The Denver Broncos are taking a day off after their summer scrimmage at Empower Field at Mile High on Saturday. The Broncos' coaches tried to make it as 'game-like' as possible, but make no mistake; it was a practice.
Although tackling was discouraged (but it did happen here and there), there was contact and some light hitting. It was a glorified training camp practice as team-on-team scrimmages are. It just so happened to be at the stadium.
However, the day's events weren't without value and utility. The Broncos were able to get a lot done and have a practice run in playing in an empty stadium.
What did we learn? Here are my seven big takeaways from watching the entire scrimmage.
1. Defense in Season Form
The nature of training camp, and thus a scrimmage, favors the defense. By this point, Vic Fangio's defense has seen Pat Shurmur's offense daily and in every which way, from its formations, to call signs, to protections, to route concepts, and more.
Thus, it came as no surprise to see the Broncos' defense dominate the day. Although Bradley Chubb left the practice only a few snaps into the scrimmage, Von Miller looked like his old self (only bigger and more menacing), easily generating pressure off the right side of the Broncos' O-line.
There were multiple plays in which the quarterback was able to get rid of the ball that would have been sacks and/or big hits in a real game. On top of the pressure, Fangio's coverage schemes often confounded Drew Lock, Jeff Driskel, and Brett Rypien.
Sacks and takeaways were the order of the day for Fangio's unit. This defense looks ready to play ball, even without Todd Davis in the lineup at inside linebacker.
“A lot of times in team meetings, I have to say it all depends what lens you’re looking through. If you’re an offensive player or an offensive coach, you didn’t like it," Fangio said following practice. "If you’re a defensive player or a defensive coach, you liked it. Where it is for us as a team, I’m not sure, but obviously, we can’t have that many turnovers on offense. It’d be great to get that many on defense each and every week."
If Saturday was any indication, all the bluster about Fangio's defense traditionally taking off in Year 2 of its installation has merit. The Broncos' defense is already in regular-season form.
2. Lock and Offense Still a Work in Progress
Many fans were dejected to see that Lock struggled in the scrimmage. Although, as I alluded above, I'm not sure it should come as a huge shock considering the defense's advantages, the offense's struggles warrant at least some modicum of concern.
But fans shouldn't worry. There is a difference. One of the reasons why is Lock's outlook on the day. He was justifiably upset and miffed at himself for his faux pas but as a quarterback, he has the propensity to learn what lessons there are from the disappointment, roll 'em up into a little ball, and toss them in the trash can.
“I’ve always been the guy who’s able to learn more from mistakes rather than being all daisies, all roses out there," Lock said following practice. "It’s big to struggle early I feel like. I got told this when I was in college. I’d rather—someone was telling me this, they’d rather me struggle early and be great later on. I’d rather us struggle right now, obviously, then be great when the season comes along.”
Lock and Shurmur will watch the film and figure out what went wrong, and correct it. However, for fans predicting that Lock is going to set the world on fire in Year 2, Saturday was a good reason to pump the brakes.
I'm not saying that Lock is going to disappoint. Far from it. Lock will give fans what they want and crave but it's not going to be perfect and especially early on, there will be inconsistencies.
Lock's lackluster day wasn't helped by the case of the 'dropsies' his receivers and tight ends had. All three offensive units were plagued by dropped passes.
The entire offensive side has some work to do and with 16 days until the season-opener vs. Tennessee, there isn't much time left to get it done. But remember, unlike Fangio's defense, the Titans will engage the Broncos without the advantage of daily exposure to the scheme and personnel groupings.
It's important to remember that although Lock really shined down the stretch last year, providing the Broncos a three-phase lift, he's only got five NFL games under his belt. He's a supremely talented quarterback but he still has some growing pains to endure and as GM John Elway told 9NEWS during the broadcast of the scrimmage, the Broncos will stand behind Lock and support him through his ups and downs.
But I'm telling you right now, expect to see more ups than you see downs.
