvy to stick on Courtland Sutton or Jerry Jeudy. He can’t cover both simultaneously, however, so Adoree’ Jackson and Darnay Holmes could be in for long days. As should be the case in most games, K.J. Hamler and Tim Patrick lurk as potential mismatch weapons. The Giants also struggled against tight ends a season ago, ranking 24th by DVOA.
If the Broncos offense and special teams can simply limit mistakes, the Broncos should come out of Manhattan with a win. I believe the offense is going to do more than that. The Giants will probably try and protect Jones from his overmatched line by rushing the ball and using a quick passing game to get the ball out of his hands. With a banged up Chubb, we may not see a ton of sacks. I still expect Von Miller and the pass rush to generate enough pressure to create a couple turnovers.