There’s a lot to like about the Broncos season opener. Both the offense and defense stood out while the special teams stayed out the way. There are things that hopefully improve over the next couple of weeks, but outside of the Jerry Jeudy injury it was a terrific start to the 2021 campaign.
After going back through my clips of the game and pondering a few of stats, these are some initial thoughts.
Teddy Bridgewater is QB1
Critics may stick to the fact 14 of Bridgewater’s 28 completions went to a running back or tight end. Anyone who watched the game will tell you he did a masterful job mitigating the issues Denver had upfront, buying himself time to find a place for the ball. He also picked his spots for deep shots and could have had a long bomb to K.J. Hamler if the receiver didn’t drop the pass.
Here’s the other thing that ought to matter about Bridgewater’s performance: he was surgically efficient.
Teddy Bridgewater was a top 3 quarterback today (so far). https://t.co/R4a0n19bWT— (@DavisBreakdowns) September 12, 2021
Josey Jewell showed out
The Outlaw’s tenure in Denver’s been a bit of a roller coaster when you consider the expectations. Fans thought he’d blossom into a superstar when he found his way to the field as a rookie only to blast him into the dirt for his first year in the Fangio defense. Last year he outplayed all my hopes for his play when he became a starter after the release of Todd Davis.
Over the offseason there was some question if Justin Strnad or Baron Browning could unseat the former Hawkeye. Even after it became clear that wouldn’t happen, I wondered i Jewell’s role would shrink with the Broncos moving to more dime personnel. Fangio typically employs a 4-1-6 with just one off ball linebacker, and Alexander Johnson’s a very good run defender and blitzer. So far it looks like Jewell’s savvy has earned him that role and he did a good job communicating across the defense on passing downs. Jewell also showed up in coverage.
Probably a good time to remind you that the Broncos linebackers are pretty good in coverage. pic.twitter.com/zUSAKU6Tb9— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) September 12, 2021
Noah Fant may lead the Broncos in receptions
The Broncos third year tight end had a team leading eight targets and caught six. He would have had seven if Bridgewater didn’t underthrow him on a long pass in the third quarter. Part of this was to exploit the holes in Patrick Graham’s defense, but Fant is also an athletic mismatch for just about every defense on Denver’s schedule. Let’s hope his knee holds up.
Denver won the WR vs. DB battle handily
There were some mistakes that need to get cleaned up, obviously. I already mentioned the Hamler moon shot that hit the turf, but Courtland Sutton and Eric Saubert also had drops. Albert Okwuegbunam’s fumble would be devastating against teams like the Kansas City Chiefs, Baltimore Ravens, or Cleveland Browns.
We’d be talking about all of this if the Giants had found a way to win the game. They didn’t in part because all those mistakes weren’t enough to overshadow the consistent production Tim Patrick, Fant, Sutton, Hamler, Jeudy, and Okwuegbunam created. Between their ability to create separation, Bridgwater’s ability to throw with anticipation, and Pat Shurmur’s play calling, someone was always open.
Giants sent heat with zone behind it. Bridgewater stood tall in the pocket and delivered a pass knowing he'd take a hit. pic.twitter.com/kyoD7Q0ZiJ— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) September 13, 2021
The way the receivers consistently won made Fangio look brilliant for his aggressiveness on fourth and seven early in the game. It also gave Bridgewater the necessary help to lead a 2-minute drive at the end of the first. Following his 14-yard completion to Sutton on fourth and two, both Jeudy and Patrick had nice catches along the sideline to preserve enough time for the touchdown pass. Later in the game Hamler came up huge on a critical third and five. He went airborne to bring in a high pass from Bridgewater, maximizing the quarterbacks attempt to make something out of a broken play.
May be my favorite play from Bridgewater today. Pocket broke down and he's flushed. He stiff arms Azeez Ojulari and delivers the ball with a defender in his face.— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) September 13, 2021
Then K.J. Hamler secures a sky ball with a defender behind him. It's beautiful. pic.twitter.com/3FlrPk7Ym6
Is Von Miller back to his pre-injury form?
Back in 2019 the book on Von is that he had a down year because he only notched eight sacks. Ever since I’ve made a point to try and remind anyone who would listen that Miller also finished with 63 pressures in 15 games, or more than twice the next best performance by a Broncos pass rusher. He did this with Bradley Chubb healthy for all of four games.
Fast forward to today and Miller’s two sacks. Box score scouts and casual fans typically overreact to sacks and I fully expect that to happen after today. Keep in mind that Daniel Jones routinely goes through bouts where he’s oblivious to pressure as he hones in on his primary read, which showed up on Von’s first sack.
