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Outside of quarterback Case Keenum, the Denver Broncos most irreplaceable players, cornerback Chirs Harris Jr. and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, are now both out injured.
Those two key absences change the Broncos drastically on both sides of the ball, and no waiver wire pickups can change that.
Simply replacing Harris and Sanders with the next man up on the depth chart won’t do it, it’ll take an all-around team effort for those two losses to not alter Denver’s season drastically, and considering every game is a must win from here on out, Vance Joseph and his staff must quickly figure out how to keep the team afloat and playoff hopes alive for the Orange & Blue.
Which is why we’ve gone back to see what the Broncos have done the past few weeks that we liked and what they can keep doing to lessen the impact of Sanders and Harris’ absence. We also took some time to look at Denver’s latest additions at receiver and cornerback, to evaluate what they bring to the table, as they’ll likely be called upon sooner rather than later.
Getting Phillip Lindsay and Garett Bolles in space
Running back Phillip Lindsay has been arguably the fastest player in the NFL lately, and his ability to win the corner on just about anyone has made a huge difference for the Broncos offense.
That speed needs to be unleashed out on the perimeter as often as possible, as the recovering corp will be missing its best big-play weapon in Sanders, meaning that feeding Lindsay with more touches and plays in space must be a point of emphasis going forward.
Beyond just Lindsay, the Broncos new offensive line has gelled well and shown that what they may lack in experience they can make up for with athleticism, as everyone on the line has had experience playing tackle in college and even the pros.
Most of all, the offensive line has seen left tackle Garett Bolles elevate his performance in the three-game win streak which has been a really encouraging sign for the former first-round draft pick. More than his improvements in pass protection, what we’d like to see more of is Bolles getting out in space; blocking on toss plays, screens, or even on pulls where he can use his rare athleticism to mow down defenders.
We saw what a lethal combination Lindsay running behind Bolles can be against the Cincinnati Bengals on this 65-yard touchdown.
We’ve seen other small flashes of this from Bolles this year but need to see more as the outside run game is a true strength and Denver’s left tackle is ideally suited to block on the move.
A similarly superb athlete, Ryan Clady, was used like this under Mike Shanahan back in the day; OC Bill Musgrave could do more of this to exploit two of his most athletic weapons on offense. Especially more screens to Bolles’ side to young legs like Courtland Sutton or Tim Patrick could go a long way in helping manufacture more big play opportunities for the passing attack.
As far as getting the ball in Lindsay’s hands more often, it might be time to get him more involved in the passing game and sprinkle in a few more Wildcat formations.
The Broncos have the advantage of trying such plays out against the weaker San Francisco 49ers and Oakland Raiders, if nothing else, to make preparing for them a bit harder for the Cleveland Browns and Los Angeles Chargers come Week 17.
More of Justin Simmons in the slot
When Adam Jones was cut from the team, we analyzed Denver’s options in the secondary to make up for their lack of depth at corner, and one of their best options was clearly utilizing free safety Justin Simmons in the slot.
This is a trend we’ve seen before, just as we did in 2017 when Aqib Talib was suspended and Simmons was asked to cover the slot, which is exactly what happened this season once Chris Harris Jr. went down.
Simmons’ season has been a bit disappointing when he’s played as a high safety, where he’s allowed three touchdowns and the majority of the 428 yards he’s conceded in 2018. However, when playing coverage in the slot, Simmons has easily been the Broncos best option compared to who they have available, and they’ll need him to be at his best in December.
What’s given No. 31 issues as a high-safety—mostly playing the right angles and reading the ball quickly—isn’t problematic when Simmons has to cover the slot, where he simply needs to stick to his man, break on routes and play the ball.
Simmons’ speed and fluid hips are really impressive at his size and having him as a versatile chess piece in the secondary can actually present some issues for opposing offenses who have to read where he is at all times.
This is exactly how Simmons, in one of his rare snaps playing deep, was able to get an interception against the Bengals.
Having a starting safety playing as an impromptu nickel corner means that either the linebackers in base personnel or Will Parks will be asked to do more too. Against the Bengals, the Broncos found a new backer who showed some promising signs in coverage, special teams ace Joseph Jones.
Jones’ ability to seek and destroy is a bonus in underneath coverage, where he can read and react, fly downhill like he does on special teams, and close down on plays in a hurry.
To beat crossers underneath, you need more speed if you’re forced to play zone with your backers instead of man, where corners are chasing WRs across the formation. The Broncos might’ve stumbled into a solution after Jones’ nice showing in Cincinnati.
