It’s week 7 of the NFL season and the 2-5 Washington Football Team will be facing a 3-4 Denver Broncos team on the road at Mile High Stadium in Denver this Sunday at 4:25 pm. Although the Broncos have a slightly better record, they are coming off a 4 game losing streak and both teams will be desperate for a win. Broncos’ Head Coach Vic Fangio may very well be a dead man walking if he can’t turn the Broncos’ season around, seeing as 1st-year GM George Paton (pronounced PAY-ton, no connection to George Patton) has no ties to him and can start his regime with his own HC and QB next year.
Although the Broncos drafted QB Drew Lock in the 2nd round of the 2019 draft, he has failed to look like a starter in games. As a result, the Broncos traded a 6th round pick for QB Teddy Bridgewater, who has brought stability and consistency to the position this year. The biggest injury on offense has been the loss of WR Jerry Jeudy, who exited a week 1 matchup with the Giants with a high ankle sprain.
The Broncos’ defense is talented, but injured. Star pass rusher Von Miller was injured last week, and is questionable for this matchup. Although the Broncos’ run defense was stout to start the season, numerous injuries to their DL and LB corps resulted in allowing 146 yards and a TD to Browns’ 3rd string RB D’Ernest Johnson last week. The Broncos pass defense is much better, led by this year’s 1st round pick, CB Patrick Surtain II.
I asked Joe Rowles of Mile High Report five questions to better understand the state of the Broncos and what to look for in this game.
1) What have you seen out of Bridgewater and Lock so far, and what do you think the Broncos will do long term regarding the QB position?
Long term, I think the Broncos will continue to look under every stone in their attempt to find a franchise quarterback. There’re still reports out there that George Paton will try and trade for the 38-year-old Aaron Rodgers in 2022. While I think that’s extremely unlikely because of the top to bottom dysfunction within the organization, it speaks to where the first year GM is aiming. He told NBC’s Peter King last August that quarterbacks are easier to find than franchise cornerbacks, which implies he has no trouble working through journeymen and stopgaps while the Broncos try to secure a passer who can go toe to toe with Justin Herbert and Patrick Mahomes.
As far as Teddy Bridgewater and Drew Lock, I’ve seen enough to believe neither is the long term solution.
Bridgewater won what was reportedly a close competition out of camp, but admitted that he was around 70-75% healthy in the Browns game and the Broncos didn’t bench him for Drew Lock, so the reports were probably wrong. Bridgewater’s accuracy, mental processing, and poise give Denver’s offense something they haven’t had since Peyton Manning retired: a competent NFL quarterback. He’s got an average-ish arm and too often settles for easy completions when a more aggressive approach would yield better results, however.
Lock is a second round pick who got a chance to start in 2020. Across his time he’s shown he has marginal mental processing, ball placement, and poise under pressure. He does have very good arm talent and he’s charismatic, which combined with his penchant for long bombs has led a notable segment of Broncos Country into believing he’s simply playing time away from becoming the next John Elway. I’m skeptical, as he melts down against pressure and too often rolls right out of clean pockets, which cuts the field in half and makes him easy to gameplan for if you have pass rushers.
2) The Broncos started the season hot, going 3-0 against the Giants, Jaguars, and Jets, only to lose their next 4 games in a row against the Ravens, Steelers, Raiders, and Browns. Looking at that schedule, the matchups were obviously a factor, but were there other factors at play to explain the Broncos’ precipitous decline?
Injuries and a failure by the coaching staff to properly adjust to changes in the starting lineups were unsung factors.
The Broncos lost Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler early in the campaign, which left the receiving corps down to two proven veterans, a punt returner, and practice squad players. Denver’s offensive coordinator leaned heavily on three receiver sets despite this and a quietly deep tight end room, which played into the Ravens strengths in week 4 and left the pass protection in a precarious situation against T.J. Watt and the Steelers in week 5. Fortunately, Jeudy looks like he will return for Washington, so the offense should be as close to full strength as they’ve been since week 1.
