It's almost time.
After a five-year postseason drought, the Broncos made a slew of moves this offseason to retain their stars, bring in elite defensive talent and acquire their now-starting quarterback.
In three preseason games, the Broncos' elite-level starting units and their improved depth showed the potential of this roster.
Now, we're just days away from the true test.
Is the hype around the Broncos' roster for real? Can they make a playoff run in a loaded AFC West? We'll start to get those answers on Sunday when the Broncos kick off against the New York Giants.
The wait has been arduous, but it's nearly over.
"This is a different team, it's a different mindset," Von Miller said Thursday. "It's just a different feel. You guys have been out here, you guys have seen it. You guys have been here just as long as I have. It's just a different team, it's just a different feel. I feel like [General Manager] George Paton, he really has his hand on each and every pick that he has [made]. Each and every player, they all have a purpose. I'm excited to see what we do in real, live action."
When Miller and Co. run out onto the MetLife Stadium turf, these are the questions that will determine if the team can get a season-opening win for the first time since 2018:
CAN TEDDY BRIDGEWATER AND THE OFFENSE MAKE KEY PLAYS?
Bridgewater earned the quarterback job behind solid play, good decision-making and an efficient offensive performance. He led the Broncos on plenty of scoring drives in the preseason and was able to quickly distribute the ball to the team's playmakers.
On Sunday in New York, Bridgewater will get his first true test as the Broncos' starting quarterback as he faces a Giants defense loaded with talent. The unit ranked ninth in scoring defense, 10th in rushing defense and 10th in takeaways a year ago, and New York features players like Leonard Williams, Adoree' Jackson and James Bradberry.
And while the Broncos will hope Bridgewater is able to effectively operate the offense in all scenarios, there's no doubt that he must thrive on third down and in the red zone. The Broncos have spent plenty of time working on situational football during the preseason, and their battles with Denver's defense should leave them well prepared. The Broncos may have been first in red-zone defense last season, but the Giants were just behind them in second place. It is worth noting, though, that the Giants' third-down defense ranked 25th in the NFL.
"They're tough," Head Coach Vic Fangio said. "They're hard to run on down there. They have a big front and they're physical. They have a multitude of coverages that they'll play down there, both man and zone, and they do a good job with it."
No matter what challenge the Giants pose, the Broncos must be better in their own execution. They ranked 26th and 27th in third-down and red-zone offense, respectively, in 2020. For Denver to return to the playoffs, it must be better in those big spots.
Then, of course, there's the notion of hitting the big play. Bridgewater said the talent on the offensive side of the ball can allow them to be "a nightmare for defense."
"It's a huge chance and it's a huge opportunity in this offense," Bridgewater said. "We have guys who can bring that spark, that big-play ability to the games, and we want to make sure that when we call them, we hit them. Last year — I don't want to dwell on it — but I had some guys who were pretty good at tracking the ball down the field and making plays. This unit that we have here with the group of receivers that we have, you watch throughout training camp and preseason games, we're hitting big plays and that's the thing that I love about this team. It's a group of guys that all have a unique skill set and if we need a guy to catch a ball 50 yards down the field, if we need a guy to catch a slant on third-and-1, we need a guy to go in and block in the run game — all those guys can do different things."
If Bridgewater can mesh third-down and red-zone success with a deep shot or two against New York, the Broncos' offense should be able to do its part.
HOW WILL THE BRONCOS' DEFENSE LOOK IN ITS FIRST ACTION?
The Giants seem to be getting healthy at the right time, as it's possible running back Saquon Barkley and wide receivers Kenny Golladay and Kadarius Toney will all be available for Sunday's matchup. New York's core offensive weapons pose varying threats. Barkley, the 2018 Offensive Rookie of the Year, has averaged 4.7 yards per carry during his career and has a pair of 1,000-yard seasons to his name. He's also a threat out of the backfield, as he averaged 8.2 yards per reception and is targeted nearly seven times per game. Add in an average of 16 carries per game, and Barkley usually touches the ball north of 20 times per contest. It remains unclear whether Barkley will have quite that impact in his return from a 2020 ACL injury, but he'll remain dangerous no matter how many times he touches the ball.
