At the midpoint of the season, there is arguably no cornerback in the league who has shut down opposing wide receivers as well as Pat Surtain II.
Several players across the NFL are already making strong cases for MVP and other end-of-season accolades, and ESPN’s Bill Barnwell named his top three picks for each award category through the first half of the season. For Defensive Player of the Year, Barnwell selected Surtain as his No. 3 choice — only trailing San Francisco's Nick Bosa and Dallas' Micah Parsons.
"With apologies to [Sauce] Gardner and Jalen Ramsey, no cornerback is playing better right now than the second-year superstar in Denver," Barnwell wrote. "… Despite losing key players such as Randy Gregory and Justin Simmons for stretches, they lead the league in defensive DVOA and pass defense DVOA. They rank second in EPA per play and QBR allowed. Coordinator Ejiro Evero's unit is more than holding up their end of the bargain."
Within Denver's top-tier defense, Surtain has played at an elite level against receivers such as Davante Adams, DK Metcalf, Brandon Aiyuk, Michael Pittman Jr. and Mike Williams. While Surtain has not recorded an interception yet this season, Barnwell noted that the cornerback's talent has caused opposing quarterbacks to avoid throwing in Surtain's direction.
"Their best player is Surtain, who has been locking down his wideouts," Barnwell wrote. "Per Pro Football Reference, Surtain is allowing only 4.0 yards per target, which ranks behind only James Bradberry among cornerbacks. NFL Next Gen Stats suggest Surtain has allowed only 0.6 yards per snap, which is the third-best mark. Teams don't like targeting Surtain, and when they do, they don't get much. About the only hole you can poke in his performance is a lack of takeaways; he has no interceptions and just one forced fumble as the Broncos hit their bye."
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As dominant as the Broncos' defense has been, it has struggled at times to stop the run. Jaguars running back Travis Etienne rushed for 156 yards and a touchdown in Denver's Week 8 matchup against Jacksonville, and the Broncos will face an even greater challenge in Week 9 with Titans running back Derrick Henry, who led the NFL in rushing yards in 2019 and 2020 and is on pace to do so again in 2022.
"Derrick Henry is a special back in this league," Head Coach Nathaniel Hackett said Monday. "He has been for a while now. That stiff arm everybody talks about — it's real. He times it up perfect. He's got great vision. He's able to run, break tackles. He's niftier than you would think with as big as he is. He's a guy that we're going to have to be great at stopping. It's going to be a great challenge for our defense. We've had some hiccups here and there in the run game. I know the guys are evaluating that and they're going to correct that. They're going to run the ball. That's what they do, and they do it with a very good football player back there. The line is playing really well. Derrick is special. You really can't stop him. You have to try to contain him as much as you possibly can."
Henry will undoubtedly test the Broncos' defense on Sunday, and it will have to step up to the challenge.