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Burning Questions: Broncos at Chargers

LOS ANGELES — Another week, another challenge.

After suffering another last-second loss at home, the Broncos are back on the road in Week 5 for a matchup with an AFC West rival. In their first matchup of the season with the Chargers, the Broncos will look to replicate the magic they found last season in a fourth-quarter comeback.

The win in Los Angeles last season sparked a three-game win streak for the Broncos that evened their record at 6-6. Though a slew of injuries derailed the Broncos’ playoff hopes late in the year, the win over the Chargers proved that Denver could hold its own against the NFL’s best. The Chargers went on to win a playoff game and advance to the divisional round of the playoffs.

On that afternoon in November, though, the Broncos were the better team. Can they prove the same to be true this time around and — in the process — avoid the first 0-5 start in franchise history?

These are the questions that will help determine the answer.

HOW WILL VON MILLER RESPOND WITHOUT BRADLEY CHUBB?

Von Miller will soon get a taste of his new reality. Without Bradley Chubb on the opposite sign of the defense, Miller could see the type of attention he hasn’t gotten since 2017, the first year after DeMarcus Ware retired.

Miller recorded 10 sacks that season, but his pass-rush opportunities were limited as the Broncos trailed by several scores in many of their games that season. How Miller performs this time around without Chubb could decide whether the Broncos are able to get their first win.

But it won’t be easy to get Miller free.

“There’s limited things you can do especially on the early downs,” Head Coach Vic Fangio said. “You can move him around a little bit on third down or obvious passes, but they know his number. Unless we can change his number in between every series, they’ll find him. He just has to keep trudging along. The one-on-ones will come eventually, and they did last week some.”

Miller got on the board in Week 4 with his first two sacks of the 2019 season. Without Chubb, he could find it more difficult to find the quarterback this week. If he can get to Philip Rivers — whom he has sacked more than any other quarterback in his career — and force a fumble, he could swing the game.

“Who likes playing against Philip? He’s an accurate quarterback,” Miller said Wednesday. “He’s going to be able to make all the throws and make all the checks. He’s an elite quarterback and he has elite receivers and elite talent around him. It’s definitely a tough challenge coming in.”

CAN THE BRONCOS’ RUN DEFENSE BOUNCE BACK?

After giving up 229 rushing yards in the second half to the Jaguars and getting doubled up in the time of possession battle, the Broncos will face another test against a team with a pair of dangerous running backs.

Former Pro Bowler Melvin Gordon could play for the first time this season, but Austin Ekeler is also dangerous.

“He makes all his plays in the screen game,” Chris Harris Jr. said. “I would say the screen game and running the wheel routes and he breaks a lot of tackles. ... Last week we didn’t tackle well at all, so this week we have to be great tacklers on that guy for sure.”

If the Broncos aren’t able to bring down Ekeler — who has scored three touchdowns apiece on the ground and through the air — they’ll be at risk of allowing more big plays. Against Jacksonville, those were the plays that cost Denver the game.

More than anything, the Broncos’ ability to succeed against the run comes down to physicality and effort. Both Fangio and his players emphasized that during the week.

“We just have to play more physical and be able to hang in there on the blocks better, tackle better and just play better. I’m not going to make up an answer for you,” Fangio said. “… You just have to move it around, pick your spots and hopefully when you are loading up on the run, your secondary can hold together and not give up the big plays in the passing game and vice versa. When you’re trying to help the secondary with coverages and they decide to run it again somewhat of a lighter box, we can hang in there. That’s what good teams do.”

Added Defensive Coordinator Ed Donatell: “Catastrophic is a strong word, but what I would say is we can never accept some think as flukey. You have to address it. You have to make sure that something doesn’t happen. When people see things, they’re going to check it out and see if you fixed it. That’s where we are right now.”

WILL DENVER’S OFFENSE CONTINUE TO PROGRESS?

For the first time this season, the Broncos’ offense looked borderline explosive in the first half of Sunday’s game against the Jaguars.

Denver scored touchdowns on two of its first four possessions and added a field goal later in the half. The Broncos hadn’t scored 17 points in a first half since they scored 35 points in the opening frames against Arizona last season, and they also cracked the 20-point mark for the first time since a Week 13 game against the Bengals.

The best part of the Broncos’ offense — being able to sustain long drives — was on display, and Denver also managed to convert on red-zone opportunities. Flacco also posted his best stat line as a Bronco, as he threw for 303 yards, three touchdowns and an interception against the Jaguars.

Quarterback Joe Flacco is less concerned with those numbers as he is with being able to finally earn a win.

“It’s tough to look at strictly statistics when you’re talking about a quarterback and obviously you can look at it for certain things and all that, but obviously in this case we’re 0-4,” Flacco said Wednesday. “When you really evaluate how you’re playing as a quarterback, you have to go back and watch each individual play. What exactly happened? What broke down? What caused this? What happened well? Listen, I think I’ve alluded to it. We’ve been doing a lot of good things on offense. I’m comfortable with a lot of things that we’re doing. I think we’ve got a lot of good players that make a lot of things possible and that all plays into it, but we have to somehow start converting that into some more consistent play overall.”

Against a Chargers team that ranks ninth in the league in scoring defense, the Broncos will need to bring their best to score points. In particular, they’ll need to avoid the back-breaking turnovers they committed against Green Bay. If they can do that, they could have a chance of pulling their second consecutive upset in Los Angeles.

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