The Denver Broncos sit at 3-4 entering Week 9’s road tilt vs. the Atlanta Falcons. Considering the epidemic of injuries the Broncos have sustained, this team has probably over-performed to date despite its unsatisfactory play and inconsistencies of the first two quarters of the season.
Remember, we always knew that the Broncos were an exceedingly young team, especially on offense, and that the actual veterans on the roster — many of whom were on the defensive side of the ball — would have to balance that inexperience out. Unfortunately, all the most grievous injuries the Broncos suffered came to their most established, Pro Bowl-type players.
Von Miller, Jurrell Casey, Courtland Sutton, A.J. Bouye, this group of players, — three of whom were lost for the season within the first two weeks — brought 15 Pro Bowls to the table. Even Bouye, who has since returned from his separated shoulder injury sustained in the season-opener, has missed four of Denver’s seven games, while not finishing Week 1 or Week 8 and is now in concussion protocol with Sunday’s game in doubt.
That left running backs Melvin Gordon and Phillip Lindsay as the only remaining veterans with at least one Pro Bowl on their respective resumes, and both of them have missed time. Lindsay missed three games and half of the season-opener with a turf-toe injury while Gordon missed Week 6 with strep throat.
Add in quarterback Drew Lock going down early in Week 2 with a shoulder injury that would cost him three starts and newly-paid nose tackle Mike Purcell, who suffered a season-ending foot injury in Week 7’s loss to Kansas City, and it’s honestly a shocking development that this team has won three of its last four games.
Despite all the personnel losses, though, the Broncos have only scratched the surface of their potential. There is so much talent remaining on this roster, with coaching wherewithal in spades, that including the Broncos among the league’s doldrum teams is frankly unfair and off-base.
The oddsmakers give Denver a less-than 10% chance at making the playoffs but this team still has every opportunity to galvanize and string together enough victories in the month of November to be playoff-relevant down the stretch when a star like Miller might be poised to return and give the Broncos just the boost needed to make a push for January football.
For November to be productive for Denver in the win column, this team will have to make a few lasting improvements. I’ve narrowed them down to the following.
1. Improved Efficiency in Critical Situations
Defensively, the Broncos are ranked sixth and third, respectively, in third-down and red-zone efficiency. If only their offensive brethren could get on the same level.
As it stands, the Broncos rank 30th and 29th, respectively, in third-down and red-zone efficiency on offense. But there’s reason to believe Pat Shurmur’s offense is poised to improve in both.
Over the last two weeks, the Broncos have converted 4-of-5 red-zone possessions into touchdowns, improving their conversion to 80%. That represents a quantum leap forward statistically but the momentum Shurmur and Lock have established in the red zone of late will have to serve as a foundation to build on moving forward.
On third down, there haven’t been the same statistical steps forward, though, except for in the fourth quarter of last week’s romping comeback win over the Chargers. Over those same two weeks, the Broncos have moved the chains on just 10-of-27 third-down situations (37%). That’s a metric that absolutely has to improve.
As head coach Vic Fangio has been harping on for the last month, if the Broncos could only improve on third down, so many of their remaining offensive inconsistencies would fall into place. Suddenly, this would be an offense that could sustain drives and create more red-zone opportunities, which, based on the Broncos’ rapid improvement converting possessions inside the 20-yard line of late, could lead to a watershed of point-scoring.
2. Turnover Differential
The Broncos have given the ball away 15 times thus far. Only four NFL teams have more turnovers. Conversely, the defense has notched just eight takeaways, giving the Broncos a -7 in turnover differential.
Suffice to say, that is not a winning metric. Denver’s giveaways in Weeks 4 and 6 have inflated that figure, though the Broncos won both games. Lock has thrown three interceptions in the last two games while the offense lost two fumbles.
As an offense, walking the razor’s edge of being creative and aggressive, while putting a premium on protecting the ball, isn’t easy to balance. But good teams figure out how to do just that.
There is a formula for achieving said balance. And the Broncos groped at it at different points in the team’s Week 8 win, especially in the fourth quarter.
Much of that onus falls on Lock as the triggerman. But the turnover differential also falls on Fangio’s defense. The Broncos rank seventh in the NFL in sacks with 20, and have done well at tipping passes at the line of scrimmage.
Sometimes the ball bounces your way, sometimes it doesn’t. But the truly predatory defenses of the NFL find a way to improve the odds of the ball bouncing their way and based on what we’ve seen from the Broncos in the last three weeks, there’s reason for optimism that the Football Gods might start allowing those breaks to turn in Denver’s favor.
3. Touch-Share & Ball Distribution
Let’s face it; the #FeedPhil hashtag has proliferated in recent weeks for good reason. Since returning from that aforementioned turf-toe injury in Week 6, Phillip Lindsay has averaged a whopping 6.92 yards per carry.
