The Broncos fell to 0-2 after suffering a 26-21 defeat to the Steelers in Week 2. As painful as the loss was, even more crushing were the injuries the Broncos suffered on both offense and defense. With Drew Lock, A.J. Bouye, and Von Miller already out — for at least a couple of games in the case of Lock and Bouye and for the season in the case of Miller — how can this team move forward and keep their season alive?
How will the Broncos move forward without key pieces on offense?
The Week 2 matchup with the Steelers felt over after Denver’s second drive of the game. Lock went down after being hit by Bud Dupree, in what is arguably the most devastating of the Broncos’ many injuries. Lock sprained his AC joint on the hit, the same injury that Courtland Sutton suffered at the end of training camp and was still wrestling with despite returning to the field in Week 2. However, because Lock’s injury is to his throwing shoulder, he’s expected to miss at least two weeks but could miss as many as six.
So, how should the Broncos adjust their offense with Jeff Driskel under center for at least two more weeks? For starters, they need to lean on the running game, and specifically Melvin Gordon, with Phillip Lindsay out with turf toe, much more than they have been. Gordon has gone over 70 yards in each of the Broncos’ first two games and averaged more than five yards per carry against the Titans. Royce Freeman also appears to have some juice in relief of Lindsay and performed well against the Steelers with a limited workload.
Secondly, and more importantly, the Broncos have to make Noah Fant the focal point of this offense. Jerry Jeudy and Sutton were both banged up in the game against the Steelers, and even if they’re fully healthy for Week 3, the offense has to start leaning on Fant more.
Fant has easily been the best player on the offensive side of the ball for Denver in each of the past two weeks. When the offense has funneled targets his way, they’ve done well. When they haven’t looked his way, they have floundered, as evidenced by the second half against Tennessee and the first half against Pittsburgh. Driskel is very limited in terms of his ability as a starter, but Fant can make him look a lot better.
How can the Broncos recover from all their defensive injuries?
If you thought Denver was beat-up on offense, look at the defense, where the Broncos have even more injuries. Now Miller, Justin Strnad, and Bouye are all on injured reserve, with Dre’Mont Jones and Mark Barron also banged up.
Those losses cost the Broncos big time on Sunday, as the remaining pass rushers were unable to make Ben Roethlisberger even slightly uncomfortable. Rookie cornerback Michael Ojemudia struggled as he tried to replace Bouye, and Denver’s linebackers were consistently targeted in coverage.
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In order to help the pass rush, the Broncos might have to create pressure through blitzing rather than primarily rushing four, as they’ve done on a majority of snaps through the first two weeks. Tom Brady is coming to town next week, and if he’s given as much time to operate as Ben Roethlisberger had, it will be a very long afternoon in the Mile High City. With two backup offensive linemen in the game, Roethlisberger was pressured just a handful of times and was only sacked once.
The other key to the defensive machine improving without so many important cogs is the safety duo of Kareem Jackson and Justin Simmons. In 2019 they were the best safety tandem in the league, but they haven’t been close to that peak this year. Simmons allowed a perfect passer rating and a touchdown when targeted in Week 1, though he did play better against the Steelers. Those struggles have put the Broncos’ young cornerback group, which features rookies Ojemudia and Essang Bassey in starting roles, in an awful position.
They need help on the backend more than ever, and Simmons and Jackson haven’t been providing that help. If the defense is going to stay afloat without Bouye and Miller, Simmons and Jackson need to step up and play like the stars they’ve been in the past.
Should the Broncos look at adding any free agents to replace injured starters?
With so many key pieces missing this early on in the season and $24 million in cap space available, it makes sense to wonder whether or not the Broncos should bring in a veteran to mitigate some of their injuries.
The short answer is no.
Sutton is the Broncos’ best offensive player and they won’t be able to find a more capable replacement in the free-agent market than they currently have on their roster. Jeudy had a couple of drops in his first game, but he’s already shown flashes of being a superstar receiver in the future. It should also be noted that fellow rookie K.J. Hamler had a terrific debut against Pittsburgh and played more snaps than any other Denver receiver on Sunday. Behind those two, the Broncos have Tim Patrick, DaeSean Hamilton, and Tyrie Cleveland, all of whom seem to be promising.
Jones and Bouye are similar cases, where it makes far more sense for the Broncos to rely on the young, talented depth at those positions, rather than sign an expensive veteran that likely wouldn’t be an upgrade in regards to talent and would be unfamiliar with the team’s scheme.
Quarterback is the position where a free-agent addition is most intriguing. Driskel has a career record of 1-7, and if he does start six games for Denver, Broncos Country can kiss their season goodbye. With that said, there isn’t a free agent available that would be a clear upgrade on Driskel outside of Colin Kaepernick, and it would likely take several weeks to get Kaepernick up to speed considering he hasn’t played professional football since 2016. By the time he was ready to go, there’s a good chance Lock would be returning from his injury, or at least close to doing so.