Von Miller with a sack on 3rd down! pic.twitter.com/rweLEZ4FRm— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) September 12, 2021
On Miller’s second sack of the day he beat New York’s Matt Peart off the snap, which gave him an insurmountable lead as he raced to Jones. Good on the veteran for anticipating the count and taking advantage.
Another sack for Von Miller gives the NFL's active sack leader 108. pic.twitter.com/7fcatD23EK— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) September 12, 2021
That said, we should probably wait until he faces a better quarterback and offensive line to be sure he’s really “back.”
Von Miller looked fresh in his first game back since 2019, generating a pressure on 7 of his 22 pass rushes (31.8% pressure rate).— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) September 12, 2021
Miller's pass rush get-off of 0.79 seconds was faster than his average get-off in 2018 & 2019 (0.85 seconds).#DENvsNYG | #BroncosCountry pic.twitter.com/oRz0x1Mhsy
Was the Benson trade foolish?
When it was time to cut the Broncos roster down to 53 players, George Paton gambled on his callow depth at receiver by trading Trinity Benson and a 2023 sixth-round pick to the Detroit Lions for 2022 fifth and seventh round picks. The deal came on the heels of a very good camp and preseason where Benson made it obvious he was the fifth best receiver on the Broncos. With a number crunch at defensive back, linebacker, and the choice to carry Cam Fleming, Paton elected to go with four receivers and return specialist Diontae Spencer.
Given the faith Denver clearly has in their practice squad trio of Seth Williams, Kendall Hinton, and Tyrie Clevleand, it seemed reasonable to argue a fifth was a great haul for a 24-year old who played in his first real NFL game today. It also hollowed out the receiver depth when Courtland Sutton played 31 snaps last year because of an ACL tear and AC joint issue, Tim Patrick missed the first half of the 2019 season because of a broken hand, and K.J. Hamler’s dealt with both hamstring problems and a concussion.
The initial reports are Jerry Jeudy suffered a high ankle sprain instead of something worse, which is great news. X-rays confirm he didn’t break any bones. Fangio did allude to the fact an MRI could still reveal further damage, so keep your fingers crossed. A source confirmed the report that those within the Broncos organization believe the 2020 first round pick will miss 6-8 weeks. Regardless, losing one of the “big four” means Spencer, Williams, Cleveland, and Hinton will all move up the pecking order. Let’s hope they’re up for the challenge.
Teddy Bridgewater finds Jerry Jeudy for a deep completion on 3rd and 7.— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) September 12, 2021
Fumble and Jeudy's hurt. pic.twitter.com/gkhJVUhnPv
Stunts were tough for the Broncos’ offensive line
New York’s Patrick Graham found his way to the short list for 2022 head coaching jobs by creating an overperforming Giants’ defense last year. One of the more impressive things he’s done is manufacture a pass rush without a premier edge player, as Lorenzo Carter went down partway through the 2020 campaign. He did this by utilizing simulated pressures and using Leonard Williams and Dexter Lawrence on stunts. Both of the defensive linemen are quick enough to shake free when they’re late rushers, and they did so today.
I hope to write about the line later this week.
The Broncos defensive line won handily
This is hardly a surprise given the dearth of talent along the Giants offensive line, but Denver’s front looked as advertised today. Dre’Mont Jones wiggle continues to impress me and I’m excited to see what he can do against Trevor Lawrence and the Jaguars. Shelby Harris, Shamar Stephen, Mike Purcell all played critical roles in Barkley’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.
Get well soon Bradley Chubb
The Broncos have five edge rushers on their active roster and now all of them are battle tested. Let’s hope the fifth overall pick in the 2018 can recover from his ankle issue sooner rather than later, as his absence meant an expanded role for rookies Jonathon Cooper and Andre Mintze. While I’m optimistic about both, Jones certainly found success when they entered the game together. Both were completely neutralized on Jones’ long touchdown pass in the second quarter, with Cooper de-cleated by Saquon Barkley as he engaged with Andrew Thomas.
As far as Patrick Surtain’s role in the touchdown reception, my biggest complaint is his tackle attempt after Sterling Shepherd made the initial catch.
Worth a mention:— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) September 12, 2021
The Broncos edge rushers on this play are Andre Mintze (48) and Jonathon Cooper (53) https://t.co/Pge3oxzyII
Don’t sweat the run/pass split if the ball is moving
Bridgewater threw the ball 24 times in the first half while Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams had combined for 10 runs. By the time Denver iced the game the final split was 39 passes and 25 run plays. With the way Leonard Williams and Dexter Lawrence camped in the backfield it made sense to use the quick passing game as an extension of the rushing attack. It’s also worth remembering that the coaching staff doesn’t use a run/pass split to measure balance.