Good teams beat bad teams badly, which is reason enough to find the Denver Broncos’ 2-0 start very encouraging. They outscored the New York Giants and Jacksonville Jaguars by a combined score of 50-26 and did so despite:
- A redzone fumble by Albert Okwuegbunam
- A dropped touchdown by K.J. Hamler
- A bogus defensive pass interference call on Kyle Fuller
- A bogus no-call on Courtland Sutton
- A Tom McMahon special
According to Football Outsiders’ playoff odds report that simulated the NFL season 50,000 times, the Broncos currently have a 74.7% chance at the postseason. As it stands today, they actually won the AFC West in 36.6% of the simulations. We’re at a spot where it’s totally understandable to wait until Denver beats a good team, and yet remain extremely optimistic about the 2021 campaign. To keep the good vibes rolling, the Broncos will need to beat a New York Jets team that looks like one of the worst in football.
Here’s what I’m looking for today.
looking ahead to week 3, it's important to understand which teams have scored points when their implied points based on advanced stats say they should have and which haven't— Tej Seth (@tejfbanalytics) September 24, 2021
the bucs have gotten lucky off some fluky pick 6's while the chargers have had some bad luck pic.twitter.com/bC37I4nwUh
1. Touchback city?
2. Can McMahon stay out of the way?
For the fourth year in a row, the Broncos P.R. department marched Tom McMahon out in front of the media so he could tell Broncos Country that he takes responsibility for all of the issues on special teams. We already know, but hey, small comforts and all that. The embattled special teams coordinator did say something at his press conference Thursday that caught my attention, however. McMahon was asked about why the kickoff team leaves the door open for returns. McMahon gave us one specific example.
“It comes down to the call. I’ll give you an example. Let’s say there’s a minute left in a game and you want to run time off the clock. Rather than kick a touchback, we’re going to keep the ball in play and try and get ten seconds to run off. We’ve got to go cover that kick. That ten seconds to keep away from these great quarterbacks is very, very important. There are times in games where there’s a certain amount of time left and you’re up by a bunch of points—you rely on a one-man kickoff team. Put that thing out the back. It’s all situational football.”
For context, the Broncos allowed 12 McManus kickoffs to be returned in 2020 when you exclude onside kicks, and they averaged 40.33 yards a return. Denver rarely found themselves in situations where they needed to kill time on special teams last year and McMahon said he has confidence McManus can get a touchback every kickoff. Maybe he should do that.
Warning! Graphic content Broncos Country. pic.twitter.com/DmQHNUVJ7k— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) September 22, 2021
3. How does Strnad hold up in his first start?
4. When does Fangio go with dime?
5. What does the Chubb-less pass rush look like?
6. How will the New Fly Zone fare?
Bradley Chubb and Josey Jewell joined Ronald Darby and Michael Ojemudia on Injured Reserve this week while Mike Purcell is questionable for the game. The missing defenders will lead to some young Broncos logging snaps in significant roles today, and they could play a huge role in the final score.
Out of all the missing pieces, Jewell is the one George Paton’s roster was least prepared to deal with. Justin Strnad will make his first start, and while I’m optimistic based on what he’s shown in the preseason, Jaguars game, and on special teams, his discipline will be tested by a Mike LaFleur offense that leans on outside zone and play action as its foundation. I was encouraged by Strnad’s ability to stay home and ignore eye candy last week, but that will be tested more today.
When the Broncos push New York into long yardage situations, I plan to watch for Caden Sterns. DB jokes aside, the way Paton prioritized the secondary during his first offseason leaves Denver in an enviable situation on the back end. Sterns looked quite good in his debut on defense last week and I’m eager to see if he can keep that up. It may also be the last time we see him on D for awhile since Ojemudia is able to return from I.R. next week and may take over the dime role, as he ran with the second team when Denver used their 4-1-6 throughout training camp.
The one good thing about Bradley Chubb’s absence is that the defense is used to it. Von Miller and Chubb have only played five games together since 2019, so Fangio has had plenty of opportunities to build game plans around one Pro Bowl edge instead of two. All of the issues with Miller and Chubb have also given Malik Reed a ton of reps, and while he lacks the same play strength the bigger names offer, he’s quite versatile. He’s probably the best coverage player of the trio and has the repertoire and bend to threaten the Jets’ backup left tackle George Fant.
My bigger concerns with Chubb’s injury center on how the pass rush holds up when Von or Reed need a breather. For all the promise Jonathon Cooper and Andre Mintze showed in the preseason, neither has been more than a liability thus far in their rookie seasons. I’m curious if Fangio tries to weaponize them on stunts with Shelby Harris or Dre’Mont Jones looping back around the edge, because it seems optimistic to expect either to win one-on-ones at the moment.
Both Daniel Jones and Trevor Lawrence tried to take shots at Kyle Fuller the last two weeks, and it’s something I think we’ll see again in the Jets game. On the long bomb to Marvin Jones in week two, the Broncos spun Justin Simmons down to create a single high shell against the Jaguars 3X1 set, which made it so both the slots’ routes were drew enough attention to isolate Fuller. The veteran corner was too slow to flip his hips for the go route and it turned into a wide open touchdown.