Keep up the creativity offensively
Last week against the Bengals the Broncos unleashed an offensive look that we haven’t really seen before; pulling the right guard on play-action bootlegs as the QB got out of the pocket to the opposite side—just watch the offensive line in the clip below.
The execution wasn’t great from the Broncos when they tried it a couple times last Sunday, but this was a nice wrinkle from Denver’s offense that we’d like to see more of.
What this does is really stress opposing linebackers who are programmed to see a guard pull one way and try to beat him to his spot. This helps sell a play action fake even more and create that much more misdirection as the play is unfolding.
Not only did the Broncos use this type of misdirection by pulling a guard on bootlegs, they even did it in a read-option look, another influx of creative play calling that we haven’t really seen before in 2018.
This is the type of thing that Lincoln Riley and Oklahoma’s dynamic offense does a ton of and something the Kansas City Chiefs have done too the last two seasons.
It’s a small thing but it’s a sign that Musgrave and Denver’s offense is getting more creative, modernizing a bit despite having so many young and inexperienced starters on the field.
We’ve advocated for the Broncos to start modernizing their offense for a while now and this might be the start of something greater, more innovative.
As Case Keenum’s accuracy throwing on the run has started to come around, increased bootlegs like this can be key, especially with dynamic athletes like Lindsay who can be targeted in the flats and get lost in the shuffle of all that’s going on in formations like these.
Without Sanders, the Broncos’ other receivers have had issues creating separation underneath, if throwing curveballs like this can allow the passing game to find some easy completions or create more space, it should be done as often as possible.
What to expect from the new guys
We’ve analyzed every addition the Broncos have made through free agency and the draft on our film rooms. Andre Holmes and Jamar Taylor are no exceptions, as they’ll likely be forced onto the field sooner than the Broncos would like due to a lack of depth at both cornerback and wide receiver.
Holmes has played under Musgrave before, in 2015 and 16, and should be very familiar with the playbook and verbiage of the Broncos offense—it should be noted that Holmes didn’t have his best years in Oakland under Musgrave.
With a big 6-foot-4 by 210-pound frame Holmes is a valuable blocker, a point of emphasis for the Broncos in drafting Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton that’s only become more important now that the offense has one of the NFL’s best outside running threats. Holmes’ blocking ability showed up under Musgrave and I fully expect that to continue in this second stint with the OC—watch him below lined up on the left.
The veteran receiver isn’t a great athlete, he’s far from a speedster at 30-years-old, and though he’s not the most agile, he has shown the ability to get open across the middle. He does a nice job creating space for himself as he breaks routes off and can be a safety valve in the passing game. He has good enough hands and size that could make him a weapon in the red zone too.
All in all, he’s far from a game-breaker but he’s a well-rounded reliable receiver with good enough route running ability to get open in the intermediate game.
Taylor started the 2018 season with the Arizona Cardinals and was heavily featured in the first three games. After that, his snaps fell off drastically. He played a lot for the Cleveland Browns in 2017 as well, so he’s seasoned.
What stood out about Taylor is how good he is tackling out on the perimeter, where he flies downhill and is very valuable in run support. In the Broncos’ ‘bend don’t break’ defense, being able to tackle consistently is important in limiting big plays as much as possible.
Taylor’s ability in coverage was a bit more troublesome, as he’s too handsy and was flagged a decent amount for defensive holding in the games we studied—in the first two games of 2018 he was flagged four times for holding.
Another concern is that Taylor doesn’t look fluid adjusting to receivers breaking on routes and is thus a liability to get burned deep. Shiftier receivers gave him issues with the Cardinals and Brandin Cooks killed him in Week 2 this year. He plays too soft at times, and his hips just don’t look very fluid right now.
Taylor looked much better reacting to plays in off coverage when the action was in front of him, rather than recovering in press where he’s just doesn’t seem to have the speed.
In coverage, the veteran DB looked his best defending crossers where he’s in good position and is physical disrupting timing routes.
He’s not an upgrade on any of the Broncos cornerbacks on the active roster right now but he’s a vet and can do some things as a fourth corner when needed.
After watching three games on both Taylor and Holmes, I expect Holmes to get some playing time, but Taylor is more of a last resort, though it’s possible the Broncos trust him over Brendan Langley due to his experience.
Holmes’ blocking ability added to his length and ability to get open over the middle could come in handy.
Taylor, on the other hand, is a risk but can at least be trusted to tackle against the run and do some things playing off coverage—though his tape with the Cardinals inspired little confidence.