Jaleel McLaughlin keys Broncos comeback, should earn bigger role
Oct 2, 2023, 4:00 AM | Updated: 5:33 am
(Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Merilatt Monday is brought to you by Mercedes-Benz of Loveland
The Broncos stumbled into the key to their offense on Sunday. Down 28-7 at the Bears late in the third quarter, Denver managed to pull off an improbable 31-28 victory, earning their first win of the season. In the process, they found a spark that could change their season.
It wasn’t Russell Wilson. The quarterback is the team’s highest-paid player, and he had a good game in the Windy City, but he wasn’t the difference maker.
Neither was Courtland Sutton, the Broncos second-largest cap hit on the roster. Nor was it Jerry Jeudy, Samaje Perine or Javonte Williams.
It wasn’t the usual suspects. It wasn’t the high-priced skill position players.
Instead, it was a player that takes up 0.32% of the Broncos total cap space in 2023. At $755,000 he’s only five grand away from being Denver’s lowest-paid player.
But Jaleel McLaughlin made a big impact on Sunday. Without him, the Broncos would’ve fallen to 0-4 and been widely considered the worst team in the NFL.
Now, there’s suddenly a light at the end of the tunnel. With the Jets coming to Denver next Sunday, there’s a chance that the Broncos can salvage their season.
It’s because of their rookie running back. He was the key against the Bears. And he’ll be the key moving forward.
A quick glance of the box score doesn’t tell the story. McLaughlin had just seven carries and three receptions in Chicago. But those 10 touches made a big impact.
The running back rushed for 72 yards. He also gad 31 yards receiving, including 18 that came on a first-quarter touchdown.
After that play, however, McLaughlin was relegated back to his normal role with the Broncos. He was standing on the sidelines, while Williams and Perine got the bulk of the work in the backfield.
With those two players on the field, Denver’s offense struggled. After their opening TD drive, the Broncos offense produced the following:
In those four drives, Denver ran a total of just 15 plays. They amassed just 45 yards of offense.
In the meantime, the Bears scored 28 unanswered points. When the Broncos took possession of the ball with 4:11 to play in the third quarter, they were down 21 points and staring down the barrel of a fourth-straight loss.
But something was different on this drive. Williams was sidelined with a hip injury and Perine had been ineffective, so Denver went with the rookie. His impact was felt immediately.
On the second play of the drive, McLaughlin ripped off a 31-yard run. Three plays later, he caught a pass that took the ball to the Bears 11-yard line. Moments later, the Broncos were in the end zone, clawing back into the game.
They weren’t done yet. And neither was McLaughlin.
The next Broncos drive started with a 12-yard run by the rookie. That got the ball rolling, as Denver was in the end zone just four minutes later, cutting the score to 28-21.
Denver would tie the game on Chicago’s next possession, with Jonathon Cooper taking a Justin Fields’ fumble for a scoop-and-score. Suddenly, the Broncos were back in the game.
They’d win it on their next possession, as Wil Lutz kicked a 51-yard field goal to give Denver a 31-28 lead. The kick capped a remarkable turnaround, a comeback that saved the Broncos season.
It wouldn’t have happened without McLaughlin. He changed the dynamic of Denver’s offense.
Running plays that would’ve normally led to a second-and-eight suddenly turned into a second-and-one. Checkdown throws that could’ve put the Broncos behind the sticks instead turned into plays that moved the chains.
It was impossible to not recognize the difference. Plays that would’ve gone nowhere with Williams or Perine turned into chunk plays with McLaughlin toting the rock.
Perine had 12 rushing yards on six carries against the Bears. Williams had zero yards on two carries before leaving with a hip flexor. They also combined for 32 yards on five receptions.
McLaughlin blew those numbers out of the water. And he provided much-needed juice to a sputtering offense.
The Broncos don’t have a lot of big-play options at their skill-position spots. They’re a bit methodical and plodding.
Their rookie running back is different, however. He can turn nothing into something. He can turn a good play into a great one.
It’s why he needs to be on the field more. It’s why he needs to be the Broncos featured back.
At 5-foot-7, 187 pounds, there is concern that McLaughlin can’t carry that kind of workload. The Broncos would be wise to test that theory.
With him on the field, their offense was unstoppable against the Bears. Without him, they were stuck in the mud.
Williams is a fan favorite, but he’s not the same player since suffering a devastating knee injury a year ago. Perine was a key free-agent signing, but he’s a career backup. Neither brings anything to the Broncos offense that causes opposing defense problems.
McLaughlin does. Sean Payton needs to recognize that fact. The head coach needs to give his rookie running back a bigger role.
The Broncos save their season on Sunday in Chicago. They managed to do so thanks to the most unlikely of heroes.
It’s time to reward Jaleel McLaughlin for his efforts. It’s time to ride the rookie running back.