DENVER — There are times since 2015 that the Broncos have made passing a kidney stone look easier than passing the football. Many things, after all, need to go right — protection, accuracy, timing.
All those points were driven home during the most unusual training camp in NFL history.
There were no preseason games to iron out the wrinkles. There were no scrimmages with full contact as a concession to injuries. But just when it looked like there was no way the Broncos' passing game would be ready for the Monday night opener against the Tennessee Titans, something 'clicked' for quarterback Drew Lock.
His final three practices of August were his best, capped by a nearly flawless final workout at the stadium.
Of course, we should temper our expectations for Lock because he's in a new offense with a new coordinator after no regular offseason reps. But Lock provided hope that Denver will boast much-needed balance tonight followed by a five-game cameo last season where he showed the lights weren't too bright for him.
"Ultimately, as a quarterback you will only be as good as your ability to respond to what’s happening in real time. There were signs of great growth last year from Drew. There also signs with his footwork that need to improve. He was slow in pulling the trigger at times," ESPN Monday Night Football analyst Brian Griese told Denver7 in an exclusive interview. "I know this: (coordinator) Pat Shurmur has been with a number of young quarterbacks. Last year with Daniel Jones (with the Giants), I thought he did a great job. And with (quarterbacks coach) Mike Shula, he’s been around a long time. I have tremendous amount respect for him. I think Drew is getting as good a coaching as he can get. He’s just going to have to overcome a lot of youth on offense."
The Broncos lack experience, but not motivation. Few are giving them a chance to end their three-year playoff drought after Von Miller suffered a dislocated ankle tendon that will sideline him indefinitely. And did we mention that Courtland Sutton, while hopeful of playing, sprained the AC joint in his right shoulder Thursday?
And yet, against my better judgment, I see a path for the Broncos to win tonight. I offer my Denver7 keys to victory:
Run with purpose, patience
Even if Sutton plays, he could be limited. It places the onus on the Broncos to run the ball, control the clock and take the pressure of Drew Lock and the defense. Linemen tell me all the time that they love rushing the ball early on because it creates a physicality, establishes a mindset. It doesn't always produce results, but teams that remain patient on the ground often benefit in the fourth quarter, especially at altitude in the opener. The Broncos added Melvin Gordon to complement Phillip Lindsay. Both are former Pro Bowlers, and want to start. They need contributions from the pair to win. I see Lindsay starting and closing with Gordon providing the grunt work in between. Denver averaged 103 yards on the game last season, ranking 20th. They need to produce 120 yards a week to return to the playoffs.
Slow the D Train
When Derrick Henry gets going downhill, it conjures images of a bolder rolling down a mountain, leaving a swath of carnage. The Broncos limited Henry to 28 yards on 15 carries last season. Six of his runs lost yardage. With no fear of Marcus Mariota beating them, the Broncos swarmed Henry. Mariota was benched in that game, and Ryan Tannehill prevents a different problem. There are two keys to stopping Henry: linebacker Alexander Johnson must excel, and there's added pressure without Todd Davis, and get hats to the ball, as safety Kareem Jackson said. Make Henry go East-West, and the Broncos' arrow could be pointing north at night's end.
Drew Lock takes high IQ risks
Lock will take shots. Shurmur designs them. But this requires intelligent risk taking. Byard will look to bait Lock into tight windows. Lock has the moxie and ability to deliver dimes, but losing the turnover battle will result in a disappointing loss. We all want Lock to grip N' rip it. And as the season advances, he will be more bold. But against the Titans, he must be very wary of the middle of the field. Danger lurks. In this case, whichever team throws the most will lose. Let Lock gain his rhythm with short passes and designed screens to Gordon and Lindsay.
Bouye corners market
A.J. Bouye enjoyed a terrific training camp. He looks comfortable in Fangio's read-and-react defense. That said, A.J. Brown is a tough assignment. He has had big plays against Bouye when playing Jacksonville. Brown will make catches, but Bouye has to prevent any of the 30-yard plus variety.
Feeling the pressure
With Von sidelined and Bradley Chubb on a play count, where will the pressure come from? Fangio likes to rush four even when he blitzes. So when Johnson gets his number called, he must reach Tannehill either with a sack or forced throw. However, Malik Reed and Jeremiah Attaochu must play well. The Titans will slide protection to Chubb when he's in the game. Reed, who looks like he's taken a big jump in year two, needs to create chaos to create openings for Chubb in his limited opportunities
Just for Kicks
Brandon McManus has been one of the NFL's most accurate kickers the past two seasons. And he improved from 50-yards plus a year ago. He has a new contract. With Von hurt, he's the only active player remaining from the Super Bowl 50 title. Wouldn't it be something if he won the game in the fourth?
Football represents the ultimate sport. It's hard for one player to make a huge difference, save from a sizzling quarterback. But in the case of Jurrell Casey, I believe there is an exception to this rule tonight. He is highly motivated to dominate against his former team, which shed the five-time Pro Bowler for a seventh-round draft pick. Casey was a one-man wrecking ball in the Titans' playoff upset over the Ravens. If he plays anything close to that Monday, the Broncos will extend their streak of season-opening wins at home to eight.
RENCK'S PREDICTION: Broncos 20, Titans 17.
It’s a season of big sports events airing this fall on Denver7. Check out our upcoming schedule:
- Sept. 21: NFL Monday Night Football: Saints vs Raiders
- Sept. 29: MLB Wild Card Series
- Sept. 30: MLB Wild Card Series
- Sept. 30: NBA Finals Game 1 on Denver7
- Oct. 1: Broncos vs Jets on Denver7
- Oct. 1: MLB Wild Card Series (If needed)
- Oct. 2: NBA Finals Game 2 on Denver7
- Oct. 4: NBA Finals Game 3 on Denver7
- Oct. 6: NBA Finals Game 4 on Denver7
- Oct. 9: NBA Finals Game 5 on Denver7
- Oct. 11: NBA Finals Game 6 on Denver7
- Oct. 13: NBA Finals Game 7 on Denver7