On defense it’s a completely different story. The Broncos have played all season without Bradley Chubb, who tried to gut through bone spurs in the Jaguars game before he was placed on Injured Reserve. Without him in the lineup the pass rush has been extremely dependent on 32-year-old Von Miller, and now that he’s hurt they’re in no man’s land up front. It currently looks like Denver’s edge rotation will consist of Malik Reed, a 7th round rookie named Jonathon Cooper, and Stephen Weatherly, who the Broncos traded a late round pick to acquire from the Vikings after the Browns game. They also look as though they’ll face the Football Team without their starting nose tackle, which probably exacerbates the issues in the linebacker corps. where the Broncos are down to their third, fifth, and seventh options because of injury. Justin Strnad will start at one spot after struggling mightily against Cleveland’s rushing attack, beside him will either be undrafted free agent Curtis Robinson or Kenny Young, who was acquired via trade on Monday.
3) Vic Fangio seems to be on one of the hotter seats in the NFL right now. What is your assessment of him and his coaching staff? Do you think this is their last season in Denver?
Fangio came into the season a lame duck because the Broncos hired a first year general manager last offseason. The lion’s share of the coaching staff is cooked unless the Broncos make the playoffs, and after four straight losses, the postseason is looking like a longshot. Before week 6, we learned about a short list of Fangio replacements Paton was considering.
[Editor’s note: if you check out the above link, you’ll see that Washington OC Scott Turner is apparently on the Broncos’ short list of potential HC candidates]
4) George Paton was promoted to General Manager of the Broncos in January of 2021, replacing John Elway. What is your assessment of Paton so far, what is he prioritizing in terms of team building, what have been the returns, and do you trust him to potentially find the QB and/or Head Coach of the future (if you think that’s applicable)?
I think Paton’s role in everything the Broncos have done since last January ought to go under some scrutiny because there’s been enough smoke about John Elway getting final say to believe the two are working in some sort of tandem. With that said, the short list of 2022 head coaches Paton and the front office discussed is pretty uninspiring, and the vast majority of Paton’s outside free agents from the offseason have been minimal contributors or disappointing. His decision to draft Patrick Surtain II over a quarterback continues to draw some scrutiny, but the rookie corner looks like the Broncos’ best cornerback, so there is that.
5) How would you gameplan to beat the Broncos on both sides of the ball?
The best way to slow down the Broncos offense is hold up against the isolation shot plays downfield and force them to march the length of the field. Shurmur has an affinity for 50-50 balls to the boundary and will call them from around midfield, with max protection and 2 or 3 receivers challenging the secondary. After a low percentage shot play, the Broncos tend to run the ball on second and 10, which usually leads to a third and long. On passing downs, the answer is stunts that isolate Lloyd Cushenberry and Dalton Risner, and playing back so Bridgewater responds with a dumpoff short of the sticks. Denver’s offensive issues compound around the redzone, so the gameplan doesn’t change too much. They struggle to create running lanes and Shurmur rarely dials up route combinations that will do more than ask the receiver to create separation on their own.
Since the victory over the Jets, Denver’s defense is easy to gameplan for. They’re among the worst teams in the league at defending runs at the left end, which got worse after Alexander Johnson landed on Injured Reserve. The issues at linebacker also make Denver soft against easy completions to the middle of the field as Strnad and Johnson’s replacement looked completely out of sorts during their zone drops. The secondary looked terrific against Cleveland, but the front is extremely dependent on games and blitzes to create pressure minus Chubb and Von.
Thanks again to Joe Rowles for taking time out of his day to answer our questions about the Broncos.
As of right now, Vegas has the Broncos as 3.5 point favorites over Washington. How would you bet?
This poll is closed
Broncos win by more than 3 points
Broncos win by 3 points or fewer or it’s a tie
Washington wins outright
As of now, Vegas has the over/under for this game at 44.5 points. Which would you bet?
This poll is closed
45 or more total points are scored (both sides combined)
Fewer than 45 total points are scored (both sides combined)
What would Washington’s record be with Teddy Bridgewater as our starting QB?
This poll is closed
1-6 or worse
2-5 (same as it is)
6-1 or better (and leading the division)