The Broncos are coming off a disappointing loss to the Las Vegas Raiders where they fell to 2-2 heading into tonight’s Thursday Night matchup. To add insult to injury, the Broncos lost star running back Javonte Williams for the year and star pass rusher Randy Gregory for at least four weeks as they placed him on the injured reserve. So, it was a tough Sunday for the Broncos, but they have a short week and a short turnaround to move and improve to 3-2 and get above .500.
Now, they have Matt Ryan and the underwhelming Colts squad coming into town to face the Broncos on Thursday Night football. This is a bit of a “must-win game” for both teams who will be without key players on both sides of the ball.
I am going to give you five things to watch during tonight’s Thursday Night matchup between the 2-2 Denver Broncos and 1-2-1 Indianapolis Colts.
1. Replacing Javonte Williams
As we know, the Denver Broncos lost their star running back Javonte Williams for the year on Sunday vs. the Raiders. Now, they are going to rely on veteran Melvin Gordon, reserve Mike Boone, and potentially recently signed veteran Latavius Murray to carry the load in the backfield behind quarterback Russell Wilson.
According to Broncos offensive coordinator Justin Outten, veteran Melvin Gordon is expected to “carry the load” vs. the Colts.
Justin Outten made it very clear Melvin Gordon will be the Broncos' featured back against the Colts.— Zac Stevens (@ZacStevensDNVR) October 4, 2022
"With Melvin, he's going to carry the load, obviously. We'll have a mix of Boone and then after that we got to figure out who can spell & who feels best in that position."
Outten told reporters after practice earlier this week that they trust Melvin Gordon despite his recent fumbling issues.
“So with Melvin he’s going to carry the load obviously, with a mix of Boone. Then after that, we have to figure out who can spill and who feels best in that position. But we trust Melvin going forward here.”
Gordon has five fumbles in his last five games with the Broncos, including a costly fumble that went for a touchdown last Sunday vs. the Raiders. It was a disappointing fumble that led to a very emotional Gordon after the game. However, he needs to clean this up, especially now that he is tasked as the Broncos' lead back with Javonte Williams down for the year.
Head Coach Nathaniel Hackett seems to think that Gordon’s fumbling issues are an easy fix. He said Gordon needs to keep the ball tucked up and his “wrist above his elbow”.
“I just think it’s about finishing the play with the ball tucked up. It’s that simple, wrist above the elbow, all that kind of stuff. He just sometimes wants to get an extra yard and sometimes that’s not as important. But he’s running hard, he’s doing a great job. He came today with a vengeance. We had a great mental day with him, and so we’re ready to go with it.”
Behind Gordon, is where it gets interesting. Mike Boone seemed like the guy who would get the extra snaps, but then the Broncos added Murray. However, Murray just played last Sunday in London with the Saints, so would he be ready for that quick turnaround? Sounds unlikely, especially since you consider that he is 32 years old.
So, after Gordon and his fumbling issues, who takes over as the second back will be interesting. Especially if Gordon’s fumbling issues continue.
2. Replacing Randy Gregory on defense
The other injury the Broncos sustained against the Raiders was to edge rusher Randy Gregory. Thankfully, his wasn’t season-ending, but he is going to miss at least the next four games. So, the Broncos will need to dip into their depth at this position to help replace their star pass rusher.
Per PFF's pressure figures, Randy Gregory ranks fifth in the NFL in pressures (19), second in pressure rate (21.59%), and fourth in pass-rush win rate (24.7%)— Zach Segars (@Zach_Segars) October 5, 2022
Dude was absolutely wrecking shop
Hope he's back soon
As the tweet above states, Gregory has been playing like one of the top pass rushers in the game. So, his loss is huge to the Broncos' defense moving forward, and replacing that sort of production is going to be difficult.
With Gregory down, the Broncos are going to rely on their youth to replace him and play the opposite of Bradley Chubb. I’d expect Baron Browning to get the start but we should also see rookie second-rounder Nik Bonitto get some extensive playing time as well.
Defensive Coordinator Ejiro Evero was asked about Browning, and he praised his improving run defense and noted that he really hasn’t had a lot of pass rush reps, but he will get those now.
“He’s been getting better, he’s been getting better. Last week was his best week playing the run game. He hasn’t gotten as many rush opportunities just because of Randy and Chubb, so he’ll have an opportunity to show more of that now.”
Browning flashed in the preseason and now will have a chance to get after a turnover-prone and non-mobile quarterback in Matt Ryan.
As for Bonitto, the rookie had a quiet summer/preseason and really hasn’t played much this season for the Broncos. However, as Head Coach Nathaniel Hackett said earlier this week, the explosive rookie “has to be ready” with Gregory now out for an extended period of time.
“Yeah, he has to be ready. It’s that simple. He’s a young guy, and he’s played in some big games in college, and we’re excited to see him get out there. He’s developed every week, he’s gotten better and better. Even in practice, his practice habits have gotten better. As any rookie, there’s a process of learning how to be a pro, a process of learning throughout everything, so it’s just going to get better.”
