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Burning Questions: Broncos vs. Chargers

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Has the Drew Lock era arrived in Denver?

We’ll find out very soon.

Head Coach Vic Fangio declined to name a starting quarterback during his final media-availability session of the week, but plenty of signs point toward Lock making his debut.

The rookie second-round pick took 75 percent of the reps with the first-team offense this week in practice, and each day he made strides and looked more comfortable, Fangio said.

If Lock earns the nod from Fangio, he’ll be the seventh quarterback to start for the team since Peyton Manning retired after Super Bowl 50.

More importantly, he’ll be the main focus of Sunday’s game against the Chargers — and he may have the biggest impact on whether the Broncos sweep Los Angeles for the first time since 2015.

There are other factors to consider, though.

These are the questions that will help determine which team wins and which team falls as the Broncos return to Empower Field at Mile High:

IF DREW LOCK STARTS, HOW DOES HE FARE?

Fans have clamored to see Lock for weeks — and for good reason. Lock was rated as one of the top-ranked quarterback prospects in the 2019 NFL Draft, and the Broncos considered themselves lucky when he fell to the second round.

In college, Lock led the nation in touchdown passes as a junior as he threw for 44 scores. He ranks third all-time in SEC history in passing touchdowns and second in passing yards. In addition to his throwing prowess, he also showed an ability to make plays outside of the pocket.

Those skills translated more and more each week during the preseason, as Lock appeared to gain confidence in each of his three preseason appearances. After struggling in Canton, Ohio in the Pro Football Hall of Fame game, Lock threw a touchdown against the Seahawks in his second game and then led a 13-play scoring drive that ran more than eight minutes off the clock vs. the 49ers.

Lock completed 31-of-51 passes for 254 yards, one touchdown and an interception during his three games of preseason action. 

He suffered a thumb injury in the third quarter against San Francisco that knocked him out of the preseason and landed him on IR at the beginning of the regular season, but the time away from the field may have helped him.

“I think the timeoff in some ways — although you never want it — helped him,” Fangio said on Nov. 14. “I think he learned a lot, whereas when he was going through it in the spring and in training camp before he got hurt, it was piling up on him, I think. Besides learning the new offense and being under center which he had never done in college, etc., all those things were piling up on him and getting in the way of progressing the way you’d like to see him progress. I think through his timeoff he’s been able to solve some of those issues emotionally and mentally.”

Now healthy, Lock could get his chance to prove he can be the franchise’s quarterback of the future.

His task will be two-fold.

First, he must be able to avoid mistakes against the Chargers’ fifth-ranking scoring defense that returns Derwin James and Adrian Phillips this week in the defensive backfield. Second, he must find a way to make the splash plays on offense that made him stand out as a quarterback prospect.

The latter shouldn’t be a problem.

“I’m just going to go out and be myself,” Lock said Wednesday. “Just be what I’ve been to get me to this point. If that means making some plays where people might think I’m doing too much, then so be it. That’s just who I am as a quarterback. That’s just what I’m going to stick to. I’m going to stick to my guns and stick to who I think I am as a ‘Q.’”

CAN THE OFFENSE PLAY BETTER AS A UNIT?

Whether Drew Lock or Brandon Allen leads the Broncos’ offense, they’ll need more help than Allen got in Buffalo in Week 12.

Though Fangio admitted that Allen didn’t play well, he said Monday that the offense’s 134-yard output was on more than just the quarterback.

“Offensively, we didn’t have a good day," Fangio said. "When the quarterback’s not playing well and then it’s not being played well around him either, that just amplifies the quarterback’s play too. We just didn’t play well. Give Buffalo’s defense credit. They played really good.”

Offensive Coordinator Rich Scangarello dove deeper into the issues that hurt the Broncos during his media availability on Thursday.

“This last game, I think a lot of the things that have plagued us throughout the year kind of manifested themselves and were reasons we weren’t able to score points,” Scangarello said. “In the end, penalties have hurt us, they’ve stopped drives. A dropped ball, a lack of execution, one guy here or there, and we’re a young team and we’re growing together. When you’re going through this process and you’re building something like that, sometimes those little things that you overcome when you’re rolling, you don’t overcome them. They’ve set us back, and we haven’t been able to stay on the field on third down. Those things have hurt us, and it’s just a tough league. Every week is a new challenge. We’ve seen some good defenses on the road and bad conditions. It challenges us and we have to learn from it and grow as a group, as a staff, all of us.”

Indeed, the problems popped up across the offense.

The Broncos’ rushing offense, which ranked 16th entering Week 12, picked up 85 total yards and no rushes went farther than 16 yards.

Wide receiver Courtland Sutton, who entered the game with the second-most receiving yards in the AFC, caught just one pass on eight targets. Sutton was hampered by an ankle injury, according to Fangio, but he tallied a season-low in catches and receiving yards (27).

The Broncos turned the ball over on the edge of the red zone, posted five consecutive three-and-outs to end the game and only crossed the 50-yard line once in the second half.

In all, it was an offensive performance the Broncos hope not to repeat.

If Lock is under center, can he get help from the offensive line and his playmakers? The answer will prove critical.

WILL VON MILLER PLAY — AND HOW EFFECTIVE CAN HE BE?

After playing 95 consecutive games — including postseason appearances — Von Miller’s streak could end this weekend against the Chargers.

Miller was listed as questionable on the team’s final injury report of the week, and Fangio said he is “truly 50-50” to play Sunday. Miller did practice on a limited basis on Friday after missing practice on Wednesday and Thursday, but Broncos fans may not know for sure about his availability until the team announces its inactive players 90 minutes before kickoff.

Defensive Coordinator Ed Donatell said he expects Miller to be available.

“He’s been [an] iron man,” Dontaell said Friday. “You know that. He heals quickly, so I expect to see him there.”

Miller is unlikely to want to miss a chance to play against Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers. In his nine-year career, Miller has sacked 51 different quarterbacks — and he’s taken no one down more than Rivers, whom he’s sacked 16 times.

Rivers, whom Miller did not sack in the teams’ Week 5 meeting, has struggled in recent weeks. He has thrown seven interceptions over his previous two starts — the highest total in consecutive games of his career — which means Miller may be able to pressure him into a mistake or two.

The Broncos’ secondary — which will feature Isaac Yiadom at the No. 2 cornerback position in place of Davontae Harris — must take advantage of those opportunities to snag interceptions.

If Miller can record a sack, he’ll move past Kevin Carter and Neil Smith on the NFL’s all-time sack list and grab sole possession of 27th place.

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