After a pair of losses and with a critical game against the Raiders approaching in Week 6, we're diving back into our pile of mailbag questions to break down the loss to the Steelers and preview Denver's upcoming opponent.
In this edition of "Ask Aric," we'll look at the Broncos' late success, why Noah Fant's involvement was limited against Pittsburgh and how the Raiders' coaching staff changes could impact this week's game.
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Can Bridgewater and Co. continue their fourth-quarter success into the next game? – Daniel M.
In an ideal world, they'd be able to pick up where they left off. The fourth quarter was certainly much better, as the Broncos tallied 13 points, 10 first downs and 205 yards over the course of the frame. Over the other three quarters combined, the Broncos scored six points and recorded seven first downs and 169 yards. Head Coach Vic Fangio said after the game that the Broncos started throwing the ball to the outside edges of the field, which helped open up the passing game, but it may not be that simple in Week 6. As Graham Glasgow pointed out on Monday, some of the success in the fourth quarter may have come from the way the Steelers played defense.
"I think that in general in a two-minute drill the defense just isn't trying to give up the big play," Glasgow said Monday. "I think they're giving us a lot of the completions to move the chains and whatnot. I think that it kind of gives you a false sense of security in 'Why don't we just go two-minute the whole game?' but I don't think you can do that."
That said, it's seemed for most of the season that the Broncos have been good at making second-half adjustments. They extended their leads in New York and Jacksonville and against the Jets, and they nearly completed a remarkable comeback in Pittsburgh. They need to start games better, but their ability to adapt after halftime should be encouraging.
What's up with no TE targets? What went wrong here? - Cesar
This is a fair question, especially when Noah Fant played so well last year against the Steelers. This year, Fant finished with four targets — and the first one came early in the fourth quarter. According to Fangio, Fant's lack of involvement was a direct result of the Broncos' decision to slow down Pittsburgh's dangerous edge rushers. The Broncos kept their tight ends in to block or chip quite a bit, which prevented Fant from getting out into his route at times. At others, Bridgewater simply went other places with the ball. Fant wound up with three catches on the afternoon, and the Broncos will certainly want to get him more involved as the season continues. Sometimes, though, you have to make sacrifices to prevent talented rushers on the other side from making game-wrecking plays.
What is the biggest problem with the Broncos' offense? – Matthew J.
Matthew, there's two areas that stand out to me: third down and the red zone. Let's start with the former; the Broncos rank last in the league in third-down conversion rate at just 28.6 percent. The issues on third down aren't just about the critical down — the Broncos also have to be better on first and second down. Let's look at the Broncos' first four drives of Sunday's game against the Steelers. The Broncos ran five first-down plays, and their average gain was just 2.6 yards. On four of those plays, the Broncos gained two or fewer yards. They also were whistled for a delay-of-game penalty to start the game, which placed them in a hole to start the drive. The lack of success on early downs is putting Denver into third-and-longs, and the Broncos haven't been able to convert many of those opportunities. As Fangio mentioned Monday, the solution is twofold: Denver has to start getting more production on early downs, but the team also has to be better in third-and-long scenarios. "You can't get shut out," he said Monday.
The red zone has also been an issue, as Denver ranks 10th in red-zone attempts but just 29th in red-zone success rate. The Broncos have scored just touchdowns on just 42.11 percent of their trips inside the 20-yard line, where there's limited space and execution must be crisp. "I think that it just comes down to every single person on the offense has to execute," Glasgow said. "I think that the majority of the time, I'd say 10 out of 11 guys are doing it but I think that one out of 11 is kind of biting us in the ass at this point in time."
The Broncos are tied for second in giveaways and rank fourth in time of possession, which suggests the team should be poised to find success on offense. If they can find a way to click on third down and in the red zone, the offense should take a big jump forward.
