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Behind Enemy Lines: Broncos haven’t unleashed their talented group of pass catchers

The Broncos offense has some of the best skill position players in the NFL, but their scheme doesn’t take advantage of it.

Philadelphia Eagles v Denver Broncos Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

The Cincinnati Bengals are in a near do or die situation this week. They have disappointed the last two weeks against teams they should have been able to put more of a fight up against, and now they need to win what looks like three of their last four games to have a realistic shot of making the playoffs.

This week they will face the Denver Broncos who are also fighting for their playoff lives. We caught up with Joe Rowles from the Mile High Report to get his perspective on this matchup.

Patrick Judis: Teddy Bridgewater hasn’t had stellar reviews during his time as the starter. What would you say are the things he does well and what are his shortcomings?

Joe Rowles: While there’s limitations in his game, Bridgewater’s the best quarterback the Broncos have had under center since Peyton Manning. His ball placement and poise under pressure is a marked improvement over Drew Lock, Jeff Driskel, and Brett Rypien a season ago. He also does a job recognizing what an opposing defense is showing him pre-snap and works the whole field, which opens up the playbook for Pat Shurmur. On top of that, Bridgewater’s more mobile than given credit for and does a good job resetting his feet to throw with accuracy after he’s left the pocket.

There are three big shortcomings in Bridgewater’s game. For a starting quarterback his arm is average at best, which impacts his ability to squeeze the ball into tight windows. Bridgewater’s a savvy player who mitigates this issue by limiting the throws he makes where his arm strength is an issue, but that also means he will pass up tough throws for easier completions, which can drive fans and media members crazy. Lastly, Bridgewater’s propensity to work through progressions leaves him susceptible to big hits in the pocket and he’s dealt with far too many dings for my liking. He’s been knocked out of two games this year and Denver doesn’t really have a serviceable backup.

PJ: It is obvious that one of the reasons the Broncos are so successful is that they have one of the best one-two punches in the running game in the NFL. How is Denver’s duo finding consistent success?

JR: I don’t know if there’s any secret beyond opportunity. Early this season the Broncos’ running game was woefully inconsistent and so they passed on roughly 70% of their offensive snaps. In recent weeks they’ve turned towards a ground and pound game more often, and Williams’ improved vision and decision making is showing through it. It doesn’t hurt that their opponents these last three weeks were the Chargers, Chiefs, and Lions. It also helps that most of the starters are back healthy after both tackles were out. Losing Graham Glasgow to an injury pushed rookie Quinn Meinerz into the starting lineup and he’s looked like a snowplow as a run blocker.

PJ: Despite the very public separation of Von Miller and Denver earlier this year, the Broncos defense has still looked very good. Who are some of the big names stepping up for this defense?

JR: The Broncos have one of the best pass defenses in the NFL because they’ve devoted a lot of resources to their secondary and Vic Fangio’s a maestro at heating up quarterbacks with games and pressures. Their best players on defense are Justin Simmons and Patrick Surtain II. Simmons is quietly one of the better safeties in the league with the range to make an impact in the run and passing game as well as the savvy to bait quarterbacks into poor decisions. Surtain’s a rookie phenom who is quickly emerging as one of the best cover men in the NFL.

Beyond those two, the Broncos are playing better than the sum of their parts. Kareem Jackson’s savvy is helping him fend off Father time and Ronald Darby’s a quality left corner, and Baron Browning’s an exciting rookie who has the range and motor to make plays sideline to sideline, but he’s missed almost all of OTAs and training camp, so there’s the occasional hiccup with his assignment. Dre’Mont Jones is the best pass rusher, but realistically he’s probably a second or third banana for a good front. Bradley Chubb’s injury means Denver’s edge rush is pretty shaky, and I’d say rookie seventh rounder Jonathon Cooper’s the top pass rusher.

PJ: The Broncos may have one of the best groups of pass catchers in the league. How does the Broncos deploy them to get the best out of these receivers?

I’d argue Shurmur doesn’t maximize them, to be perfectly honest. This is one unsung reason the Broncos’ offense was so feast or famine when Jeudy missed time earlier this season.

Denver plays a little more than 60% of their offensive snaps in 11 personnel. They tend to use Sutton and Patrick on the boundary with Jeudy in the slot, as this creates more options for his routes. Patrick and Sutton are both size/speed mismatches for most corners because they’re 6’4 4.5 athletes who can win above the rim. Neither is a consistent separator in the short to intermediate areas of the field against man coverage, and Shurmur could do more to dial up easy wins with rubs and crossers. Instead the Broncos are over reliant on their receivers winning in isolation against their assignments and count on Bridgewater working through his progressions to find the open guy. It could cause issues this week because Lou Anarumo has the corners to stick on Sutton and Patrick as well as the pass rushers to make Bridgewater uncomfortable.

PJ: What is your prediction for this game and your biggest X-Factor?

JR: This game is going to come down to Fangio vs. Burrow and the Shurmur’s ability to avoid 3rd and 5+ situations. Burrow is surgical when he has time to get into a rhythm, but his aggressiveness can work to his detriment. With the way the Broncos will mix up their looks pre/post snap there should be opportunities for turnovers. If the Broncos can dictate the terms on offense they should be able to avoid situations where Cincy can knock Bridgewater off his game.

It’s going to be close, but I’ll take the Broncos. 27-21.

Thanks again to Joe Rowles for taking the time out to answer our questions. You can catch more of his work and Bronco coverage over at the Mile High Report.