DENVER — Adapt and advance.
That must be the Broncos' mentality this weekend after losing Courtland Sutton for the season and Drew Lock, Dre'Mont Jones, DeMarcus Walker and Mark Barron for extended stints.
Through the first two weeks of the season, the Broncos have been struck hard by the injury bug — but that doesn't mean they're able to sit back and bemoan the losses. A talented Tampa Bay Buccaneers team led by Tom Brady is headed to Denver, and the Broncos desperately need to find a win to avoid an 0-3 start that would be nearly impossible to recover from.
Despite the challenge in front of his team, Head Coach Vic Fangio believes the Broncos have the mettle to respond.
"It's never good to get injured on an individual and personal basis," Fangio said. "Yeah, it does have a negative effect on the team. I'm not going to insult anybody's intelligence that losing the type of players and the [number] of players that we've lost doesn't have some type of effect. We have good players here in the building still. They're going to come in and rally and look at it as an opportunity for them to go out and play good and show what they've got. We're going to get them ready as a coaching staff to go out and compete and try to find a way to win these close games."
The Broncos have lost a pair of games by a combined seven points against two teams that figure to be playoff contenders. These are the questions that will determine if they can get on the right side of the ledger in Week 3:
HOW DOES JEFF DRISKEL PLAY IN HIS FIRST START FOR THE BRONCOS?
The Broncos will turn to yet another starting quarterback — their eighth since Peyton Manning retired following the 2015 season — as Jeff Driskel takes the reins on Sunday against the Buccaneers. He performed admirably when thrust into action against the Steelers, as he improved upon a difficult first-half performance to go 12-of-20 for 139 yards, two touchdowns, zero interceptions and a 114.4 rating in the second half. He was sacked twice in the second half, including on a fourth-and-2 that ended up being Denver's final offensive snap of the game. Against the Bucs, Driskel will need to build upon that second-half performance while avoiding pressure — he was sacked six times in total — and making the right decisions. If he can use the team's week of practice to improve his timing, he should be able to complete some passes and then use his mobility to escape pressure from a talented Tampa Bay front that includes former Bronco Shaquil Barrett. The Broncos will hope to see more throws like the ones he made on a deep pass to Sutton and a couple of corner routes to Noah Fant. Should he stack a few of those plays while avoiding turnovers and costly sacks, Denver's offense should have the chance to find some success.
"What I liked the most was he was tough, he stood in there and he generally executed what we wanted to get done," Offensive Coordinator Pat Shurmur said Thursday. "He had some mistakes, certainly, and some of that is because when you come in as a backup … you don't really get many reps during the week. You do get the reps, but not to the degree that the starter does. So you've got to work your way into it. It took him a little bit to get settled down, but I think even though there were a few bad plays he really made some really good throws. What comes to mind are the two corner routes to Noah, one for a touchdown, one for a big gain; the rail route he threw to the halfback, Melvin Gordon, for a touchdown; the deep ball to Courtland — Courtland was in the sun, but by all rights, could have caught that in stride and scored; and there was another deep ball to Jerry Jeudy that was a little bit contested. He made some really fine throws. Then there were some mistakes that he has to clean up. … The thing I like about him moving forward is that he's very tough, he's very physical. He almost looks like a tight end and that will serve him well moving forward. I think he has a pretty good feel of what we want to do and now he's getting all the reps, so I expect he'll be a little bit sharper early on. He kind of found his way a little bit, aside from having some things that went wrong, but I'm looking forward to working with him moving forward."
CAN THE BRONCOS GET PRESSURE ON TOM BRADY?
The Broncos' best performances against Tom Brady have come when they've been able to apply pressure on the future Hall of Famer. That may not be as easy without Von Miller on the active roster. Through two games, the Broncos have tallied just two sacks, which ranks 24th in the NFL. They have been successful, though, at hurrying the opposing quarterbacks. Denver has hurried its opponent's quarterback on 12.6 percent of dropbacks, which ranks eighth in the NFL. They haven't been quite as good as knocking down those quarterbacks, as they rank 16th in knockdowns per pass attempt and 14th in pressure percentage, which combines hurries, knockdowns and sacks. Against Brady, the Broncos will need to get home. The six-time Super Bowl champion is too good to allow him to sit in the pocket and pick apart a secondary that features two rookie cornerbacks.
"We're going to mix looks," Defensive Coordinator Ed Donatell said Thursday. "When you bring more players, sometimes it takes the stress off. A lot of these balls were coming out quick in these first couple weeks and I think it will continue to get better. Bradley [Chubb] is finding his stride, and you'll see him spike and continue to improve. I see it coming and we should be on pace for a real strong rush."
Chubb is still looking for his first sack of the season, but he could force a game-changing play against Brady by either recording a strip-sack or forcing an errant throw. Through two weeks, the Buccaneers have turned the ball over five times, which is the second-highest total in the league.
ARE JERRY JEUDY AND KJ HAMLER READY FOR INCREASED ROLES?
With Sutton out for the year with a knee injury, the Broncos' top two rookie receivers suddenly find themselves in the spotlight. Jeudy and Hamler combined for seven catches for 110 yards on Sunday, and they may need to be even better against the Buccaneers. They'll be challenged by Buccaneers cornerbacks Sean Murphy-Bunting and Carlton Davis, but Hamler believes they're ready for the challenge.
"We prepare a lot, so I think that everybody is ready to step up," Hamler said Thursday. "I think you saw that last week that everybody has to be prepared at their position and do what they have to do. Our receiver room is very versatile and we can play every position on the field, so I think that brings value to us as well."
Tight end Noah Fant will certainly draw some attention away from the young players, as his nine catches for 138 yards and two touchdowns through two games rank among the best totals in the league for tight ends. In all likelihood, the Broncos will replace Sutton by committee rather than have one player singularly replicate his 72 catches and 1,112 yards from a year ago. Still, this week will be the first opportunity for Jeudy and Hamler to prove why the Broncos used their draft capital to bring them to Denver.
"The young guys have to step up," running back Melvin Gordon III said. "In some situations, you don't have to step up until the end of the season or maybe the next year. We've had some key guys go down, so you know what, you have to grow up quicker than most. Those guys have the confidence in themselves to go out there and make a play. They have the talent. You've seen KJ go do what he does. Those guys have the confidence and the ability. When they get that full swagger, it becomes whoever lines up in front of me — just how they were in college — it's easy work. Once they get that, then it's going to be on. It takes reps like anything else. In this league, it takes reps and those guys are going to have that."