Injuries loom large as the Denver Broncos return to Mile High with even diminished capacity in attendance. Falling by a mere five points this afternoon, the Broncos made a gritty bid for a comeback against the Pittsburgh Steelers despite the specter of injury concerns at every end of the field. As the winless boys in orange and blue make the transition from future Hall of Famer Ben Roethlisberger to the most accomplished quarterback in history and fellow future Hall of Famer, Tom Brady, it is not only the injury report developments it is important to keep an eye on.
Denver Broncos Injuries Loom Large After Loss
Contextualizing the Loss
A typical knee-jerk reaction to the loss today points the finger at the injuries at key positions, blaming the uncontrollable for the defeat. While there are certainly no moral victories in the National Football League, there were as many factors to feel excited about as the team returns home to prepare for Tom Brady’s third game with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as there were negatives to dissect. The team displayed a tremendous level of grit by digging deep and maintaining a close score despite the starting quarterback, Drew Lock, missing what rounds up to his twelfth game since getting drafted with the 42nd pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.
Between Melvin Gordon III taking advantage of running lanes and improved consistency and focus from the rookie, Jerry Jeudy, the offense displayed strides of progress despite the injuries to the starting quarterback and one half of the starting running backs. More aggressive downfield passing and the subtle boon of K.J. Hamler added deeper wrinkles and nuance to the offense we saw last week. Jeff Driskel, a decidedly average quarterback, managed to keep the game competitive with a well-built Steelers team.
Accomplishing such a feat in light of Elijah Wilkinson’s overwhelmingly ineffectual performance at right tackle suggests an upward trend and serves as a testament to coaching.
This should come as no surprise considering the youth of the offense, which features five new starters—two-to-three rookies at a time—when Lindsay is not on the field. The youth, inexperience, and fragility of the offense create a disconnect in chemistry, disrupting timing and preventing an offense from achieving a natural flow. With all of these factors in play, a mere five-point defeat at the hands of a perennial contender the likes of the Pittsburgh Steelers is an early defeat the team can afford to take in a year devoted to player development and establishing synergy on the field.
A T-Step Homeward
As the Broncos look to pivot from their defeat against an offense finding its feet and a defense leaving its mark, they must prepare for the most accomplished player in league history. More importantly, they must prepare for his mind.
In recent years, myriad historically elite quarterbacks have singled out Vic Fangio’s defenses as the most difficult challenge they faced. His scheme hinges upon versatility at every level of the defense and a heavy reliance on zone coverage, often featuring extensive cushion from the defensive backs. Naturally, this leaves the defense susceptible to quick passes and dynamic offenses capable of utilizing play action to freeze linebackers and other off-ball defenders.
This does not bode well as Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers come to Mile High. Brady made his career in New England with passing schemes predicated around delivering the ball from the pocket with great haste, which has proven to be the Achilles heel for the Fangio-led defense in Denver. Despite the vertical influences of Bruce Arians’s scheme, the Buccaneers will likely employ quick throws to get the ball to playmakers in space, neutralizing our pass rush.
After experiencing growing pains in their season-opening loss to the New Orleans Saints, the Brady-led Buccaneers tasted success against the Carolina Panthers, defeating them 31-17 with a hundred-yard receiver and rusher in Mike Evans and Leonard Fournette. With Tampa finding their footing at the right time and injuries derailing the progress to be made with the chemistry between starters in Denver, the Broncos must use the lessons of this week’s loss to accelerate their preparation and development in their younger players.
Right Tackle Versus Pass Rusher
While chess matches between Noah Fant and Devin White, Tom Brady and Vic Fangio, or Bradley Chubb and rookie Tristan Wirfs offer scintillating possibilities to the second home game of the season for Denver, three matchups will control the flow of the game.
First, the fairly one-sided competition between right tackle Elijah Wilkinson and pass rusher Shaquil Barrett, a former Bronco. After Ja’Wuan James opted out of the 2020 season, Wilkinson was once again thrust into the starting role with the team. Since receiving this promotion, Wilkinson has served as the offensive line’s resident backfield tour guide, anchoring an aggressively underperforming right side to the unit.
Wilkinson’s efforts in week three will be under the microscope more than usual, especially after his efficiency contributed to Drew Lock’s injury. With Barrett coming off of a season leading the league in sacks and having yet to accrue his first of the 2020 campaign, Wilkinson more than has his work cut out for him, creating a serious mismatch to watch.
Wide Receiver Versus Secondary
Secondly, the similarly mismatched dynamic between Mike Evans and the Denver secondary. Towering at six feet and five inches tall, Mike Evans is a massive receiving target for Brady, one for which the Broncos defense has no competition. Among the five starting defensive backs, the tallest is Justin Simmons at six feet and two inches, weighing in at slightly over two hundred pounds.
Rostering only one other defensive back over six feet tall and without an answer for Mike Evans’s sheer size, the Broncos will be forced to make significant schematic adjustments to keep their heads above water against Tampa’s offense. Considering the stark lack of tangible or successful adjustments made between games or halves with Vic Fangio at the helm, this is cause for concern for Broncos Country.
Denver Broncos Versus Injuries
They are missing the face of the franchise and their best defender Von Miller, possibly for the season. Their number one corner went down in week one with a dislocated shoulder injury. The team’s number one wide receiver missed week one and part of week two with injuries. Their spark plug and speedy complement to Melvin Gordon, Phillip Lindsay, is suffering the effects of turf toe and is not guaranteed to play. Most recently, the starting quarterback missed the vast majority of today’s loss with an injury to his throwing shoulder.
At this point, any injury could seriously cripple our offense or our defense alike.
If the Broncos are to have any chance to beat Tom Brady and the Buccaneers, they will need to dig even deeper than they did today. They will need to dig deep enough for the world to see the team’s heart and grit. They will need an on-field manifestation of a bildungsroman coming-of-age story for rookies and young players alike.
Without a preseason to properly acclimate players to the violence and rigors of an average NFL game, injuries have hampered the team’s ability to develop, evaluate players, and establish chemistry. To defeat Tampa Bay, the team will need to overcome adversity in one of two ways, if not both: stay healthy or receive significant secondary and tertiary production from depth players at every level of offense and defense.
There are countless aspects of this Denver Broncos team it is important to pay close attention to heading into the Buccaneers game. Justin Simmons’s bid to continue off of his second-half performance today and finally find a rhythm and the rookies’ efforts to learn from their rookie mistakes from today come to mind when contemplating the nuances necessary to keep an eye on. Noah Fant’s need to string together two full halves of effective play and the collective offense’s need to focus on ‘and-short’ down and distance situations are equally as pivotal to the team’s success (or lack thereof).
The three aforementioned matchups and the numerous factors contributing to the outcome of this coming week’s game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers require a wealth of effective self-scouting from the team and coaching staff alike. Without a heavy devotion to the mental aspect of the game, it will become increasingly difficult for the Denver Broncos to overcome their demoralizing number of injuries at key positions.
As the injuries preempting the loss to Pittsburgh and those suffered therein loom large, Broncos Country must force themselves to remain patient. Once pivotal players have healed from their many injuries and the team has had a legitimate chance to settle into a rhythm and establish chemistry, it becomes easier to evaluate the execution and the coaching.
The future is bright in Denver even if the clouds overhead are not.
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