The Broncos are sitting pretty at 3-0, but they'll face a monumental task this weekend against the Ravens. After earning victories over a trio of teams that are collectively 0-9, Denver will host a Baltimore team that features 2019 NFL MVP Lamar Jackson and the league's best rushing offense.
As the Broncos prepare to face three AFC North opponents in four weeks, this contest will serve as a litmus test for Denver. Therefore, this edition of "Ask Aric" has a rather granular focus, as I take a look at this weekend's game and how it may unfold. There are several intriguing battles in this matchup, and I touch on several of them in the questions below.
The first one may be the most compelling, as Teddy Bridgewater has the chance to prove his 3-0 start is no fluke. And with that, let's get to your questions.
Could this be a "prove it" game for Teddy Bridgewater? - @DavidSt24
It sort of feels like that, doesn't it? Bridgewater's been everything the Broncos could have asked for through three weeks, as he ranks third in ESPN's QBR metric and hasn't turned the ball over. He's pushed the ball down the field, made plays in crucial moments and been the steadying force for this team. But even though the Giants and Jets both boasted strong defenses, there's a different sort of pressure when you're forced to keep up with an opposing offense. Speaking of pressure, Bridgewater shouldn't be bothered by it. When blitzed this season — which has been a staple of the Ravens' defense — Bridgewater has completed 23-of-28 passes for 267 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions while taking four sacks.
In all likelihood, this weekend's game will be closer than any of the previous three, and it's quite possible Bridgewater will need to lead a big second-half drive for the Broncos to win. It's impossible to project if he'll have to help Denver rally in the fourth quarter or if he'll need to make a big third-down completion to ice the game, but it seems like a near certainty that Bridgewater will be called upon to make some sort of defining play. If he's up for it, it would again elevate expectations both for him and this team's playoff chances.
Is it possible the entire AFC West [can] make the playoffs if the records dictate it? Is there a rule that prevents it? - John V.
John, there's definitely not a rule that prevents it, but this is only the second year it's even possible for an entire division to make the postseason. In the Super Bowl era, there haven't been enough wild-card slots for all of a division's teams to be eligible for the postseason. But when the league expanded last season to 14 playoff teams — seven per conference, with three wild-card teams per conference — that became a possibility. Through three weeks, the AFC West certainly looks like it could have all four teams battling for the postseason. The Raiders and Broncos are undefeated, while the Chargers currently hold the tie break among the 2-1 teams competing for a wild-card spot. The Chiefs may be 1-2, but I've seen enough from them over the last few years to expect them to rebound. While I think it's unlikely the AFC West ends up with all three wild-card spots — a strong AFC North figures to take at least one — it is possible they're all right in the mix at the end of the year. Several teams that were expected to battle for wild-card spots — the Steelers, Dolphins, Patriots and Colts — have had slow starts to the season, which could be good news for the Broncos and the AFC West.
How do the Broncos plan to stop Lamar Jackson? - Ty B.
Ty, let's start by acknowledging that Jackson is a challenge unlike any other in this league. He leads the NFL in both yards per completion and yards per carry. Head Coach Vic Fangio said earlier this week that Jackson is comparable to Hall of Famer Barry Sanders playing quarterback. So, this is not going to be an easy task. That said, I think the best way to make Jackson uncomfortable is by sending an extra rusher. While Fangio uses blitzes only sparingly, it may make sense to send a few well-timed rushes this week. When facing an extra rusher this season, Jackson is just 8-of-15 for 110 yards, one touchdown, two interception and four sacks. The other key will be to keep the Ravens in third-and-long scenarios, as Baltimore is 30th in the league in third-down conversions. It likely won't be possible to shut Jackson down entirely; his 39 consecutive games with either a passing or rushing touchdown is the longest active streak in the league and the fifth-longest streak in NFL history. The Ravens have also scored at least 14 points in 46 consecutive games, which is the second-longest streak in league history. The challenge for the Broncos will be to limit Jackson and Baltimore's offense, particularly in the red zone, where Denver's first-ranked red-zone defense will battle the Ravens' third-ranked red-zone offense. An early lead for the Broncos wouldn't hurt, either.
Can the run game be reliable against a formidable Ravens front 7? - @KnoxStory
Melvin Gordon III and Javonte Williams don't need to be perfect, but they need to be able to gain yardage in critical situations — e.g. third-and-1 — and it would be ideal if they could improve their yard per carry average as the game progresses. That's what happened in Week 1 against a stout Giants front; the Broncos didn't find much success early, but they stayed with the run game and their average grew each quarter. Of course, that's only possible to do if the game stays within reach, so the rest of the offense and the defense will play a role, too. Denver's success running the football will also depend on if Dalton Risner and Graham Glasgow are able to play this week as they recover from injuries. I suspect this may be a game where Teddy Bridgewater has to take on a larger role, as the Ravens' rushing defense ranks ninth, while their passing defense ranks 30th. We've seen the last few weeks that the Broncos are more than capable of passing the ball to win if teams sell out to stop the run game. Perhaps we'll see a repeat performance in Week 4.
Will Noah Fant be more active in the passing game? - @Treycase
I'd say there's a pretty decent chance that's the case. Without KJ Hamler, I'd think Bridgewater would aim to involve Fant and Albert Okwuegbunam a little bit more. Fangio spoke Monday about the possibility of using more two-tight-end sets, which would play into Fant's favor. The third-year player had just two catches for 15 yards against the Jets, but he's shown he can be a dynamic piece of this offense. He caught six passes for 62 yards in Week 1 and had a touchdown reception — to go with three other catches — in Week 2. Fant ranks third on the team in receiving yards, so it's not like he hasn't been a consistent weapon. It's possible that against New York, the game plan simply called for Bridgewater to go elsewhere with the ball. With as many weapons as Denver has on offense, there will be weeks where a player doesn't see his normal share of targets. I'm not worried about Fant's involvement and wouldn't be surprised to see him make a big play on Sunday.
All the talk around replacing Hamler is centered on free agents or practice squad players; any possibility of a trade? - TheRealJB
I'm sure the Broncos aren't ruling anything out, but it makes sense to me to see what your current core — coupled with the addition of David Moore — can do for a week or two. I say that for a couple of reasons. First, Jerry Jeudy is expected to return from his high ankle sprain in a few weeks, which means help could be on its way before the bye week. If you can survive that stretch with Courtland Sutton and Tim Patrick as your top wideouts, it doesn't make a ton of sense to spend draft capital. Second, once Jeudy returns, the Broncos will again have one of the best receiving corps in the league, even without Hamler. I don't think you want to stunt the growth of Jeudy, Sutton or Patrick by adding another No. 1 or No. 2 receiver. If the trade is for a depth piece, I could be convinced — but I wouldn't spend massive amounts of capital when the foundation of this group remains strong.
Can they convert on third down consistently and go up tempo when they need to consistently? - @ethan_x4
We're about to find out, aren't we? I'd argue the Broncos did a really nice job going up-tempo in their only real chance at it, which was late in the first half against the Giants. Bridgewater led the Broncos down the field for a go-ahead touchdown in less than a minute. The third-down question is at the top of my mind, because it will be particularly important for the Broncos to control the clock against the Ravens. They'll face a tough challenge, as their 24th-ranked third-down offense will face Baltimore's eighth-ranked third-down defense. It's not a stretch to say the Broncos' third-down and red-zone offense will decide the outcome of this weekend's game. They must stay ahead of the chains to help themselves out in those moments, but it will also be crucial to convert in big situations. Through three weeks, they've been able to pick up those first downs in critical moments. I think Bridgewater and Co. will find a way again this week.