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Denver Broncos vs Pittsburgh Steelers Preview

What looked like the first start of the year for Drew Lock got a lot murkier on Friday as Teddy Bridgwater has cleared concussion protocol.

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After a tough week against Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens that saw the Denver Broncos drop from 1st in Pass/Rush-D, Total D, Points Against, and Time of Possession, drop anywhere from 2nd-5th in their respective categories. The Broncos manhandled the Jaguars, Giants, and Jets through the first 3 weeks. Then hit the brick wall that was the Ravens who exploited warts across Denver’s roster the less talent-laden teams they faced beforehand simply couldn’t. I believe the latter is where the Steelers lie, and I will break down just how a Teddy or Drew lead team can escape Heinz Field with a victory.

Heinz Field is a notoriously hard place for visitors to play, regardless of the Steelers’ talent on the field. The Steelers are 400-238-9 (including playoffs), a ridiculous .625 winning percentage. But it’s not like they are blowing every opponent out, the average margin of victory is less than 4 points. Pittsburgh also holds the all-time record for winning percentage (.713) and wins (309) against visiting AFC opponents. The Denver Broncos is second on that list in wins (288) and 3rd in win% (.679). There were second in win% before the loss to the Ravens on Sunday, which put Baltimore in the 2nd spot. You may ask, how is he going to spin this into a positive for the Broncos? I’m glad you asked.

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As I stated, despite the dominance the Steelers’ all-time home record eludes too, don’t forget that small margin of victory. The Broncos all-time on the road have scored the 3rd most average points (20.2) 1.4 points behind the Patriots. That brings the average margin of victory down to 1.3 points. An easily beatable margin in a game with an oblong spheroid that tends to bounce in funny ways.

The Broncos are only 1 of 2 teams in the AFC with multiple road victories. Yes, they came against the Giants and Jags, but winning on the road in the NFL is incredibly hard. As the team with the most road victories in the AFC all-time is this Steelers franchise as well (both wins and win%) with the only winning record of 214-207-2. The Cowboys are the only other team with a winning record on the road in its own conference. All the records/stats so far are courtesy of StatMuse.

That 20.1 road points average aligns well with the Denver Broncos Offense so far in 2021 which has averaged 20.8 PPG. That’s only 21st in the league, but they face the 3rd worst offense in the league as far as PPG at 16.8 in the Steelers. The Steelers look like they may be getting back 2 of their top 3 targets in Chase Claypool and Juju Smith-Schuster. But the Steelers have the worst rushing offense (55.5 YPG/32nd), which looks at a one-dimensional game as Denver D is 5th against the run at 70 YPG. The Broncos D is also 6th against the pass even after Lamar torched them for 300+ last week. The Steelers O is 19th in passing at 258.3 YPG. All the stats in this paragraph are courtesy of Yahoo! Sports.

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The biggest thing going for Denver Offense is the Steelers Defense. The Steelers D is ranked 16th overall giving up 357.75 YPG and only has 1 INT and 5 total sacks through 4 games. That with what I said in this article, that whoever starts at QB will get guards Dalton Risner and Graham Glasnow back to improve their protection against a one-dimensional pass rush. Outside of T.J. Watt, no one really scares you. This should mean a relatively clean pocket for a QB to work out of, especially if Shurmur gets out his own way and utilizes the 2/3-TE sets that were so successful in their 3-0 start to the season.

I also do not see the Denver Broncos carrying over a misguided Cover-Zero game plan they used defensively last week. I see Denver getting back to the suffocating defense they played the first 3 weeks against another bad offense with a statue at QB. Von Miller and Co. should feast in this game. As well as the Denver running game that should be leaned on heavily regardless of the QB under center.

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Speaking of QB’s, up until Friday afternoon, this looked like Drew Lock’s first start of the year. But after Teddy practiced fully Friday after being cleared by an independent specialist earlier in the day. This worries me not as a person that wants to see Lock play. But schematically, as Drew has taken all the reps with the 1’s this week. I know Teddy was in the building and viewed practices.

But that is not the same as actually taking the reps. Then after no practice reps with the starters while at home is a stretch. Going into a hostile environment like Heinz Field is a completely different animal. This is the edge a team in desperation like the Steelers needs. This was also a serious concussion that caused Teddy to have involuntary body movements. No concussion is “small” or “little”, but this one looked nasty. Coming back in 6 days doesn’t sound like you are putting player safety first Vic.

