Are the Broncos legitimate contenders?
The last time the Broncos opened the season 3-0, Gary Kubiak and the No Fly Zone were trying to make it back to the Super Bowl with Trevor Siemian doing his best impression of zombie Manning. The 2016 team finished the year with the best pass defense in the league, but issues against the run, injuries, and an anemic offense doomed them to a third place finish in the AFC West.
This year’s Broncos are perfect so far, something that’s boosted their chance at the dance north of 75% in some corners. Starting hot doesn’t necessarily promise the postseason, something the ‘21 Broncos are surely aware of following victories over the hapless Giants, Jaguars, and Jets. Three wins merely creates a buffer over the rivals around the division, though a 14 game schedule means there’s still plenty of time for it to evaporate. 3-0 starts aren’t created equal, and with a new 17-game schedule and the second year of an expanded playoff, we could be due for some really wacky results in 2021.
With so much time left to speculate on the postseason, I thought it best to zoom in on the games themselves. Here are ___ things I’ve noticed while the Broncos finished September undefeated. Some good, some bad, some that may only interest me.
Teddy Bridgewater looks like a 6th round steal
The last three years have been a wild ride for the 32nd pick of the 2014 NFL draft. Following a year behind Drew Brees, a 26-year old Teddy Bridgewater passed on an offer from the Miami Dolphins to return to the Saints’ bench.
It was a decision that set the stage for everything that’s happened since. During the 2019 season Brees’ injury provided Bridgewater with an opportunity to start five games for a supremely talented Saints team with Sean Payton calling the shots and he responded by completing 69.7% of his passes for 1,205 yards, nine touchdowns, and just two interceptions. During this time he ranked 9th in Estimated Points Added among all Quarterbacks with at least 100 dropbacks.
Bridgewater played so well that the rebuilding Carolina Panthers offered him a three year, $63 million contract to stay in the NFC South. The wins were hard to come by in part because of a woeful defense, but the Panthers ranked second in yards per drive, 10th in points per drive, and eighth in offensive DVOA through the first 10 weeks of the season. Bridgewater’s individual performance did not go unnoticed. The veteran completed 71.12 percent of his passes for 2552 yards, 13 touchdowns, and seven interceptions across the first ten games, with another 196 yards on the ground and three tuddies to boot. He ranked ninth in passing Expected Points Added per Sports Info Solutions and 13th in ESPN’s QBR.
The wheel fell off the wagon in the Panthers second game against the Bucs. Bridgewater suffered a knee injury that would knock him out of a week 11 contest against the Detroit Lions, and while he tried to play through the pain it clearly hurt his performance. Following a disappointing finish to the 2020 campaign, Carolina wanted to part with him so badly they took a 6th round pick from George Paton’s Broncos and agreed to eat $17 million in a dead cap hit, leaving Denver on the hook for a measly $4.4 million in 2021.
Paton’s trade for Bridgewater didn’t make many headlines. The deal came together less than 24-hours before reports of the Broncos interest in Aaron Rodgers during the NFL Draft where Denver took Patrick Surtain II over rookie quarterbacks Justin Fields and Mac Jones. As it happened, the Bridgewater deal looked like a safe way to ensure Drew Lock wouldn’t enter training camp without a parachute.
Through three games, it looks as if the Broncos GM stole his starting quarterback.
quarterback composite score with AROE, EPA and PFF grade for weeks 1-3! every rookie ranks 26th or below but is it too early to be worried about them?https://t.co/vIhyhxG1hb pic.twitter.com/vVzzysKUBp
— Tej Seth (@tejfbanalytics) September 30, 2021
Patrick Surtain II looks like a franchise corner
I’ve been a vocal critic of Paton’s decision to pass on Fields and Jones in his first draft, but at no point have I taken issue with Surtain the player. He was the top defensive player on my Broncos’ adjusted board back in April and has only surpassed my expectations since. Throughout training camp there were reports about him learning three different positions on the Fangio defense and his versatility and skillset have helped the Broncos endure early injuries to Ronald Darby and Michael Ojemudia. With both corners set to return from Injured Reserve during the month of October, Denver is about to be the envy of the league.
Passer rating if you threw the ball in the dirt every play: 39.6
Patrick Surtain II is ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/WicyljxH9a
— PFF (@PFF) September 29, 2021
Von Miller looks like he never left
The Broncos future Hall of Famer has returned with a flourish, notching four sacks to open his 11th season. Beyond the box score stats, what’s impressed me most about Von’s return is how he’s clearly resumed his role as the tide that lifts all ships on the Denver defense. Zero in on Miller during a game and you’ll find teams throwing the kitchen sink at him in an effort to keep the pass rusher guessing. On any given snap he could face extra help from a tight end, a lead blocking pulling across, or a chip from a back. The Ravens will surely try to read him to slow his path to Lamar Jackson. His presence is something opponents are forced to gameplan around for fear that he’ll take over the game.
The depth is about to be tested
Injuries are a constant presence in football, and this year’s no different. The Broncos have already lost Josey Jewell and K.J. Hamler for the remainder of the 2021 campaign. The hope is Jerry Jeudy, Ronald Darby, Michael Ojemudia, and Bradley Chubb can return from Injured Reserve in time to help Denver make some noise in the playoffs. As I write this both Dalton Risner or Graham Glasgow are listed as questionable for the Ravens game, which means the line could be down to three opening day starters.
