GREEN BAY, Wis. — The next challenge for the Denver Broncos?
Just a test against one of the best quarterbacks of all time.
Head Coach Vic Fangio and Co. are set for a Week 3 showdown against the Packers, whose offensive system is new this season but whose franchise quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, is still very much the same.
“He’s one of the best of all time, so there’s not a lot that’s giving him a lot of trouble,” Fangio said. “One of the definitions of a great quarterback is there’s really no one way to play them so you just have to mix it up on them. He’s a great passer, quick release, great arm strength, mobile, scrambler, creator. He’s a great player.”
The Packers (2-0) present a bigger challenge than just their Rodgers-led offense. Through two weeks, Green Bay ranks second in the league in points allowed.
“They’ve done a great job,” Fangio said. “Number one, the last two years they’ve made it a major emphasis to improve their defense and they have drafted well and they’ve signed free agents well that fit their scheme. They have a bunch of guys now playing together that believe in the scheme. They’ve come in there together a year or two apart. They’ve got really good speed on defense. They have versatility. They’ve got a bunch of DBs that they play out there at different times. They’re really good right now, but it’s not a mystery [as to why]. They made it an emphasis to get better on defense the last two years.”
In Lambeau Field — where the Broncos have never won — the challenge only becomes greater.
But with Von Miller, Joe Flacco, Emmanuel Sanders, Chris Harris Jr., Bradley Chubb and Co., the Broncos certainly have a fighting chance.
As the Broncos look to upset the Packers and earn their first win of the season, these are the questions they’ll need to answer.
CAN A TODD DAVIS RETURN GIVE THE BRONCOS’ RUN DEFENSE A BOOST?
Linebacker Todd Davis could make his 2019 regular-season debut on Sunday against the Packers, and if he does, he should make an immediate impact in the center of Denver’s defense. Davis, who suffered a calf injury on the first day of training camp on July 18, was a full participant in practice all week ahead of the Broncos’ game in Green Bay. He’s officially listed as questionable, but when Fangio was asked Friday if Davis would play, he said it is “looking that way.”
It’s hard to overstate what Davis could add to the Broncos’ rushing defense, which is currently ranked 24th in the NFL through two weeks. The Broncos allowed Josh Jacobs to score twice in Week 1, and Chicago rushed for 153 yards in Week 2. Davis, though, was the Broncos’ leading tackler in 2018 as he notched 114 tackles. He also tallied a career-high six tackles for loss last season.
“This guy’s an experienced guy,” Defensive Coordinator Ed Donatell said Thursday. “He’s been with Reggie Herring, our linebackers coach, so we know what he can do, but he missed a big block of time. He’s a guy that studies really hard. He’s a smart player and he’s looked good in the preparation so far.”
A healthy Davis also represents an upgrade in pass coverage, as he’s shown the ability to blanket running backs out of the backfield. Packers running back Aaron Jones has flashed in both the run game and the pass game, and Davis may be integral in containing him.
“When I first saw him when he came up with them, I looked out and said, ‘Where’d they get this guy?’ And I think he was a sixth-round pick, and I’m saying, ‘Jeez,’” Fangio said. “He’s powerful. He’s got really good balance. He runs tough. He’s a capable pass receiver out of the backfield. They do everything with him. They got a steal there.”
With Davis back in the center of the defense, the Broncos may have another piece to help make the Packers one-dimensional.
WILL VON MILLER AND BRADLEY CHUBB FIND THEIR STRIDE?
Through two weeks, the Broncos have yet to force a turnover or record a sack.
At least as it relates to sacks, though, Fangio isn’t too concerned yet about the lack of a pass rush. In the Broncos’ Week 1 game against Oakland, the Raiders used the ground game and quick passes to render the pass rush ineffective. In Week 2, the Bears relied largely on their running game to move the ball in what was a one-score contest for nearly the entire game. Only in the final 31 seconds did the lack of pass rush become a problem, as the Bears moved the ball into field-goal range for the win.
“The only thing I will say is I was disappointed in our rush in the last drive, but prior to that in these first two games they’ve been unusual games as it related to pass rush,” Fangio said.
Miller, though, has never started the first two games of a season without a sack, and both he and Chubb have only registered two combined quarterback hits. Against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, the pass-rushing duo must be able to bring pressure. The Packers have allowed seven sacks through two games, which ranks 24th in the NFL, so there should be opportunities.
If Denver can apply pressure, the fumbles and interceptions should follow.
“We're just playing for a breakthrough,” Miller said Thursday. “It's like blackjack, just double down. We've been doing all the right stuff, we're preparing well, we're practicing well. We're doing everything that we need to be doing off the field and everything in between. We've just got to keep playing. Sacks come in bunches and it'll be a good week to get it this week in Lambeau.”
But the pass rush doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The Broncos’ first- and second-down defense must improve to put the Packers in third-and-long scenarios, and Denver’s offense must be able to build a lead to force Green Bay to pass. If the Packers are able to build an early lead, run the ball effectively and consistently face third-and-shorts, the Broncos’ defense may be searching for answers yet again.
CAN DENVER’S OFFENSE TURN DRIVES INTO POINTS?
Against the Bears, Denver’s offense tallied 27 first downs — which was tied for first in the NFL that week — and eight of their nine drives crossed the 50-yard line. But the team scored just 14 points, including just three points through three quarters.
For the season, the Broncos rank 16th in yards per game but just 28th in points per game.
The issue, it seems, is two-fold. First, the Broncos have allowed penalties and negative plays to stall promising drives. Against the Bears, tackle Garett Bolles was called for four holding penalties and guard Ron Leary was whistled for a pair, as well. Fangio stressed the need this week to gain a few more yards after crossing midfield to ensure kicker Brandon McManus can attempt a field goal.
When the Broncos are able to avoid those mistakes and get into the red zone, they’ve faced more problems. In six red-zone attempts this season, the Broncos have scored just two touchdowns. Both touchdowns came in the fourth quarter of games.
“I think our issue right now is we're definitely hurting ourselves, whether they are penalties or an assignment here or there,” Flacco said Wednesday. “We're getting across the 50 and then we're doing something like that that is kind of backing us up. Once we get in the flow of the game that stuff is not happening as much.”
Against Rodgers and the Packers, the Broncos must take advantage of opportunities — both on the plus side of the field and in the red zone. Still, the Broncos won’t take on unnecessary risks or deviate from their plan to play complementary football.
“I will say this, the whole goal in the building is to play complementary football,” Offensive Coordinator Rich Scangarello said Thursday. “If we win 13-10 or if we win 38-35, I don't think anyone in this building truly cares. Now, people on the outside might have their opinions why that is. I want to help the defense, that means take care of the football and don't turn it over.”
There are signs that the offense is improved from a season ago. In 2018, the Broncos had six three-and-outs through two games. This year’s Broncos have just three.