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10 things we learned in the Broncos painful 21-26 loss to the Steelers

SB Nation logo SB Nation 9/20/2020 Just_JoRo
a female football player on a field: Courtland Sutton started despite being hurt. He didn’t last the whole game. © Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images Courtland Sutton started despite being hurt. He didn’t last the whole game.

Injury on top of 0-2 is the story of the Broncos game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

As expected, the Steelers pass rush proved a huge issue for Garett Bolles and Elijah Wilkinson. You won’t find me gnashing my teeth over the pass protection too much below because like everyone else I knew that’d be an issue.

This is what we learned.

Drew Lock got hurt

The first two drives of the game were nightmarish for Lock. He went 1-5 with his only completion the scripted first play of the game to Courtland Sutton. What’s worse, he lost the ball as he hurt his shoulder going down on third and 7.

Sutton and Jones also got hurt. Jeudy played through pain.

Lock’s injury is the big story coming out of today. With nothing but Jeff Driskel backing him up any sort of long term doubt on his availability dramatically impacts everything about this Broncos’ season.

Unfortunately the second year passer was not the only one to see the blue medical tent today. After trying to gut it out, Sutton got hurt and never returned. Jerry Jeudy took a shot CBS suggested will draw fines this week and tried to play with rib pain. Dre’Mont Jones suffered what looked like a bad leg injury in the fourth quarter.

The Steelers were conservative early and D did it’s part. Mostly.

It speaks to respect Pittsburgh has for Vic Fangio and the Broncos’ front four that they chose to go another week with the ball control attack. Rather than expose Big Ben to the pass rush, they chose to run on 2nd and 10, mix in a heavy dose of screens, and ran the ball 12 times in the first half. Even with the Steelers playing a dink and dunk game outside of Chase Claypool’s 83-yard bomb, Roethlisberger completed just 58% of his passes.

Coming into the game I thought the Pittsburgh receivers would be a huge problem for the Broncos pass defense minus Von Miller and A.J. Bouye. On first watch, I thought the defense did it’s part outside for the most part. I’ll make sure to get back to you on that once I have a chance to go back over the game, though.

Michael Ojemudia rode the rookie roller coaster.

After a bungled Jet sweep to open the game the Steelers faced a 3rd and 10. Ben Roethlisberger did what any 17-year veteran would do in the situation: he went after the rookie corner making his first start. Ojemudia rose to the challenge.

It was a tough first half for the Broncos’ third round pick. He had a dropped interception Roethlisberger tossed right to him. He couldn’t contain JuJu Smith-Schuster on a screen which led to a first down. Oh, and he gave up a long touchdown to Chase Claypool.

In the third quarter Ojemudia got attacked repeatedly as Roethlisberger threw easy completion after easy completion. It reminded me of how Joe Flacco attacked a rookie Isaac Yiadom back in 2018. He also gave up a touchdown to Diontae Johnson when Jeremiah Attaochu blew contain on Roethlisberger.

Bradley Chubb showed promise.

As tends to be the case for pass rushers, I saw a lot of overreaction to Bradley Chubb’s week one. He made sure there was no room for box score scouts today by making a nice play on third down sniffing out a screen. Later in the first he was critical to holding the Steelers out of the endzone in short yardage.

I know it’s hard to be patient with other parts of the Broncos struggling, but I so far I’ve found Chubb’s return from an ACL tear encouraging.

Fangio got creative and Simmons rewarded him.

One thing I’ve been watching for through the first two weeks is how losing Von Miller would impact Vic Fangio’s play calling tendencies. Jeff Essary and I have discussed it on Cover 2 Broncos a number of times: normally Fangio likes to sit back and rally to the ball. He’d rather send four than bring extra rushers in part because it takes one player out of the coverage.

He didn’t hold back today.

I’ll have to go back over the All-22 to see what Fangio did with Justin Simmons on his interception. The Broncos sent four and didn’t get enough pressure, which is bad. Luckily, Roethlisberger’s a gambler at heart and Simmons made him pay for it.

The Steelers next drive stalled out in no small part because of Simmons coming up in the alley.

It’s time to feed Noah Fant.

As I pored over the Broncos’ All-22 late last week (thank you NFL Gamepass) it was really awesome to see how many different ways Shurmur uses his tight ends. The variety is really fun to keep up with, but I couldn’t really solve the reason for Noah Fant disappearing in the second half against Tennessee.

With Courtland Sutton obviously playing at less than 100% and Jerry Jeudy continuing to struggle with drops today, I couldn’t help but wonder why the offense wasn’t running through Noah Fant. What made it more confounding is how often the Broncos dialed up plays for Nick Vannett.

It isn’t just that Vannett had issues blocking, which I expected given his matchups against T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, and the blitzing rushers Keith Butler brought. The Broncos threw two passes to him where he looked like the primary read and both times he dropped the ball.

If you’re reading this Pat, you should either call those plays for Fant or bring Jake Butt (or Albert Okwuegbunam) onto the field. You won’t be disappointed.

The oft said cliche is how a tight end is a young quarterback’s best friend. The fact is even if Drew Lock gave way to Jeff Driskel going forward, the Broncos are very inexperienced under center. Fant needs to be a focal point of every game plan.

Hamler is as advertised.

Late in the first half the Broncos dialed up a shot play with K.J. Hamler and DaeSean Hamilton running go-routes. Jeff Driskel couldn’t hit his rookie burner despite nice ball placement. Situation matters here because the Broncos were just taking shots at the end of the half, but I’m curious to see if Shurmur looks to use Hamler on such plays as the year goes on.

Coming out of Penn State I had concerns about Hamler’s viability as a deep threat due to his small catch radius.

Listed at 5’9” and weighing in under 180 lbs, the Nittany Lion has a smaller catch radius than the rest of the receivers I studied. Add to that how often he relies on catching the ball with his body, and it’s hard to imagine him being a real option in contested situations. Worse yet, he doesn’t show a lot of ability to high point or go after throws in the air, which will hurt the biggest asset he brings to the table.

On the other side of the coin, Hamler’s athleticism made him a really viable threat on the move. He had a really nice catch on 3rd down to keep the Broncos drive alive. My hope going forward is the Broncos can give him more opportunities on crossers, slants, screens, and less curls and go routes.

Melvin Gordon a better receiver than advertised.

With time dying out in the fourth quarter Jeff Driskel found Melvin Gordon on a wheel route for a touchdown. It was an impressive play. Rarely do backs get asked to run more complicated routes than swings, screens, and flats. What’s more, it’s a challenge for many receivers to make catches over their shoulder.

Final Thoughts: It’s going to be a long year if Lock is done.

The 2020 offseason was the weirdest in memory. Even if you overlook the Covid-19 part of it, there were so many veteran quarterbacks with starting experience available. John Elway drew a ton of criticism for passing on Cam Newton, Andy Dalton, and Jameis Winston to sign Jeff Driskel from the Detroit Lions.

The idea made some sense. The Broncos had to give Drew Lock a real look as the unquestioned starting quarterback. Surround him with weapons, bring in an experienced play caller who has had success with passers in the past.

It also left the roster really susceptible to an injury to their starting quarterback.

All offseason I’ve talked about how the wins and losses don’t matter if the young offense develops. No player is more central to that philosophy than Lock. So if he’s done for a significant stretch of time, it could be a brutal 14 games to finish the year.

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