INGLEWOOD, Calif. — The Broncos have not shied away from the importance of a Week 6 "Monday Night Football" matchup against the Chargers.
Following back-to-back losses to the Raiders and Colts, Denver sits at 2-3 and perhaps at a critical juncture of its season. With a win, the Broncos would improve to .500 with a home date with the Jets on the horizon. With a loss, though, Denver would drop another game back in the wild-card race and against their division rival in the Chargers.
"It's must-win," safety Justin Simmons said Wednesday. "That's as urgent as it can be. It's a must-win for us on Monday night. They're already 1-1 [in the division], so they already have a win in the division, and we need to get ours. So it's a must-win on Monday."
Regardless of the Broncos' current record, Denver must be better in AFC West games if the team hopes to make a playoff run. The Broncos were just 1-5 last season in the division, and they've lost 10 of the last 11 to division foes. Denver has not won a road AFC West game since Week 5 of the 2019 season, when they beat the Chargers.
"For us, we are 0-1 right now in the West," Head Coach Nathaniel Hackett said. "The past is the past right now. We have to find a way to win a football game. It happens to be a West opponent which makes it more exciting because it's a rivalry. It's a very good football team. We have to get out there, and we have to get after it."
The Broncos will look to better their record and improve their division mark to 1-1 on the season as they travel to SoFi Stadium to battle Justin Herbert and the Chargers.
These are the questions that will decide if the Broncos can get back to 3-3 on the season:
CAN THE BRONCOS SLOW JUSTIN HERBERT?
The Chargers will likely be without wide receiver Keenan Allen for "Monday Night Football," as the star pass catcher is listed as doubtful with a hamstring injury.
Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert, though, is dangerous no matter who is on the field. The third-year player has posted a quarterback rating of at least 90 in four of his first five games this season, and he tossed a pair of scores with a 114.6 rating in his last meeting with the Broncos.
In this week's matchup, Herbert will aim to post his fourth consecutive game against a division opponent with at least three touchdown passes.
For the Broncos to slow Herbert, they'll need to be able to both rush and cover — and they should have the players to do it.
Up front, Bradley Chubb is the only player in the league with at least five sacks and two forced fumbles through five weeks this season, and Baron Browning had a stellar starting debut against the Colts with two tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. Dre'Mont Jones also added half a sack against Indianapolis, while D.J. Jones recorded a sack for the second consecutive game.
The battle up front should be entertaining to watch, as the Broncos have posted the fourth-most sacks this season entering Week 5, while the Chargers are tied for the fewest allowed.
In the back end of the defense, the Broncos' primary concern will be the big-bodied Mike Williams. The 6-foot-4, 218-pound player has an impressive catch radius, and he's posted at least 113 yards in three of his first five games to start the season. In Week 5, Williams caught a career-high 10 passes for 134 yards. Cornerback Pat Surtain II seems like the likely choice to match up with with Williams. The second-year player held Davante Adams in check in Week 4, and if he can limit Williams in a similar fashion, the Broncos should hold an edge.
"He's a very complete corner," Chargers head coach Brandon Staley said this week. "… [He's] playing as well as any corner in the NFL right now."
Of course, the Broncos must also hold do-it-all running back Austin Ekeler in check. The former undrafted player's eight games with at least one receiving touchdown and one rushing touchdown leads the NFL since 2019. The Broncos, though, have only allowed one running back this season to rush for more than 75 yards and have allowed just two rushing touchdowns this season.
Denver has allowed just five total offensive touchdowns in 2022, which is tied for the fewest in the NFL. They'll face a tough challenge on Monday against the Chargers.
CAN DENVER'S OFFENSE AVOID FEAST-OR-FAMINE RESULTS?
The Broncos' offense can move the football.
Through five weeks, that's quite clear. The Broncos rank second in passing plays of at least 20 yards and are in the top 10 for big plays.
Where the team has struggled, though, is in maintaining its offensive success. The Broncos have had too many negative plays, and it's forced the Broncos into an unsustainable number of third-and-longs. Against the Colts, the Broncos needed an average of 9.5 yards to pick up a first down, and they faced six third downs of at least 12 yards en route to a 2-of-15 performance.
Against the Chargers, the Broncos must be better on early downs to create more manageable third downs. That means limiting penalties, negative runs and sacks when facing first-and-10.
"I think that's kind of been one of our nemeses," Hackett said of negative plays. "We've been really good in some explosive passes down the field. I think we're pretty high up there in the league, and we have some really good explosives. We're really feast or famine, and it's in the red zone and it's in the middle of the field. The amount of get-back-on-track [plays] we have is just too difficult. We need to be way more efficient on first down, getting positive yards and even just incompletions instead of sacks or penalties. So I think those are the things we're focusing on, trying to narrow down the things we want to be great at and then continually developing those."
The Broncos' feast-or-famine struggles have extended to the red zone, where Denver is last in the league in touchdown percentage. Through five weeks, the Broncos have scored touchdowns on just 21.4 percent of their red-zone opportunities.
Denver's offense still believes in its ability to improve, but the unit also knows that time is of the essence.
"We know that there is a lot of urgency around here to get our offense going," guard Dalton Risner said. "We know that if we get our offense going, and if we can complement our defense with the way that they're playing, we can be a special team. … There is no time to say, 'Oh, we're going to get there at some point.' We have to do it now. That's our mindset."
It's possible the Broncos can find some more success in Week 6, as they face the Chargers' 30th-ranked scoring defense.
WILL THE BRONCOS REGAIN AN X-FACTOR?
The Broncos could be set to add Simmons, tight end Greg Dulcich and cornerback Michael Ojemudia back to their roster, and it's possible that Denver will get a boost from one or more of the returning players.
Denver knows what Simmons is capable of in the defensive backfield, and he'll be a welcome addition to help slow Herbert and Co. on Monday. With Caden Sterns ruled out of the contest, Simmons' availability would be particularly important. Dulcich, though, could also be a critical weapon for the Broncos if he plays.
"It's going to allow us to do a lot of different things," Hackett said. "You have another guy that can stretch the field vertically. … He strains in the run game and in the pass protection. Any time you can put those guys out there — their skills sets are so unique that it will be fun to have him out there."
Through five games, the Broncos' tight ends have tallied just 16 catches for 185 yards and a touchdown — and the touchdown and nearly half of those yards belong to Eric Saubert.
It's unfair to expect Dulcich to have a dominant impact in his first potential game back from injured reserve, but he could serve as a weapon in critical situations, like in the red zone.
If the Broncos can get a boost from any of their potential three reinforcements, it could be a deciding factor in the game.
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