So in summary, regardless of the QB, if the Broncos can run the rock, expand the 2/3-TE sets, and go back to the defense that dominated the first three weeks, they can win. But if they play a less than 100% Teddy, run the offense out of 3 wide sets, and continue the communication issues on the defensive back end from last week, they will lose. This is one of the closest matchups on paper in the NFL this week. But I do believe the Broncos defense will be the deciding factor in a hard fought game.

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Final Prediction:

Denver 20-Pittsburgh 13

Denver Broncos Get Rolled at Home by Ravens #BALvsDEN

The Denver Broncos came into week 4 3-0 and tied for first in the AFC West. They left with that tie, but at 3-1 after being rolled at home by Lamar Jackson’s arm and Ravens D.

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The Denver Broncos were on top of the world and AFC West after a 3-0 start. They had a 2-game lead on Kansas City and were one of 3 undefeated teams with the Raiders and Arizona Cardinals. They were tied with the Raiders for the division lead. By the end of the day, Arizona was the lone undefeated team in the league and the Broncos and Raiders had to make room for the Chargers at the top of the division where all three are tied at 3-1.

So how exactly was Lamar Jackson and company able to dismantle the top-ranked pass-D in the league to the tune of 316 yards on 22/37 passing with 1 TD and 0 INT’s? Blown coverages and a game plan that left the Broncos’ defense vulnerable. Vic Fangio was determined to not let Lamar beat them with his legs. And he accomplished this as Lamar only had 28 yards rushing on 7 attempts. And outside of a controversial last play would have snapped the Raven’s record streak of at least 100 yards rushing, 43 straight games now, tying the 70’s era Steel Curtain Steelers. But as mentioned above, Lamar was able to beat the Cover Zero that Fangio ran almost the entire game. He got only his second 300-yard passing game of his entire career in the process.

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That Cover Zero was a serious miscalculation, it is not what Fangio’s defense is built for. He runs a “match-zone”, which essentially means his D begins as a zone, but once an offensive player crosses into the defender’s “zone” they “match-up” or go to man coverage on that player, until they leave their “zone”. That player is then passed off to the next defender and their “zone”. This is why communication and a top-tier coverage linebacker are much more necessary in Fangio’s scheme than other zone concepts.

This means he runs a lot of Cover 2, or Tampa 2 as many know it. That means two safeties play deep to essentially remove the deep-ball from the equation. Well, now you have defenders playing a scheme they don’t practice outside of a few plays here and there. And no help over the top if someone misses their man-to-man assignment, that again, they don’t practice. This killed the Broncos on 5 huge plays. Marquise “Hollywood” Brown’s insane 49-yard full-layout TD. James Proche’s 32-yarder with no defender within 20-yards that ended up getting them a field goal. Mark Andrews’ 24-yard rumble across the middle of the field that precursed a Latavius Murray 11-yard TD jaunt. And Devin Duvernay’s 17-yard catch that led to the field goal that put the Ravens up by 13 in the early 4th-quarter.

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Now it wasn’t all bad for the defense, like I said, they stuffed the run all game and sacked Lamar 3 times, including 2 by breakout rookie Caden Sterns. Those are the first 2 sacks of Sterns’ career again, who was all over the field. He also had 3 solo tackles and 1 pass defense that he turned himself into a missile, covered 15-yards and jarred the ball out of Sammy Watkins’ hands before he could secure a prayer thrown by Lamar Jackson. This play saved an almost 30+ yard miracle catch and lead to the Ravens punting instead of at least another 3-points from Justin Tucker.

We would also be remiss if we didn’t mention Von Miller continuing his season-beginning sack streak with a half-sack of Lamar late. He also added 5 total tackles and 1 TFL to go with that half-sack. Showing yet again, he is back, healthy, and hungry. There is only one award Miller hasn’t won, Defensive Player of the Year, he continues like this, it could be his year. That is if the Broncos can continue to win.

The Bronco’s chances took a big hit, literally and figuratively, just before the half. When Teddy Bridgewater was knocked so senseless he lost feeling in his hands. This is not something that has been confirmed, but go back and watch Teddy’s hands on the final drive before the half. Those are not normal hand movements by a human that is totally “there” mentally. They look almost involuntary and a bit scary. You can see the hit at the very beginning of this video. We can debate “helmet to helmet” non-calls all you want. Doesn’t change anything.

