DENVER — It’s good to be home.
After a subpar performance led to a Broncos loss in Oakland, the team returns to Empower Field at Mile High on Sunday for a game that … could already have postseason implications?
It may sound crazy, but Sunday’s game could indicate whether the Broncos will be chasing a playoff berth at the end of the year.
Since 2007, 98 teams have started an NFL season with an 0-2 record. Just 12 of those teams ended up making the playoffs.
That’s not to say it’s impossible to climb out of an 0-2 hole, but it certainly increases the difficulty.
“We know this game is critical,” Chris Harris Jr. said Thursday. “There’s not a lot of 0-2 teams that make the playoffs, so we have to win this game for sure.”
The Broncos, though, face a stiff test against the Chicago Bears (0-1) as they try to even their record at 1-1.
Vic Fangio’s former team boasts a stout defense that held Aaron Rodgers and the Packers to just 10 points in Week 1, and Chicago head coach Matt Nagy has had 9 days to prepare his offense for Denver’s defense after the Bears played on Sept. 5.
As both teams look to avoid falling in an 0-2 hole, these are the burning questions that could help define the game:
HOW DOES THE BRONCOS’ DEFENSE RESPOND VS. MITCHELL TRUBISKY?
Especially in the first half, Raiders quarterback Derek Carr faced very little resistance from the Broncos’ defense. The veteran quarterback finished the first half 16-of-17 for 178 yards, a touchdown and a 129.9 QB rating as the Raiders jumped out to a 14-0 halftime lead. Carr used a series of short, quick passes to put Oakland in manageable situations, and the Raiders’ running game did the rest.
Again and again, the Raiders ended up in third-and-short situations, which rendered the Broncos’ pass rush ineffective. Von Miller and Bradley Chubb ended up with no sacks and no quarterback hits.
“You all have known me for nine years,” Miller said Thursday. “If I don't get a sack and then we lose on top of that too, it's a double loss for me. That's my job and I like to get my job done.”
Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky had a much different 2019 debut.
Facing the Packers, Trubisky finished 26-of-45 for 228 yards, an interception and a 62.1 quarterback rating. He was sacked five times and only led the offense to three points in a 10-3 loss.
Can Miller and Chubb get back on track and hassle Trubisky into a similar performance? Or will Trubisky rebound with a Carr-like performance? The answer could be the difference between a Broncos win or loss.
An X-factor in the matchup: Trubisky’s mobility outside of the pocket.
“He is dangerous when he is scrambling,” Head Coach Vic Fangio said Wednesday. “He is a very good athlete, he is fast and he is elusive. He has a good feel for when to pull it down and run. He’s made a lot of plays in his short career doing that. Yet, he’s a very accomplished passer when he’s inside the pocket, can make all the throws they ask him to make and he’s a damn good player.”
If the Broncos are to find success against Trubisky and the Bears’ offense, it likely starts with shutting the Bears down on first and second down. That will put Miller and Chubb position to do what they do best: make game-changing plays.
CAN THE BRONCOS’ OFFENSIVE LINE HOLD UP?
When Elijah Wilkinson replaced Ja’Wuan James at right tackle against the Raiders after James suffered a knee injury, the third-year player put together a solid performance.
He’ll face a much bigger test against Khalil Mack. The 2016 NFL Defensive Player of the Year and three-time first-team All-Pro is 269 pounds of pure power — and Mack will try to get through Wilkinson to Joe Flacco.
“I think he’s been pretty damn good all training camp and preseason games,” Fangio said of Wilkinson on Wednesday. “Came in the other day and played well. Had a tough first play, got a little late off the ball, but we have total confidence in him.”
The challenge for Denver’s offensive line doesn’t end there. Garett Bolles must hold up against Leonard Floyd, and Akiem Hicks will also be a threat against both the pass and the run. In Week 1, the Bears’ front-seven helped hold Aaron Rodgers and the Packers to just one touchdown.
“They’re very good,” said Fangio when asked if the Bears had the best front-seven. “I mean rankings are — what are rankings? That’s just an opinion. They’re really good. That’s a fact.”
The Broncos gave up three sacks against the Raiders and struggled to run the ball in the first half. Denver will need to be far better if they hope to protect Flacco and move the ball in the running game.
And given Mack’s penchant for forcing fumbles, Wilkinson may play the biggest role in determining Denver’s success at the line of scrimmage.
CAN DENVER SCORE TOUCHDOWNS IN THE RED ZONE?
Against the Raiders, the Broncos drove the ball into the red zone four times in the second half. They scored just one touchdown.
Though Brandon McManus knocked in field goals on the other three possessions, the Broncos weren’t able to completely close the gap after the Raiders took a 14-0 halftime lead.
What plagued the Broncos’ offense inside the 20-yard line? Penalties, drops and missed protections — to name just a few reasons. Denver also suffered from at least one untimely slip from Emmanuel Sanders as he tried to make a cut.
“Obviously, we've got to do a better job as a group,” Offensive Coordinator Rich Scangarello said Thursday. “When we watched the film, I think everyone in the building from quarterback to coach, we know there is room for improvement, but we also know we were really close. It was sound football and sometimes things just don't go your way where you don't make a play. … Things happen in the course of [a] football [game] and you've got to adjust. We've got to do a better job.”
Scangarello won’t be afraid, though, of calling aggressive plays to try to help his team get into the end zone.
“You live by the sword, you die by the sword,” Scangarello said. “I know this, I want to be a fearless play caller and I want our players to be fearless players and not be afraid to fail.”
The Broncos drove the ball successfully against the Raiders; they just couldn’t finish. Against a Bears defense that likely won’t allow the Broncos many scoring chances, Scangarello and Co. likely must take advantage of their red-zone chances in order to secure a win.