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What can Washington expect from the Broncos at Mile High Stadium?

it’s a “must win” for the Football Team

Las Vegas Raiders v Denver Broncos Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

When I can, I try to spend some time looking at statistical trends for the upcoming opponent and some of its key players in an effort to project what challenges and opportunities might be ahead for the Football Team. Here are a few recent previews:

A look in the mirror: previewing Washington’s Week 6 matchup with the Chiefs

What can we expect when the Saints come marching in to FedEx Field this Sunday?

Washington can stabilize the season with a win in Atlanta as Curtis Samuel makes his debut in burgundy & gold

I didn’t write an article last week because all of my research said one thing: Green Bay was the superior team in every way.


A lot of fans have had Denver penciled in as a loss for a while now

Early in the season, many Washington fans were intimidated by the game at Denver for at least two reasons. The first reason was the idea that playing at Mile High Stadium is a huge advantage for the home team. The second reason was Denver’s 3-0 record to start the season.

In both cases, I think Washington fans were intimidated by ideas that were to an extent, mirages.

The Mile High Mystique

Let’s look at that home field advantage first. John Keim saved me a lot of research that I had planned to do for this article.

Let’s explode the myth that the Broncos are impossible to beat at home. They not only can be beaten, they have been beaten with regularity of late. The home field advantage is a lot more meaningful when your put a good team on the field.

The Denver Broncos won the AFC West in 5 consecutive seasons, from 2011 to 2015, getting 12 or 13 wins in each of the final four years of that run. But since then, the team has fallen on hard times. Their best season in the past five years was a 9-7 finish in 2016; in the four seasons since, under Vance Joseph and Vic Fangio, they have finished with 5, 6, or 7 wins.

Of course, like Washington, Denver’s fortunes have been strongly linked to their quarterback situation. From 2012-2015, the Broncos were led by Peyton Manning, who capped his career with a Lombardi Trophy in Super Bowl 50, following the 2015 season.

Since that time, they have played behind Trevor Siemian, Brock Osweiler, Paxton Lynch, Case Keenum, Joe Flacco, Drew Lock, Brandon Allen, Jeff Driskel, Brett Rypien, (Kendall Hinton), and Teddy Bridgwater. Most of that group looks like a list of punchlines to jokes.

If you exclude WR Kendall Hinton’s emergency start last year, Denver and Washington have had the same number of quarterbacks under center since the end of the 2015 season, with 10 each. That probably explains why Denver is 32-48 while Washington has a regular season record of 32-47-1 over the past 5 seasons.

Ten quarterbacks each, 32 wins each — these two franchises have had a lot in common for the past 5 years. On other thing they have in common is that neither team is as scary on its home field as it used to be back in the days when the both seemed to routinely play in their respective conference championship games.

That early season 3-game win streak

The second intimidating fact about the Broncos that intimidated some people was their 3-0 start to the 2021 season. While “any given Sunday” is a real thing in the NFL, so is the concept that some teams are good and others are bad.

The Broncos opened up the 2021 season against three of the NFL’s worst: the New York Giants, the Jacksonville Jaguars, and the New York Jets. Each of those teams is in last place in its respective division, and, through 7 weeks of the season, they have combined for 4 wins.

Since the Week 3 win against the Jets, the Broncos have lost to the Ravens, Steelers, Raiders and Browns. Similar to the Football Team, Denver’s wins have come against lesser opponents, with losses coming at the hands of teams with winning records (aside, course, from WFT’s loss to the Chiefs, who are currently 3-4).

Washington and Denver fans are both looking for win against one of the NFL’s weaker teams

This looks like a “get well” game for both teams, but only one can actually win. If Denver were to lose at home and extend the losing streak to 5 games, cementing themselves at the bottom of the AFC West with games against the Cowboys and Chargers in two of the next three weeks, it would probably be a devastating blow. But a win that puts them back at .500 with the Eagles, Chiefs and Lions as 3 of their next 5 opponents, could keep the door slightly cracked for a possible wildcard spot.

