BRONCOS

How the Broncos can score their first win at SoFi

Dec 10, 2023, 1:28 AM

The Denver Broncos are on the road again in Week 14. This time, they travel to a place they’ve never won – SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles to take on their AFC West rival the Chargers.

The Broncos need to get back in the “W” column. Coming off a close loss to the Houston Texans, doubt has crept into some in the fan base. Their win streak ended at five games, but with five games left in the 2023 season, it’s time to start another one – this time on the West Coast.

How will the Broncos attack the Chargers on both sides of the ball? Let’s take a look.

When the Broncos Run the Ball

Javonte Williams doesn’t look like himself. His 3.5 yards per carry and almost non-existent explosive plays this season don’t remind me of the player he was before his devastating 2022 knee injury. The team trusts him, and it’s clear he can still carry a large workload. However, can a clearly-not-himself Williams truly keep taking on this large a role? The Broncos may get back to running the ball this week after turning things over in the passing game (unsuccessfully) against the Texans.

Samaje Perine was a late addition to the injury report this week. Anytime a player is listed as a “DNP” on Friday after practicing on Wednesday and Thursday, it’s not a great sign for their availability on game day. Add in the fact that the Broncos activated Tyler Badie off the practice squad on Saturday, and it looks like Perine might miss this game. As of this writing, I expect Perine at best to be a game-time decision.

Perhaps Jaleel McLaughlin will get more time in this game. He needs to for a couple of reasons. First, Perine is banged up and Williams can’t do everything. Second, it’s a tell when McLaughlin is on the field that he’s getting the ball – and defenses know this. About 70 percent of the time when McLaughlin is in the game, he’s getting the rock as a runner or receiver out of the backfield. If he gets more playing time, that tell should go away because he’s not going to get the ball that much with more snaps. The team does not trust him in pass protection, so he must be sound if Perine (incredible when it comes to protecting the quarterback) misses the game.

The Broncos may open it up through the air more this week based on the defense they’re facing, so who knows what the rushing attack touches will look like on Sunday. If Perine doesn’t play, perhaps Russell Wilson will continue to rush about 10 times per game like he has over the last two weeks.

When the Broncos Pass the Ball

They can put it all on Wilson’s arm like they did last week, but that plan had better work. The Chargers have the no.31 pass defense in the NFL, so they’re clearly vulnerable through the air. So were the Texans, but Wilson’s three interceptions crushed any chance of winning a close game last week. If Wilson plays with fewer mistakes as a passer, then the Broncos should be able to move the ball with his arm.

Courtland Sutton is Wilson’s favorite target, and that final interception against the Texans was on a blown play where Sutton was likely the primary target. Everyone knows Wilson is going to look for Sutton, and it could still work against the Chargers. However, if they bracket Sutton and nobody else steps up then the Broncos could be in trouble with this one-man receiving group.

I believe Jerry Jeudy is the key to the Broncos 2023 finish – and perhaps a postseason run. Jeudy has been getting open – not every game – but Wilson is not connecting with him regularly. To build that chemistry which clearly needs work, I think more targets for Jeudy – perhaps even as the no.1 receiver should be in order. Jeudy can get open against the Chargers, and with so much attention paid to Sutton, he could be open quite often.

Marvin Mims could shake free for a big play or two in this matchup. He’s mainly getting open on “go” routes where he can run in a straight line to take the top off the defense. Mims is getting more snaps than he used to, but it’s time to see him as more than just a decoy. Wilson is still one of the best deep throwers in the league, so uncorking one for Mims deep would be sweet.

I want to see more from the passing game. Sure, the Broncos could run, run, run, and win – but what do you learn about Wilson? This team has a big decision coming up early in 2024 when it comes to their quarterback. The more evidence that he can work in Payton’s offense the better it is for the Broncos.

When the Chargers Run the Ball

Coloradans love Chargers starting running back Austin Ekeler. Growing up in Eaton, CO, and playing for Western State in Gunnison, Ekeler is Colorado through and through. He’s been a Pro Bowl running back for years, and he’s one of the best in the game when he’s healthy but Ekeler is not healthy this season.

An ankle injury suffered in the first month of the season cost Ekeler time (three games missed) and production. His 3.5 yards per carry is one full yard below his career average. Ekeler does not look the same, and the ankle injury is still bothering him and has robbed him of his trademark quickness and explosion. That’s why the Chargers HC Brandon Staley is talking about making a change.

We could see more from Joshua Kelley going forward as Ekeler continues to struggle. While Ekeler is a compact runner with explosion, Kelley is more of a big-bodied back with a powerful stride. He’s not as quick as Ekeler, but Kelley is tough to bring down when he builds a head of steam. With the Broncos being soft against the run, a guy like Kelley (and perhaps even a banged-up Ekeler) could cause problems.

The Broncos are weak against the run, so I’m fully expecting the Chargers to attack them on the ground. They had better be solid against the run, because the Chargers have a dangerous quarterback under center. In addition to what Justin Herbert can do as a passer, he can also take off to run if need be.

When the Chargers Pass the Ball

Herbert is one of the best quarterbacks in the league, but he’s being held back by poor coaching and a lack of talent around him in the passing game. I fully expect the Chargers to fire Staley at some point in the near future (perhaps on Black Monday) and get a coach who can get the best out of Herbert. He’s a tall pocket passer who can see the full field and take off to run. Matching up with Herbert has similar complications to what the team saw against the Texans’ C.J. Stroud – and that’s a problem!

Keenan Allen is on a Hall of Fame pace in his career. Entering this season you could make that case, but after the year he’s had it looks more and more like a given that he will one day get a gold Hall of Fame jacket. What Allen has done this year looks better than his best seasons from his multiple-Pro Bowl career – and he used to catch passes from borderline Hall of Fame quarterback Philip Rivers. Allen can be moved around the formation, and this makes him tough to match up with. He can run every route and knows how to get open. Allen is clearly Herbert’s favorite target, and the Broncos may be inclined to keep CB Pat Surtain on him as much as possible.

Outside of Allen, the Chargers are missing a lot of pass-catching weapons like WR Mike Williams and WR Joshua Palmer. They do have a rookie first-round pick in Quentin Johnston who seems to be getting better and better each week with more usage. Johnston is big, strong, fast and physical – so no matter who covers him is going to have their hands somewhat full. Add in a couple of tight ends like Gerald Everett and Donald Parham as potential problems for the Broncos’ pass defense too.

If they want to, the Chargers could air it out against Denver. The Broncos are weak against the run, and they do have a bend-but-don’t-break defense. That could mean Allen is still going to get his, but the Broncos will try to be tougher in the red zone and perhaps hold the Chargers to more field goals than touchdowns on Sunday.

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