3. Denver, We've Got a Problem at Right Tackle
The Broncos went into the scrimmage adamant that the right tackle job was Elijah Wilkinson's to lose. After how badly Wilkinson performed against Miller, I can't help but wonder if Saturday was the day he did indeed lose the job.
Wilkinson was a constant sieve that contributed to Lock's off-day by way of snap-in/snap-out pressure. Wilkinson is a handy depth tackle to have in a pinch but as an incumbent starter? Terrifying. There's a reason the Broncos paid Ja'Wuan James $51 million.
The Broncos are taking all of Sunday to watch the film but if the scrimmage wasn't enough to telegraph to O-line coach Mike Munchak that it's time to give Demar Dotson more of a chance at right tackle with the ones, I'm not sure there will be such an epiphany before the season starts. And that, my friends, is concerning.
4. Lindsay Will Be the No. 1 Running Back
If Saturday was any indication, all signs point to Phillip Lindsay maintaining his starting job at running back. At least, in the nominal sense, it'll be Lindsay who starts to open the season.
At worst, Melvin Gordon will get a 50/50 touch share but it could even favor him 60/40. But despite the indignities the Broncos perpetrated on Lindsay by hinting that the team would extend him only to pay Gordon $16M over two years, the team seems intent on allowing the incumbent to remain the starter.
Lindsay's play this summer has a big something to do with that. He's been a much smoother receiver out of the backfield and has taken every snap like he's trying to send a message to the front office.
As I've been telling the listeners of the Huddle Up Podcast, I'm not expecting Lindsay to fade into the background with Gordon in the fold. In fact, I'm expecting Lindsay, thanks to that world-sized chip on his shoulder, to have the best season of his already prolific career.
5. Butterfingers at Tight End
I'm inclined to chalk it up to just a bad day at the office but a lot of those drops I mentioned earlier came from the tight ends. The 'dropsies' is an intangible, illusory phenomenon because, trust me, these players are not lacking for reps as receivers.
These tight ends are catching passes all day, whether it be during individual period, the utilization of the Juggs machine, or during team period. Sometimes it can be a focus thing, and can take a watershed moment to kind of snap a unit out of its daze.
Whatever the case may be, the Broncos' tight ends are not feeling good watching the tape on Sunday with all those drops and are likely feeling the wrath of coach Wade Harman. Rookie fourth-rounder Albert Okwuegbunam, in particular, had a serious case of butterfingers. Like Lock, all these tight ends can do is learn from it and move on.
6. Empty Stadium Effect
The Broncos practiced with artificial crowd noise during the scrimmage, which was a dress rehearsal for what the NFL regular season will be like. However, there's no way to perfectly replicate the ebbs and flows of crowd engagement and because of that, the players are never going to be able to shake the feeling of it being fake.
There will be no fans for the Broncos in the first two games of the season, the first of which is home against Tennessee and the second a road trip to Pittsburgh. There is a chance (although slim) that by Week 3, the Broncos might have a limited audience in the stands at Mile High, but don't count on it.
This team, like its 31 peers, is going to have to get by without the additional emotional lift from the fans. Fangio sees the empty stadium as less than ideal but not a deal-breaker for the Broncos.
“It was really weird, without a doubt. It sounds like there’s fans here," Fangio said. "Then you look up and there’s no one behind anyone on the sideline. It was weird. It does add a little bit there... It’s something we’ll have to adjust to. I [think] we’re going to come back and do a night practice here to kind of simulate Monday night. We just have to keep coming back here, keep getting used to the crowd noise, maybe play it at practice now and just keep figuring that out.”
7. Lock-to-Sutton Connection Will Be Huge
Lastly, despite Lock's struggles, when he targeted Courtland Sutton, it resulted in a completion more often than not. Those five games Lock and Sutton got together last year were a solid foundation that the duo has built on this summer.
Sutton is going to have a huge year — even bigger than last season's Pro Bowl campaign. It's going to be fun to watch because these connections were happening vs. a defense that knew what was coming.
I can only imagine what it'll be like for Lock and Sutton to go against a fresh, outside opponent. Kids in a candy store.