At what point do you think they may go back to Drew Lock? - Bob
That's not happening — nor should it. Bridgewater earned the job during training camp and the preseason, and it's been clear that Denver made the right choice. Bridgewater ranks 12th in ESPN's QBR, he's led Denver to their first 3-2 start in four years, and the Broncos are in the thick of the playoff race. Bridgewater has also turned the ball over just once through five weeks. A year ago, Denver quarterbacks were responsible for eight turnovers through five weeks.
Through five weeks, Bridgewater is certainly playing like the best quarterback the Broncos have had under center since Peyton Manning retired in 2015. Let's also not forget that Bridgewater is one of the emotional leaders of this team. He was voted a captain, and it's clear that players on both offense and defense believe in what Bridgewater brings to this team.
In Pittsburgh, Bridgewater nearly led the team back from an 18-point deficit. He finished 24-of-38 for 288 yards, two touchdowns, an interception and a 92.9 rating. He took one bad sack — he admitted he should have dumped the ball off to Andrew Beck in the flat — and couldn't quite cap the comeback, but he helped jump start the offense and then them to the brink of overtime. Could he have played better early? Yes, but he also had limited practice time last week as he returned from a concussion.
It's easy to want to make a quick change after a couple of tough losses, but keep in mind that the Broncos are 3-2 and currently hold the final wild-card spot if the playoffs were to start today. The Broncos remain in the thick of the playoff race, and Bridgewater is the quarterback that will lead them forward.
Will the Raiders having a change in offensive play caller change our defensive strategy? – Liam Y.
This is a good question, but I'd imagine things will remain relatively similar. Obviously there will be some slight differences for the Raiders in terms of the operation, but their offensive coordinator remains in place. I'd be surprised if there were wholesale changes. Any advantage the Raiders would gain over the Broncos by changing their strategy would seemingly be negated by the impact it would have on their own team. Jon Gruden's resignation came suddenly, and it wouldn't make much sense to install major changes in the middle of the week. I'd expect the Broncos to keep their same defensive strategy and aim to limit the impact of Las Vegas' many playmakers, including tight end Darren Waller, wide receivers Henry Ruggs III and Hunter Renfrow and running back Josh Jacobs.
How weird is it to be more concerned about the Chargers than the Chiefs? – Brandon W.
Feels odd, doesn't it? After five consecutive division titles, the Chiefs face an uphill climb after five weeks. Kansas City sits at 2-3, and the Chargers hold a 4-1 record and are arguably the AFC's top team. The Chargers have won — with the exception of a shootout with Cleveland in Week 5 — with stifling defense and the lights-out play of quarterback Justin Herbert. The Chiefs remain a threat — I would never count out Patrick Mahomes — but it's certainly fair to say that at this moment, the Chargers are the bigger problem in the AFC West.
When will Jerry Jeudy be back? - Derek
We're getting closer, but we aren't quite there. On Oct. 6, Fangio said that there was "some hope" that Jeudy would be ready six weeks after the injury. That would put Jeudy back after Week 7. Then, on Monday, Fangio said Jeudy's return is "not right around the corner, but it's getting closer." Sooner or later, Jeudy will rejoin the wide receiving corps. And it will be a welcome boost to an offense that certainly misses one of its top playmakers.
Why is John Brown's signing to the practice squad? To get into football shape and learn the playbook? With injuries at WR, couldn't he be a Day 1 contributor? - Michael S.
Michael, it's an interesting question. Since the rule changed last year to allow veterans to sign onto a team's practice squad, this has become a somewhat normal practice. A veteran free agent can sign to the practice squad, work with the team and learn the scheme and then take a variety of paths to the active roster. As early as this week, the Broncos could elevate Brown to their game-day roster, and he could then revert to the practice squad after the game. They also could simply promote him to the active roster, which would require a corresponding move to remain at the 53-man limit. But yes, in the meantime, signing a player to the practice squad rather than the active roster allows a team to get that player in the building to learn the scheme and work into the system without taking up a roster spot. I wouldn't take Brown signing to the practice squad as a sign that he won't be available on game days. At some point — perhaps as early as this week — I'd think they would want to get him involved.