The Broncos will need both to play well in this game and moving forward if they want to be successful. I have high hopes for both, and hopefully, we see the two in the backfield getting after Matt Ryan early and often tonight.
3. Fixing that run defense
Last Sunday, the Broncos run defense was gashed by Josh Jacobs, Derek Carr, and the Raiders' run game for over 200 yards. This was disappointing considering we felt the Broncos' defense was looking elite heading into this game. Now, they will have a chance to bounce back against a Colts offense down their top running back.
Colts ruled out Jonathan Taylor for Thursday night’s game in Denver.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) October 5, 2022
Colts star running back Jonathan Taylor will be out for this game with an ankle injury. This is a big break for the Broncos' defense as Taylor is one of the best backs in the league. As I said earlier, they were gashed by Josh Jacobs last week, so facing Taylor this week would be a cause for concern. Now, they will be facing pass catching back Nyheim Hines and Deon Jackson. It is also likely that the Colts will call up former Broncos running back Phillip Lindsay off their practice squad.
This trio should help the Broncos' run defense to bounce back after a tough outing.
Head Coach Nathaniel Hackett was asked about the struggles the run defense had and he told reporters that the defense needs to trust the system and don’t go outside the system to make a play.
“I think first and foremost, our defense has been played at a high level for the first three games. I think they were doing some good things in that game to give us a lot of short fields. They did a lot of good and sometimes people get you. I think for us, it’s kind of like how the offense is, don’t try to make a play, just trust the system and know that the plays will come to you. It’s the same thing with the offense. Everybody wants it so bad and wants to do something special but that will happen within the defense, within the offense and special teams.”
If the Broncos can slow down the Colts' rushing attack, I think they have a good chance to win this game. Matt Ryan hasn’t been playing all that well and has been turnover-prone, so putting more pressure on him could lead to more mistakes.
4. Matt Ryan’s turnovers
You think Melvin Gordon has a fumbling problem? Well, Colts quarterback Matt Ryan has fumbled the ball a total of 9 times so far this season through four games and has lost that fumble 3 of the 9 times. He has also thrown 5 interceptions in these four games as well.
Ryan currently leads the entire NFL in total number of turnovers with 8. This number could be much higher considering he has fumbled the ball 9 times this year.
Most turnovers this season:— NFL on CBS (@NFLonCBS) October 3, 2022
Matt Ryan 8
Marcus Mariota 7
4 players tied w/ 6 pic.twitter.com/gvb1YU3wHW
Now, some of this blame can go on the Colts' offensive line which has not been doing all that well this year. Left tackle Matt Pryor is playing out of position and has been struggling badly. This has led to pass rushers being able to get to Ryan from behind and cause these fumbles.
Now, some of it is also on Ryan who has just shown poor ball security recently. 5 interceptions through four games are not what you want. Also, 9 total fumbles on top of that is obviously, not what you want either.
This means the Broncos pass rushers need to continue getting after Ryan, causing these turnovers, and capitalizing on them as the rest of the NFL has done so far. Whoever is lining up against the Colts’ left tackle needs to win consistently and cause these fumbles. We have seen Bradley Chubb cause a few fumbles this season already, so hopefully he can repeat that in this one tonight.
5. Will TE Albert Okwuegbunam play?
Heading into the season, Broncos tight end Albert O, had some high expectations put on him. He was expected to start after Noah Fant was shipped to Seattle, and he was expected to flourish with quarterback Russell Wilson now under center.
Well, that has not happened thus far and we’re coming off a game where the Broncos big athletic tight end played just one snap.
Albert Okwuegbunam’s snaps by game in 2022:— Andrew Mason (@MaseDenver) October 3, 2022
Week 1: 44 (67%)
Week 2: 38 (53%)
Week 3: 24 (32%)
Week 4: 1 (2%)
We have seen his snap counts drop in every game so far this season and we’re coming off a game where he played just one snap or 2% of the Broncos snaps on offense.
Offensive coordinator Justin Outten blamed the game plan for his decreasing snap count in the previous games. However, he also noted he needs to show more consistency throughout the week and understanding everything that is expected of him.
“That tight end room is unique, because we have so many people for different packages each week. His reps will climb depending on the gameplan itself. I see it going up more this week. You can use those guys in different roles and different responsibilities, and I think he’s progressing each and every day. I don’t think there’s anything more that he has to do. It’s just more consistency throughout the practice and just understanding everything and what is expected of him.”
It sounds like Albert Okwuegbunam has landed in the coach's dog house because of his consistency in practice and probably his poor blocking skills. However, I think that he is too talented to keep off the field and the impact he can make in the passing game should be utilized more.
He is by far the Broncos' most athletic healthy tight end who can line up out wide and use his size and strength to be a mismatch for defenders. I know he is not a great blocker, but we knew this. He is a move tight end who is a liability in the run-blocking game. So, why not line him up in the slot? You’re down Tim Patrick and the receivers behind Sutton and Jeudy really haven’t stepped up.
To me, it just doesn’t make sense not to take advantage of his pass-catching skills. We have seen him do it before the past two seasons, so hopefully, we see it more moving forward.