BRONCOS

Battle Lines: Broncos playoff hopes already on the line in primetime game

Oct 15, 2022, 5:45 PM
Russell Wilson...
(Photo by Jeff Bottari/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jeff Bottari/Getty Images)

There’s bad, there’s ugly, and there’s… whatever this Denver Broncos season has been.

An injury-riddled Broncos team limps in Los Angeles to play the division-rival Chargers in a game that’s as much of a must-win as a Week 6 game could possibly be. Win, and the Broncos will draw even with the Chargers at 3-3, and might only trail the Kansas City Chiefs by a single game if things break right. Lose, and the Broncos will find themselves buried at in the AFC playoff chase at 2-4, with the bulk of a difficult schedule still ahead of them.

Head coach Nathaniel Hackett has to be much better than he’s been in each of the Broncos’ humiliating prime-time appearances this season, and fans should expect to hear the bulk of Monday night’s commentary referencing his shortcomings… when they’re not too busy rightly praising Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert, that is.

Here’s how the battle lines are drawn:

DENVER OFFENSE vs. L.A. CHARGERS DEFENSE:

Quarterback Russell Wilson’s first season with the Broncos certainly hasn’t been what he envisioned. While Wilson’s on pace to throw for a career-high 4,264 yards this season, he’s also on pace for only 14 touchdowns — which would be career-low by far — and 10 interceptions; a poor ratio that Wilson’s never even been close to. He’s completing a career-low 59.4 percent of his passes, and he’s dealing with a torn latissimus muscle that’s causing pain in his throwing shoulder. His top running back, Javonte Williams, has been lost for the season to injury, as has starting blind-side tackle Garret Bolles. The right side of the offensive line starts a pair of obvious backups, and tight end Albert Okwuegbunam seems to have washed out entirely. Melvin Gordon, the team’s current starter at running back, is listed as questionable for Monday’s game with neck and rib pain, and even if he does play, he’ll be hard to trust given his fumbling issues.

Only wide receiver Courtland Sutton has been consistently reliable this season, and as a result, only the Indianapolis Colts — who the Broncos still managed to lose to in Denver just last week — have scored fewer points than the Broncos’ 75 (15.0 points per game). Hackett appears to be in over his head as both a play-caller and head coach, meaning that Denver has more to worry about from their own ineptitude than what they’ll face against the Chargers. While Khalil Mack has five sacks already, fellow pass-rusher Joey Bosa is on injured reserve despite the efforts of safety Derwin James Jr., the Chargers hand out points like Halloween candy, surrendering an atrocious 27.2 per game.
Unfortunately, the Broncos don’t yet look like they’re capable of generating anything close to that on offense.

ADVANTAGE: Chargers

DENVER DEFENSE vs. L.A. CHARGERS OFFENSE:

It’s just a matter of time until Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert is talked about in the same breath with Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes, Buffalo’s Josh Allen and Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson as one of the league’s elite young quarterbacks. Here’s the thing, though — he’s already at their level on the field. Herbert’s a surgeon from the pocket and dangerous outside it, with the ability to pull off Mahomes-esque passes at any moment.

Wide receiver Keenan Allen is expected to miss the game with a lingering hamstring injury, but the underrated Mike Williams has been excellent, well-traveled tight end Gerald Everett seems to be a perfect fit for Herbert, and former Western Colorado University (Gunnison, CO) product Austin Ekeler continues to evolve into one of the league’s most dynamic offensive weapons. A terrific pass-catcher already, Ekeler’s picked up some of Allen’s slack, but it hasn’t kept him from remaining dangerous on the ground. Ekeler’s averaging a robust 5.1 yards per carry, and ranks fifth among all NFL running back in yards from scrimmage with 527 yards (105.4 per game) and a combined five touchdowns.

The Broncos’ defense is legitimately impressive under new coordinator Ejiro Evero — who’s looked as good in his role as his former college teammate Hackett hasn’t — and a major reinforcement may be on the way. Safety Justin Simmons (quad) returned to practice this week and hopes to play on Monday. That’s good news on many levels; not only because Caden Sterns — who started in his absence — is out with a hip injury. The Broncos will have to depend on rookie Damarri Mathis opposite Pat Surtain II at cornerback following Ronald Darby’s season-ending ACL injury, meaning that the pass rush becomes even more valuable than usual. Randy Gregory will miss this game, and more, following arthroscopic knee surgery, but Baron Browning is a starting-caliber option opposite Bradley Chubb. Chubb, with 5.5 sacks on the season, has looked like a man possessed in his free-agent audition this season.

Denver’s capable of limiting the Chargers’ offense if they can consistently pressure Herbert, but that’s easier said than done — and if the Broncos’ offense can’t give them any rest, they could be in for a long day against the best offense they’ve faced this season.

ADVANTAGE: Chargers

SPECIAL TEAMS:

Corliss Waitman has planted 11 punts within the opponents’ 20-yard-line this season despite an unnecessarily heavy workload, and has claimed the Broncos’ only AFC Player of the Week award this season. The left-footed punter generates terrific hang time, and looks like he may be the Broncos’ long-term answer at the position. Kicker Brandon McManus is as reliable as always within 50 yards, and gives the Broncos’ a 50-50 chance at anything within 65. Rookie return man Montrell Washington looks more comfortable — and more explosive — every week. The Chargers’ J.K. Scott has been just average this season, and as has returner DeAndre Carter. Kicker Dustin Hopkins seems likely to miss another game this week with an injured quad; Taylor Bertolet would handle the placekicking duties once more in his absence.

ADVANTAGE: Broncos

COACHING:

Monday night’s matchup features two of the league’s most maligned head coaches. The Chargers’ Brandon Staley was a punching bag for the anti-analytics crowd for most of last season, while Hackett’s taken over that role and then some this fall. While both coaches deserve credit for how hard each of their teams play, Hackett hasn’t otherwise shown that he has the chops for the role; bumbling his way through bizarre late-game play calls, a surprisingly predictable offense and a well-intentioned but misguided effort to turn the 5’11″ Wilson into a pocket quarterback. The Broncos are tied for the league lead with a whopping 44 penalties already this season; 20 of them of the pre-snap variety, which leads the league by a wide margin. Staley has his detractors, too, and with good reason; he can be too by-the-book at times, counting on larger mathematical trends to impact individual moments in games. That said, at least Staley has a clear and understandable plan.

ADVANTAGE: Chargers

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Shawn Drotar (@sdrotar) has covered Denver sports for over 25 years on ESPN, USA Today, Sirius XM and The Fan.

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Battle Lines: Broncos playoff hopes already on the line in primetime game