The Broncos ended the day down 8 starters on both sides of the ball. So in one game, Denver got all of 2020 smacked right across their forehead. Quarterback injuries/turmoil, WR injuries (down 3 receivers now), O-line inconsistency with pass blocking, and a flash of pre-2020 Garrett Bolles with his first holding penalty of the year wiping out a crucial 3rd down Drew Lock had converted on an insane scramble drill.

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Speaking of Drew Lock, yes, he got his first action in over a month when he played the final preseason game against the L.A. Rams. After a month of pretending to be other QB’s with the practice squad, he was thrust into an impossible situation. After averaging over 6.5 YPC in the first quarter, Pat Shurmur completely abandoned the run despite it being a one-score game until the final play of the first half.

Then when his young backup QB, that spent the week pretending to be Lamar Jackson, called 4 run plays, and 21 pass plays in the second half. Again, it was only a 10-point game until the 4th-quarter. I got a lot of hate on Twitter and was accused of being a Drew Lock Stan by Teddy Stans on Twitter. But as I said there, here, and everywhere. Check my receipts, I do not know if Drew Lock is “the guy”, but I stand pat, and feel vindicated, in this stance after Sunday. That Drew’s upside is much greater than Teddy’s.

This shows with how the Ravens’ D changed after Drew’s first 3rd-down conversion where he put a frozen rope on Noah Fant in a window Teddy hasn’t been able to hit since college. The Ravens immediately backed up and went from their own Cover Zero due to no fear of Teddy’s arm, too much more Cover 2 to make sure they took away the deep part of the field. The mere presence of Lock on the field forced a defense to change their game plan mid-drive. Here are a few Tweets I put out to counteract the narratives so many want to be true to vindicate their takes all off-season that Teddy is the better option. Not the scared money pick we here at the #TAI42Fam believe it was and is.

Here is a bit of info to combat the “Teddy is so much more accurate!” trope:

And this one explains itself:

If not for a late and meaningless interception in the end zone with 3 seconds left on the clock and 3rd-1 from the 3 where Courtland Sutton gave almost no effort to go up and fight for. Drew would have destroyed Teddy’s first-half line as you can see them below courtesy of Yahoo! Sports:

And again, this was with Drew getting zero snaps with the 1’s since Teddy was named the starter before the Broncos’ final preseason game. Many jumped on his “inaccuracies” without mentioning he had a better comp% than Teddy by over double-digit points. Or that he almost doubled him up in yardage hitting throws Teddy just simply can’t make.

They also want to talk about his interception like it wasn’t essentially the last play of the game. And he gave his best red-zone threat a chance in one-on-one coverage to high-point it, but instead Courtland Sutton back-pedaled and allowed Anthony Averett to prove he wanted it more. As he jumped in front of Court and hauled in the meaningless interception with 3 seconds left on the clock. And if he didn’t, none of you would have the “coaches feud” none of you knew you wanted. I also would like to point out I called this happening in my first article of the year.

Now that we are on to better vibes, let’s talk about this run:

Video courtesy of the Denver Broncos Social Media Team:

That. Was. INSANE! Pookie said you owe HIM! Javonte Williams needs a new nickname because he does not care these men have families! Maybe “The Reaper”? He’s straight snatching souls out there. That was a Deebo move! Poor Marlon Humphrey was drug 19 yards like he was Javonte’s backpack. What chain? And no “Lil’ Pinball” is NOT good enough.

There is nothing “Lil” about the 5’10” 220 lb. Javonte Williams. He is full-grown. And I approve this message:

I know that Melvin Gordon looks like his 2018 self again, on a contract year. But Javonte has proven through 3 weeks, despite a goal-line fumble last week, he is the future of the Denver Broncos rushing attack. And what a one it will be, if Shurmur gets out of its way. The Broncos’ run-blocking was outstanding with rookie Quinn Meinerz and 2nd-year guard Netane Muti playing instead of starters Dalton Risner and Graham Glasgow who were out with injury. The pass-blocking was abysmal, as Muti and Meinerz got bullied by the Ravens’ interior pass-rush. Giving up 5 sacks on the game (Ravens had 5 sacks in the first 3 games combined).

This coupled with Shurmur deciding the success in their 2 and 3-TE sets the first 3 weeks meant nothing. Since he went 3-wide for the vast majority of the offensive snaps. Despite the fact 2 of his top-3, and 3 of his top-5 WR’s were injured by half-time. And the Broncos had three viable TE targets. Not only do 2 and 3-TE sets match your personnel, but they can also be added to the blocking scheme. Especially Eric Saubert, who can ostensibly be a 6th O-lineman. Or using Andrew Beck as the FB-TE hybrid he’s supposed to be on the roster for. Instead, he had Return Specialist Diontae Spencer running routes over the middle of the field. And Kendall Hinton running routes meant for KJ Hamler and Jerry Jeudy.