A Washington loss would drop the Football Team to 2-6 going into the bye. With the Buccaneers being next on the schedule, a loss at Mile High Stadium could spell the end of any practical chance for Washington to make the playoffs, while a win to go into the bye week at 3-5 would leave them some hope due to the fact that the final 5 weeks of the season are all NFC East games, leaving a lot of scenarios available to finish with a winning record.

Personally, I think Washington has more riding on this game because I think Washington has the more realistic chance of finishing strong in December and January, though I recognize that a lot of Washington fans have given up on the season already, and that some others would rather see the team lose in order to improve draft position.

NFL: Washington Football Team at Green Bay Packers Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Prior to the start of the season, I projected Washington to be 4-4 at the bye and to finish as division champs. If they hit the bye at 3-5, I wouldn’t see that as a tragedy. Honestly, the Buccaneers and Cowboys are both much better than I thought they’d be, but my own feeling is that, if the team can win this week in Denver and go into the bye at 3-5, then it faces winnable games against the Giants, Eagles (twice), Panthers and Seahawks. Winning those 5 games would get the team to 8 wins; just one more win against the Raiders, Bucs or the Cowboys (whom they still face twice) could see the team at 9 wins. To me, the season isn’t over now, but a loss this Sunday in Denver would go a long way towards changing my mind.

So, who are the Broncos?

My feeling is that you can throw out the first three games of the ‘21 season if you want to know who the Broncos are.

I have easy access to season-long statistics, as well as stats for the most recent game and the most recent three games. It’s this last set of stats that I want to focus on; what have the Denver Broncos done in the past three games against the Steelers, Raiders and Browns, and how does that compare to what Washington has done against the Saints, Chiefs and Packers?

Remember that both teams went 0-3 during this three-game stretch. The Broncos’ three opponents have a combined current record of 13-7, while Washington’s three opponents combine for a 2021 record of 14-7, meaning that the level of competition has been fairly comparable and the win-loss records for Washington and Denver have been identical, though Denver’s games have been a bit closer, with the Broncos’ offense scoring more and the defense allowing fewer points than Washington.

Scoring

Over the last three games, Denver has scored 13 first half points, but 44 second half points, meaning that they’ve fallen behind early and tried to play catch-up. They are 3rd in the league in 4th quarter points over the past three weeks, but since they’re winless in that time, it appears that they’ve been scoring in ‘garbage time’.

Washington, in the meantime, has scored 33 first half points. Washington trailed by 7 at the half in two games, and led by 3 in the other. On the other hand, the Broncos trailed by 10 or 11 points at halftime of each of its three losses, never had a second half lead, and scored a touchdown inside of the final 6 minutes in each loss.

The Broncos have not led for a minute of game time in the past three weeks, and, aside from 0-0 scores, have only been even on the scoreboard for 4:09 (7-7 in the first quarter of the Raiders game). In short, Denver has gotten three beatdowns in a row, and has put up some ‘easy’ points in garbage time when the games have been out of reach.

Washington has been slightly more competitive — getting within 5 points of the Saints in the 4th quarter and trailing the Chiefs by 4 at the end of the third quarter.

Washington has given up a score — usually a touchdown — on nearly every opening drive of every game this season. Denver seems to offer an opportunity to stop that trend. The Broncos have scored only one TD in the first quarter of the past three games, and have not scored at all in any of those three games with more than 7 minutes left in the 1st quarter.

Rushing offense

Denver’s very poor rushing numbers are probably a reflection of game script, but the same is not really true of Washington’s relatively strong rushing defense. The Saints, Chiefs and Packers each rushed for between 57 and 98 yards, despite leading in the 4th quarter.

Denver’s backfield of Josh Jacobs, Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon hasn’t been able to break loose at all in October. I don’t feel as if I’m going out on a limb if I project the Washington defense to keep Denver’s running backs in check again this week.

Passing offense

That would leave the Broncos offense in the hands of Teddy Bridgewater and his young receiving corps led by Courtland Sutton, Tim Patrick and TE Noah Fant (note: Jerry Jeudy has been out since a Week 1 injury, but reports say he is expected back against Washington). Here’s a look at the stats for Denver’s leading pass catchers through 7 weeks:

By comparison:

  • Washington’s leading receiver, Terry McLaurin, has 550 yards and 4 touchdowns, but the team doesn’t have another WR over 188 yards.
  • Washington’s #2 receiver is actually JD McKissic, whose 249 yards and 1 TD are a lot for a running back, but not so much compared to a #2 wide receiver.
  • Washington’s two tight ends (injured starter Logan Thomas and backup Ricky Seals-Jones) have combined for 305 yards and 4 TDs.

