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The Broncos haven’t hit the do-or-die point in the season, but they’re getting close.
This week, they’ll take on the Los Angeles Chargers in an AFC West battle on CBS at 2:25 p.m. on Sunday. The Broncos carry a 6-6 record into the game, while the Chargers are 5-7.
Denver can probably afford to lose one more game the rest of the way if they want to get into the playoffs, but they won’t want to blow their margin for error against a team that is 1-3 in their last four games, after squeaking out a 6-0 win over the lowly Patriots last week.
Here’s how the Broncos can pull out a win…
Run the offense
Any offensive coach would drool over the opportunity to play the Chargers. The Los Angeles defense only ranks in the top half of the NFL in two major categories: fumble recoveries and rush attempts allowed.
But the Broncos can’t take the bait.
It’d be easy to head into Los Angeles and open up the playbook with shots downfield that, on paper, should work. Only one NFL team has allowed more passing yards than the Chargers. They’re starting former Broncos cornerback Essang Bassey in the slot and second-year seventh-round pick Deane Leonard on the boundary.
Still, the Broncos need to play within themselves.
Sean Payton should go back to what helped his Broncos to a five-game winning streak. A strong running game. Play-action passes. Some screens. And a couple of shots downfield.
He might feel like a kid on Christmas when he gets to the stadium, but that doesn’t mean the Broncos should stop playing like the Broncos.
Double-team Kahlil Mack
Despite their lack of defensive production, the Chargers have a couple of studs on defense.
Their most impactful defender this season has been Khalil Mack.
In his age-32 season, Mack is posting the best numbers of his career. His 15 sacks tie his career high and are the most in the league. His five forced fumbles are one off his career high, and also lead the NFL.
Mack was supposed to be half of a terrifying duo with Joey Bosa, but Bosa won’t play on Sunday. That makes the game plan up front easy: If you’re passing the ball, make sure two blockers get their hands on Mack.
Put Pat on Keenan Allen
The Chargers have had one weapon on offense this season: Keenan Allen.
Allen has the most catches in the NFL and has averaged 98 receiving yards per game. By most metrics, he’s putting those numbers up at the most consistent rate of his career.
Outside of Allen, the Charger passing game has struggled. Mike Williams tore his ACL in September. First-round pick Quentin Johnston has only managed 20 yards per game.
If the Broncos can shut down Keenan Allen, they’ll be 90% of the way toward shutting down the Chargers’ passing game. And Pat Surtain is more than capable of shutting Allen down.
Surtain should follow Allen as much as possible on Sunday.
Send extra rushers
The Bronco’s four-man pass rush has left plenty to be desired this season. The interior rushers—primarily Zach Allen—have done good work recently, but the edge rushers haven’t held up their part of the bargain when the Broncos send four defenders at the quarterback.
Luckily, the Broncos have plenty of great options to blitz the quarterback. Alex Singleton, Ja’Quan McMillian and PJ Locke all had sacks on blitzes against the Texans last week.
The Broncos spent the first half of their game in Houston hoping they could get pressure on CJ Stroud without extra rushers but realized at halftime that it just wasn’t going to happen. When they committed blitzers, the defense leveled up.
This week, the Broncos can’t afford to wait until halftime to start blitzing.
Don’t forget about Austin Ekeler
Austin Ekeler hasn’t been himself this season.
His numbers are down across the board. After finishing 20 yards shy of the league lead in running back receiving yards last season, he has barely squeaked into the top 10 so far this season.
Chargers head coach Brandon Staley said earlier this week that he might shift more of the workload at running back away from Ekeler.
The Broncos don’t need to fear Ekeler, but they can’t forget about him entirely. Making sure he isn’t open in the flat, especially on third downs, could be key on Sunday.