To his credit, Fuller looked quite good after he settled in, but if he doesn’t lock it down from the jump, teams will continue to test him when Patrick Surtain II and Bryce Callahan look as good as they have.
Like Jacksonville, New York will start a rookie quarterback who has struggled with his decision-making. Zach Wilson has thrown five picks and taken 10 sacks this season, and he hasn’t faced anything quite like the disguises Fangio can throw at him. I expect the play calling to try to provide training wheels for 2021 second overall pick, with plenty of runs on first and second down with some play action rollouts mixed in to simplify his reads. It could backfire in spectacular fashion, as Denver’s run defense looks legit.
If the Jets fall into must-pass situations, it’ll be like blood in the water. While Morgan Moses is going to be the best right tackle Von Miller’s faced so far this year, the loss of Mekhi Becton leaves the pass protection vulnerable and Jamison Crowder is doubtful, which means Zach Wilson may be left with Corey Davis as his one proven receiver.
7. Is Teddy’s first two weeks “fool’s gold?”
8. Will the line hold up to New York’s rush?
9. Who stands out in the passing game?
10. Does the ground game come alive?
Through the first two weeks of the season the Broncos defense has actually underperformed relative to my expectations, but the offense has picked up the slack despite real issues up front.
Today they’ll face off against a Jets team that’s woefully undermanned as far as talent is concerned. When they line up in a single high shell the Broncos will probably face off against cover one or a variation of cover three. It’s worth noting Robert Saleh is the first defensive play caller Denver will face that mixes in a good bit of cover four and six.
Teddy Bridgewater has done a masterful job manipulating the pocket to buy himself time and typically finds the right target. He’s been so good that Pro Football Focus currently has him as the highest graded quarterback in the AFC West.
The bad news: Bridgewater is almost certainly going to regress a little over the next month. He’s been elite under duress through two weeks and has faced pressure on about a third of his dropbacks. He’s also performed so well against extra rushers that he’s dang near “unblitzable” because he’s so adept at finding his shot and has no qualms about dumping the ball down. History has shown performance under pressure isn’t stable and better teams will be able to pare a rush with coverage in ways the Giants and Jags failed to.
Would you look at that, Teddy Bridgewater is the best QB in the AFC West. https://t.co/P8brxzzSeF— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) September 22, 2021
Now for the good news: even if Bridgewater declines a bit against pressure, he’s been very good from a clean pocket and that should continue. So long as he doesn’t fall past last year’s performance, he’ll comfortably remain the best starting quarterback the Broncos have had since Peyton Manning retired. According to Net Gen Stats, Bridgewater currently sits 2nd in the NFL in Completion Percentage Over Expectation (CPOE) on the season at +11.5% and 7th in air yards per attempt with 9.6. In 2020, Bridgewater averaged 7.3 air yards per attempt and he had a CPOE of +2.3%.
The Jets are going to be a good test case for Bridgewater and the Broncos offense because they have an underrated interior defensive line led by Quinnen Williams and a coach in Saleh who knows how to capitalize on weak iOLs. It would behoove Pat Shurmur to find ways to mitigate the rush with screens, quick passing, and perhaps a trap or two to prevent Williams and the other linemen from wrecking the pocket.
Per @PFF, these six quarterbacks have top-10 passer ratings both under pressure and with a clean pocket so far this season:— Andrew Mason (@MaseDenver) September 20, 2021
While it’s probably going to be tough to really zero in on during the broadcast today, I’m anxious to see how the Broncos’ touted receiving corps. fares against the Jets in coverage. New York doesn’t have any household names in their secondary outside Marcus Maye, but they’ve held their own for the most part. They’d had issues defending passes to the right, and Shurmur should be able to scheme up ways to get favorable matchups against New York’s cornerbacks. Bryce Hall has the tools to stick with Courtland Sutton or Tim Patrick, but K.J. Hamler’s explosive athleticism will give him fits. Meanwhile Javelin Guidry is a 5’9 speed merchant who can be outmuscled at the catch point by the Broncos’ bigger receivers.
It’d also be to Shurmur’s and the Broncos’ benefits to play bully ball with their tight ends, as the Jets’ linebacker corps. is quite shaky after C.J. Mosely. If Denver does go with their 12 and 13 personnel looks as often as they did the first two weeks of the year, I hope to see Bridgewater making more checks at the line of scrimmage, especially if New York responds by packing the box to stop the run. Noah Fant, Albert Okwuegbunam, and Eric Saubert look like mismatches against Del’Shawn Phillips, Quincy Williams, and Hamsah Nasirildeen if Saleh dials up man coverage. If the Jets don’t bring numbers in the box to counter heavy personnel, the Broncos’ ground game could have a breakout performance.
11. Can the Broncos escape a trap game unscathed?
The Broncos enter today as a 10+ point favorite over a Jets team in their first year of yet another rebuild, so hopefully Fangio and the roster don’t fall asleep on a pesky underdog. I’m confident that won’t be the case, as they’ve done a nice job playing to the whistle each of the first two weeks this year. Do it again and they’ll face off against their first real test of the 2021 campaign in Baltimore with a 3-0 cushion to fall back on.