How quickly can narratives change? Just a few weeks ago we were all on 2024 NFL Draft order watch and here today we’re flirting with the possibility of a playoff run in a weaker back end of the AFC.
That shift also completely changes how we might identify the winners and losers through the first eight games for these 2023 Denver Broncos. I’m not going to focus on the obvious winners like Patrick Surtain, but more on the people who benefited the most in their respective positions from where the Broncos sit heading into the Bye Week.
Sean Payton made a lot of promises during the offseason and things for him looked pretty bleak a few weeks ago sitting at 1-5, but the turnaround on defense and the far superior offensive efficiency this year compared to last year has finally helped the Broncos start winning games. Their impressive win over the Kansas City Chiefs last week could be a tone-setter heading into the second half of the season. Payton is also the first Broncos’ head coach to beat the Chiefs since Gary Kubiak.
70-20. Vance Joseph was on the brink of hitting the unemployment line just a month ago, but somehow he pulled off the impossible and reordered the defense into a well-oiled machine that just stifled Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs to a mere nine points. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a turnaround like that in my 15 years of blogging. To give up 10 total touchdowns in a game against a quality opponent to just three field goal against another in just four weeks is nothing short of incredible. Joseph definitely deserves to be in the winners circle at the halfway point of the season for that one.
Russell Wilson has done enough to put himself into the winners column and while I have some negatives I’ll cover at the end, let’s put down why he is absolutely a winner through eight games. Currently, Wilson is on pace for 3,400 yards passing and 34 touchdowns with just 8 interceptions for the season. On paper, that is exactly what we all hoped we would see from Wilson when the Broncos traded for him last year. If there is one area he has got to improve on is his pocket awareness on third downs. He has taken four or more sacks in four games this year with Kansas City sacking him 10 times in two games. Most of those came during critical third down opportunities. Wilson is going to need to do better in that area if he is going to lead this team on a playoff run.
The unexpected is when an undrafted running back bursts onto the NFL scene and makes a big impact for their team in each and every game. That’s been Jaleel McLaughlin through the first eight games. He got off to a slow start with just six carries through the first three games, but he has caught fire since averaging around 10 touches a game. He is averaging a whopping 7.1 yards per carry on the ground and has three total touchdowns. Every time he touches the ball it seems like he is on the cusp of breaking a big play.
The rotation of Baron Browning, Nik Bonitto, and Jonathan Cooper has been a real terror on the edge in recent weeks. Randy Gregory and Frank Clark combined for just two quarterback pressures before they were moved out of town. Meanwhile, the three young guns have a combined 30 quarterback pressures with 12 sacks. That pressure has also begun to relieve the inside protection with Zach Allen adding another 3 sacks and 11 pressures himself. This change could have been the catalyst that propelled the Broncos defense from league embarrassment after the Miami Dolphins game to league dominance against the Chiefs last week.
Things didn’t start out well for Justin Simmons in 2023. He looked a bit lost in coverage and in those first two games he was allowing over 105 QB rating. But then he got injured and had to sit on the sidelines has the team began to tail spin against the Dolphins. Upon returning, we have seen the Simmons of old. He has been all over the field and stifling the opposing quarterback. He was back to the unquestioned leader and premier player in the defensive backfield. The QB rating dropped in each of the games he was back to a 43.7 against Mahomes when throwing Simmons’ way. You just love to see the way he plays against the Chiefs and, finally, for the first time in his career that outstanding play turned into a win for the Denver Broncos.
After four separate injuries to the same hamstring over the last two seasons, it sure seems like we’re seeing Greg Dulcich’s career fade away. It’s not his fault and hopefully that hamstring heals eventually in time for him to make an impact in Denver. As it stands, the Broncos should probably put him in rehab until next year given how quickly that same hamstring reinjures each time he returns to the field. There is no doubt Dulcich has NFL-level talent, but if he can’t get onto the field it won’t matter.
Damarri Mathis had a promising rookie season last year, but the Broncos defense did not begin holding teams under 20 points per game until Mathis stopped being on the field. He had zero passes defensed through the first give games and gave up a 100% completion rate in two games and over 80% in four. Overall, quarterbacks have completed 75% of their passes against Mathis with a 131.5 QB rating. In short, his game has been disgusting and it is probably good for him to not be on the field much moving forward. As a young player, a lot of this likely has to do with confidence at this point so hopefully he’ll get some of that back soon for another go at it at some point.
Randy Gregory & Frank Clark
The Broncos spent big money on big name veterans to bolster their pass rush, but those moves literally tanked their ability to get pressure against the opposing quarterbacks. We all thought the trading of Randy Gregory and the release of Frank Clark signaled a shift towards a trade deadline fire sale, but all it did was turn the Broncos pass rush into a fearsome force in games.
This isn’t technically 2023 Broncos-related, but I had to throw him in here since he became the first head coach in NFL history to get fired midseason from both of his head coaching jobs. Maybe its you, Josh.