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Between Shurmur hampering the offense by indefensible play-calling and Denver’s Special Teams coverage units continuing to be absolutely abysmal. I continue to doubt the post-season viability of this Broncos squad. I don’t see Fangio straying so far away from his norms again, Lamar is a unique player, and caused a unique challenge Vic over-compensated for. And I see this being an anomaly as long as Surtain doesn’t miss significant time and Darby can return in the next week or 2. So I won’t spend time breaking that down any further. The improved run-D was encouraging, so they can build on that and correct the communication miscues that lead to the 5 broken coverages we discussed earlier.

This week the Broncos will be getting a matchup against another beat-up team in the Pittsburgh Steelers. Who are licking their wounds after three straight losses to the Raiders, Bengals, and Packers. And with Teddy still not practicing as of Wednesday. We will see Drew Lock’s iteration of the 2020 Denver Broncos. The Broncos and Steelers have an extensive injury list. But it looks like Lock will have those starting guards back, who despite their warts, are much better than their respective backups are currently.

So I will most likely be the first and only one to say I believe Lock will surprise and have a strong showing against a reeling Pittsburgh squad who hasn’t won since a stellar opening week win over the surging Buffalo Bills. This is a perfect bounce-back opportunity for not only the Broncos but Lock against a very beatable Steelers team. This is by no means a “lock”, but the most likely outcome. I would love to see Lock against the strong upcoming Broncos schedule. This Sunday, not last, will give a true idea of the improvements Lock made this offseason.

Broncos Get First September Win Under Fangio

Broncos were 0-7 under head coach Vic Fangio coming into the 2021 season opener against the New York Giants. After sound performances on both offense and defense, they sit 1-0.

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As has been reiterated ad nauseam since the pre-season started. The Denver Broncos after 2 years under Fangio had yet to notch a single win in September, going 0-7. Well, the narrative is officially broken after a 27-13 drubbing of the home team New York Giants in the Meadowlands. This building has been a place of horrors for Denver since the 1998 squad ended their attempt at a perfect season on an Amani Toomer 37-yard TD catch with mere seconds left on the clock. The Denver Broncos were 1-2 in games played in New Jersey, regardless of the stadium or name. Also regardless of if the team opposite of them was any good. The sole win had come under the guidance of Peyton Manning and his record-breaking 2013 offense. The ’98 Giants team ended 6-10, 2005 was 11-5. The Denver Broncos had only won a singular other game as the visitor to the Meadowlands since 1972, a 14-9 hard-hitting win with the last iteration of the Orange Crush defense, and pre Elway-era. So Teddy Bridgewater did something even the Duke of Denver couldn’t do, beat the Giants on the road.

Teddy actually has as many total wins (1) as Elway had against the Giants regardless of the venue in his entire 16-year career. I have not been shy about my preference for Drew Lock to be the starting quarterback of this year’s Broncos. But Teddy helped to ally some fears, such as the fumbling issues that have plagued him since his rookie campaign. He came out of the game with barely a smudge on his jersey, and even when he faced pressure he showed he knew how to keep two hands on the ball. This was his biggest flaw outside of the lack of arm strength. That second flaw showed itself on multiple throws. Not the least of which is this should-be touchdown for some reason everyone blames K.J. Hamler for. Watch the highlight linked titled “KJ HAMLER DROPS A WIDE-OPEN TD FROM BRIDGEWATER”. And you will see how Hamler pretty much had to come to a complete stop, turn around, and jump for the off-target duck of a throw. I know Peyton Manning said, “I had a lot of wobbly balls go for TDs”. Teddy is not Peyton, not by any stretch when it comes to accuracy and ball placement. But one thing he does emulate is the General alter ego of Peyton.