When you put it all together, you can see that the two passing attacks haven’t differed much for the season as a whole or over the past three weeks.

These are two average to below-average passing attacks that have not been effective enough to win against good teams. Denver’s offense put up 27, 23 and 26 points in its three wins against weaker teams; Washington scored 30 and 34 in its two wins.

Significant injuries

The most significant injury on the Broncos roster is Von Miller, who injured his ankle in the first half of last week’s loss to the Browns. There are reports that he could be ready to play against Washington on Sunday, but it seems like a game-time decision. If he is unable to go, that would be a huge benefit for the Washington offense. The nose tackle, Mike Purcell, has already been ruled out. 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.

The RotoWire report on WR Jerry Jeudy:

Jeudy (ankle) didn’t practice Friday due to some soreness, and coach Vic Fangio said “we’ll see” whether the wideout is activated for Sunday’s game against Washington, Aric DiLalla of the Broncos’ official site reports.

Fangio also expressed optimism Jeudy can still play Sunday, though it’s a discouraging development in his second week of practice after being designated to return from injured reserve last week. The 22-year-old likely will need to show some improvement Saturday in order to be activated ahead of the roster deadline for Sunday’s contest.

The SB Nation site, Mile High Report is saying that Jeudy is expected to play on Sunday.

While Washington’s injury list is a little longer than Denver’s, the only real concern I feel is for Cornelius Lucas’ illness. With RT Sam Cosmi out for the game, if Lucas is unable to play, the team could be forced to start Saahdiq Charles for the first time at that position. Other than that, Washington enters this game with about the same level of player health as they have had for the other games in October.

What should Washington’s game plan be?

Assuming Antonio Gibson is healthy enough to handle it, Washington should enter the game with a run-heavy offensive plan designed to move the chains and control the clock. The running backs should be rotated frequently to account for the elevation of the stadium, meaning that Jaret Patterson should get a few more snaps.

Washington Football Team v Atlanta Falcons
Jaret Patterson #32 of the Washington Football Team runs with the ball against the Atlanta Falcons in the first half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on October 03, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia.
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

In the passing game, Washington coaches should ask Heinicke to play a relaxed game, and insist that he try to cross the goal line if he gets within two yards of it without being tackled by a defender.

The new kicker, Chris Blewitt, should get a little extra help from the altitude, and Ron Rivera should be ready to kick some field goals to build a lead against a Broncos team that has had trouble scoring in the first half, and trouble scoring touchdowns outside of garbage time.

Defensively, the game plan used by Jack Del Rio against the Packers is likely to work in Denver. Shut down the run, blitz and game the rush against the quarterback more than usual, and make sure the WFT DBs don’t get beat deep.

NFL: Washington Football Team at Green Bay Packers Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Denver’s receiving group of Sutton, Jeudy, Patrick and Fant shouldn’t be any scarier than Green Bay’s crew of Davonte Adams, Alan Lazard, Randall Cobb, Robert Tonyan and Marcedes Lewis.

Washington should aim to get 3-5 sacks on Bridgewater and to have positive turnover differential in the game.

My bottom line

I just can’t see any reason why Washington shouldn’t win this game unless Jerry Jeudy’s potential return dramatically transforms the Denver offense.

The Broncos are a team with a middling roster that is on a 4-game losing streak. While it’s a fact that both teams have been losing, Washington has, in my opinion, looked a bit better in its losses than Denver has (if such a concept exists). I think Washington is the better team, and I believe the burgundy & gold will rise to the occasion and get out of Mile High Stadium with a win on Sunday.

If they do, then they will have 13 days over the mid-season bye week to rest and get healthy ahead of a very important home game against Tampa Bay. If they don’t win, but instead fall to 2-6, then Washington fans who hadn’t started already can begin the mock draft season.