Ask Aric: How will the Broncos' secondary respond without A.J. Bouye?

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — As the Broncos leave a Week 1 loss behind them and head to Pittsburgh for Week 2, we're taking a look at some of your best questions from the previous week.

We start by looking back at Noah Fant and the end-of-game scenario before moving ahead to how the Broncos match up against the Steelers' wide receiving corps and its pass rush. Plus, we explore how KJ Hamler could make an impact for the Broncos' offense.

If you'd like to ask a question for a future edition of "Ask Aric," click here.

Watching the first Broncos game I saw them use Fant a lot in the first half. My question is, do you feel the coaching staff have learned their lesson and will stick with a player who is playing well? - Trevor S.

Noah Fant certainly played well in the first half of Monday's game, as he caught all five of his targets for 81 yards and a touchdown. Those five receptions came as the Broncos ran 33 plays in the first half for 201 total yards. In the third quarter, the Broncos ran six offensive plays, not including two punts. Then, in the fourth quarter, the Broncos pieced together a nine-play touchdown drive. Fant wasn't targeted on that drive, but clearly the Broncos found success. On Denver's two other true drives of the fourth quarter — I'm excluding the last-second drive, where Lock did look for Fant — the Broncos ran eight total plays, not including punts. So, after running 33 plays in the first half, the Broncos essentially ran 14 total plays in the second half — outside of the touchdown drive. Could they have gone to Fant on a couple of those? Sure, but Head Coach Vic Fangio explained that the issue was not Fant's lack of involvement, it was the lack of sustained success.

"We had a couple three-and-outs there, which if you get three-and-outs, not many people are going to get many targets," Fangio said after the game. "It was probably a product of that more than anything else."

Aric, perhaps you could break down the whys of penalties during kick returns, it happens all to often that the receiving team has either a block in the back ( being the hardest to understand) or holding. Looking at the player's name should, in my mind, keep a player from contact, so I feel maybe there is something I am missing. Thank you. — Mark J.

Mark, like most penalties, block in the back and holding calls occur when a player is out of position and tries to overcompensate. Imagine you're on the Broncos' punt return team, and you're covering up a gunner on the line of scrimmage. At the snap, that player releases and beats you down the field toward the punt returner. You want to make a block for your teammate, but at this point you're trailing the gunner. Instead of finding an angle where you're back in front of the gunner or at his side, you lunge and end up pushing him in the back. It's the simple. On kickoffs, I think the speed element plays a big role. You have a cover player sprinting down the field toward you, and you're charged with stopping him. There's a fine line between doing that and still having a handful of jersey as he tries to run by. It's definitely frustrating when these penalties occur, but I think it's understandable at times when you're in the heat of the moment and trying to make a play. The Broncos had just one special teams penalty — an illegal block above the waist — on an otherwise stellar night for the unit. Denver blocked a field goal, and Sam Martin and the Broncos' punt coverage unit were dialed in.

My true question is not about the offense but defense.... why is it that the last 5 minutes of a game the defense falters... what happens to the defense... they not trained to compete for 60 full minutes. Or is it they run of of steam and get outplayed. What can the team/training staff/or coaches do to prevent this collapse in the final quarter? - Randy J.

This was a storyline this week, as Fangio was asked about the loss to the Titans in comparison to a series of last-second losses against the Bears, Jaguars and Colts in 2019. Fangio said this week that while the team examines those end-of-game scenarios, he didn't think there was a common denominator between them and the factors were different. I tend to agree, and I certainly don't think the loss falls on the defense's shoulders. After the Broncos re-took the lead early in the fourth quarter, the defense forced consecutive three-and-outs. The latter of those stands gave the Broncos the ball at the Tennessee 44-yard line with four minutes to play. A first down in that situation would've let the Broncos chew time off the clock and at least kick a field goal that would put the team up by four points, which would've forced the Titans to score a touchdown. If that happens, we could be having a difference conversation. Kareem Jackson admitted the Broncos could be better on third down, but they only gave up 16 total points. The team's Week 1 loss occurred for several reason, and to pin it just on one side of the ball isn't fair.

Do you think Bryce Callahan or [Michael] Ojemudia can step up and play as a number one without [A.J.] Bouye? And how can the Broncos get past the Steelers pass rush and run defense? - Caleb N.

Let's move on to Pittsburgh, shall we? On the defensive side of the football, I'll be interested to see how Callahan, Ojemudia and undrafted rookie Essang Bassey hold up against a talented Pittsburgh receiving corps that features JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington, Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool. Smith-Schuster is their unquestioned No. 1 receiver, but it might make sense to put the 6-foot-2, 190-pound Ojemudia on the 6-foot-1 receiver rather than the 5-foot-9 Callahan. Ojemudia impressed me in Week 1, as he recorded a pass breakup and snagged an interception that was called back because of an away-from-the-play penalty. Now, Callahan did hold his own against Courtland Sutton in training camp, so he should be up to cover Smith-Schuster if called upon. In some respects, it will be up to Kareem Jackson and Justin Simmons to have their teammates' backs in what will be a tough ask on Sunday.

On offense, I think the Broncos would be well-served to get the ball out quick to alleviate the pressure on Garett Bolles and Elijah Wilkinson. They can also use Pittsburgh's pass rush against it via misdirection and screens. I do think Lock needs to challenge Pittsburgh's corners, which would be easier if Courtland Sutton is able to return from a shoulder injury. Finally, Denver needs to stick with the running game, even if that wasn't a successful strategy for the Giants in Week 1 against the Steelers. If the Broncos get away from the run too early, the Steelers will really be able to pin their ears back, and that could spell trouble.

How do you think the Broncos will implement KJ Hamler this week against Pittsburgh? - Marcus J.

Hamler has been a full participant in practice this week, which is a good sign, and Fangio said Friday he expects Hamler to play. Fangio said earlier this week the team will have certain plays for Hamler to be involved in as they ease him back into the offense. Personally, I don't think it much matters how they get him involved, so long as he's on the field. When he has the ball in his hands, he's a threat to take the ball the distance every time. And even when he doesn't have the ball, the defense has to respect him, which should open up the field underneath if Denver utilizes his speed to attack the safety.

What do you think will be the most important games this season, either to make playoffs or to learn from and make the next step and to see where we are? - @DarthRister

This question came before the Titans game, but I found it interesting because I think this Steelers game is a measuring stick for the Broncos. Pittsburgh went 8-8 last season despite Roethlisberger missing essentially the entire season, and they look like they'll be an AFC contender in 2020. The Broncos held their own against the Titans, who advanced to the AFC Championship last year. If Denver can earn a win or battle Pittsburgh to a close game, I think that is a favorable indication for the Broncos' future. Now, you have to win games in addition to just being competitive, but I think opponents like the Steelers, Chiefs and Saints should give Denver an indication of how far they stand from being in the title hunt.

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