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5 Questions with Mile High Report

Get to know this week’s opponent from those who know them best.

NFL: DEC 12 Lions at Broncos Photo by Dustin Bradford/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

We’re back this week with the amazing Joe Rowles of Mile High Report to help preview this year’s second matchup with the Broncos. Joe leaves no stone unturned in these previews which means you guys better have a lot of time to kill to get through all of the stellar information he dropped on us this week.

Let’s not waste anymore time and jump right in.

1.) The Broncos really gave it to the Chargers in week one when they won 28-13 in Denver. What were your biggest takeaways from that game and how did the Broncos dominate as well as they did?

Dre’Mont Jones was the main culprit, but the pass rush as a whole simply abused Senio Kelemete, who was filling in for Matt Feiler. The Bolts’ issues up front bled over into the run game, where the Broncos held Austin Ekeler to less than 3 yards per carry. On top of that, Fangio spent a ton of time in cover six to cap to force the Chargers into methodical drives. Denver was so effective up front that it forced Justin Herbert to carry the offense on his back without a chance to settle into a rhythm. To his credit he did find ways to move the ball, but the two picks and the fourth down fail were too much to overcome.

On offense the Broncos went against Shurmur’s season long tendencies and played bully ball with heavy personnel on the field about 50% of the time. Out of these 12 and 13 personnel groups the Broncos found a ton of success pounding the ball between the tackles and mixed in some chunk plays on outside zone. When Bridgewater did play, he let the supporting cast carry him and they did their part. On top of this, Tim Patrick found a way to recover Drew Lock’s fumble so it didn’t give L.A. a second life.

In short, Denver won both sides of the line of scrimmage in the first matchup and the secondary kept the clamps on Herbert’s receiving corps., which gave them enough of a cushion to weather the way Teddy Bridgewater’s injury derailed the passing offense for the middle part of the game.

2.) It looks like Drew Lock will be starting for another week. He’s had success against the Chargers in the past, including a late drive to win it during a home game this past season. How much confidence do you have in Lock for this week? Is there any chance you prefer him over Teddy Bridgewater right now?

After Bridgewater’s second concussion of the season and Denver’s dead playoff hopes, it makes sense to give Lock the last two games. As far as my confidence in him? Well, there’s a lot to unpack there.

Mile High Report’s Joe Mahoney and I took a look at where Lock stood historically through his first 18 starts last January, because so many in Broncos Country still held out hope he could become a franchise quarterback despite a truly dreadful 2020 season. Lock’s among the worst passers through 18 starts this century, and unless he is a historical outlier on the level of Josh Allen, his ceiling is below average passer. Before his start against the Las Vegas Raiders, Lock showed plenty of signs that he’d regressed as a passer since training camp. He failed to make a proper read on an RPO in the last matchup against the Chargers and had a complete meltdown on a read option in Cincinnati.

In the first start of Lock’s third season, he went 15 of 22 for 153 yards while taking two sacks as the offense averaged four yards per play against what’s currently the 24th ranked defense by DVOA. From a performance beyond the production standpoint it may have been the best game of his career. He showed poise under pressure as the Broncos’ line collapsed against a Raiders defense that forced Lock to beat them. He played the short game and kept the ball out of harms way, and when the opportunity’s presented themselves he took shots. Unfortunately the receivers dropped a couple of key passes and neither Javonte Williams or Melvin Gordon could get traction. This came against the Gus Bradley defense Lock had his comeback against last year. Those Broncos won with a dagger to DaeSean Hamilton when the Chargers failed to make a tackle. It was one of the gutsiest performances of Lock’s career after what was an abysmal first half that left parts of Broncos Country booing.

The last best reason for hope at that sort of development this far into his third season despite what we saw in the 81 snaps he played before last week’s game in Vegas is that a Covid impacted offseason in 2020 with the wrong offensive coordinator stunted his growth, and the limited snaps in his backup role hurt his ability to handle the speed of the game on short notice. If that’s the case, we should see Lock thrive as Shurmur opens up the offense after last week’s contest. I have confidence that’s Denver’s best chance at winning in this matchup, but it counts on the kind of high variance player that could deliver a win to either team.

3.) The Chargers own the NFL’s worst third-down defense as they allow opponent’s to convert on 51.1 percent of their attempts. They’re also still a bottom-five team when it comes to stopping the run. Do you expect a big day from Javonte Williams/Melvin Gordon? How much do you see Vic Fangio leaning on the run game this week?