Given the injuries atop the depth chart, a slew of young Broncos are about to see their first trial by fire. If Risner and/or Glasgow can’t suit up against Baltimore Netane Muti and Quinn Meinerz will step in to replace them. Muti’s played 223 offensive snaps thus far in his career, Meinerz 25.
Malik Reed is a familiar site in the starting lineup due to the injury issues that have plagued Bradley Chubb and Von Miller since 2019, but Chubb’s absence also means an expanded role for rookies Jonathon Cooper and Andre Mintze. The young duo have combined to play 73 defensive snaps so far, most notably Daniel Jones’ week one touchdown.
Jeudy and Hamler’s injuries will mean an expanded role in the passing game for Diontae Spencer, Kendall Hinton, Noah Fant, Albert Okwuegbunam, Eric Saubert. It also led to the signing of David Moore, who’s currently undergoing a crash course in the Shurmur offense so he can contribute on Sunday.
No Darby or Jewell has given Patrick Surtain II and Justin Strnad starting jobs. Surtain II has made two starts at boundary corner while Strnad will make his second start against the Ravens. The injuries in the secondary also mean Caden Sterns is logging time as Denver’s dime corner, he’s played all of 28 snaps on defense.
Your #Broncos-Ravens Thursday injury report: pic.twitter.com/BULy2RTSku
— George Stoia III (@GeorgeStoia) September 30, 2021
The offense and defense have been efficient (so far)
While it’s important to note the Broncos have played against three winless clubs, they’ve done their part to beat them handily. Denver’s outscored their opposition by a combined 50 points, tied with the Buffalo Bills for the largest margin scoring differential in the league. The performance has shown up in the kind of statistics I care about, as well.
The Broncos currently have the fourth ranked passing offense by DVOA thanks to a very good passing attack. On defense it’s a similar story, where the Broncos rank fifth in total defense and among the eight best teams in football against both the run and pass. As far as matchups go, Denver has performed like a top ten pass defense against every type of receiver. They also look like the best pass defense in football against short passes.
Keep in mind Football Outsiders’ DVOA stats don’t have opponent adjustments yet. The Broncos offense has played the sixth easiest schedule by DVOA, while the offense has played the 27th ranked schedule. This is going to be something I check back on next week.
THE BRONCOS AND PANTHERS ARE THE BEST TEAMS IN THE NFL pic.twitter.com/TWJPdsdq6c
— Computer Cowboy (@benbbaldwin) September 27, 2021
The run game is disappointing
Through three games, the Broncos rushing attack is averaging 127 yards per game, which is good for eighth among all NFL teams. That’s a pretty respectable figure if you can ignore how Melvin Gordon’s week one 70-yard run lifts them out of 18th and good enough to mask the fact they’ve been painfully inefficient.
Minus the long touchdown run Denver’s averaging 3.3 yards per carry, only Pittsburgh’s worse. As of today, the Broncos rank 25th in Football Outsiders Adjusted Line Yards. They’ve been one of the four worst teams in the league in “power” situations and the Carolina Panthers are the only team to allow stuffs on a higher percentage of their carries.
There’s a few parts at play in the Broncos’ struggles on the ground. First and foremost, it’s worth mentioning that Denver’s had a comfortable lead in all three of their games. This means running out the clock in the fourth quarter when opponents are expecting it. The second thing to keep in mind is how the Broncos have turned towards heavier personnel groupings this season, which tend to bring extra linebackers and defensive linemen onto the field. Denver’s also run into box counts, the iOL has had issues, and Javonte Williams doesn’t always make the right decision with the ball in his hands.
It doesn’t get easier this week, as the Ravens are one of the tougher teams to run on in the league and look like they’ll get Derek Wolfe, Justin Houston, and Brandon Williams back from the Covid-19 list. If the Broncos are forced to play without Risner or Glasgow, the running game could slow to a crawl.
Denver’s the current favorite to win the AFC West
File this one under “we’ve got a long way to go,” but after the last five years of wandering the wastelands of QB purgatory, it’s pretty cool to see Denver given a 45.8% chance at winning the division. Thanks to the Chiefs slow start, this is going to be one of those figures I keep up with each week.
It’s a good thing Denver opened the season with three straight wins to give them a buffer in the battles ahead. FO ranked Denver’s past schedule as the easiest in football, while the remaining is about league average.
- vs. Ravens
- at Steelers
- vs. Raiders
- at Browns
- vs. Washington
- at Cowboys
- vs. Eagles
- vs. Chargers
- at Chiefs
- vs. Lions
- vs. Bengals
- at Raiders
- at Chargers
- vs. Chiefs
ESPN’s Mike Clay thinks a lot more of the Broncos future opponents.
Good news for the “Broncos haven’t played anyone” crowd.
Denver’s remaining schedule is one of the hardest in the NFL. https://t.co/DnrwlqH9qG
— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) September 28, 2021
George Paton is an early favorite for executive of the year
If the Broncos continue to win in October, I expect we’ll begin to see a lot of praise heaped on the first year general manager. I already wrote about how savvy the trade for Bridgewater is starting to look, and Surtain and Miller’s performance haven’t slipped beneath the national radar. I suspect most will overlook the fact Paton almost dumped Von for Leonard Floyd back in March.
On top of those obvious moves, Paton’s decision to retain Kareem Jackson, Justin Simmons, and Shelby Harris look like they’re paying dividends. Veteran role players like Shamar Stephen and Eric Saubert had given Denver depth and flexibility it sorely lacked in year’s past.
In short, he’ll be rewarded for waking a sleeping giant. Let’s hope it happens.
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