How the Denver Broncos Compensate for Injuries

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While undeniably marred by countless injuries to household names, the 2020 NFL Season offers an incredible opportunity for younger, less experienced players and coaches on new teams. With such names as Michael Thomas, Christian McCaffrey, and Saquon Barkley lost for an extended time or the entire season, the league has lost serious star power despite the aforementioned silver lining. This is especially true for the Denver Broncos, who have lost starters at quarterback, running back, wide receiver, offensive line, defensive line, edge rusher, and cornerback. In their last two games, against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the New York Jets respectively, the team was forced to compensate for these injuries in a bevy of adjustments; but were these tactics effective? If so, can they continue to compensate efficiently?

How the Denver Broncos Compensate for Injuries

The Denver Broncos Injury Report

It is certainly debatable as to which of the team’s seemingly endless injuries is the most catastrophic in regards to Denver’s success on the field, but there are three that, combined, are the most noticeable of late. Quarterback Drew Lock, wide receiver Courtland Sutton, and edge rusher Von Miller’s injuries are arguably the most impactful for the team, especially considering the context of the youth in the receiving core, the lack of depth at quarterback, and the pass rush issues the team has endured under head coach Vic Fangio.

Sutton? Out for the year. Miller? Possibly out for the year, depending on where the team stands in the mid-to-late winter. Lock? Who honestly knows? Unlike they did with the former two, the team opted against placing the second-year passer on the injured reserve in hopes of the young man returning to the field sooner than later, which, while music to the ears of Broncos Country, is still cause for pause.

Against a playoff contender in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and a team in play for the first overall pick for the umpteenth consecutive season in the New York Jets, the team managed to put some effective compensation for these injuries on tape. With that said, however, it was not the obvious solutions many fans and pundits offered in light of the lack of consistent health on the roster.

Compensating for the Injury to Von Miller

It is no secret that Von Miller is the best pass rusher on the team and almost certainly the best pass rusher in franchise history, leading in all-time sacks before his tenth season with the team even began. Despite the arrival of Bradley Chubb and Jurrell Casey, the team struggled early in the season to get pressure on the Tennessee Titans offense, notching a mere one sack and seven quarterback hits on Ryan Tannehill. These numbers got even worse against future Hall of Famer Ben Roethlisberger, as the team only managed to earn three quarterback hits without a single sack.

While they were certainly able to improve to two sacks and six hits against Tom Brady in week three, it was the Thursday Night Football game that illustrated the most effective compensation method the Fangio-led defense has found to compensate for the lack of Von Miller— and the additional loss of Jurrell Casey. Against the Driskel-led Broncos offense, the Buccaneers blitzed (sending more than four defenders) on 60 percent of the team’s 45 dropbacks, which figures out to 27 total blitzes! Of the 27 blitzes, 17 were with five defenders, nine were with six, and one with seven. Pressuring Driskel on 12 of the 27 blitzes, the team found success with six total sacks.

Blitzing has never been a staple of Vic Fangio’s scheme. Despite this fact, the week after facing blitzes on 60 percent of his team’s dropbacks Vic Fangio drew inspiration from Todd Bowles’s gameplan. Against the Jets and Sam Darnold, the Broncos defense rushed at least five defenders on 22 of New York’s 56 dropbacks, a 39.3 percent clip to set a career high for Fangio’s tenure with the Denver Broncos. Four of their six sacks came with these blitzes, and Bradley Chubb was able to notch the second-most sacks and most quarterback hits in a game in his career.

While Fangio has never relied too heavily or consistently on blitzes, the team will have to adapt to overcome the absence of Von Miller and Jurrell Casey. If the team can continue this level of success with manufactured pressure through blitzing against better teams than the lowly Jets, the secondary will be able to create bigger plays at a regular rate.

In essence, artificial pressure from blitzes is the only successful adjustment the team has made to compensate for Miller’s injury. They will have to continue this tactic if they want to keep games close enough for the injury-riddled offense to have a chance to win the game.

Compensating for the Injuries to Drew Lock and Courtland Sutton

It is not worth examining the offensive side of things for the Broncos from their three-possession loss to Tampa Bay, but even in light of the ineffectuality and inadequacy of the Jets from top-to-bottom, the Jets game is worth diving into.

With the starting quarterback and his number one target injured, the team, led now by Brett Rypien in his first career start, leaned extensively on the rushing attack and spreading the ball out amongst pass catchers. Seven different Broncos caught a pass—five of those seven catching more than one—and the team ran the ball 32 times, one more than Rypien’s 31 pass attempts. Despite a mostly lackluster performance by most of the offensive line, the leader of the Broncos rushing attack averaged 4.65 yards per carry on his way to a hundred-yard performance and a long touchdown to serve as the final nail in the coffin.

Between a career-best performance from Tim Patrick (six catches, 113 yards, and a touchdown) and an impressive performance from Jerry Jeudy (two catches, 61 yards, and what will probably end up considered as the most memorable touchdown of the entire week), it is clear the team knows the injuries have hampered the offense considerably.

Allowing Rypien to get the ball out quickly and to multiple dynamic playmakers is the best way to set up the young quarterback for success in his relief duty while Lock remains sidelined. Furthermore, as the game readily illustrated last night, the quick throws and pass play designs forced the defense to bite up a bit, which allowed the inexperienced Rypien to throw deep with moderate success.

Keeping in mind the indeterminate nature of Drew Lock’s injury, continuing to build off of these minute adjustments and schematic surprises is the only way to ensure the team remains afloat long enough for Lock’s return to the field to yield substantive gameplay.

In Conclusion

It is nearly impossible to replace the production of Courtland Sutton, especially when two of the team’s top four receivers are rookies. It is similarly impossible to replace the production and leadership of Von Miller. Likewise, it is nearly impossible to replace the moxie, leadership, or established chemistry with receivers of Drew Lock. That said, if the Denver Broncos continue to apply subtle shifts to scheme and design as they did beginning with their loss to Tampa Bay, it is certainly possible they can keep their heads above water until playmakers return from injured reserve.

But to do so, they will have to keep fighting with everything they’ve got.

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