We’ve got a real Padawan-Jedi Master matchup this week between Brandon Staley and his former mentor, Vic Fanigo.
After all, Staley’s first job in the NFL was as Chicago’s outside linebackers coach when Fangio was still the defensive coordinator for the Bears. When Fangio was hired to be the head coach of the Broncos, Staley was one of the first people he hired to his new staff. Now, the young, up-and-coming coach will get his first crack at a guy who probably taught him most of what he knows in regards to being a head coach in this league.
This week, we got a big hand from Joe Rowles of our Broncos sister site, Mile High Report. From tendencies to obscure facts, he spared no expense in making sure Chargers fans knew everything they needed to ahead of Sunday’s matchup.
Ready to dive in? So am I. Let’s get to it.
1.) The Broncos have handed out big contracts to both Courtland Sutton and Tim Patrick this season. How key have either player been this season in getting the Broncos to 5-5 and keeping them in the hunt for the playoffs?
They’ve been a huge part of Teddy Bridgewater having the best season of his career thus far. Just about everyone knows Bridgewater is a limited quarterback who has a propensity to skew conservative with his decision making, but having two talented 50-50 threats seems to have brought out a little more of a vertical element to Teddy’s game. Both Sutton and Patrick are quite adept at coming down with the ball through contact and excel at winning above the rim. Sutton’s a bit better at creating separation from defensive backs, while Patrick’s work along the sidelines is an underrated part of his game. Officially, neither has a drop this year.
2.) Two years ago, Brandon Staley was the outside linebackers coach for the Broncos. This week, he’s set to face his former mentor in Vic Fangio. How similar is the Chargers defense compared to how Fangio runs his unit? Are there any differences between the two? If so, what are they?
Philosophically the Fangio and Staley system are about as similar as it gets in the NFL. Their first priority is preventing big plays in the passing game and both are reluctant to commit extra defenders to the box. When things are working as hoped, this can bait opponents into running the ball too much for their own good, because one missed assignment or blown block and the offense finds itself behind the chains. Both teams lean heavily on two high coverage shells and disguising their coverages until the snap of the ball, which can make life difficult for opposing passers.
The big schematic difference between the Staley system and Fangio’s is that Staley takes more from the Nick Saban coaching tree when it comes to his man-match principles. This season we’re also seeing how personnel impacts the two systems. With Von Miller a member of the Los Angeles Rams and Bradley Chubb on the mend, Fangio is far more likely to dial up a blitz than his younger counterpart. The Broncos are also likelier to throw out a heavy personnel group with one edge rusher and three defensive linemen on nickel downs, as that’s a way to get their best talent on the field.
3.) If you were Chargers offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, how would you go about attacking this Broncos defense? Which players and/or position groups should they attempt to exploit, if any?
Unless Bradley Chubb returns for his first game since week two, the Broncos’ entire linebacker corps. is made up of backups. If Baron Browning can’t play it will mean the struggling Justin Strnad or untested Avery Williamson gets the nod beside Kenny Young, who was acquired from the Rams a few weeks ago. As you would expect, all the injuries and inexperience has made Denver extremely vulnerable in the middle of the field and I expect Lombardi to attack that when Herbert drops back to pass or when he hands the ball off. The Broncos are among the worst teams in football defending against runs between the guards, so Ekeler should have a decent outing. It also wouldn’t be a surprise if Lombardi dials up a few read concepts as well, the extra responsibilities gave Malik Reed issues in the Eagles game and Herbert’s mobility means it’s essentially stealing yards.
When L.A. does get to third down the distance to the sticks will give a pretty decent indicator as to Fangio’s intentions. If it’s third and long, expect the Broncos to sit back and play coverage. Throughout his time in Denver he’s shown a willingness to make quarterbacks hang in the pocket and figure out where to go with the ball in these situations and with Herbert’s arm that could mean some really tight window throws into the teeth of the secondary. If it’s third and say 6 or less, I suspect the Broncos will try to dial up a game up front or send additional rushers in order to hurry Herbert into a mistake.
4.) Same question as above but flipping sides of the ball. If you were defensive coordinator Renaldo Hill, how would you go about defending this Broncos offense? Which players should the Chargers worry about the most?
It starts up front and comes down to what happens with the Broncos tackle situation. If Cameron Fleming winds up playing for Bobby Massie I would make a point to line Joey Bosa over right tackle most of the afternoon as the fourth string tackle struggles mightily in pass protection. If he’s on the bench it makes sense to try and attack Calvin Anderson, who is filling in for Garett Bolles. Outside of Bosa, I’d try and run stunts at Dalton Risner and Lloyd Cushenberry on passing downs as the pair have had their fair share of issues handing them off or holding up to late rushers. Risner struggles mostly with quickness while Cush lacks the play strength to properly anchor if he isn’t prepared. These two strategies should heat up Bridgewater, who has a tendency to hang in the pocket.
Denver has a lot of weapons for Bridgewater to throw to, so it doesn’t necessarily make a ton of sense to try and prioritize one over the others. Both Sutton and Patrick are capable of going up to win deep downfield, while Jerry Jeudy’s route running savvy and separation quickness makes him a reliable short to intermediate target. Noah Fant and Albert Okwuegbunam are also weapons in the passing game, but if the Bolts can threaten the tackles enough Shurmur will respond by asking them to help out as pass blockers.
If Pat Shurmur is smart he’ll try and keep Denver out of the must pass situations where Staley and Hill can wreck his offensive line by calling a heavy dose of running plays. Through 10 games the RB duties are pretty close to a 50-50 split, but Javonte Williams consistently shows off the kind of elite contact balance to make a 5-yard gain into a chunk play. He’s the scarier runner, so it’d make sense to call more run blitzes when he’s in the backfield.
5.) Go ahead and give us a final score prediction along with a few thoughts on how you see this game shaking out on Sunday.
If the Broncos pull this out it will be a variation of the game plan they used against the Dallas Cowboys. They’ll establish the run early and stick with it through thick and thin, even dialing up some rushes in the kind of long yardage situations where analytics suggest they ought to pass. They’ll create enough pressure with their interior defensive line to force Herbert into a mistake or two while the secondary plays a lot of tight man-to-man coverage.
All that may not be enough, but I’m feeling optimistic. I’ll go with the Broncos 24, Chargers 21.