CLEVELAND — Can the Broncos take advantage of an unexpected opportunity?
And, in the process, can Denver push its record above .500 to remain in the thick of the playoff race?
When the schedule was released in May, few games looked more daunting than a road matchup with the Browns on short rest. Cleveland was touted as one of the league's top teams, and their offense featured a slew of talented players. The Browns (3-3) haven't quite accomplished their preseason aspirations, but their losses are to a trio of teams that are a combined 13-5 through six weeks.
The Broncos, though, will face a different Browns team in Week 7. The Cleveland offense is battered — more on that in a moment — which could give Denver the chance to steal a win on the road. With a victory, Denver would improve to 4-3 on the season and keep pace in the wild-card race. They would also find themselves no more than one game back in the AFC West.
After a three-game slide that dropped the team from its 3-0 peak, Denver is in desperate need of a win — and a victory in Cleveland could spark another strong stretch. After Week 7, the Broncos host a pair of 2-4 teams in the three weeks before the bye. A win on Thursday in Cleveland could help lead Denver to a critical mid-season surge.
As Teddy Bridgewater looks to bounce back, Von Miller tries to deliver on a promise and the Broncos' secondary aims to respond, Denver finds itself approaching one of the most intriguing games of its season.
These are the questions that will determine if the Broncos can earn a win on the shore of Lake Erie:
HOW EFFECTIVE CAN TEDDY BRIDGEWATER BE?
Ahead of the Broncos' Week 6 matchup with the Raiders, Offensive Coordinator Pat Shurmur spoke about the value of Bridgewater being able to avoid the critical mistake. And prior to the Broncos' meeting with Las Vegas, Bridgewater had been able to do just that. Through five games, Bridgewater threw just one interception.
But against the Raiders, Bridgewater turned the ball over four times. His first interception came on fourth down, which actually improved the team's field position compared to an incompletion, but Bridgewater noted after the game that he was high on his throw to Eric Saubert. The second turnover, a fumble midway through the third quarter, was more critical. The Broncos had cut the lead to 14 points, forced a three-and-out and were driving with the ball when Bridgewater had the ball knocked away from his grasp. When the Broncos regained possession, they trailed by 21 points with just over 15 minutes to play.
The turnovers weren't the only issues, as Bridgewater was also sacked five times and hit more than a dozen. The pounding took a toll on Bridgewater, as he was estimated as a limited participant on the Broncos' injury report all week and is listed as questionable for Thursday's game. If Bridgewater is able to play, it's worth monitoring how mobile he is against a dangerous Cleveland front seven that includes NFL sack leader Myles Garrett. Bridgewater doesn't scramble much, but his mobility within the pocket is a big part of his game. If he is hampered by his injury, it could lower his effectiveness.
The bigger point, though, will be whether Bridgewater can return to his turnover-averse ways. The final two interceptions were undoubtedly the result of having to press and resort to an unbalanced offense, but he must avoid the early and costly turnovers for Denver to win Thursday's game.
CAN VON MILLER BACK UP HIS STATEMENT?
Von Miller has made a career of making critical plays in big games, and a matchup with the Browns qualifies. With the Broncos victims of three consecutive losses and in need of a win to remain above .500, Miller vowed on Tuesday to post a big game.
"I have to play well in this game," Miller said. "I will play well in this game. I'm going to go off. It's going to be a good game for me. I don't want to guarantee a win for my teammates, but I don't want to put the pressure on those guys. I want to put the pressure on me. I'm going to have a great game. I'm going to go out there and play well and get a couple of sacks. If I can do that, then we will win."
Miller last made a similar statement in 2018, when he guaranteed a win over the Arizona Cardinals. In that contest, he posted a pair of sacks and forced two fumbles in a 45-10 win. In Cleveland, a similar Miller performance could shift the scales.
The Browns' offensive injuries could help make that possible for Miller. Top running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt have been ruled out, as has starting quarterback Baker Mayfield. Wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., tackles Jack Conklin and Jedrick Wills Jr. and center JC Tretter are all questionable, which could leave quarterback Case Keenum without several of his top offensive teammates.
Miller has just half of a sack in October since earning AFC Defensive Player of the Month honors in September, but a game-changing forced fumble could help tilt the momentum in Denver's favor.
CAN THE SECONDARY REBOUND?
The Broncos' secondary was touted as one of the league's best coming into 2021, but the unit has given up too many big plays in recent weeks. Against the Raiders, the Broncos gave up seven completions of at least 25 yards, including three passes of at least 40 yards.
Denver rebounded from the first long pas — a 48-yard touchdown from Derek Carr to Henry Ruggs III — but a 40-yarder to Ruggs late in the game was critical in icing the Las Vegas win. The Browns rank just 13th in the league in big passing plays, which is defined as a passing play of at least 25 yards, but the Broncos must still be ready to defend. Even against a backup quarterback in Keenum, Denver has to make one-on-one plays on the back end of the defense.
"We got beat," Head Coach Vic Fangio said Monday. "It's kind of been the tale here of late. We've given up way too many big plays—more than we're definitely accustomed to doing. It wasn't assignment problems. We just didn't play them well enough. When the players aren't playing them well enough, we have to look at ourselves. We're not coaching them well enough, then."
The Broncos must be particularly alert to the play-action pass. Denver's rushing defense has suffered in recent weeks, allowing 147 rushing yards against the Steelers and allowing several costly carries vs. Las Vegas. Following the season-ending injury to Alexander Johnson, the Broncos are now expected to start a pair of reserves in Justin Strnad and Micah Kiser at inside linebacker. The Browns won't have Chubb or Hunt, but their running game remains strong enough to demand attention. If Denver isn't careful, that could leave the team susceptible to big gains off the run fake.
Denver's entire secondary may benefit if arguably their best player, Justin Simmons, can return to his Pro Bowl form after posting just one interception through six games.
"It's a great opportunity for us on Thursday as a secondary," Simmons said Tuesday. "I haven't been playing great, and I need to play better. There's no getting around that, and I take full ownership in that. Like I said, I'm looking forward to Thursday and putting something new out there."
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