The 6-4 Los Angeles Chargers trail the 7-4 Kansas City Chiefs for the AFC West lead with the 5-5 Denver Broncos hoping to climb out of last place in the closely contested division. Meanwhile, the 6-5 Las Vegas Raiders previously beat the Broncos 34-24 in the Mile High City in what was Denver's only divisional matchup thus far.
It may seem that the Orange and Blue are hardly in the conversation as post-season contenders, but the Broncos are still mathematically in the playoff hunt coming off their bye week. And what a week it was as GM George Paton extended his Batman and Robin combo of receivers in Courtland Sutton and Tim Patrick to contracts that’ll guarantee the men a combined $53 million.
The Broncos will surely need both playmakers to fulfill their potential in the future as Paton continues the hunt for a franchise quarterback in the offseason. But long before the books are closed on the 2021 season, QB Teddy Bridgewater will lead the Broncos to their second divisional matchup of the year at home against the Chargers.
Denver previously lost to Philadelphia at home in pathetic fashion 30-13. Compared to Los Angeles, who’s surging from a 41-37 win over Pittsburgh on last week’s Sunday Night Football, the trajectory of these two teams couldn't be more opposite.
Before head coach Vic Fangio and his squad can even whisper 'post-season' in their subconscious, the Broncos must take a stand at home against the Chargers. Can the Broncos halt L.A.'s momentum and climb back to plus-.500?
Let’s review three pivotal keys to victory for the Broncos beating the Chargers.
Exploit Bolts’ Frail Rush Defense
Sometimes statistics and game film line up to support a narrative that a team is atrocious in one fundamental aspect on defense. That’s very much the case for the Chargers whose rushing defense ranks dead last in the league, having relinquished 1,451 yards (4.7 yards per carry), 90 first downs, and 13 touchdowns on the ground.
Los Angeles head coach Brandon Staley is a Fangio acolyte as the 38-year-old defensive mind previously coached outside linebackers with Vic in Chicago and later reunited with him in Denver for the 2019 season. The Los Angeles Rams pounced on the young prospect and made him defensive coordinator the following year where Staley led the Rams to the highest-ranked defense in total yards and points in 2020.
In an odd twist of fate, it almost feels like Staley inherited Fangio’s kryptonite on defense as the Chargers rank as the second-to-worst team on third-down with a below-average efficiency rate in the red zone. That’s where Broncos' OC Pat Shurmur can exploit Lthe Chargers' lack of grit and pound the rock Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon.
Anyone with a brain calls for Denver’s offense to run the ball behind the violent and red-hot combination of running backs that currently average a combined 4.7 yards per carry and has produced 1,036 rushing yards and six scores. Plowing the ball directly at the line of scrimmage camouflages the O-line's youthful inexperience in addition to setting up third-and-short scenarios for Bridgewater.
The fact of the matter is that the Broncos have scored one touchdown on their first possession over the last two seasons and have just one victory in the last 20 games when trailing at halftime. If the Broncos hope to stay competitive against the Chargers, whose offense is currently ranked No. 7 according to Pro Football Focus, they must tote the rock against the bolts.
Cooper Must Beat Slater in Rookie Matchup
When the Chargers drafted Rashawn Slater with the 13th pick of this year’s draft, they knew they had an athlete with a bright future on their hands. But there was no way of predicting that the Northwestern alumni would already be flashing as a cornerstone left tackle for QB Justin Herbert.
The 6-foot-4, 315-pound Texas native is the son of former NBA power forward Reggie Slater who had an 11-year career that included a stint with the Denver Nuggets in the mid-90s. Considered by many scouts and analysts to be the premier tackle in the 2021 draft class, Slater has started all 10 games for L.A.
In his 688 offensive snaps, the rookie has only been penalized three times and has allowed three sacks. Game film reveals a fundamentally sound, athletic tackle that’s capable of holding his ground in pass pro and getting out in space in the rushing attack.
Slater utilizes his reach, raw strength, and understanding of leverage against experienced defenders, consistently getting the best of them. Without question, the Chargers have found the right man to protect Herbert’s blindside for years to come.
But Slater is still a rookie and is not without flaws as he continues to develop as a 22-year-old greenhorn in the league. This week he’ll be tasked with blocking Broncos’ rookie outside linebacker Jonathon Cooper.
Denver drafted the former Ohio State standout in the seventh round (No. 239) of last year’s draft, and 23-year-old Cooper has scrapped and earned every minute of playing time that he’s received. After overcoming an irregular heartbeat with multiple offseason procedures, he was asked to replace the starting role of legendary pass rusher Von Miller and has answered the call of duty.
Cooper has logged 12 solo tackles, seven assists, and two sacks, while also totaling 10 QB hurries, three QB hits, and 15 total pressures in addition to 11 defensive stops. The rookie's production has quickly caught the attention of teammates and coaches.
Cooper's dynamic energy and high motor was evident last January when I scouted him at the Senior Bowl alongside linebacker Baron Browning and O-lineman Quinn Meinerz. Get your popcorn ready for some rookie-on-rookie crime, Broncos Country, as draft pedigree will hardly matter when the rubber meets the road in this battle on the edge.
Use Fant to Bust the Seam
Ask multiple people why 2019 first-round selection Noah Fant is struggling and you’ll likely get a variety of answers. Some, including myself, have speculated that his underutilization and misusage by Shurmur, who started in the NFL as a tight ends coach and is the main culprit for the frustrating lack of results on the field.
But when Fant's lack of effort in the passing game and total breakdown as a blocker stick out like a sore thumb, it does no favors for the 24-year-old.
In 2021, Fant has played in nine games for Denver and has recorded 42 receptions for 379 yards and three scores. While nobody questions the athletic talents that were clearly displayed as the big man on campus at Iowa, there seems to be some hesitation for the 6-foot-4, 249-pound tight end to use all of his size and speed in the passing game.
In his third year, I would’ve expected this man to be a team captain or among the more influential voices in the locker room as a result of his draft selection and raw talents. Instead, Broncos Country is becoming increasingly more curious about second-year TE Albert Okwuegbunam.
While I wouldn’t insist that Fant is a lost cause, his rich pedigree and first-round investment have not given the Broncos much return on investment. By now, the Nebraska native should be a perennial Pro Bowler mentioned alongside Las Vegas' Darren Waller and eyeing a prospective future like that of Kansas City's Travis Kelce.
In terms of Xs and Os, it shouldn't take a complex game plan for Fant to be involved in the Broncos' offense. For the sake of sanity, let's pretend Shurmur runs the ball, setting up manageable third downs.
That should directly include Fant as an option on high-low reads in tandem with the receiving trio of Sutton, Patrick, and Jerry Jeudy. Or, for crying out loud, call a play for Fant to attack the seam route of the field and vertically stretch the off-coverage defense of Los Angeles.
Fant’s stock has consistently been stuck in limbo for the duration of his time in Denver. But if he doesn’t take an active role in becoming more self-aware, it could quite literally be time for Paton to sell the tight end's stock in the offseason.
Follow Luke on Twitter @LukePattersonLP.
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