"He's a great player, obviously," Fangio said Monday. "He's equally effective getting the ball handed off to him or having it thrown to him. He's a dual threat as a running back, and he's one of the top running backs in the league. He's a chore to handle, but we're going to have to do a good job."
The Broncos' run defense should be aided by the return of Mike Purcell, who has paced the unit over the last two years while healthy.
"He's looked good," Fangio said Thursday. "I think he's back to being 100 percent healthy. He's a major player for us in the run game. He's done well when he's been in there, and hopefully he'll continue that."
Golladay — and Toney, to a lesser extent — will be the big test for the Broncos' secondary. The 2017 third-round pick spent the last four years in Detroit, where he made the Pro Bowl in 2019. Golladay caught 65 passes for 1,190 yards and 11 touchdowns that season, and his playing style is similar to another 2019 Pro Bowler in Sutton.
Denver's secondary, which has been the talk of the offseason, should be ready. Justin Simmons, Kareem Jackson, Ronald Darby, Kyle Fuller, Bryce Callahan and Pat Surtain II may be the best secondary in the league, and Fangio's scheme should allow the defensive backfield to combat the Giants' scheme in a number of different ways. Plenty of eyes, of course, will be on Surtain in his rookie debut. The ninth-overall pick has trained at three different spots during the preseason and could line up nearly anywhere on Sunday.
"We just expect him to continue to grow at every step," Defensive Coordinator Ed Donatell said. "He's passed every test all through camp and he keeps growing. All rookies grow during the first year. There are just new things to figure out in the NFL as you go along, but he's as well prepared as anybody could be for the big stage."
Miller and Bradley Chubb — who is listed as questionable — will aim to help the pass rush by getting after the quarterback. Left tackle Andrew Thomas, who would match up with Chubb, has reportedly struggled during training camp, while Nate Solder will have to handle Miller after he opted out in 2020.
Of course, the Broncos won't be satisfied with merely slowing the Giants' offense down. They'll need to force turnovers to truly change the game, and Giants quarterback Daniel Jones has been known to give the ball away. In his two years since entering the league, no player has more turnovers than Jones' 39. Denver, meanwhile, only had 10 interceptions last season, and five of those came from Simmons.
The Broncos need to be better in that area to return to the playoffs, and there's reason to think they can improve. According to Football Outsiders, the Broncos ranked 30th in takeaways per drive despite having an average defense. Regression to the mean would suggest those takeaway numbers should get better in 2021. Their goals for themselves in that area are quite high.
"We'd definitely like to get two or three a game," Fangio said Wednesday.
CAN DENVER ENGINEER A FAST START TO THE SEASON?
After their 0-for-September stretch the last two years, the Broncos desperately need to begin the year with some positive momentum. A 1-0 start to begin the season would put the Broncos over .500 for the first time since the morning of an Oct. 1, 2018 loss to the Chiefs.
To reach that mark, the Broncos could also use a quick start in the game. Denver scored on just three of its opening drives last season, and all three of those possessions were capped with field goals rather than touchdowns.
An opening touchdown drive would set the tone, and the Broncos showed during the preseason they have the capability to do so. Bridgewater led scoring drives on all three of his opening possessions in the preseason, and two of those drives ended in touchdowns.
"I think urgency [means] we start fast," Offensive Coordinator Pat Shurmur said. "I think that's the one good thing that we did in the preseason. We harped on it and we talked about it. I think it's important to get out to a good start and we were fortunate to score on some of our early drives in the preseason. … I think it's easier to win the game when you're ahead early. I think you make it hard on yourself if you're always trying to shoot three-pointers at the buzzer. That's where the urgency piece comes in."
If Denver can build an early lead, that would allow its secondary and pass-rush to do its part against the Giants' offense.
"We want to put our identity on the field for sure," Garett Bolles said. "We're going to do whatever we can to get the ball going. I think we've done a phenomenal job in the last two preseason games of scoring first and moving the ball and doing the things we need to do. We've just got to continue to keep that same mindset, that same competitive maturity, and just keep fighting and put points on the scoreboard."
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