Last week vs. the Chargers, he carried the ball just six times but produced 83 yards, which included a 55-yard touchdown run. His toe injury might still be nagging him a little, which could explain the Broncos’ conservatism with regard to his touch-share, but if this offense wants to give itself more than a fighting chance moving forward, Lindsay not only needs more touches — he needs to become the focal point of the offense.
That doesn’t mean that Gordon’s skill-set need languish or go to waste. But the touch-share that has been distributed has to be flipped on its head. The floor for Lindsay touch-wise should be 10-12 each game. At a minimum.
If Shurmur would be wise enough to recognize that, the Broncos would reap the rewards offensively because if Lindsay has proven anything in 2020, it’s that he’s hungrier than ever and just as explosive as he was when he took the NFL by storm as an unprecedented undrafted Pro Bowler.
Sidebar: Shurmur’s ball distribution has been out of whack all season and not just at running back. Although it took Tim Patrick being ruled out in Week 8, Jerry Jeudy went from garnering just nine targets combined in the preceding two games to getting 10 against the Chargers.
Shurmur and Lock have to be wise enough to know that a talent like Jeudy can’t be squandered so. The same can be said for fellow rookie wideout KJ Hamler, who hauled in all three of his targets in Week 8 but they only added up to 13 measly yards, though the last one was a one-yard grab for the game-winning touchdown.
The last thing I’ll say on this topic is that Shurmur still hasn’t caught the vision with Noah Fant. Early on this season, the Broncos would see Fant produce big numbers in one half, only to disappear from the game-plan in the next.
Meanwhile, Albert Okwuegbunam has significantly eaten into Fant’s opportunities at the dinner table and only last week did that pay any sort of actual dividends for the offense as the rookie tight end not only caught a touchdown pass but also drew two key pass-interference calls in critical situations to keep a drive alive.
It’s the plight of an offensive coordinator with a smorgasbord of talent at the skill positions, with a young quarterback still learning how to read the field and distribute the ball. I don’t have all the answers but I’ll boil down the takeaways on this topic thusly: feed Phil, get Jeudy going early and often, utilize Hamler on second down with crossers, slants, and jet-sweeps, and target the snot out of Fant and Okwuegbunam in the red zone.
4. Staunch the Bleeding Against the Run
Last week was the first game in which the Broncos had to play without the girth of Purcell clogging the middle and commanding double teams on first and second down. The Chargers made hay while the sun was shining, eclipsing 200 yards rushing with three no-name running backs.
That can’t continue if the Broncos are going to be competitive. The problem is, I’m not sure I see an obvious solution — outside of the Broncos’ front seven coming together in a ‘it takes a village’ sort of way.
Last week, the off-ball linebackers racked up the tackles in the box score but too often they were made at the second and third levels of the defense. Alexander Johnson and Josey Jewell really struggled with their reads/run fits and with getting off blocks. Fixing that will go a long way toward limiting any runs that slip through the D-line.
From there, it’s a matter of the young guys on this D-line stepping up. At some point, Dre’Mont Jones and DeMarcus Walker — for all their pass-rushing promise — have to take the next step as run defenders. The sooner that happens, the better as the Broncos won’t be able to survive too many opponents hanging 200-plus rushing yards on them.
5. Fix Return Coverage Units
Too often, just when the Broncos offense gets a little rhythm and scores, or the defense finds a groove, the special teams unit goes and upsets the entire balance and allows a big return on a kick-off or punt. As it stands, Denver is ranked dead-last allowing nearly 32 yards per kick return.
Tom McMahon’s only saving grace? Brandon McManus’ big leg, which limits the number of kick-offs that are actually returned out of the end zone. But that metric is ugly and poses a serious obstacle to the Broncos forging a complementary brand of football the team can count on week in and week out.
On punt returns, the Broncos’ coverage unit is modestly better but they’re still ranked 23rd, giving up almost 10 yards per punt return. Just last week, that bit Denver in the hindquarters when K.J. Hill fielded a 46-yard Sam Martin punt on the Chargers’ own 10-yard line and returned it 30 yards, setting up a red-hot Justin Herbert nearly at midfield. The Broncos got lucky as the defense got a stop but it’s no way to make a living in the NFL.
At some point, Coach McMahon has to figure out how to tighten up his coverage units. In Week 7, the Broncos allowed a 102-yard kick-off returned for a touchdown. It’s a losing brand of football.
The Broncos need all three phases to carry their fair share of the water and to do so consistently. Through seven games, Fangio has been like the little Dutch boy; just when he has one hole in the dike plugged, another one springs forth.
And yet, this team managed to climb out of the 0-3 hole it dug itself by winning three of its last four games. Beat Atlanta this week by checking these five boxes, and the Broncos get to .500 and suddenly, all things become possible again in 2020.