This video of an interaction between Von Miller and Teddy Bridgewater I believe encapsulates why Teddy was the choice over Drew Lock courtesy of the Denver Broncos Social Media Team:

However, I do not back down from my statements that Teddy and his lack of arm strength will ultimately be the Broncos’ undoing. He got lucky on multiple plays where, against better defenses, the ball will end up in the opponents’ hands instead of the ground or some highlight-reel catch his receiver bailed him out on. Watch this highlight reel at the 2:50 mark. A better defense with more speed, and that floater is an interception. Also what you won’t see in any highlight reel are the 8 incompletions he had where they were grossly underthrown, either hitting the dirt or the back of a defender before getting to his target. You will also notice in the highlight reel, not a single throw more than 15 yards past the line of scrimmage become a completion. I understand Peyton and Tom Brady won this way for years. But again, Peyton or Brady Bridgewater is not. The first test that will truly tell us how far Teddy can take this team comes in week 3 vs Baltimore in Denver. While Teddy deserves some praise for his debut line of this:

Teddy Bridgewater283626420115.7
Numbers Courtesy of Yahoo! Sports

But as with all players, I give a no-nonsense take on what I see. And what I saw was a limited QB with a ton of talent around him that could cover up for his shortcomings. I love the leadership and veteran moxy Bridgewater brings, but those traits only help you so much on the field. He plays in an outdoor stadium in a northern city known for its horrible winter weather. He struggled to push the ball downfield on a sunny day in the windless Meadowlands. What do you think happens in November in Philly, or December in Denver, or Kansas City? There is plenty of time between then and now for Drew to regain the starting role, but as long as Teddy keeps playing like this, that won’t happen. So we are most likely to find out.

That’s enough about the QB, not like they don’t get enough talking space right? The next 2 things that stuck out to me were the pass defense and the rushing offense. I do not get how the same people that qualified Drew Lock’s 80-yarder in the pre-season as a way to discount his numbers against Minnesota, are saying the opposite of the 70-yard run by Melvin Gordon. Without that 70-yard run, he has 31 yards on 10 carries, a 3.1 yard-per-carry average. Javonte Williams actually led the team in carries with 14 for 45 yards, a 3.2 YPC. The Denver Defense was lights out with 3 4th-down stops in the Giants Redzone to allow Denver to keep a commitment to the run game. If they are playing an offense like Kansas City, I doubt they get that luxury to get to that 70-yard romp.

Here is that 70-yarder courtesy of the Denver Broncos Social Media Team:

Next up is the pass defense, which allowed Daniel Jones to almost match Teddy throw for throw. They allowed Sterling Shepherd to go for 113 yards and 7 catches. Shepherd along with Darius Slayton and Kenny Golladay averaged at least 16 yards per catch. The pass defense was supposed to be the strength of this D, and on a day where they did everything else right, this sticks out like a sore thumb. Jones didn’t have his best-receiving option in Evan Engram due to injury, yet he was still able to put up this line with the only blemish being a fumble caused by Josey Jewel. Without that fumble, his and Teddy’s QB rating would be almost identical.

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Stats courtesy of Yahoo! Sports

I don’t care how many people try to convince me otherwise, Daniel Jones is not an elite QB. He looks a lot like a top-notch backup that can come in and win you about as many as he will lose. His ball security issues are well known, yet the defense only forced 2 turnovers and no interceptions. No one gets to use the excuse of “well Denver had a big lead and it forced New York to throw a bunch”, look at the QB stats in this article. Jones only had one more attempt than Teddy. The positive of this wart is it’s correctable. A miscommunication of who had Slayton when passed by the corner was what led to his 42-yarder. That play and the 32-yard catch by Shepherd were almost a third of Daniel Jones’ total yardage passing. So I can’t worry that this will be a long-term issue, Fangio will have this secondary ready for the New York Jets. The communication should get smoother as this back-end gels, and the tackling, which was good, will get even better.

Now that we are in a good space, now for some more good feels from Sunday afternoon.

Von Miller is BACK! Videos courtesy of the Denver Broncos Social Media Team:

Von ended his day with 3 tackles (3 solos), all for a loss, and the Broncos’ only 2 sacks on the day. When he wasn’t dragging down Jones and company in the backfield, he was making Daniel believe he was actually in a pit of lions. Miller lived in the backfield during this game, blowing up any play sent his way. He and the d-line of Shelby Harris, Dre’mont Jones, and Mike Purcell gave Saquon Barkly a rude homecoming present in the form of 26 yards on 10 carries with 0 TDs. Daniel Jones was the Giants leading rusher with 27 yards on 6 carries with the Giants lone rushing TD that came with :00’s on the game clock.

This was a feel-good win for #BroncosCountry, and they should enjoy it with the dearth of celebration in recent September’s. But the talk of a Super Bowl destined roster is premature, to say the least, those talks shouldn’t start before December. We have plenty to talk about and cheer about between then and now. So party Denver, this feeling may not be as common as we all hope.

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