Just waiting for Lock to pop like Colin Cowherd predicted. Maybe it's this week. Great read.
Last week, the Denver Broncos were seemingly slave to Murphy's Law. In crucial situations, especially, what could go wrong definitely did go wrong.
As 7.5-point underdogs to the Pittsburgh Steelers, according to SportsBetting.com, if the Broncos are going to emerge from Heinz Field as the victors, they'll have to invert Murphy's Law and extract their best performances in those key moments. Perhaps they'll need a little help from the Football Gods but regardless of one's beliefs; God helps those who help themselves.
There's obviously a little more nuance to Denver beating Pittsburgh than relying on some abstract superstition and we're going to dive into it here today. Taking a thorough look at Week 2's opponent, here's what it'll take for the Broncos to avoid starting 0-2 for the second consecutive season.
Third-Down/Red Zone Efficiency
I'm bundling these two metrics together because they're inextricably connected. Last week, the Broncos frankly sucked on third down, which was atypical from what we'd seen from QB Drew Lock during his five-game debut in 2019.
The Broncos finished just 3-for-9 on third down (33 percent) vs. Tennessee. It didn't help that one of those third-down failures was a drop from Jerry Jeudy, while another was a stuff on the goal-line in the second quarter.
Obviously, you can't win in the NFL converting only 1-of-3 third-down tries. The Broncos were 2-for-3 in the red zone and might have had a perfect conversion rate had Lock not overthrown a wide-open Nick Vannett on the goal-line in the second quarter or if offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur decides to use the red-hot Noah Fant on that fourth-down shovel pass in stead of the ice-cold Jake Butt.
As much as I question that odd personnel decision, I mostly liked what I saw from Shurmur's design inside the 20-yard line. And even if No. 1 wideout Courtland Sutton is a no-go in Pittsburgh, the Broncos have a smorgasbord of red-zone weapons to lean on, especially if rookie tight end Albert Okwuegbunam dresses.
Third down and red zone. Winning teams execute and play their best ball in these areas.
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Lock Must Deliver
At bottom, third-down and red-zone efficiency really come down to the quarterback. Lock simply has to be better that he was last week and his supporting cast can't let him down when he delivers. The second-year QB can't miss open receivers and conversely, open receivers can't drop perfectly-placed passes on third down.
The good news is, Pittsburgh allowed New York QB Daniel Jones to convert a whopping 53.3 percent on third down. But here's the bad news. The Steelers held the Giants to 1-for-3 in the red zone.
Even though it's on the road, Lock should have his opportunities to keep the chains moving on the 'money down' but the best players elevate in the critical areas on the field and in key moments. Ben Roethlisberger is going to come out swinging in this one.
Big Ben is licking his chops at the prospect of going up against two rookie cornerbacks, even in Vic Fanigo's vaunted defensive scheme. Broncos' corners Michael Ojemudia and Essang Bassey thought they had their NFL trial-by-fire moment last week but they've seen nothing yet, especially considering the talent the Steelers have at wide receiver in JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, James Washington, and rookie Chase Claypool.
Fangio's scheme is stingy and forces opponents to nickel and dime their way down the field but Big Ben is going to put some points on the board in this one. That puts the onus on Lock to — not so much keep up — but answer and keep the pressure on Roethlisberger.
We've seen a Lock-led team roll into a vastly favored Conference opponent on the road — and one with a good quarterback to boot — and shock the world by thunder-punching (thanks, Schlereth) the opponent in the throat early and often (see Texans, Houston). Lock played fast and loose in Week 14 last year and the opponent simply didn't see it coming.
That was an impressive performance but it wasn't a complete body of work as Lock faded in the second half in Houston. He has shown some brilliant flashes in his six games as a Bronco — enough to be excited if you're a Broncos fan — but he's yet to play a full 60 minutes of unabated top-shelf quarterbacking.
Nobody's perfect. But Lock will have to come dang close this week in order for the Broncos to upset the Steelers.
Front Seven Must Take Load Off Secondary
Again, any rational Broncos fan should be terrified at the notion of Big Ben throwing against two rookie corners, even two as scrappy as Ojemudia and Bassey. Safeties Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson will be key in making sure nothing gets over the top on the Broncos' defense.
But if Roethlisberger is going to be held in check somewhat, it's going to be up to the Broncos' front seven to help take the pressure off of the secondary by winning on first down, stuffing the run, and getting after Big Ben.
Big Ben, in his prime, was a magician outside the pocket and one of the hardest QBs to sack in his era. Although he's still big, strong, and instinctual, he's not quite the same guy.
If the Broncos can push Big Ben off his spot in the pocket, and make him uncomfortable, it'll not only take pressure off the corners, it'll lead to a takeaway or two. Roethlisberger is a true gunslinger and he'll throw some picks, especially if he's getting beaten up.
The silver lining is that Pittsburgh's offensive line will be missing three starters this week. Right tackle Zach Banner is done for the year with an ACL tear, while starting guard tandem David DeCastro and Stefen Wisniewski have both been ruled out of Week 2 with injuries.
Left tackle Allejandro Villenueva didn't look all that great in the season-opener, which is a positive omen for Bradley Chubb, who'll look to make an impact in Week 2 after playing his first meaningful ball last week in over a year. Chubb received the Von Miller treatment last week from the Titans, getting chipped on most of his pass-rush snaps.
Fangio will have recognized that on film. I would expect to see Chubb moved around quite a lot on Sunday, just to keep the Steelers guessing. But this is a game where the Broncos really need the former No. 5 overall draft pick to play like one.
This key to victory is mostly about the front seven keeping Big Ben uncomfortable but limiting James Conner and Benny Snell, who rushed for over 100 yards in Conner's stead when the former went down on Monday night, will be monumental.
It might seem like I'm asking a lot of the Broncos here with these keys. But it takes a lot to beat a good opponent. Getting back to the inverted Murphy's Law theorum, the Broncos have to make their own luck and execute in those crucial situations, instead of allowing what could go wrong to happen.
If the Broncos want to truly reshape the narrative surrounding this team, beating the Steelers in their house would be a giant step in that direction. It was one thing to go on the road and beat the eventual AFC South champs last year but that was in a game that didn't really have any stakes for Denver.
This one does. Can Lock and company handle the pressure and prove they're a relevant, force-to-be-reckoned with team? Only time will tell. But the Broncos need a signature win to boost morale because it doesn't get much easier next week with yet another future Hall-of-Fame quarterback on the docket coming to the Mile High City.
The Broncos need to execute plays better on third down and in the red zone.
Denver really needs to amp up the pass rush to slow down Big Ben.
RUN the foootball!!! Move the pocket and allow Lock to run when there is room. QB draws, Bootlegs, RPOs - come on Shurmur- play to your players strengths- not some stale playbook