Chargers Preview: Getting To Know The Denver Broncos
The Los Angeles Chargers were able to overcome their past history and beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in what should not have been a nail-biter but unfortunately was. They now sit at sixth in the AFC and are a half-game behind the Chiefs for first place in the AFC West. A win at Denver this week would move them into a tie for the division, as the Chiefs are on their bye week.
The Broncos mildly roared out of the gate this year by beating the Giants, Jaguars, and Jets. After their 3-0 start, however, the Broncos have come crashing back down to earth and are currently sitting at 5-5. Playing in Denver has generally always given the Chargers problems, and they can’t really afford to drop a game to Vic Fangio’s squad this week. Even though the Broncos aren’t a great team, this is another must-win game for Brandon Staley and company.
2020 Season In Review
The story of the Broncos 2020 season is a similar one that has been told in recent non-Peyton Manning Broncos years. They received incredibly inconsistent play from their quarterback and have a relatively underperforming coaching staff, which is obviously not a great mix in the NFL. After Drew Lock provided the 2019 team with a spark, finishing 4-1 that year, there was a lot of hope in Denver that they had finally found the heir apparent to Manning. However, that has since been proven to not be the case.
Lock struggled to consistently put plays and drives together at a high level, and even turned the ball over 23 times. There were some games where he would look great and look like he was turning the corner – like when he, unfortunately, led a crazy comeback against the Chargers. Two games later against the Raiders, though Lock threw four interceptions. It was an incredibly up and down season from the quarterback, and in the NFL that means your team’s season is also up and down. In the 2020 Broncos’ case, it was more down than up, and they finished 5-11 and would find themselves picking in the top 10 again with another year of major questions at the quarterback position.
Key Additions And Departures
Shortly after the 2020 season ended, the Broncos made a surprising front office decision by removing John Elway from the general manager position and handed the keys to the roster over to George Paton. This hiring would obviously be the most important decision they would make for their short and long-term future, and the early returns on Paton have been promising so far.
Shortly after Paton took over, he and the Broncos started to be connected to every single quarterback that was presumably on the market. At one point they were considered the favorites to trade for Russell Wilson or Aaron Rodgers. They did heavy research on the quarterbacks in the draft, including Justin Fields and Trey Lance.
Ultimately, they did decide to trade for a veteran quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater. The messaging after the trade and subsequent draft was that Bridgewater and Lock would compete for the starting position. Bridgewater of course won out, and he has started every season so far. He’s been about what everyone expected so far. He ranks 17th in the league with 2,389 and has thrown 14 touchdowns and most importantly for the Broncos has only thrown five interceptions (three of which came against the Raiders).
Outside of the quarterback position, Paton made a concerted effort to replenish the talent in the secondary. They spent big on Ronald Darby, and also added Kyle Fuller to a short-term deal to provide depth behind Bryce Callahan (who is currently on injured reserve). Then they nabbed their other big fish of the offseason in first-round pick Patrick Surtain II to round out the secondary.
Surtain has proven to be every bit as advertised. He is allowing the fourth-lowest completion percentage among all rookie cornerbacks at 53.7%. The three rookies ahead of him have been targeted a combined 41 times. Surtain has been targeted 54 times so far this season which is third most among rookie cornerbacks. He is tied for second in pass breakups with six and has the third-best passer rating when targeted. He’s going to be a really good player in this league for a long time.
After Surtain, the Broncos drafted running back Javonte Williams, offensive lineman Quinn Meinerz, linebacker Baron Browning, and safety Caden Sterns. All of those players are playing key roles for the team at the moment. As is outside linebacker Jonathon Cooper, whom they drafted in the seventh round and has really been the only impact player on the edge after they traded Von Miller to the Rams.
The Broncos have continued to be up and down, but at least this time it is not due to the quarterback. Instead, the defense has been ravaged by injuries. They had to trade for linebacker Kenny Young because they literally did not have any healthy inside linebackers. Bradley Chubb has barely played this season. I already mentioned the Callahan injury. Jerry Jeudy has missed extensive time. KJ Hamler is out for the season. Garett Bolles has missed time. Graham Glasgow is out for the season. The list goes on.
I realize that I’m saying all of this to Chargers fans, but as we all know, you aren’t going to win many games in the NFL with those kinds of injuries. The soft opening schedule has kept them afloat in the AFC but they have only won two out of their last seven games and that included a Thursday night loss to the Case Keenum-led Browns. The Broncos play the Chiefs, Chargers, and Bengals in three of the next four weeks and I expect that to paint a not so pretty picture for this current Broncos team. Then again, the goal never should have been playoffs for them this year in the first play. They’ll then close the season with three divisional games this year.
History Against The Chargers
Traveling to Denver is never an easy task for the Chargers. Call it the altitude, call it the cold weather, or whatever you want to but this will not be an easy game for the Chargers. Philip Rivers made 17 trips to Denver in his Chargers career and only won seven of them, and that was with winning four out of five from 2006-2010. If you take it all the way back to 2000, the Chargers have made 22 trips to Denver, and have only come out of Mile High with seven victories – all by Rivers. This is why the Chargers and Broncos generally split their season series. The Broncos lead the all-time series against the Chargers 69-53-1.
If you read the above paragraph and came away thinking the Chargers will lose on Sunday, that was not my intention. Instead, I was hoping to convey that even though the Chargers are the better team and should win this game, it is going to be difficult. Add in the extra coaching dynamic between Staley and his mentor and should be very interesting. These two coaches know each other incredibly well and you can bet that Fangio will have something special cooked up at some point in the game.
Ultimately, I believe the Chargers’ offense will be too much for the Broncos’ depleted defense. Despite being in the first year of their install, the offense is putting up historic numbers in terms of efficiency. They are currently third in the league in offensive DVOA, second in EPA/play, and first in EPA/drive. They have moved the ball at will and I expect that to continue. The question is if the defense can make a couple more plays here and there to give Justin Herbert and company some short fields. Regardless, I expect the Chargers MVP candidate to handle his business and come out victorious, 28-20.