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Broncos at Chargers: 11 things to watch for

Can the backup Broncos show out?

A week after 30 players missed the Los Angeles Chargers game with the Houston Texans, the Broncos head to L.A. without at least 13 of their own to try and spoil a rival’s playoff hopes. With their own postseason dreams all but dead the backup Broncos are playing for little more than pride and their own professional futures, but their efforts have historical implications. If Fangio can’t find a way win out he will finish his third season with the most losses of any Broncos’ coach through three seasons. Should Denver lose both of the next two games this 2021 campaign will go down as the fifth straight losing season, the worst mark since the franchise’s 17-year streak after inception in the 1960’s.

Before we dig into what I’m looking for today, it’s worth noting that the Covid outbreak makes the rosters for this game extremely fluid. L.A.’s Michael Davis was added to their Covid list only moments before the game against Houston last week. While I’m writing with the most up to date information in mind, a positive test from a key starter or two could dramatically alter the outlook of the game. Let’s hope that doesn’t occur and everyone who is currently experiencing symptoms feels better as soon as possible.

Special Teams

1. Can McMahon come out ahead?

The Broncos’ third phase has been horrific in spectacular fashion for most of Tom McMahon’s fourth year coordinating the teams. In Los Angeles they’ll match up against a group led by Derius Swinton II that have struggled in subtle ways most of the season. Andre Roberts has failed to make much of an impact since he joined the team in October. Meanwhile, the punt team is an abject disaster. Opponents are averaging almost 12 yards a return against Ty Long thanks to shaky coverage units, and the Pittsburgh Steelers blocked one of his punts in November.

The kicking game is an issue all its own, and one that could make the difference for Denver today. Tristian Vizcaino was so unreliable on extra points the Bolts replaced him with Dustin Hopkins after Washington released him in October. In nine games with the Chargers, the veteran’s missed two point after boots before landing on Covid reserve on December 28th. If he can’t clear protocols before kickoff, Vizcaino will have a shot at redemption. He’s missed three extra points in six games this year and his 44-yard miss against the Dallas Cowboys looks glaring in the Chargers’ 17-20 loss.

Defense

2. Who plays?

3. What’s Fangio’s plan?

4. What’s left of the run defense?

5. Can Denver withstand Herbert?

6. Will the red zone D hold up?

As I write this, the Broncos defense has taken the brunt of the Covid outbreak. The already shaky front seven is down to Dre’Mont Jones and Shelby Harris surrounded by backups. With both Bradley Chubb, Jonathon Cooper, and Stephen Weatherly on the Covid reserve Fangio’s down to Malik Reed, Aaron Patrick, and Pita Tamopeano at edge. If Kenny Young isn’t able to suit up the linebacker corps. is down to Jonas Griffith making his third start and either Justin Strnad or Micah Kiser. The secondary didn’t escape unscathed, Caden Sterns and Bryce Callahan will miss the game.

The Broncos won the first game in no small part because they dominated the line of scrimmage. With such a dearth of talent this time around it seems unlikely Fangio can replicate the same success, but it would make sense to dial up heat. If Storm Norton and Trey Pipkins aren’t able to clear protocols in time for the game rookie Brenden Jaimes looks like he’ll receive his first start after playing 43 snaps this season. There’s also a chance left guard Matt Feiler is kicked out to guard and Senio Kelemete replaces him.

With both Donald Parham and Jared Cook out of the lineup, L.A. will surely play the vast majority of their snaps out of lighter personnel. Keenan Allen’s one of the best route runners in the league and Mike Williams’ size makes him a constant bully ball threat, but Denver does have the corners to battle. Austin Ekeler could be the toughest test, in the first game Joe Lombardi dialed up a number of Texas routes for him and he’ll have an easier time creating separation against Griffith than Baron Browning.

Offense

7. Who plays?

8. What’s Shurmur’s plan?

9. Will the line show up?

10. Who wins in the passing game?

11. Does Lock keep the good vibes going?

With Teddy Bridgewater out of the lineup once again, Drew Lock has a chance to build on what he showed in the first start of the season. In a game where just about every member of the supporting cast let him down, Lock looked better than his 153-yard, 2-sack performance suggests, demonstrating solid poise and decision making. Unfortunately it mattered little, as the Broncos’ offense averaged four yards per play against one of the weakest defenses in the NFL.

This week Drew Lock’s going to be throwing to practice squad players against the Chargers. Jerry Jeudy, Tim Patrick, and Tyrie Cleveland landed on the Covid reserve Friday and they’ll miss the game. Courtland Sutton also showed signs of an illness on Friday but travelled with the team to Los Angeles and has not been ruled out as I write this. With Michael Davis’ return to the Chargers’ lineup, it may be slow going for the Broncos’ passing game.

Losing Lloyd Cushenberry last week exposed the Broncos’ lack of depth at center as Austin Schlottmann struggled, and his problems had a snowball effect on every other member of the line. If the Broncos are going to have any chance in this game, it’s because Cushenberry’s return should help the line return to what they showed the first 14 games of the year.

Establishing the run with Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams against the worst rush defense in football helped the Broncos’ survive a horrific relief effort from Lock in the first matchup. The Chargers are extremely soft between the tackles and have issues defending runs off left tackle, so it looks like the recipe for success today.

Pass protection will also be a concern after Lock was under pressure on more than half his passes last week. With Bobby Massie and Calvin Anderson on the Covid reserve, Cam Fleming will get the start. He’s a good run blocker who should be able to create displacement on downblocks, which could help Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon. The big concern is how Fleming holds up in pass pro, as he’s a mark Brandon Staley’s sure to test with games and Joey Bosa.

Final Thoughts

As recently as my chat with Arjun Menon on Wednesday, the Broncos looked like they had enough edges to topple Staley and Herbert for a second time this season. L.A.’s awful run defense left enough room for Denver to move the ball, and the shaky pass protection meant Fangio had matchups to attack with his pressure packages. The outbreak sapped two weak spots on the defense and erased the potential mismatches Shurmur could try to exploit in the passing game.

The Bolts looked like a tough matchup for this Broncos’ roster before the Covid outbreak, which makes them look all but insurmountable now. With nothing to lose, today would be a perfect time for Vic Fangio, Pat Shurmur, and Drew Lock to have the best performance of their season. Fingers crossed.