I think the Broncos will run 45 times if they can maintain drives with it. The Broncos lean on inside zone as their bread and butter concept, and that’ll give Williams and Gordon a chance to attack the middle of the Charger’s line. With Gordon’s vision and Williams contact balance, it’ll be a huge test for the Bolts’ backups on the second and third level. One thing to keep an eye on: Last time around the Broncos’ played heavy with three tight ends in the game on 17 plays. With Andrew Beck on Injured Reserve, Shurmur could move towards more 11, where Denver wasn’t nearly as effective on the ground last time around.

4.) As someone who covers another team in the AFC West, I want to hear your general thoughts on the Chargers and their performance this season under Brandon Staley in his first year as a head coach in the NFL. What aspects of the team (players, coaching, roster building) do you believe are their strong suits? Which areas do you feel are holding this team back from reaching their potential?

The Chargers have most of the foundational pieces in place to be an elite offense for the next decade. Justin Herbert’s one of the best quarterbacks in football and continues to improve. His arm, mobility, and savvy open up every corner of the field. This impacts the way teams have to play the Chargers in coverage and opens up favorable rushing opportunities. Keenan Allen is one of the best route runners in the league, Rashawn Slater is already among the best left tackles, and Austin Ekeler’s a difference maker at running back with his ability to win in the passing game. Joe Lombardi’s going through a bit of a growing season as a play caller this year and yet the offense is still the third best by DVOA.

The defense is strong in four spots, and wanting across most of the other seven. Joey Bosa’s a wrecking ball and Uchenna Nwosu is playing the best ball of his career, while Derwin James is still Derwin James. Michael Davis is having a career year in his first season with Staley, allowing just 45% of passes in his direction to be completed by Sports Info Solutions charting. Asante Samuel Jr. is having a promising rookie season with a few big gaffes mixed in, and Kyzir White is playing as well as can be reasonably expected.

Looking ahead to the offseason, there’s definitely a noticeable talent deficiency on the offensive line. The Broncos have had issues creating pressure most of the year, but had little issue abusing Storm Norton and Michael Schofield last time around. The depth along the offensive line is also subpar, as Senio Kelemete’s struggles in pass protection make him a liability that’s tough to game plan around. Jared Cook’s at a stage in his career where he shouldn’t be re-signed. The defense needs more talent along the interior. With Kenneth Murray looking like a bust, it’d make sense to chase more linebackers.Nassir Adderley’s had some struggles this year and with his contract expiring after 2022, it could make sense to draft a replacement. Whether Chris Harris Jr. returns or departs after the season, he’s 32-years-old, the Tom Telesco should probably have an eye on this draft’s corner class.

As far as long term outlook the Chargers look like the best bet in the West. As good as the Chiefs have it with Patrick Mahomes, Andy Reid is 63 and probably won’t coach for another 15, 20 years. Justin Herbert’s already showing all the signs that he’s a perfect foil for Mahomes and I have all the faith in the world Brandon Staley is the right fit for L.A. The national debate over his fourth down decisions overlook the way his aggressiveness brought the Bolts within one play of taking down the best team in the NFL. While the issues on defense cost the Chargers last week and look like the key matchup for every opponent this season, it’s a personnel problem. This Los Angeles team is extremely reliant on Joey Bosa, Derwin James, and Michael Davis to hold up on defense. Kenneth Murray looks like the worst pick in Tom Telesco’s tenure, and Jerry Tillery’s a subpar run defender. Drue Tranquill’s a former safety and his play strength is always going to cause him some issues as a run defender. The fact is this is the first year of Staley’s tenure and the issues up front were evident as far back as training camp. It should get better in 2022 and beyond.

5.) Go ahead and give us a final score prediction along with a few lines on how you see this game shaking out.

In the end, it really boils down to Justin Herbert’s vs. Drew Lock’s. The Broncos have a ton of issues defending the run, but Herbert’s throwing into one of the best pass defenses in the league and Fangio is a maestro at creating pressure against overmatched lines. I’m writing this on Thursday morning, and it currently looks like the Chargers could be down to backups across most of the secondary. Bosa, James, and Nwosu means Staley could have the pieces to flummox Lock, but the Broncos should be able to move the ball.

The uncertainty with Covid makes this impossible to really predict, but I’m feeling a close Broncos’ win 24-17.