It wasn’t a pretty game offensively, but the Denver Broncos did just enough on Sunday night football to win a low-scoring slugging match against the San Francisco 49ers. Hackett & company cleaned up game management issues with the help of new senior assistant coach Jerry Rosburg. And the defense both throttled the 49ers’ offense and snagged several turnovers at critical moments. In doing so, the Broncos achieved all 3 keys to victory we outlined last week.
This week the Broncos will need to bring their A-game against a Las Vegas Raiders team that’s hurting and hungry after an 0-3 start to the season. They’ve been competitive and barely missed out on wins in all 3 weeks, despite their defense underperforming yet again. With the Raiders riding a 5-game win streak against the Broncos, and the Broncos’ offense stuck in low gear so far this season, I don’t think there can be any legitimate talk of this as a trap game.
If anything, this is a key game that will tell us a lot about the probable trajectory of Denver’s season. Win, and we’re in the thick of the playoffs hunt (with the happy bonus of crushing a division rival’s playoffs hopes down to basically nil). Lose, and we have to question what’s keeping this team from competing at the level it should.
#1: Get the offense rolling.
There’s just one box left unchecked for the Broncos to start playing high quality, complementary football: the offense. The defense has been lights out, and special teams made a huge contribution to winning last week vs San Francisco. Now we just need Russell Wilson & company to break free of the funk they’ve been mired in and put a complete game together.
To get that done, the offensive line will need to keep Maxx Crosby from being a major factor in this game. They can’t forget about Chandler Jones either, but for now Crosby is the major defensive threat. If they can hold off that pass rush, there’s no reason Wilson, Sutton, Jeudy, & company can’t rip gaping holes in a Las Vegas secondary that wasn’t good even before it had injury issues.
I want to see the passing game uncork a couple of big plays early and force the Raiders’ secondary to back off of the line of scrimmage to stem the bleeding. Then it’ll be time to cut the reins and let Williams & Gordon run wild.
#2: Keep improving on the details.
We finally saw enough improvement in this area last weekend to knock it out of the top spot. But that doesn’t mean it’s a solved issue yet. Nathaniel Hackett won’t have absorbed all of Jerry Rosburg’s wisdom in a week & a half, so the focus needs to remain intense on getting the calls in quickly, decisiveness on 4th down, and managing the clock well.
One thing I hope we’ll see this week is better outcomes on our challenges. The two failed challenges against the 49ers weren’t egregious- both were close calls, and the timing and stakes were right to air out the red hanky. Hopefully our fortune will improve there, with a reffing crew that doesn’t shrug off things like blatant tripping penalties.
#3: Maintain our defensive dominance.
The Raiders’ offense represents the toughest test for our defense so far this season. All it will take is one blown coverage for Derek Carr to hook up with Davante Adams for a huge play. Darren Waller will demand plenty of attention as well. So the secondary will need to bring their A-game, and the pass rush will need to make sure Carr doesn’t have the time to get comfortable and let plays develop.
Denver may need guys to step up on the interior defensive line as well. D.J. Jones is in the concussion protocol this week, and that’s not something a good team plays games with. If he’s not 100% ready to go, he needs to sit this one out. And that’s not helped by Mike Purcell also dealing with a neck injury. Though it seems like there is a decent chance Purcell will be able to play.
At least those injuries at defensive tackle will be offset somewhat by Josey Jewell’s presence. The Broncos’ longest tenured inside linebacker returned with a splash last week, leading the team with 9 tackles while also putting together a nice collection of tackles for a loss, a sack, etc. Look for him to again produce a lot from that second level of the defense this week, facing down RB Josh Jacobs often in both the rushing and passing game.